Tag Archives: post-punk

Toxic Post-Punk Syndrome: Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives

Having spent a little bit more times on the fringes of reggae (The Specials are my latest venture, getting into full-on ska territory at this point), the realization suddenly dawns on me that there’s a reggae song that I’ve been a fan of from way back, and it turns out that it’s even better now: Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives”. Stapled onto the back of the American version Costello’s debut album, My Aim Is True, it was his first UK hit and an excellent object-lesson in simple atmosphere-building (a technique he’d use later to absolutely devastating effect on “I Want You”). The rest of the album shows of Costello’s songwriting chops, with scathing lyrics and good tunes, but this one feels totally immersive and that you’re only getting a little piece of the much bigger picture.

A Steve Goudling drubbing of the drums pulls us into the story as the slinky bass makes its appearance known and asks you to follow it with morbid curiosity, courtesy of Andrew Bodnar. There’s a slightly sinister air as the bass is slightly too complex to sit on its laurels over the reggae beat, so you get the sneaking suspicion that it knows something that you don’t. Costello’s guitar tries to sidle in without being seen before the vocals come in. As his voice cracks under the pressure, he draws out the scene cinematically “long shot of that jumping sign/visible shivers runnin’ down my spine/cut the baby taking off her clothes/close-up of a sign that says ‘we never close'”. His voice oozes menace as he lingers on those last syllables as Goudling deftly skips along the hi-hat.

The off-beat organ in the chorus makes it sounds little cheesy at first, but by the time the climactic last chorus comes by, you’re no longer laughin’. The vocals get closer and closer together until they’re overlapping each other in paranoia “Now fear is here to stay/Love is here for a visit/…/Someone’s scratching at the window/I wonder, who is it?”. The tension builds and builds as the vocals hammer on the beat harder and harder and the rhythm section fills things out more and more until it all stops and Costello delivers the punishing line “It only took my little fingers to blow you away”. Even though it follows your standard verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure, there really ain’t no climax until that one little moment where it all comes together beautifully, as the rhythm stays pretty intact up until that point.

Each part under analysis doesn’t seems like it would fit together with everything going on in the song, and perhaps that’s the beauty of it. The song begins to coalesce more and more as it goes on until everyone’s firing on all cylinders when Costello calls “shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot!” during the chorus. The minor key and Costello’s straight delivery avoids the idea that Costello is trying to emulate a reggae song, but rather, is using the form as sort of a means to an end, the tension held together beautifully by the insistent rhythm of the whole thing, the organ in the chorus being the only place they really seems to hang a hat on it. By far one of my favourite songs of his entire oeuvre and one that I have a multitude of listens to give. Building up to that moment every time manages to remain a highlight, no matter how many repetitions. I’m still finding more in it!

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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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