Not many artists get their careers poured over anymore, not ones that are still creating relevant work. Sure the Stones and the Beatles and whatnot have entered a level of trademark and inter-self-reference that when you talk about them, it's unclear who or what is really the subject. Bands that are fresh into their post-relevant phase of their careers, like Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo are treated with respect without much reverence. I'm waiting for the next batch of kids, who very likely have not heard of Sonic Youth. I saw Yo La Tengo last week, and when I mentioned it to some of the younger folks in my circle, I was surprisingly met with raised eyebrows. I tried to explain that they were/are the band that all their favorite bands ripped off their sound from, but they weren't buying it, so I quit selling. I'll date myself with my curious throwback shows and chuckle as you greasy knuckleheads stumble around with whatever dumb music you are into. You'll one day see that I was right. In the meantime, get offa my goddamn lawn, and come gather under the tent Nick Cave has erected above us all.
You probably know him as that sort of English guy that music journalists salivate over. Well, he's actually Australian, and back before he parked his balladry-heavy ass in front of that piano, he was in a group called The Birthday Party that brought a decided Australian macho recklessness to the bourgeoning post punk thing in the early 80's. He mixed blues into the contemporary state of rock not out of corny reverence, but for a Jim Thompson love of the murder ballad, for the gleam of the six strings that drew blood in the moonlight at the crossroads, etc etc. The Birthday Party imploded and his next band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds followed an arc of mayhem down to post-Billy Joel earnestness. OK Billy Joel is too harsh, but the man that bellowed "Release the Bats!" in 1982 is not the same guy that doles out "The Weeping Song" and beyond. Every Nick Cave album would come and go, and I'd long from some of his cartoon menace, for the old man to go on one more bender and kill us all in the process. I harbor the same feeling about Steve Earle, but that ain't gonna happen either.
So enter Grinderman, a quartet with members from the current Bad seeds lineup: Martyn Casey on bass, Warren Ellis on violin and guitar, and Jim Sclavunos on drums. Here Cave is placed as a boxcar on the train rather than the engine, and has strapped on a guitar too boot. Much is made of this toss-up and the fact that he really doesn't exactly know how to play the guitar, but pah, judgment waits for the plates to be served; it doesn't linger in the kitchen, getting in the way. And for the most part, Grinderman is fresh and retro and delicious, a somewhat prismatic reflection of the Birthday party days, with Blue Book depreciation appropriate for its age. The first single "No Pussy Blues" with it's tongue in cheek ramble, vile garage Cro-Magnon bass line and sudden wah-pedal nuclear blasts for Mr. Ellis' fiddle gives everyone hope when they hear it. C'mon - it has pussy in the title! He actually has pussy written on the card! I shake my head at our well-behaved times. "No Pussy Blues" is a great single, surely one of the better of the year. It attacks you like a dog you didn't see coming.
The opening track "Get It On" gave me the real hope. "No Pussy Blues" is cleaned up, ready for the mix tape, but "Get It On" - the whole things is out of tune, deliciously so. Cave chants like the mad back alley monk I fell in love with, his demon chorus chanting along. It makes me miss the glaring atonal backup vocals Blixa Bargeld used to throw in to the Bad Seeds records. So these two tracks are genius - were they a 7" without an album to support it, I might break down and invest in a turntable again, but alas, the rest of the album towed behind this terrifying smoke-belching locomotive keeps this runaway train from leaving the rails.
"Electric Alice/Grinderman" is pretty good, wheedling and lurching over Ellis's wailing loops, jabbering about pale moonlight. The "Grinderman" portion is a minimal in its lonesome croon and guitar lines, but Cave is almost too grand here to make me believe he's Jack the Ripper anymore. He gets a little Neil Diamond here, both for the good and the bad of it. But it's still evil, right? There is a cloven hoof in those Italian shoes right?
"Chain of Flowers" casts the first doubt. It's a sweet little indie rock ditty, kind of VU, sort of Neutral Milk Hotel. but this is not Nick Cave, is it? I can handle the ecstatic love of "Supernaturally" off Abattoir Blues, because occasionally we old men get a wild spark, but this doesn't scan. Same with "Don't Set Me Free." It's a song that would have been a classic had Patti Smith done it on Horses but its not really there. "Decoration Day" had me hoping for the perversity of Nick Cave covering Drive-By Truckers, but instead it's a pointillist spooky vamp that is a slither in the right nefarious direction. "Love Bomb" continues this trajectory, putting the old Bad Seeds wolf howl in a modern context, and I think I hear the old boy panting as he growls out the lyrics. I think he might be ready to kill his woman in here - right on! That's what I came for. The guitar sounds alternately like a getaway car that won't turn over and an alley cat and Cave is pacing his cage like a panther. It's on, bitches! "Honey Bee" has a maddening organ grind and a beat that sounds like the heart of a reanimated corpse! YES! Where's my dagger? I'm ready for a killin' spree too; these fuckers have it coming! What graveyard and when!? Where's our next destination?
Ballad city, that's where. "Man on the Moon" has an opiate loneliness to it, but falls more in The Good Son's camp. And, if anyone ever thought he and Will Oldham should team up and really deliver a true statement of post blues indie groove, "Go Tell the Women" will cure you of this thinking. Oldham is not on the track personally, but you can feel his feather-light R&B meets folk touch on it, and the falsetto croon at the end leads you directly into the innocuous ballad "Vortex." Vortex is one of my favorite words for when things are going horribly wrong, and I had some hopes for Cave's blood and darkness rendition of it when I saw the track listing. but no. And I didn't even know it was different song as it drifted into the final track "Rise." At this point, I had hopes it was a perverse reading of the Chuck Mangione hit my mom loved when I was a kid, but instead its just a decent but uneventful mid-tempo number, bearing a number of marks of Ellis's elegiac other band The Dirty Three. It's pretty. but lacks the amazing tension and golem-created-from-negative-space of which The Dirty Three are most capable. When it hits the different-vocal version of "Get It On" tacked to the end, it's almost like a different band.
So, careers. Nick Cave has had a great one and still has plenty in him left. Generally, I am one to ignore the timeline and take each record on its own. Had this been by another artist, I'd probably be proclaiming it the work of a dude that was no Nick Cave, mind you, but someone approaching the crossroads with the right attitude. I should be grateful that he still will open the crypt now and then, but when you have a taste for blood on your tongue, gratitude is not the force motivating you.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com