Tag Archives: nick cave

Loud Crowds & Forgotten Lyrics: A Live Album Round-Up

I have been acquiring a lot of live albums lately!  I guess that once you’ve gotten well-acclimated to an artist or at least the portion of the artist’s discography you’re comfortable with, live albums offer an extra bit of material to hear from them – most of the tracks you will be familiar with, but a performance of a little-known B-side or a radically different take on an old classic might be all you need to invigorate your enthusiasm for that artist once again. Or, if you’re enjoying an artist’s current run, a live album allows you to sort of bask in the glow of current fantastic material. Live is a whole different ballgame, apart from studio tricks (for the most part) – it can often give a better idea of the state of the band.

Enjoying the heck of out Push the Sky Away, I had to keep the good times rolling with Nick Cave’s latest output, Live at KCRW. As it is promoting the recent album, 4 of the 10 tracks here are from Push the Sky Away, and the rest sort of even-handedly comb through the Cave discography, which produces interesting results. The Bad Seeds are a drastically different line-up than they have been for a majority of their album-making career, with Warren Ellis being Cave’s right-hand man after the (somewhat) recent departure of Blixa Bargeld. As such, a lot of the performances of older songs have taken a slower and more sombre tone  (with the exception of the rowdy rendition of “Jack the Ripper” at the close of the album), most notably the formerly raucous live favourite “The Mercy Seat”. Where the songs remain relatively unchanged are the instances where the original songs were already slow and mournful – the setlist has been carefully chosen (“Eventually you’ll say one of the songs on this very short list” quips Cave after a few seconds of people shouting requests at home). Everything feels a part, though, as the performances blend each of the songs into the style of the recent album – if you were a newcomer to the band, you wouldn’t bat an eye. It feels like a statement from Cave about how he wishes to proceed or at the very least his headspace during this time – rock has been more or less left in the dust and he’s now looking for that arrangement, that melody, that loop. Push the Sky Away made very much the same statement, but putting that stamp on prior tracks feels like a manifesto.

With slight trepidation, I picked up Before the Flood by Bob Dylan & The Band. My trepidation was thus: I remember hearing the 60s concerts Dylan did in England (of “Judas!” fame) where The Band hadn’t made a name for themselves and were just his backing band. I remember being absolutely gobsmacked by the performances and wanting to experience a little of that magic. How does that equal trepidation? I didn’t trust my mind, first of all. This was quite some time ago and I felt I might have been romanticizing the whole thing and would end up disappointed. Secondly, the performances I remember were circa 1966, whereas this album was from 1974, far beyond my reach of Dylan knowledge (for whatever reason, I’ve expanded little beyond Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. No, not even Blood on the Tracks, which I realize would have set me up much more nicely to experience this one). I did, however, have faith and I wanted to find a way to get into The Band, so I figured this was a good stopgap.

The setlist is culled from both acts, though leaning a little more on Dylan’s side. The first thing I noticed was that it took me awhile to recognize Dylan’s voice, which seems to have dropped or at least changed style quite a bit – his trademark sneer is toned down quite a bit, and the cadence and placing of his words seems very deliberately off-kilter from the well-familiar version (something I’ve heard from people who have gone to see him these days). The now-classic “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”* sounds relatively unchanged (having been released the year before), but others didn’t fare as well. Maybe the rambling style of his earlier songs was something he felt shouldn’t be duplicated – to hear an attempt to recreate something like “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”* sounds strange, as there’s so much to it and it just feels like a strangely intimate open letter society rather than a proper song/stadium rocker. The Band, for their part, sounded in fine form (and recognizable), adding a little energy to their classics I do know – “The Weight”, “Up on Cripple Creek”, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” – while impressing me with the ones I didn’t, which will be getting some re-listening as I try to figure out where I wanna drop in with The Band (probably the Brown Album, but still).

Pink Floyd rounds out the list with a live recording from before the release of even their first album, titled London 1966/1967. When I saw this, I immediately thought it would be an interesting artifact to hear – the band really developing their chops at this point, albeit with original bandleader Syd Barrett, rather than David Gilmour with whom they’d go on to much greater fame. The album consists of two ten-minute plus psychedelic jams ““Interstellar Overdrive”, which does appear on their debut album, though in much shortened form. Here it’s made clear that it’s their live freak-out showcase, with very little in the way of structure – apart from a bit of a descending riff to start out – as the band ebbs and flows and Syd with his trusty echo effects attempts to play parts of his guitar which were not necessarily intended to be played as an introduction to the more anarchic sections here. The other track is entitled “Nick’s Boogie”, based on a little ditty played by Nick Mason on his toms at the start of the track and the jam builds up from nothing, as the band members peek their heads in further and further, coming in only very intermittently with very strange noises weaving in and out. It’s great to see all the ingredients of a freak out, but what you are seeing is really the clay with would form to become the songs on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Not an experience I will turn to often, but if I’m lying on the floor in a daze, it might be the perfect thing.

