To open this oddball supergroup's debut, Paul Simonon hints at "Guns of Brixton," and when Tony Allen's flex rhythms come in, there's a shadow of Fela Kuti, too. Then Damon Albarn's slow grit of a voice enters–framed by Simon Tong's flecked guitar. And collectively, The Good, the Bad, & the Queen is quickly sui generis, adamantly different than anything you think you've heard. A band with this much power has at least two options: to cut loose raucously or to mute their overt power for a more covert, dub-inflected atmospheric potency. Smartly, Albarn and his crew opt for the half-light of elastic bass lines, the clouds between the parentheses of drums–the covert. It's not until "Kingdom of Doom," the erstwhile 'single' of the album, that motion expands beyond the languorous. And even then, Tony Allen largely sits out. You get the full flush of Simonon and Allen on "Three Changes" shuffling time even while holding the tempo to a dubbish gait. It's not Blur, the Clash, Fela, the Verve, or Gorillaz. It's more than just names on albums.
The blues had long been a potent undercurrent in the Birthday Party's music, so it wasn't all that surprising that Nick Cave embraced the sound and feeling of rural blues on his second album with the Bad Seeds, The Firstborn Is Dead. What was startling was how well Cave and his bandmates – Barry Adamson, Mick Harvey, and Blixa Bargeld – were able to absorb and honor the influences of artists like Skip James and Charley Patton while creating a sound that was unmistakably their own. The moody obsessions of rural blues – trains, floods, imprisonment, sin, fear, and death – seemed made to order for Cave, and he was able to tap into the doomy iconography of this music with potent emotional force; on "Tupelo," he makes a sweeping and disturbing epic of the rain-swept night when Elvis Presley was born, and "Knocking on Joe" is a tale of life on the work gang that communicates the pain of the spirit as clearly as the ache of the body.
Keeping the same line-up from Henry's Dream, Nick Cave and company turn in yet another winner with Let Love In. Compared to Henry's Dream, Let Love In is something of a more produced effort – longtime Cave boardsman Tony Cohen oversees things, and from the first track, one can hear the subtle arrangements and carefully constructed performances. Love, unsurprisingly, takes center stage of the album.
Besides being noteworthy as an astonishingly good all-covers album, Kicking Against the Pricks is notable for the arrival of a new key member for the Seeds, drummer Thomas Wydler. Besides being a fine percussionist, able to perform at both the explosive and restrained levels Cave requires, Wydler also allowed Harvey to concentrate on adding guitar and keyboards live as well as in the studio, a notable bonus. Race reappears briefly to add some guitar while former Birthday Party cohorts Rowland Howard and Tracy Pew guest as well, the latter on some of his last tracks before his untimely death. The selection of songs is quite impressive, ranging from old standards like "Long Black Veil" to everything from John Lee Hooker's "I'm Gonna Kill That Woman" and Gene Pitney's pop aria "Something's Gotten Hold of My Heart." Matching the range of material, the Seeds are well on their way to becoming the rock/cabaret/blues showband of Cave's dreams, able to conjure up haunting, winsome atmospheres ("Sleeping Annaleah") as much as higher-volume takes (Roy Orbison's "Running Scared," the Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow's Parties").
Continuing the creative roll of Tender Prey and The Good Son, Henry's Dream showed the band in fierce and fine fettle once more. The biggest change was with the choice of producer – David Briggs, famed for his work on some of Neil Young's strongest albums. While Cave later thought the experiment didn't work as well as he might have hoped, Briggs does a fine enough job, perhaps not letting the group's full intensity through but still capturing a live feel nonetheless. Cave himself offers up another series of striking, compelling lyrics again exploring love, lust and death. Here, though, some of his images are the strongest he's yet delivered, especially with the near apocalyptic "Papa Won't Leave You, Henry," which begins the album brilliantly as the narrator lurches through a landscape of storms, brothels and urban decay. Equally powerful, if slower and calmer, is Dream's lead single, "Straight to You," with Cave delivering a forceful declaration of love.
The Bad Plus are a much better listen live in concert than they are on their distorted studio recordings. Therefore, Blunt Object should be a defining discographical moment for the darlings of youth-oriented contemporary progressive jazz. What this eight-track collection offers is typical repertoire for the trio, including revamped versions of pop/rock songs, standards, the expected thrash drumming of Dave King, steady acoustic bassist Reid Anderson, and the inspired piano playing of Ethan Iverson. The group succeeds on all levels for this concert performed in Tokyo, Japan.