Saturday, October 09, 2004

OK, deep breath, this is going to be a massively long post. Working a night shift has not proved conducive to spending time posting my thoughts to the web, so there is quite a backlog of releases for me to comment on.

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds - Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus

What exactly is it with the double album these days? Oh, sorry, I mean two single complete albums packaged together. First Lambchop, then, err, Gareth Gates and Nelly - now Nick Cave, who seems to be experiencing a late career prolific blooming, has joined in the fun. Last year's 'Nocturama' album was unfairly maligned. Whilst it wasn't one of the best of his career, it was a more focussed and less impressionistic work than 'No More Shall We Part', and Cave was at least showing signs of tightning up his artistic control. The encouraging signs on 'Nocturama' are carried forward with dazzling results on these new works. Even better than that, whilst the intense rock blitzes on 'Nocturama' sounded more than a little contrived, 'Abattoir Blues' contains some of Cave's most aggressive and visceral work for years. 'The Lyre Of Orpheus', by way of contrast, continues his more recent preference for piano ballads, although it is worth pointing out that it is far from being a tasteful retreat into the mainstream. The dark spiritualism and predatory eroticism that characterise Cave's best works are still here in full force. Neither do the two albums construct a dichotomy between two distinct sides of Cave's personality. Both also contain some crucial steps forward and it is these tracks which ultimately elevate these sets above being 'just another Nick Cave album'.

On 'Abattoir Blues' there is the almost funky 'Cannibal's Hymn', which sees a tremendous groove gradually give way to a typically swelling chorus. There is also the awesome 'Hiding All Away', with its fractured organ stabs and interjectory chants from the London Community Gospel Choir. Anyone concerned about the absence of legendary guitarist Blixa Bargeld should fear no more. New recruit James Johnston, formerly of Gallon Drunk, lets loose on the Hammond Organ, and the results are a tumultuous refashioning of primitive, animal blues; brutal, immediate and brilliant. On 'The Lyre Of Orpheus', there may be a slight country tinge to the title track and the unusually infectious 'Breathless', although they are still tempered by Cave's gruesome vocal presence.

I had wondered if the addition of the London Community Gospel Choir might represent a somewhat obvious tactic, given Cave's well documented religious faith, and the fact that many other acts, notably Spiritualized and Doves, have already used gospel choirs to transcendental effect. I think I have been proved wrong, mainly because Cave does not seem to be aiming at transcendence here - he is trying to create something more earthy, violent and stark. Opening track 'Get Ready For Love' is ostensibly a gospel song, but it's a song of praise that is snarling and ragged, filled with the passions and rages of modern living. In essence, they have helped Cave reinvigorate his work and place his usual concerns and techniques within new settings. Another album along the lines of 'Nocturama' would have been affecting, but it may have not been enough. On 'Abattoir Blues' particularly, there is an energy that is both righteous and riotous.

Mercifully, Cave also seems to have rediscovered his sense of humour. Sometimes all the darkness can feel a bit weighty, portentous and foreboding, but many of the songs here are just plain funny. 'The Lyre of Orpheus' itself is a brilliant rewrite of the Orpheus myth, ending with these absurdly silly lines: 'Eurydice appeared bridled in blood/and she said to Orpheus/If you play that fucking thing down here/I'll stick it up your orifice!'
On 'There She Goes, My Beautiful World', Cave has tremendous fun with some famous names: 'John Willmot penned his poetry riddled with the pox/Nabokov wrote on index cards, at a lectern in his socks/St. John of the Cross did his best stuff imprisoned in a box/And Johnny Thunders was half alive when he wrote Chinese Rocks'. This strikes me as some of the finest amd most audacious wordplay of the year.

After the turbulence and energy of 'Abattoir Blues', the moments of simple, affecting beauty on 'The Lyre of Orpheus' are most welcome. The eerie textures of 'Spell' work particularly well but best of all is the quite wonderful 'Babe You Turn Me On', in which Cave makes for a move away from 'pointless savagery' to asserting the lasting powers of love. It may be a cliched theme, but Cave handles it adroitly, particularly in the touching chorus: 'The world is collapsing dear, all moral sense is gone/It's just history repeating itself/And Babe you turn me on'. The song has a natural grace and fascination, and immediately sounds like a modern Cave classic.