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

“Jack the Ripper”

“The Mercy Seat”

Bob Dylan & The Band

*Being unable to find the versions of these songs from the album, I will give you more or less the original versions so you get some idea of where I’m goin’

“Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”

“It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”

Pink Floyd

“Interstellar Overdrive”

 

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Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in Ten Easy Steps

I recently listened to the Bad Seeds’ discography straight through, in chronological order. It was something I’ve been meaning to do for awhile, but got further than about half of his albums scattered throughout the years. The impetus came from starting to read through the special Uncut magazine I picked up in England that went through Cave’s entire career, album by album and everything in between*.

Cave has always been an interesting songwriter. His fascination with the macabre and the gothic has been a constant throughline in his work. He’s never afraid to cast his booming baritone in your direction and let it hang in the air while the other thoughts drain out of your head. At the same time, he’s always been one of the more thoughtful rock lyricists, as his horrid pictures and colour-draining situations can only be a purge of the chaos going on inside of his head. While his discography roughly follows a noisiest to quietest movement, there’s never been a boring moment or duff album for yours truly. Here are the ten tracks that will take you through the 30+ years of the Bad Seeds’ existence:

1) Cabin Fever! (1984)

Rising from the ashes of Cave’s previous outfit, the Birthday Party, From Her to Eternity maintains much of the wild intensity of that group, with slightly less emphasis on pure noise, and turning attention more towards malice. The repetitive piano bass line pulls the song down over and over again into its own little hole, the one-note bassline bangs on the walls repeatedly while Cave wails and masticates and sniffs and whoops his sorrow away in the middle of the ocean, lost asea with “nothin’ to touch or hold/notch by notch/winter by winter”, accompanied by some rowdy drunks doing backing vocals. This was the last hurrah (at least for some time) for Cave’s unhinged wildman act but it serves as a good starting point to understand where the Bad Seeds started from.

2) Tupelo (1985)

The first sign of Cave’s foray into the southern gothic feel (“Lookie yonder!”) he would employ so often for a lot of his career. The story of the birth of Elvis as a portent of the apocalypse begins with a crash of thunder and a stuttering bassline as Cave begins to report on the strange happenings around Tupelo, Mississippi, interspersed with near-sarcastic recitations of nursery rhymes. While “The King will walk on Tupelo”, Cave also tells the tale of Elvis’ stillborn twin, giving the album its title (The Firstborn Is Dead). Organs begin to peel and set in the horror movie feel to the proceedings, but this is very much one of the first exercises of restraint for the Seeds, as the mood dominates all.

3) The Carny (1986)

In contrast to the first two tracks, you have to lean in and pay attention to hear another one of Mr. Cave’s narratives about a disappearing carny – another to add to his fairly extensive rogues gallery. The backing here tips back and forth between goofy and sinister with an organ-led waltz lurching back and forth underneath. Not content with a simple wide-eyed manic delivery any longer, but intricately building an atmosphere of night, of paranoia and gives you eight whole minutes to experience it, as a low bass note keeps intoning in your direction.

4) The Mercy Seat (1988)

A live favourite ever since it’s debut on Tender Prey, it goes inside the mind of an inmate who may or may not be guilty headed to the electric chair who is “quite prepared to die”. After recounting and giving his own thoughts on the story of Jesus, we get to the main bulk where the chorus repeats over and over of him sitting in the electric chair and how he’s “done with all this weighing up of truth”. The chorus repeats over and over as the electric buzz from Blixa Bargeld’s guitar gets more and more intense and Thomas Wydler refuses to relent from his assault on his drums. Loosely harmonized vocals get slapped on and a violin gets introduced as the song crescendoes, and you wonder where it could possibly end. The merciless repetition and fantastic build of the song added with the grim content of the lyrics is a perfect example of what the band was capable of at the time – my favourite album of their early period.

5) Do You Love Me? (1994)

This is where they begin to do more with less, which is very much a course that would continue throughout Cave’s career from this point on. The archetypical Cave song, “Do You Love Me?” shows the Seeds at their most potent. The haunting organ, the carefully measured echoes of guitar and an ominous account of a relationship created and destroyed. Cave’s snarl on the line “Do you love me?” is the perfect example of how something so innocuous can sound terrifying when put to him to deliver. Ditto with the lead-in of “And the bells from the chapel/go jingle/jangle!”. What the Bad Seeds are all about.

6) The Curse of Millhaven (1996)

From the album that actually got me into the Seeds in the first place – Murder Ballads. As the name suggests, every song gives the tale of a killing. I was sort of taken aback but intrigued by the concept. it’s not one I spin too much any more, but I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t include it on this list. This is a great example of Cave’s – say it with me – love of the macabre. He also manages to ingest this one with a sort of upbeat tempo and jauntiness, with the accordion and the back-and-forth bass. Not to mention a sick sense of humour, as tales go through the town of Millhaven following a series of mysterious murders. The identity of the killer may or may not surprise you.

