Friday, May 18, 2007

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: NOT THE SAME OLD GRIND

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
May 18, 2007


Rock ’n’ roll supposedly is a young man’s game — traditionally, some of the best of it is created by horny, sexually frustrated young guys. But with Grinderman, Aussie rocker Nick Cave proves that horny, sexually frustrated middle-aged men can rock, too.

After all, young-stud rock is propelled by the anxiety that you might not score tonight (or, for real young guys, that you might never score). The overriding anxiety throughout Grinderman is that Cave might never score again. And this fear can be even more intense than all that minor-league teenage angst.

It’s all laid out, so to speak, in the song “No Pussy Blues,” in which Cave begins with a spoken verse that begins, “My face is finished, my body’s gone.” He then relates a sadly humorous tale of picking up a young woman in his audience.


“I bought her a dozen snow-white doves/ I did her dishes in rubber
gloves/ I called her ‘Honey Bee,’ I called her ‘Love,’/ But still she didn’t
want to,” he snarls. “I sent her every type of flower/I played her guitar by the hour/I patted her revolting little chihuahua/But still she just didn’t want to.”

But even more desperate than the lyrics is the furious, spastic burst of electric-guitar squall that Cave unleashes as a solo. That’s one of the main differences between this album and previous Cave works. Nick is playing electric guitar instead of just piano. He’s no virtuoso, but his attack on the instrument adds to the crazy energy of this record.

Grinderman — which also is the name of Cave’s new band (actually a compact version of his old band The Bad Seeds) — shows Cave rocking harder than he has since he was a young man. I’m not the first voice in criticdom comparing Grinderman with Cave’s old ’80s band The Birthday Party. But the middle-aged Cave of Grinderman seems even more dangerous than the bellowing junkie of The Birthday Party.

The new album is full of memorable tunes. The opening number, “Get It On” is, in Cave’s words, “a lament for the messianic rock ’n’ roll hero.” It starts out with an incomprehensible spoken (actually shouted) tirade about baboons, white mice, and black dogs. Over a fuzz-tone backdrop and a crashing rhythm, Cave recites,


“He crawled out of the ooze/He defied evolution/He had green
flippers and sang the blues/He caused a revolution ... I call out from the storm/For those who gave their lives/So we could get it on.”

“Honey Bee (Let’s Fly to Mars)” features that strangled guitar playing beneath a Steppenwolf-like organ and apocalyptic drums. A couple of tunes remind me of John Cale. The grating but somehow beautiful “Electric Alice” (supposedly a tribute to jazz harpist Alice Coltrane) is slow, screechy, and surreal (there’s bouzouki and violin crunched up in the mix), while the title song is a slow burner that builds up to some nice guitar chaos.

(Historical note: The name of the band, album, and song comes from bluesman Memphis Slim, who had a song called “Grinder Man Blues.” But unlike the narrator of many of the songs on this album, Slim’s Grinder Man is a tireless gigolo who has “got so many customers, it takes me a week to get around.”)

Not every tune here is abrasive or thunderous. “Man in the Moon” is slow and pretty and wouldn’t have been out of place on some of Cave’s more subdued efforts like The Boatman’s Call. It does seem out of place on Grinderman, though. Thankfully, it’s the shortest song on the album.

For the past couple of Cave albums there have been hints that a rock ’n’ roll werewolf has been struggling to break out of Cave’s brooding theologian persona. Back in 2003, on his album Nocturama, there was a 14-minute celebration of raw lust called “Babe, I’m on Fire.” A year or so later Cave’s double-disc set, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, also featured several tough and gritty rockers such as “Hiding All Away” and “Get Ready For Love.”

Grinderman fulfills the promise of those works. It’s also a welcome affirmation to all us dirty old men who love to rock.

Also noted:
* Rock en Español Vol. 1
by Los Straitjackets. These masked Tennessee surfers have made me rethink my general rule of hating “guest star” albums. I loved their Sing Along with Los Straitjackets (2001), in which this instrumental band was joined by a bevy of guest singers (especially Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere and the Raiders, who did a muy bitchen cover of Roy Head’s “Treat Her Right”).

And now comes this collection of Spanish-language renditions of ’60s rock and soul hits (and even a stray Marty Robbins song) featuring vocals by Big Sandy, Los Lobos’ Cesar Rosas (who produced the record), and Little Willie G of the East L.A. rockers Thee Midnighters.

This is how I imagine a Tijuana rock club sounding in 1965. My favorite here probably is the stinging guitar cry of “El Microscopico Bikini,” sung by Rosas. The melody actually is “Dizzy Miss Lizzie,” written by Larry Williams and popularized by The Beatles. Other early Beatles numbers represented here are Williams’ “Slow Down” (retitled “Calor” and sung by Big Sandy), and the Arthur Alexander ballad “Anna” (now called “Ana” and sung by Little Willie).

While there’s nothing earthshakingly innovative here, it’s good basic rock that underscores the contributions of Hispanics to American music.

Songs from the Cave: Yes, it’s time again for a good, long Nick Cave set on Terrell’s Sound World. Hear Grinderman, The Bad Seeds, and The Birthday Party Sunday night on KSFR-FM 90.7. Santa Fe’s finest freeform weirdo radio show starts at 10 p.m., while the Cave set will start right after the 11th hour.

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