Whilst the Bad Seeds have seemed muted on the last three Nick Cave records (to be fair, brilliantly subtle on 'The Boatman's Call' and parts of 'Nocturama'), their full powers are harnessed again here to craft a sound that sounds colossal and entirely unforced. With these albums, Nick Cave seems to have stopped trying too hard and has started to have fun again - albeit fun spiked with faith, malice and more than a little sinfulness too.

Brian Wilson - Brian Wilson Presents Smile

This may well be the hardest review I've ever had to write. It's extremely difficult to comment conclusively on this lavish reconstruction of a work we all know should have been released in 1967. Finally brought to completion, this new 'Smile' certainly presents a major opportunity for some serious debate among the bootleg fetishists. Most of us have only heard 'Smile' in splintered parts, either through the complete songs that managed to see the light of day on other Beach Boys albums ('Cabinessence', 'Surf's Up', 'Heroes and Villains', 'Vega-Tables' etc) or through numerous bootlegs. Despite the reports of Wilson, his collaborator Van Dyke Parks, and musical director Darian Sahanaja trawling through all the original 'Smile' tapes, much of the material has been expunged, and a great deal of it made more palatable - or at least more realisable within the context of a complete work. There can be no denying that the new version of 'Smile' is an impressive achievement. However, I also can't escape the fact that it sounds like a loving recreation of an antique, heritage document, rather than a living, breathing work.

Cases in point are the new versions of 'Heroes and Villains', 'Cabinessence', 'Surf's Up' and 'Good Vibrations'. The latter particularly stands out - it feels tacked on at the end of the final (and most incoherent) movement, and arguably superflous. Given the course of events and the failure to complete the original Smile, 'Good Vibrations' has gained the status of one of the best, if not the very best, pop singles of all time. As the conclusion to 'Smile', it feels more like a compromise. 'Heroes and Villains' is more crucial because it provides a recurring musical theme for the project. It still sounds brilliant, bizarre and unique, but this new version really neither adds or detracts anything from the version that appeared on 'Smiley Smile'.

Paradoxically, this new version of 'Smile' is both fragmentary and cohesive. It is fragmentary because many of the individual pieces are puzzlingly brief, and sometimes still sound like unfinished bursts of creative genius. It is cohesive because of the way Wilson and his painstakingly faithful backing band have merged clusters of music together into three distinct movements, often using surprisingly traditional composition techniques. It's easy to pick out the influence of Bach, both in the vocal harmonies, and in the recurring piano figures, which sound highly unusual within a pop idiom. Equally, Wilson may well have immersed himself in the works of symphonic composers in order to create the three distinct mood pieces he has conjured together here.

The most successful of the three movements is undoubtedly the second, shortest movement. It seems to have a natural fluidity of movement, and a consistent recognisable theme, both lyrically and musically. It is this part of the work where Wilson's original aim of recapturing the inner child is most apparent. This is the part of 'Smile' that most adequately sums up the 'teenage symphony to God'. Its opening segment is 'Wonderful', which contains new Van Dyke Parks lyrics, and is arguably the most affecting moment on 'Smile'. Here, the quirkiness and extravagance is toned down, and we get a real glimpse of Wilson's gifts with melody. The following 'Song for Children' and 'Child is Father of the Man' merge seamlessly, with their cascading rhythms and overflowing harmonies. Whilst the obsession with childhood does seem slightly peturbing, it's worth putting it in the context of Wilson's endearing naivety. There is something refreshing, perhaps even maverick, about his quest to maintain thematic innocence. Compare this with 'Love and Mercy', a much later song which, although trite, can be similarly characterised. The closing 'Surf's Up' is familiar, but still masterful, and Wilson's decaying voice copes admirably with its cadences. It seems to be more his diction and energy than his pitch that is failing. His tendency to snatch at words that was so noticeable in the concerts is less pronounced here, but he still sounds crisper and less mellifluous here than during his mid-sixties prime. Vocal decline if, of course, inevitable, and occasionally it adds new character to the music wisdom gained through long, turbulent life experience.

