Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: B-Sides and Rarities

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
B-Sides and Rarities

It’s a good sign that Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are releasing the three disc set B-Sides and Rarities. It means they’re resting on their laurels. Deservedly so, for their latest release of new material, last year’s double-disc Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, was the best album of their 20-year career. As far as I’m concerned, they can take their sweet time preparing a follow-up; for the interim, B-Sides and Rarities allows fans to play catch-up with some of the lesser-known songs the Bad Seeds have recorded in their lifetime.

While most of these tracks have been available on some format in the past, one would have had to possess a bottomless wallet, fanatical devotion, and ubiquity bordering on sorcery to collect them all. B-sides (7″, 12″, flexidisc, and CD) comprise the bulk of the three-disc set’s 56 tracks; the “rarities” include outtakes, radio sessions, tributes (Neil Young’s “Helpless” from The Bridge and Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” from I’m Your Fan), and soundtrack contributions. B-Sides and Rarities is a kind of reconstructed history of Cave and the Bad Seeds, like the view from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s perspective. It’s a seldom-heard rendition of the familiar. Although it’s meant to complement the official albums, not supersede them, they’ve nonetheless each chimed in with their own two cents on the set. What follows is some of the Bad Seeds’ discography’s reaction to the repackaging and, in some cases, rediscovery of its distant relatives, the “forgotten” songs. (Like DVD commentaries, the opinions expressed below are those of the albums alone, and not in any way endorsed by PopMatters.)

From Her to Eternity (1984): The debut here. Yup, I’m responsible for all those ridiculous Jim Morrison comparisons, but I also contain the infamous cover of Elvis Presley’s hit “In the Ghetto” and the maniacal “Cabin Fever!”. B-Sides and Rarities includes only one song from my sessions, “The Moon Is in the Gutter”, which, to my ears, sounds almost identical to the original. Then again, I’m 25 years old, which is 63 in people years, so take what I say with a grain of salt. My close friend The Firstborn Is Dead (1985) don’t like questions much, and asked that I send his regards: “The Six Strings That Drew Blood” is his one inclusion on this set, and there really ain’t that much to say about it but that.

Kicking Against the Pricks (1986): As far as cover albums go, I’m not too shabby. Not to toot my own horn or anything, but you could find much worse. Anyways, I feel like I’m going to contribute to this false impression that B-Sides and Rarities is all regurgitation… but two of the three songs from my era were on my original tracklisting (Roy Orbison’s “Running Scared” and the menacing drums-and-bellowing-voices cover of Leadbelly’s “Black Betty”). Between you and me, I’m having trouble finding a way to defend the third, “Rye Whiskey”, from a Reflex magazine flexidisc.

Tender Prey (1988): I’ve got braggin’ rights, cause I lay claim to two bona fide Cave classics: “The Mercy Seat” and “Deanna”. I’m the moment where two of Cave’s obsessions, God and murder, froth to a thrilling head. “The Mercy Seat”, “Deanna”, and “City of Refuge” appear in acoustic versions on B-Sides and Rarities; while not as essential as my definitive versions, they’re notable for their naked renditions.

The Good Son (1990): I won’t sugarcoat it. The throwaway track “Cocks ‘n’ Asses” is my bad. It’s an instrumental set to a dreadful synth track, some mumbled, indiscernible vocals, maybe even the sounds of a mule braying. Yeah, bad pun, I know — that’s why I had the boys leave it off me in the first place.

Let Love In (1994): Despite what any of my predecessors have to say (including that big mouth Tender Prey), I am the all-important turning point in Cave and the Bad Seeds’ career. Cave was creatively reborn upon my release, sparking a prolific run of records that coupled the Bad Seeds’ ferocious and nuanced playing with cleaner, more varied production. “Do You Love Me?”, “Loverman”, “Red Right Hand”: yeah, those are mine. The fantastic “(I’ll Love You) Till the End of the World”, from both the Until the End of the World soundtrack and “Loverman” single, is included on B-Sides and Rarities; so is the painfully awful rehearsal improvisation “That’s What Jazz Is to Me”. Best of all is the alternative version of “Red Right Hand”, which adds some blustering, cinematic strings and a handful of new verses. Originally conceived for the Scream 3 soundtrack (but left off to make more room for Slipknot, Godsmack, Incubus, and two Creed songs), this version combines the devilish with the cartoonish, fusing monster movies (the creepy organ) with James Bond movies (the John Barry-esque strings) into an undeniably stylish rendition.

