Friday, January 18, 2008

Grinderman - "Grinderman" (Mute Reords 2007)

At some point I'm going to move away from records by or inspired by Nick Cave. Honest. But not now.

Grinderman was born when Nick Cave and Bad Seeds members Warren Ellis, Martyn P. Casey, and Jim Sclavunos retired to Misère studio in Paris for a Bad Seeds songwriting session. Whether or not any progress was made on future Bad Seeds songs remains up for speculation, but what is certain is that some mighty powerful work was done, the result being the songs that constitute Grinderman's eponymously titled debut (The Bad Seeds record Dig! Lazarus, Dig! releases on March 3rd, 2008).

This is the best work Cave has produced in years, and I mean no slight whatsoever on Abbatoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus (2004), Nocturama (2003), or No More Shall We Part (2001). It's just that this record hearkens back to an earlier incarnation of Nick Cave, one in which straight up rock 'n' roll (albeit very avant-garde) played a larger part while at the same time toning down the relentless darkness and angst that characterized those years. That's not to say it's entirely absent - this is Nick Cave we're talking about - but there's an element of whimsy here that I've never perceived in his music before. And, not surprisingly, he incorporates it well.

A good example is the song that seems to be getting the most attention from this release, "No Pussy Blues". It's a hysterical piece about the extreme lengths the narrating chacter goes to get the object of his attention in the sack, only to be told repeatedly "she doesn't want to". While amusing, the lyric, in combination with the driving fuzz bass, creates an urgent sense of tension establishing just how badly this guy has to have this girl. The release arrives in loud, wah-wah drenched fuzz guitar instrumental breaks in which our protagonist's frustrations boil over. It's a masterfully put together song that, while recognizably a Cave composition, displays a fresh perspective on his songwriting.

You get some more moments that, while not necessarily surprising per se, are certainly a departure from the rest of Cave's recent body of work. There's the blues driven fuzz rock of "Depth Charge Ethel" that contains one of the hookiest guitar riffs to come from Cave's direction in a long time. "Go Tell The Women" is a twisted, loungey number reminiscent of Tom Waits' Swordfishtrombones era, right down to a Marc Ribot-esque guitar part. Lyrics like "We are scientists, We do genetics, We leave religion, To the psychos and fanatics" woven into this audial ensemble makes the track indispensible, as well as an immediate Nick Cave classic.

While the departures are a refreshing diversion, there's plenty here to satisfy those Nick Cave fans perfectly content for things to remain as they are. Several tracks are immediately reminiscent of The Bad Seeds, even going so far as to having distinctly Blixa Bargeld reminiscent guitar runs (Bargeld is not listed in the credits, but it's not beyond the realm of possibility he showed up for some of these sessions). "Honey Bee (Let's Fly To Mars)" sonically has unmistakable overtones of The Birthday Party, albeit toned down and with conspicuously non-Birthday Party style lyrics. The record closes with "Love Bomb"- in many ways the most standard Cave offering on the record. While the music is more straight up rock than we're accustomed to hearing from Cave, it's overlaid with his signature semi-spoken Southern Baptist preacher possessed by demons vocal style. And friends, he's lost nothing over the years in assaulting you with that kind of delivery.

Grinderman has been widely compared to The Birthday Party and, while there certainly are elements of that here, I think that the comparison is selling the record as a whole short. The bile that Cave was spewing back then is only vaguely present in an offstage kind of manner, the music is not as determinedly anarchic, and the tone The Birthday Party set is, quite frankly, missing entirely. Methinks there may have been a tad bit of wishful thinking on the part of those making such comparisons.

I would say instead that this is an example of a gracefully aging iconic musician and songwriter proving to the world that he can still kick out some badass rock 'n' roll if he's so inclined. While containing inevitable elements of both, it's not The Birthday Party and it's not The Bad Seeds. It's Grinderman, and taken simply on its own merits it's one beautiful monster of a record.
Rating: 4 out of 4

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