The first and third movements are more confusing, although the reworking of 'Do You Like Worms?' as the more conventional 'Roll Plymouth Rock' is touching. The first movement, revolving around this track, and 'Heroes and Villains' is dazzling in its play with structure, and in the extravagance of its instrumentation. Wilson clearly remains a masterful arranger, and willing to experiment with a range of styles and sounds. The final movement veers all over the place and includes the comfortingly silly 'Vega-Tables' and 'Mrs. O'Leary's Cow', formerly known as 'Fire!', the instrumental Wilson allegedly once believed could actually start fires. It finishes with 'Good Vibrations' - a joyous pop flourish at the end, although it would have made far more sense to reprise either the opening accapella harmonising of 'Our Prayer' or the cool atmospherics of 'Surf's Up' in order to bring the work full circle. It is this section of the work that seems most bogged down in legend, mythology and history, and it doesn't quite manage to escape from it.

In completing 'Smile' - Wilson, Van Dyke Parks and The Wondermints have shown considerable tenacity and determination. It is a humorous, surrealistic escapade of a musical venture. At times it still, even today, seems slightly absurd. However, whilst it can still dazzle and confound, it doesn't really appear 'new'. This version of 'Smile' feels like a reconstruction of a masterpiece, and not a masterpiece in itself. That doesn't stop being moved, uplifted and touched by it though.

Tom Waits - Real Gone

'Real Gone' is clearly supposed to be another significant milestone in Tom Waits' lengthy and consistently excellent career. It will be accompanied by his first tour since 1999, and the first to feature UK dates for over seventeen years. Much fuss has been made in the press about the departures this album represents - it features vocal mouth percussion and what Waits has somewhat opaquely termed 'cubist funk'. In addition to this, Waits has entirely abandoned the piano. The latter is hardly a major shock, as piano-based ballads have been playing less prominent roles on Waits albums ever since 'Swordfishtrombones'. Admittedly, that the riotous clamour of 'Bone Machine' and 'Mule Variations' were tempered with elegiac and affecting piano ballads did allow for some light and shade and variation in texture. 'Real Gone' has to work much harder for a similar effect. Much less has been made about the similarities between 'Real Gone' and the pinnacles of Waits' back-catalogue, despite the addition of mouth percussion and some intrusive turntabling from his son Casey, there is little here that could not have been realised on 'Rain Dogs' or 'Bone Machine'.

Naturally, 'Real Gone' contains moments of madcap brilliance that only Waits could produce. 'Hoist That Rag' is deliriously ragged, with Waits' extreme guttural howl doing battle with the raw, Latin-inflected twang of Marc Ribot's guitar. Ribot remains an unusual and thrilling guitar player - his performances always in touch with a great feel for the music - a primal sense of the blues. We've heard the prophetic warnings of 'Don't Go Into That Barn' before, but the spiky plucked guitars, clattering percussion and screaming vocals remain a potent formula here. The heavyweight clamour of 'Make It Rain' makes for one of the album's more brutal and immediate moments, albeit one that recalls the terrifying growl of 'Filopino Box Spring Hog' from 'Mule Variations'.

Some of the ballads are intriguing - there's a sense that whilst many of these songs might have been performed on the piano on previous albums, on 'Real Gone', Waits and his band have fashioned a lightly blucked, country-tinged sound. It's a familiar Waitsian mode, but one that was not really at the forefront of the musical theatre projects 'Alice' and 'Blood Money'. 'Trampled Rose' is beautiful, whilst 'Dead and Lovely' manages to be both mournful and sinister. The album's key track is 'Sins of the Father', a lengthy and repetetive blues ballad, slightly reminiscent of Bob Dylan's epic 'Highlands', with densely poetic lyrics that allude somewhat obliquely to the current political situation in America. It's undeniably affecting, but it seems almost as if Waits was so proud of his lyrical constructions that he failed to even consider editing them. At over ten minutes at one flat dynamic level, it somewhat outstays its welcome....

...As indeed does the whole album. At over 70 minutes, 'Real Gone' is simply too long. A few tracks could easily have been excised - particularly 'Circus', yet another spoken word mood piece that neither adds nor detracts from any of Waits' previous excursions into this field. Whilst the likes of 'Shake It', 'Top Of The Hill' and 'Clang Boom Steam' dazzle on first listen, their polyrhythmic twists do not really represent much of a radical departure from the blueprint set by 'Bone Machine'. The songs on 'Bone Machine', whilst extreme, had more melodic interest and were, on the whole, substantially more engaging.

