Monday, March 22, 2010

I'd Love to Turn You On #5: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Kicking Against the Pricks

We spend so much of our time buying, selling and listening to the latest releases that we sometimes forget to plumb the depths. Every one of us here got in to record store thing, at some level, because we have a deep interest and curiosity about all kinds of music. Most of us are collectors to some degree or another, and one of the abiding joys of collecting is to pull out the rare, beautiful, little known or downright obscure album and turn on a friend. Sometimes it's a classic that needs to be shined up and put back on the top shelf. With that in mind we are going to revive a column we used to include in our newsletters called, appropriately enough, I'd Love To Turn You On. This will give our super collectors and musical academicians to wax poetic about their favorite albums (or movie or book for that matter).

Nick Cave is a great songwriter.  Actually, Nick Cave is an amazing songwriter, one of the best in all of rock.  But as many great songs as Cave has written, I think he's an even better interpreter.  His cover versions always manage to shed new light on and bring new life to classic songs from a wide variety of genres and sources that also illuminate Cave's deep musical knowledge and appreciation.  That's why I consider Kicking Against the Pricks his greatest album.  Considering how many dubious all-covers albums have cluttered our shelves over the years, Cave and the Seeds' achievement here is all the more remarkable.

Kicking Against the Pricks was originally a 12-track album released in 1986.  The version I own and became obsessed with is a mid-90s CD reissue that adds two bonus tracks, "Black Betty" and "Running Scared," dropped right in the middle.  The version you're going to buy was remastered last year and released as a two disc set.  Disc 1 restores the original running order, Disc 2 is a DVD that includes a 5.1 mix, the bonus tracks, and some videos.

The first thing that must be discussed is the fantastic performance by the Bad Seeds.  Always more than a mere backing band, the Seeds are true collaborators and here they are in stellar form.  Barry Adamson and Thomas Wylder provide a solid rhythm section, Blixa Bargeld (from industrial pioneers Einstürzende Neubauten) throws in some stinging guitar licks and Bad Seeds MVP Mick Harvey is all over the place.

Of course, it's the songs themselves that make the album.  Opener "Muddy Water" may just be the best and it's mysterious in more ways than one.  The title, lyrics and mood suggest the brooding of deep southern blues.  But it was actually written and originally recorded by pioneering 70s bluegrass group The Seldom Scene.  Harvey's organ solo is breathtaking, eclipsed only by Cave's haunting vocal.  When he croons "Hard to say just what I'm losin/Ain't never felt so all alone" it’s like a punch to the gut.

Several of the selections are songs with numerous cover versions throughout the years, as if Cave were assembling an alternate universe songbook of rock/folk/blues standards.  "Long Black Veil" is no less effective for its fairly traditional reading, but "Hey Joe" is something else entirely.  It starts off tight and keeps wrenching up the tension level like a tightening noose.  Their take on master songsmith Jimmy Webb's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" is more Glen Campbell than Isaac Hayes yet still manages to convey the heartbreak beneath the song's pop surface.  The most radical reinvention just might be the Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow's Parties" which comes across like a demented sea shanty.

Kicking Against the Pricks made Cave's fascination with all forms of song, particularly American folk and blues, clear for all to see.  It would serve as a map for his future musical directions but on its own stands as an amazing performance by an amazing performer.

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