Friday, June 06, 2008

TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: DIGGING LAZARUS

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
June 6, 2008


No question, Nick Cave is back. Again. Like Lazarus.

True, along with other voices in criticdom, I’ve been saying this about Cave for four years now, starting with the sprawling, double-disc glory of Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, then again last year with his howling, stripped-down Grinderman.

And now with the new Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!, Cave and his Bad Seeds sound as tough as ever.

True, he’s plowing a lot of the same themes he’s plowed since he and his band The Birthday Party lurched out of Australia 28 years ago: sex, God, violence, and depravity. It wouldn’t be a Nick Cave album without these elements. But he makes it sound as if he’s discovered buried treasure on just about every song.

And what a great batch of songs.

The title cut is the continuing story of what happened to the guy Jesus raised from the dead, whom he calls “Larry.” As the Bad Seeds play a modified “Louie Louie” riff, Cave tells the tale of Lazarus’ missing years:

“Larry grew increasingly neurotic and obscene/He never asked to be raised up from the tomb/No one ever actually asked him to forsake his dreams/... He ended up like so many of them do, back on the streets of New York City/In a soup queue, a dope fiend, a slave, then prison, then the madhouse, then the grave/Ah, poor Larry!”
“Today’s Lesson” is about some kind of illicit affair between a couple of characters named Janie and Mr. Sandman, who “likes to congregate around the intersection of Janie’s jeans.” Martyn Casey’s bouncing bass line carries the rhythm, while Warren Ellis’ screaming guitar battles with two crazy, almost Doors-like organs played by Cave and James Johnston.

The slow, minor-key groove of “Moonland” sounds as if it might be sung by Lazurus/Larry himself. “When I came up from out of the meat locker/The city was gone.” As he repeats phrases like “under the stars, under the snow” and “I’m not your favorite lover” it’s almost as if Cave is channeling a lost track from Astral Weeks, a song too dark and gritty for Van Morrison’s album but related to it in spirit.

One of the strangest cuts here is “We Call Upon the Author.” More pulsating bass, discordant guitar noises, and otherworldly organ (which apparently is Cave’s new favorite instrument). Cave speaks rather than sings most of the song.

The smoldering “Hold on to Yourself” is one of the prettiest songs on the album. The lyrics are erotic and insane:

“There’s madhouse longing in my baby’s eyes/She rubs the lamp
between her thighs/And hopes the genie comes out singing. ... Factories close and cars go cruising/In around the borders of her vision/She says ooh/As Jesus makes the flowers grow/All around the scene of her collision.”
The album ends with an eight-minute opus called “No News From Nowhere.” It’s a relatively mellow tune compared with most of the others on the album. It reminds me a bit of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks era. The lyrics tell of sexual encounters, a violent confrontation with a one-eyed giant, and ghosts of all the girls he’s loved before. He even runs into the heroine of one of his old songs here:

“I bumped bang crash/Into Deanna hanging pretty in the door
frame/All the horrors that have befallen me/Well, Deanna is to blame.” By the last verse Cave laments, “Don’t it make you feel sad/Don’t the blood rush to your feet/To think that everything you do today/Tomorrow is obsolete.”

That might be true, yet very little about this album seems obsolete at all.

Also recommended:

* Hello, Voyager by Evangelista. Evangelista is the name of the 2006 avant-rock solo album by Carla Bozulich, who is best known for her tenure with the alt — very alt — country band The Geraldine Fibbers. I called the dark and noisy Evangelista “bruised gospel.” The best songs there were like passionate spirituals from the inferno.

Bozulich is now calling her band Evangelista. And Hello, Voyager continues down the same path through the valley of the damned. “Winds of St. Anne,” for instance, picks up right where the previous album left off — slow plodding rhythm, ominous guitar drones, distorted, explosive vocals.

The first song to really knock me on the head from this album was “Lucky Lucky Luck,” a bouncy little tale of a reform-school girl: “When I was a baby I was sweet as could be/ I had a good heart but I had to kill it/Eleven years old my blood ran cold, by 13 I had to spill it.”

“The Blue Room” has a melody straight out of some old Disney film (as filtered through The Geraldine Fibbers). It features longtime Bozulich collaborator Nels Cline (now with Wilco) on 12-string guitar. “For the Li’l Dudes,” featuring cello, viola and violins, is chamber music for the criminally insane. The six-minute-plus “The Frozen Dress” is a noise experiment that might have fit in the Eraserhead soundtrack.

The 12-minute title track that ends the album starts out with clunky percussion before settling into a long organ-driven spook-house ride with Bozulich shouting about having no hope. She repeats “the word is love” several times before shouting a bloodcurdling “No!!!!” And it doesn’t get any sunnier from there.

Though much of the music is foreboding, it’s not without humor. For instance, Kenny G fans might be disappointed to learned that the song “Smooth Jazz” isn’t smooth jazz at all!

Bozulich has a real cool Web site, including several free mp3s from various stages of her career; visit carlabozulich.com.

* On the radio: Steve Terrell remembers the late great Bo Diddley Sunday night on Terrell’s Sound World, 10 p.m. to midnight on KSFR-FM 101.1. It’s freeform weirdo radio at its finest.

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