Music

The Piano Bares Its Teeth: Reversals and Redemption in Nick Cave's '90s Albums

Through a series of reversals -- of sound, of focus, of theme, of our expectations -- Nick Cave, ever the demonic circus hawker, turned his sights onto something different as he emerged from the '90s: Himself.


Nick Cave

Let Love In

US Release: 2011-05-17
Label: Mute
UK Release: 2011-05-16
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Nick Cave

Murder Ballads

US Release: 2011-05-17
Label: Mute
UK Release: 2011-05-16
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Nick Cave

The Boatman's Call

US Release: 2011-05-17
Label: Mute
UK Release: 2011-05-16
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Nick Cave

No More Shall We Part

US Release: 2011-05-17
Label: Mute
UK Release: 2011-05-16
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It's all about context. If, when you hear "Red Right Hand", you think of a quasi-meta '90s horror film by Wes Craven, chances are it seems ham-handed, worn, maybe even cringe worthy. Nevermind that there are about 40 Nick Cave songs far more fitting for a horror film, the key here is to realize that Wes Craven was smart. Oh, and not at all interested in subtlety. In the same way his film beats us with self-knowledge in a way that now seems as timely and dated as films like Reality Bites, using "Red Right Hand" in the soundtrack is a sledgehammer-soft reminder: This movie is about a killer. True, he couldn't have picked a better conduit than Cave's voice, that sickle-sharp growl -- half-grin, half-rabid spittle -- punctuating each verse with his brimstone delivery of the title. But if soundtracks are two-way streets that represent both the film and the musician, then Craven fails on that reciprocal part.

Not that he's alone. With all his dirty, wild-eyed dramatics, all the haunting, crazed gravitas of his sound over the decades, you could easily mistake Nick Cave for another creator who lacks subtlety. But to hear "Red Right Hand" in the right context -- that is, on its 1994 album Let Love In -- is to hear Cave's keen eye for pace, for detail, for mood, for texture and, yes, for sending a murderous chill down our backs.

But as much as we talk about Cave as a pitch-black, deathly crooner, his '90s and early '00s output -- Let Love In, Murder Ballads, The Boatman's Call, and No More Shall We Part, all reissued by Mute this May -- is as much about healing as it is about tearing the walls down. Through a series of reversals -- of sound, of focus, of theme, of our expectations -- Cave turns the tables on the gut-rumbling jangle of previous work like Tender Prey and Henry's Dream. Cave, ever the demonic circus hawker, turned his sights onto something different as he emerged from the '90s: Himself. The results are just as troubling as the darkest corners of his murderous imagination, but there's a final break between person and performer that let us see Nick Cave in a new light, one more complicated and ultimately more human and satisfying.


All Things Move Towards Their End

Let Love In begins -- on "Do You Love Me?" -- by throwing us into a "night of fire and noise". Cave is after his "lady of the Various Sorrows" and he searches with his typically grit-toothed fury, spitting out lines with such power you can almost hear the froth hit the microphone. But aside from being a concentrated dose of the Bad Seeds' sound, expanding on the buzzing acoustics of Tender Prey with thicker instrumentation and rippling electric guitars, it also sets up a series of opposites that run through this album and, really, the three that follow. Cave's piano here is clean, almost mournful, but Blixa Bargeld's guitar counteracts it with a sinister groan. Thomas Wylder's drums are military-steady through the verses, stalking behind Cave's voice, but they open up in chaotic crashes on the powerful chorus.

Like much of Cave's discography, much of the praise for Let Love In focuses on Cave's poetic darkness. Certainly the squawking "Jangling Jack" and the punishing quiet-to-loud violence of "Loverman" confirm the underbelly of the record, but "Do You Love Me?", troubling though it might sound, is about heartache. Cave insists he "knew before [he] met her that [he] would lose her" and thus that "all things move towards their end". There's also the pleading desperation of the title. For all the hyper-masculine stomping of these songs, Cave's narrator is laid bare here, begging to be validated, and in the end all he can do is admit a subservience to fate. Their doomed affair is just that, doomed, because time marches on and this brand of volatile love has a short fuse.


That loss is what informs the destruction that follows. After admitting a lack of control, we get the devastating balladry of "Nobody's Baby Now". There's a slightly pathetic quality to this title too, that she can only be defined by who she's with, but Cave uses that assertion of ownership in his favor. The narrator here has "tried to unravel the mystery of Jesus Christ" and "read all the poets and the analysts", but in the end the woman he loves has died. There's no explanation that will suit him, no good reason. She's just gone, taken from him, nobody's baby.

