Nick Cave’s been at it for a helluva long time. Beginning with The Boys Next Door, a band that morphed into The Birthday Party (one of the greatest of all post-punk bands), this wily Aussie promptly staked out a unique patch of artistic territory, a combined musical and literary persona that seemed descended from the same massive line as Dylan or Cohen or Patti Smith. Part of what differentiates him from those three titans is how the great gush of his output was overtly informed not by the Beats (earthy, street level poetics) but by the gritty extremes of Southern Gothic (novelistic mastery of language and mood), particularly William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor at her most acidic. In the ‘80s his work formed an unholy trinity with The Cramps and The Gun Club, three points of a triangle that reveled in elevating trashy cultural detritus to extremes that avoided any confusion with mere traditionalism. Cave had the most solemn sensibility of this trio, allowing him to get despondent in extremis while collaborating with such formidable names as Thurston Moore, Lydia Lunch and J.G. Thirlwell, but on the other hand it also meant he could smoothly transition into a more mature phase of development, engaging with an wider audience that often had only slight knowledge of his unkempt past. As the Bad Seeds evolved and refined their sound and Cave’s rep as a writer, actor and soundtrack composer continued to spread it naturally seemed he’d just keep building on the fine foundation of this solid late period, leaving the messiness of his post-punk beginnings to recede in the distance of a dusty rear view mirror. The appearance of Grinderman’s swampy, bluesy and foulmouthed 2007 debut album surely put the kibosh on that idea, and was doubly impressive for retaining the impeccable musicianship of the Bad Seeds. This was no token mid-life glance backward: Warren Ellis, Martyn P. Casey and Jim Sclavunos comprise the band with Cave, all savvy Seeds and all ready to bring their high roots approach to this aggressive exercise. And the appearance last year of GRINDERMAN 2 indicated that the band was more than just a curious one shot, its sustained level of high quality also avoiding even a hint of sophomore slump. It’s going to take a few years to conclude for certain, but I actually might prefer 2. The band here feels totally comfortable and inside the proceedings, and as much as I enjoy hearing old guys cussing, I must admit this profane element could feel a bit forced on the first record. There’s none of that on 2. When Cave drops a well earned “fuck” into “Kitchenette”’s twisted narrative, it’s strongly connected to the deep turpitude of uncut literary pulp ala Jim Thompson. Grinderman are not only expert at heavily roiling tension and explosive release (“Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man”) and straight up pounding rockers (“Evil”, not a Howlin’ Wolf/Willie Dixon cover), but where they really excel is at delivering a simmering slower-tempo humidity, giving truth to their name. “Kitchenette” is again illustrative, providing moments worthy of Jim Dickinson, the Rolling Stones at their most gutter-chic, and even good ol’ Dr. John the Night Tripper. For necessary variety, they even toss off a tune that’s as pretty as it is odd (“What I Know”). The whole group turns in sustained top-tier work, but Cave’s agitated and noisy guitar wrangling continues to impress. I don’t know what’s gotten into the guy, but I hope it stays there for a while. GRINDERMAN 2 is an important record from a major band that hopefully has much more to say.
Otis Redding is maybe my favorite ‘60s soul man for a whole bunch of reasons (a few of which I’ll detail shortly), but by the time I was able to investigate him outside the context of oldies radio (around the cusp of the ‘90s), his work was mostly repackaged into a plethora of compact disc collections, the best of the bunch being the 3-disc box THE OTIS REDDING STORY. It was poorly mastered as all early CDs were, but it was an insanely valuable study in the development of this undisputed master’s sterling career, beginning with his first hit “These Arms of Mine” and culminating with his largest success, the posthumously issued “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”. Attempts to absorb the digestible wonderment of his original LPs proved exceedingly difficult, since it seemed nobody wanted to let those slabs out of their clutches, or if they did others snatched them up before I found them. I did score a copy of his live Monterey split with the Hendrix Experience, but others like THE DOCK OF THE BAY eluded my grasp for years. First released in 1968 shortly after Redding’s death in a plane crash, it’s a smart and loving assemblage of tracks supervised by longtime Stax associate Steve Cropper, and it easily avoids the often underwhelming unfinished quality of many hastily-compiled postmortem works. Opening with his biggest and final hit is a smart move, allowing the remaining cuts to provide a brief study in both how he got there and what else he was up to shortly before his tragic end. It’s suitably light on large hits, with the title track and “Tramp”, his fantastic smack-talking duet with Carla Thomas being the only significant chart movers. Instead it prefers to present relatively unexamined wrinkles in Redding’s rich tapestry, lining up a bunch of killer tracks that remain largely unheralded as individual songs to this day. I mean, I’ve uncovered no substantial discussion anywhere of “Let Me Come on Home”, a B-side that looks backward as an earthier, subtly grittier extension of Sam Cooke and forward to the sturdy grooving of the Rev. Al Green. “Open the Door” is a finely constructed soul pleader that’s only fault is fading out too early, and the slow emoting of “I Love You More Than Words Can Say” includes a string section that adds just the right amount of emphasis, never overwhelming the power of the horn section. Pop and blues standards like “The Glory of Love” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” are tackled with the same confidence that he applied to ‘60s rock hits (any virgin ears to his suave remodeling of “Day Tripper” and “Satisfaction” are in for a treat), making it quite obvious that any song Redding covered would be inevitably turned into a Redding tune. Indeed, he is surely one of the most instantly recognizable of soul stylists, even when he’s tossing off a seemingly throwaway hunk of dance vamping like “The Hucklebuck”. Yes, a big part of what makes his stuff so rich and identifiable is the sound of the Stax band (one of the great sounds of the 20th century I think), but the moment his voice hits the eardrum it’s clear who is in front of the band. The LP ends appropriately with “Ole Man Trouble”, which as the B-side to “Respect” (made famous by Aretha, but it was his before it was hers) is just one of Redding’s canonical tunes. The end result is THE DOCK OF THE BAY is great for slapping on the platter and turning up loud, tailor made for grooving and slow dancing and reflection, ultimately as worthy and important as any randomly collected eleven tunes from this quintessential entertainer’s vast body of work.