7) Into My Arms (1997)

Here, Cave does an absolute 180 and is left alone with his piano, singing a heartfelt, honest-to-goodness love song, which is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. The Boatman’s Call would largely comprise these piano driven slow-burners as, it seems, he just had to take a break from the noise.

8) As I Sat Sadly By Her Side (2001)

With three simple chords, Cave tells one of my favourite short stories that espouses his opinions on people, God and the relationship between them, with some stiff rhythm from Blixa. The organ still makes its presence known, but the main riff of the song is a gentle tapping on the piano, with Cave’s voice now in a higher register. At this point, he’s left much of the darkness behind and is more of a removed observer, wondering openly about his place in the world and very much concerned with the human element.

9) O Children (2004)

The song I have probably listened to more than any other by Cave. A slow-burning, full-band mantra beginning with “Pass me that lovely little gun…”, this was oddly included in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1. As he discusses the arrival of “the cleaners” and mysteriously alludes to events of the past, the calm tempo is bolstered by some gospel backing vocals: “O Children/Lift up your voice”. Over ten or eleven verse, he spins a yarn that expounds on rebirth and moving forward on “the train that goes to the kingdom”, wondering “have you left a seat for me/is that such a stretch of the imagination?”

10) Water’s Edge (2013)

There were lots of songs I could have chosen off of their recent album (Push the Sky Away), as it also definitely featured a turning point in the Seeds’ sound once again. Rock has pretty much been left behind and the tempo has remained somewhat slow, with Warren Ellis and his violin and loops commanding much of the proceedings. This one struck me however, for the description of “the local boys” and “the girls from the capital” interacting at the water and the strange approach to drumming employed. Thomas Wydler does not hit a single skins in time with the music, but instead creates a flowing and ebbing tide of flailing bashes. He describes it all like some strange foreign ritual, rather than an everyday occurence – an incredible look on how Cave’s mind can distort what he sees in front of him. The girls with their “legs wide to the world/like bibles open” in mock damnation he proclaims, while adding to all the kids under his breath “yeah you grow old/and you grow cold”.

*The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party and Grinderman are on my list somewhere, but having fifteen albums to track Cave’s growth as a songwriter and artist within the confines of one particular group was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up!

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#15: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away

(Bad Seed, Ltd., 2013)

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(Image from Wikipedia)

Mr. Cave is back with another reading from his horrorshow tome. Though his songs have become less overtly macabre and hellish than they were in the Bad Seeds’ earlier days, there’s no doubt that Nick Cave can send a chill down your spine like he was ringin’ a bell. On Push the Sky Away, it seems that fear and sin are less the orders of the day than tension and queasiness. There’s nothing relaxed or laid back here – every track is bent double, sitting on the edge, waiting for a release that usually doesn’t come. They just go on, like little snapshots from an ongoing, frustrated life. “Nowhere to rest/nowhere to land” croons Cave in “We No Who U R”.

Cave is, obviously, the master of ceremonies here. Very seldom does he let himself boil over into throwing vitriol – he just presents the facts as they are (to him) in a low moan that has you already mourning. “Ah, the local boys” he reminisces during “Water’s Edge” (the highlight of the album for me), recounting their horrible encounters with the “girls from the capital” in a delicious use of repetition as both parties “reach for the speech/and the word to be heard”, as drummer Thomas Wydler unleashes some inner fury, contributing only sporadic, arrhythmic fits and refusing deliciously to hold down any kind of beat. The only time he breaks his icy resoluteness is on “Higgs-Boson Blues”, which is by no coincidence the longest song on the album. It’s the only one long enough to give Cave the chance to boil over and when he finally loses the game of chicken he’s playing to keep his composure to the end of the song and starts spewing his own unique brand of dark inanities: “Hannah Montana does the African Savannah/As the simulated rainy season begins/She curses the queue at the Zulus/And moves on to Amazonia/And cries with the dolphins.”

Apart from that track, there aren’t too many that could be called rockers on this album. The moods are groovy, often quiet as if holding onto a secret that they’ll only allow themselves to get a few chords into before smiling and wagging a finger. The fuzzy electric piano is Cave’s weapon of choice here, plunking down sharp, shuddering chords (“We No Who U R”) or meandering between harmony and melody (“Wide Lovely Eyes”), while Warren Ellis’ guitar stays rhythmic and brooding without ever unleashing its considerable power. Almost everything is played in a percussive capacity, creating a nice melange in every bar of a variety of timbres popping and cracking right on queue. The occasional flute (“We No Who U R”) or string section (“We Real Cool”) glides right on top.

Push the Sky Away is a great example of Cave’s potency. As his career has progressed, he’s become less interested jumping out in front of you, casting fire and brimstone in your face while laughing, and more apt to point out the devil sneaking up behind you as you pass the tip of his lit cigarette in a dark alley. At first listen, this album seems like a relatively sedate affair, but constantly walks the line between haunting and creepy. Even the simplest arrangements have no way to earn good will here. Cave muses aloud and we crane our necks to listen, in spite of the fact that we likely don’t want to hear it.

9/10

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