Murder Ballads (1996): If you like murder ballads, you’re gonna love disc two: nine, count ’em, nine songs representing my descent into blood-soaked madness! My tunes slay! I wear that “Parental Advisory” warning like a badge of fuckin’ honor, man, knowing full well that I deserve every last inch of its stickered obstruction. Both “The Ballad of Robert Moore and Betty Coltrane” and “The Willow Garden” (sung by pianist Conway Savage) would have fit nicely on my original sequencing, while “King Kong Kitchee Kitchee Ki-Mi-O” is “Froggy Went A-Courtin'” all twisted up and contorted. Before the boys were able to secure Kylie Minogue for the duet vocal on “Where the Wild Roses Grow”, Blixa Bargeld (now an ex-Seed) recorded a guide vocal; that original version with his somber and shadowed voice is included here. I’m one of the most fiercely heterosexual records you’ll ever hear, what with all the killing and decapitating and sheer depravity, but man, that Bargeld fella’s voice moves me. My only gripe is the live rendition of “O’Malley’s Bar”, recorded for a Radio One session: the original version is infinitely superior. Don’t get me wrong, I love any song where the narrator goes on a killing spree, but ol’ Nicky’s voice is really strained here; it’s even more cringe inducing than the gratuitous body count.

The Boatman’s Call (1997): As the calm, meditative antidote to Murder Ballad‘s grotesqueries, I am Cave’s introspective masterstroke, a Bad Seeds album in name and solo effort in execution. Five of my b-sides and two outtakes open disc three, containing two of the set’s best offerings: “Little Empty Boat”, the b-side to “Into My Arms”, and the infectiously melodic “Come Into My Sleep”, the b-side to “(Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?”. “Little Empty Boat”, in particular, strikes a perfect balance with its flipside, a tongue-in-cheek selfishness that contrasts with the a-side’s spiritual conflict and acceptance: “I respect your beliefs, girl, and I consider you a friend / But I’ve already been born once, I don’t wanna be born again / Your knowledge is impressive and your argument is good / But I am the resurrection, babe, and you’re standin’ on my foot”. In general, all of these selections from my sessions are more band-oriented and upbeat than the chosen album tracks; while there may not be a song as strong as “People Ain’t No Good”, all seven tracks (including the “Babe, You Turn Me On” precursor “Babe, I’ve Got You Bad”) are worthwhile. I can humbly and confidently say that I have more satisfactory contributions to B-Sides and Rarities than any other album in Cave’s canon.

No More Shall We Part (2001): I’ve often been relegated to the role of The Boatman’s Call brother, since we share that whole “understated look at love and heartbreak and faith” thing. Together we’re a kinder, gentler, brave new Nick Cave. With the exception of “Good Good Day”, which has a weak chorus and an unfinished feel, my b-sides and bonus tracks are just as strong. The gentle “Grief Came Riding” and “Little Janey’s Gone” are the highlights, muses on loss that benefit from the tender evocations in Cave’s voice.

Nocturama (2003): I’ve been the recipient of insults, criticism, and ambivalent shoulder shrugs since my initial release. The worst record of Cave’s career? Strongly disagree. I’ll admit some responsibility to serving as a creative speed bump in his otherwise fantastic decade-long run. Still, I deserve some props for the sheer audacity of “Babe, I’m on Fire”, right? If you look at me and see only the calm before the storm of Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, my b-sides won’t change your tune anytime soon. “Shoot Me Down”, “Swing Low”, “Little Ghost Song”, “Nocturama”, and the Flannery O’Connor alluding “Everything Must Converge” are more of the same, routine and unspectacular compositions from a songwriter who can (and has) done much better. If disc three takes any heat, it’ll be due to these ho-hum tracks. No alarms, no surprises. Sigh. The one saving grace from 2003 is “I Feel So Good”, a raucous blues cover that the band recorded for the Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues TV series. It’s turbulent, electrifying, and quick to the cut, serving as a modern-day reminder of the band’s blues-obsessed past. It’s everything I wasn’t, and I wish I could claim it as my own.

Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus (2004): Cave summarized his entire career within the span of my two discs, and did so with blistering performances, raunchy production, and devastatingly good songwriting. I am the record of a lifetime, possibly even the best of this middle-aged decade (forgive the inflated ego, but when you’ve got it, babe, you flaunt it), some kind of transcendent coalescence of the heavens and earth. And if I may be equally bold, my b-sides are just as stunning. “She’s Leaving You” is a freight train rocker along the lines of “There She Goes, My Beautiful World” or “Get Ready for Love”, shot up with the Bad Seeds’ group backing vocals and an electro-shock guitar solo. “Under This Moon” shakes its up-tempo soul groove joyfully, a more gregarious cousin to The Lyre of Orpheus‘ romantic tunes. I couldn’t think of a more appropriate way to end this collection than with two of its best songs (and most confident performances). Like myself, they look back on a career from its pinnacle, surveying the highs and lows, the brilliant gestures and uncharacteristic mistakes, ultimately suggesting that, if trends are to be trusted, the best is not only now; it is the future.

RATING 6 / 10