Friday, October 01, 2010

No Country For Old Men?

In this new decade, a handful of rock's legends have proven their relevance. It seems a hard task for aging classics to compete with the way music has changed so drastically, but 2010 sees two standout recordings from two very different, but equally prolific icons of music: Nick Cave and Neil Young. We'll start with the former.

Nick Cave is 52. He's been making music since 1976 with his first band The Birthday Party making an impact in the early 80's. He then went on to The Bad Seeds who have changed from post punk darlings to Gothic ministers to balladeers to gospel grunge and back again from the late 80's to their current lineup. And then there is Grinderman. A menacing, garage rock soaked album of squealing guitars, foreboding and distorted violins care of Warren Ellis and a boogie thump from other Bad Seed members Martyn Casey and Jim Sclavunos. Now we have a second offering from Grinderman (aptly titled Grinderman 2) and it is nothing short of glorious. Sure, it's still gritty and messy at times, but unlike their first offering, it seems to have more direction. Cave's vocals and lyrics are at their all time scummiest, maybe the closest to The Birthday Party he'll ever get. That being said, he's channeling his spirit from close to 30 years ago now to create this raucous romp of bluesy, gritty tunes.

Grinderman 2 starts off with a chugging riff on "Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man" with cave's insane lyrics kicking in like a lunatic washing off the haze of last nights boozery. It's an outstanding album opener that gives way to the second single "Worm Tamer" which compares his love to all sorts of crazy demonic and sexual beings. However, this is just a prelude to the catchiest and most gritty track on the record, first single "Heathen Child." The guitar gurgle at the start of the track is just like watching the Big Bad Wold (on the ridiculously bad ass cover and a common character on this album) creeping around a dark corner, snarling. The bass line keeps everything together as Cave paints a tale of a seemingly helpless child in a bathtub, which turns out to be much more of a beast than the wolf man that she's waiting for to come and take her away. We then get the one-two punch of the dynamic "When My Baby Comes" and the pastoral to an extent ""What I Know." "When My Baby Comes" starts off in familiar Cave territory, sounding at first more like a Bad Seeds cut from 2008's Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! but takes a sharp mid song curve off the cliff into a psychedelic sludge coda. "What I Know" is the only breath of air Cave and Co. give us with as close to a slow ballad as we're going to get. "Palaces of Montezuma" is another highlight with it's litany of crazy bad asses throughout history. What makes Grinderman 2 so good is that underneath the murk and darkness is a really catchy album. The music swells and explodes at times, sometimes in noise, other times in sweet melodies, but always sounding dynamic and awesome. Nick Cave may be getting old, but he hasn't lost a single beat in his songwriting.

Neil Young, on the other hand, has had a longer career, stranger at times, career. After a Golden Age in the 70's, a dark period in the 80's, a small renaissance in the 90's and a strange 00's, Young finally gives us something a little bit newer in Le Noise. Here lies an album unlike anything (for the most part) in Young's career. Not since 1982's unfairly hated Trans has Young ran off the rails into new territories in sound. Teaming up with legendary producer and pedal steel virtuoso Daniel Lanois, Young straps on his electric (and brings back the old acoustic for two tracks) and has at it. You get Young's guitar, vox and Lanois "sonics" and that's it. It is anything but stripped down. In fact, the sound is huge. Not unlike his soundtrack for the 1995 Jim Jaramusch acid western Dead Man, the guitar is the real focal point. As much as these songs are not instrumentals, the lyrics are really just your usual Neil Young fodder. The magic is in the music and the atmosphere. "Walk With Me" lyrically is all about feeling. And even though they are unremarkable lyrics, they do echo (literally and figuratively) the music played along with them. This music is all about feeling. You feel the guitar buzzing and humming and crackling along with the atmospheric flow of the effects. Young simply asks us to do as the title asks and on this disc, we join just him on a quest of sonic wonderment. As grand an experiment Le Noise is, it doesn't have a dynamic touch aside from it's overall thesis statement. It's a sonic experiment that doesn't really play great as an album, but more as a study in just how important Young's guitar playing is in the grand scheme of rock and roll. At 65, Young is showing us his relevance with Le Noise.

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