'Real Gone' closes, almost perversely, with an acoustic ballad 'The Day After Tomorrow', whereby Waits sings as a soldier at war, accompanying himself with rhythmially free, occasionally inventive guitar picking. It's a delightful song - stately and underplayed, with probably the best vocal on the album. Its impact is almost diminished because it feels like a moment of conciliatory respite after the visceral and confusing nature of the preceding 65 minutes.

'Real Gone' has all the makings of a great Tom Waits album - and yet somehow that is what dilutes its force. It sounds more or less what you might expect a Tom Waits album to sound like in the 21st century. If you are approaching Waits for the first time - you may well find much of 'Real Gone' to be radical, possibly even maniacal. For those already familiar with the back catalogue, it sounds like another album to add to an already essential list. Perhaps, given that Waits and his wife and collaborator Kathleen Brennan have already confounded expectations so many times, it is enough that Waits is still pursuing this relentlessly individual path. The music on 'Real Gone' has little in common with current trends or media obsessions. Whilst it would be refreshing now to hear Waits adopt a completely different strategy, it would appear that, in the words of a classic deep soul song, he's too far gone to turn around.

Panda Bear - Young Prayer

This is a curious and fascinating record. Panda Bear is, together with Avey Tare, one half of the regular line-up of Animal Collective. Not content with already releasing one of the year's most extraordinary and inventive albums with 'Sung Tongs', he has crafted this peculiarly intimate project of his own. Apparently inspired by the death of his father, this is a cyclical construction, alternating between strange mantras and handclap-driven ostinatos. There are no track names, and no deciphrable lyrics. I will concede that this description makes this sound either unlistenable, or merely very pompous. It is actually neither. Whilst I wouldn't go as far as to echo Pitchfork in calling it 'supremely accessible' (I doubt very much that it will get much airplay on Radio 1), it is a refreshingly tender and beguiling listen. At a mere 27 minutes, it has a hypnotic coherence and left me intrigued. It feels like a single composition with a single purpose, rather than a collection of songs. The guitar playing is delicate, and the vocal murmurings are appropriately fragile. At the very least, it demonstrates that wordless murmurings and wails can be as affecting as poetic language. It's very distinctiveness may mean that it's not something I'll come back to all that often, but I'm glad that I've investigated it nonetheless.

Interpol - Antics

I received a free copy of Interpol's dazzling debut 'Turn on The Bright Lights' from Roddy Woomble from Idlewild. He clearly wasn't quite as impressed by it as I was. Sadly, I've had no such luck with this equally compelling follow-up. 'Compelling' is definitely the right word, because there is something definitively alluring about the combination of Paul Banks' deliberately monotonous vocalising and the powerfully intense music that underpins it.

It has to be conceded that 'Antics' makes only the most subtle of progressions from its predecessor. Instead, it seems more concerned with refining an already winning formula. Perhaps due to their insistence on wearing black clothing, and the intellectualising tendency of some of their songs, much has been made of Interpol's similarity with Joy Division and The Cure. To these ears, a much better reference point is The Pixies. The vampiric Carlos D's rhythmic basslines give this music a dynamism and propulsion in much the same way as Kim Deal did for her band. The layers of guitars also create a striking singularity of purpose and distinctive musical vision.

The opening 'Next Exit', whilst a slightly misleading prelude, echoes the shimmering atmosphere of the wonderful 'NYC' from 'Turn On The Bright Lights'. It is an elaborate dirge, and may point the way to the band's future. On single 'Slow Hands', they seem to have incorporated some of the edgy groove of Talking Heads or Devo into their wiry post-punk dynamic. Best of all are the spiky, carefully controlled rages of 'Evil' and 'Narc'. This is a sound more involving and fascinating than the rehashed CBGB boredom of The Strokes or Razorlight.

Paul Banks' tendency towards dense, enigmatic wordplay can occasionally seem like random phrases strung together to create meaningless rants (although I must confess to quite liking a line like 'You're weightless, semi-erotic'). Equally, their compacted intensity may soon start to wear a little thin. They will need to develop more for their next record - but as consolidation, 'Anitcs' is a very fine sophomore effort.

More reviews to come soon - and I'm thinking of introducing an overlooked classics feature.

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