Nick Cave is the Christopher Walken of pop music. Both performers love to create and inhabit characters that carry creepiness to uncharted heights. And yet they manage to infuse those characters with an emotional commitment so strong that we’re often as attracted to them as we are repulsed.
Take, for example, Mr. Walken’s performance as the aging gang lord in Abel Ferrara’s King of New York . By the end of the movie, his paranoia and delusions of grandeur have acquired a strange nobility, and his death feels like the end of an era. Or listen to just about any song off Mr. Cave’s 1996 album Murder Ballads , in which the deeds of cold-hearted killers are portrayed with a passion and tenderness more befitting a love story.
I’m happy to report that Nocturama (Anti), the new CD by Mr. Cave and his band, the Bad Seeds, is filled with that unholy spirit – more akin to such Cave high-water marks as The Good Son (1990) and The Boatman’s Call (1997) than to its staid, overthought predecessor, 2001′s No More Shall We Part .
Mr. Cave tackles eerie, ghost-ridden ballads (“He Wants You”) and bile-spitting rockers (“Dead Man in My Bed”) with equal vigor, and his band shadows him expertly at all times. Pound for pound, the Bad Seeds may just be the best group in rock today, mainly because they’re so attuned to the methods and moods of their leader. Warren Ellis’ spiky violin asides and Blixa Bargeld’s agitated guitar scratchings deserve special mention.
Nocturama ‘s grand finale is a 14-minute spew of distorted organ chords and outrageous rhyme schemes called “Babe, I’m on Fire.” As declaimed by Mr. Cave’s fevered baritone, verses like “The Chinese contortionist says it / The backyard abortionist says it / And the poor Pakistani / With his lamb Bhirriani” pile on top of each other, gathering an insidious momentum.
Mr. Cave’s fondness for word play is also the prime culprit in the album’s lone clinker, “Rock of Gibraltar.” The problem here is that there aren’t many words that rhyme with “Gibraltar”; within a minute and a half, Mr. Cave is reduced to singing about a honeymoon trip to Malta. Fortunately, the music-a rolling jazz waltz that swells like a full-moon high tide, with Mr. Ellis and Mr. Bargeld (on pedal steel) riding the crests-carries the moment. That aberration excepted, Nocturama is a stirring addition to the Cave oeuvre . I suspect Christopher Walken would like it.
The Next Dury
Of the handful of guests that appear on Mr. Cave’s new album, the most noteworthy are four gentlemen-Johnny Turnbull, Norman Watt Roy, Mick Gallagher and Chas Jankel-who contribute backing vocals to three songs.
Known collectively as the Blockheads, they were once the backing group for that great British treasure Ian Dury, author of such classic New Wave hits as “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll” and “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick.” Mr. Dury died of cancer in 2000, just as his son, Baxter Dury, was entering into his own career in music. The younger Mr. Dury’s first public performance was at his father’s wake, singing the Blockheads’ song “My Old Man.”
Now Baxter has a CD to his name, Len Parrot’s Memorial Lift (Sanctuary/Rough Trade). Issued several months ago in Britain, it’s only now seeing release in the U.S. Apart from the music-hall whimsy of the album’s third track, “Lucifer’s Grain,” Mr. Dury’s songs have little in common stylistically with those of his dad. He seems to prefer spacious, drifting grooves to well-oiled disco beats, and his taste for wah-wah guitar, Mellotron and spooky processed vocals makes much of Len Parrot’s Memorial Lift sound as though it could have been one of the Elektra label’s priority releases in 1969. You can practically smell the bong smoke.
The album’s warm, fuzzy sound is instantly appealing, but two factors get in the way of complete enjoyment. The first is Mr. Dury’s singing style, which relies almost entirely on falsetto-apparently, his normal vocal range lies somewhere on the sub-basement level. For an approximation, cross 60′s acid casualty Skip Spence with the Mick Jagger of “Emotional Rescue,” then add a few cotton balls. Though cute at first, Mr. Dury’s wispy vocals get old fast, especially when (and this would be factor two) many of his tunes are too threadbare to justify their excessive length. That’s a problem his old man never had.
Oh, Happy Band
Listening to Supergrass always reminds me of that old XTC song, “Life Begins at the Hop,” particularly the breathless line about what’s to be found at that awe-inspiring teenage dance party: “There’s nuts and crisps and c-c-cola on tap.”
It’s that kind of youthful ebullience about the everyday that Supergrass has in spades. This made sense when the band first assaulted the charts of its native England in the mid-’90s; back then, the band members were barely past their teens. But almost a decade later, they’re still hanging onto their joie de vivre , and the Oxford quartet’s latest album, Life on Other Planets (Island), offers plenty of reasons for their fans to be happy as well.
The 12 good-time numbers collected here merge 70′s glam and 60′s psychedelia with a nod-and-wink zest that’s uniquely English. Though the term “Britpop” fell out of fashion years ago, no one’s found a better tag yet for this kind of music. “Seen the Light,” a hard-rocking track that sounds like a long-lost T. Rex single, ends with a moment that encapsulates the album’s refreshing lack of seriousness. Singer and guitarist Gareth (Gaz) Coombes drawls the words, “I’m a rock ‘n’ roll singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band,” then mumbles a “Thankyouverymuch” in perfect Elvis Presley style.
Come to think of it, Mr. Walken-who did his own wacky Elvis impersonation at the Public Theater years ago in Him -would probably appreciate Life on Other Planets , too.