The song was originally written for Johnny Cash, and certainly would have fit in his late-career American records, but Cave was so taken with it that he kept it, and with good reason. The underlying discomfort that comes out of the song is what makes it so brilliant. Yes, it's about loss and mourning, but for a voice trying to so hard to push against the constructs about him, to shake off fate and reshape the world, there's this small feeling that maybe part of him envies her in some strange way, for escaping the world that keeps hitting him with loss. The rest of the record finds Cave's voices invading other people's lives with sexual violence ("Loverman"), killing crass and foolish tourists ("Jangling Jack"), and ultimately falling into self-pity when destruction fails ("Thirsty Dog", "Lay Me Low").


The troubles in Let Love In come in trying to do what title commands, while the next record, Murder Ballads, is simple declaration. It almost reads like how you'd describe Nick Cave's solo work as a whole, and it's somewhat unsurprising that this is a out-of-control, shiny-eyed, and unfailingly brillian record. It's not quite as controlled as Let Love In, but the focus on that record helped build inherent strengths into this more adventurous set. Like its predecessor, though, Murder Ballads is not exactly what it seems on the surface. There are quieter, subtler confusions buried here that make these songs, and the album, classic.

Once again we start with loss. "Song of Joy" is a tragic tale, told by a traveler in the night, of his murdered wife and daughters. There may be something not quite right about the guy -- his hissing recitations of John Milton are self-incriminating -- but he feels the loss nonetheless. Again, here, Cave howls "all things move toward their end" and pounds out piano notes like he's drumming while Bargeld's guitars swirl around his fanged voice. Once again, we have deep loss framing violence, and the album moves from this into its most unruly song, Cave's take on "Stagger Lee".

It's a hard case to make that Cave isn't romanticizing murder here. He sings these songs with relish, and the band backs him with wandering, chilling compositions. But among all their cackling joy, Cave and company also offer some sort of criticism of murder ballads. His version of "Stagger Lee" is the clearest example. The sweetly intricate finger-picking of Mississippi John Hurt is nowhere near here, nor is the playful narrative arc of the Grateful Dead's take. Instead, Cave, ever the articulate master of ceremonies, gives us a song that is, at its heart, pretty insipid. The exchanges between Stagger Lee and his victims are crude and frustrated and the complete opposite of poetic. Cave's Lee says "motherfucker" more than Miles Davis, and his victims curse right back. There's nothing poetic about his killing of the ignorant bartender, and with his next killing he actually spurns a woman in favor of dominating another man sexually so in the end the hyper-masculine killer archetype gets turned on its head.

There's nothing beautiful about the song -- even the players squall incoherently over its closing minute -- and the crass and foolish dialogue couple with the silly gunshot sounds to make a song that is at once thrillingly violent and utterly meaningless. Other versions hardly let "Stagger Lee" off the hook, but Cave seems to be both paying tribute and calling us out, making us wonder why we revel so much in the darkness, why "murder ballads" are even a recognizable type of song.


Beyond the questions it raises though, Murder Ballads is also the band at both the height of its powers and the height of its energy and creativity. The nearly 15-minute "O'Malley's Bar" is a stunning achievement, a dank, funky piece that tells a story with such compelling detail that the extended song moves with a brisk and enthralling pace. "Henry Lee'' pairs Cave with PJ Harvey -- whom he had an infamous affair with -- and the pair's chemistry is amazing as Harvey plays the aggressor here and matches Cave's sinister edge blow for blow. "Where the Wild Roses Grow" features pop-star Kylie Minogue and her sweet voice and the languid strings make this tale from the grave all the more haunting.

The album ends with Bob Dylan's "Death is Not the End", and everyone -- Cave, Harvey, Minogue, Bargeld, Wylder, Anita Lane, and the Pogues' Shane Macgowan -- sing a verse. You could read it as a big wink, including this Christian song of everlasting hope after the album's carnage. In retrospect, though, the song actually bridges perfectly to the next record, The Boatman's Call. Let Love In and Murder Ballads address turmoil and loss, but then use them as an excuse to start breaking things. Until "Death is Not the End" there is no notion of consequence, of tomorrow. Fate is inescapable, and utterly cruel, so mark it with as many dents as you can. Perhaps there's some sliver of dark hope in the sheer action of these songs, but all this tearing down is more about avoidance than it is about finding something new. Until The Boatman's Call.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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