Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2008, Part 2 (Bon Iver – Cave, Nick & The Bad Seeds)

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Let’s see if I can maintain momentum here…

Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
I’ve heard the argument that this is a 2007 release, but it only got widespread distribution in 2008.  Plus, I was well into last year’s Marathon before I heard it in late ’07, so I didn’t get a chance to include it.  Now that the technicalities are out of the way, it’s time to praise Justin Vernon’s knack for disguising a set of solid, understated pop songs as an elegant wintery soundscape.  Not to take too much away from the songwriting, itself (more on that later), but what really sets For Emma apart is how immersive it is in terms of production and overall sound.  The double-tracked falsetto vocals and carefully-layered acoustic guitars and the odd additional complementary instruments are so prominent that you barely notice just how much you’ve been sucked in until things come briefly into focus on striking moments like the chorus to “Skinny Love.”   For what’s ostensibly a singer-songwriter album, it’s kind of striking just how dependent it is on production, though.  I haven’t seen Bon Iver live, but from the few clips I’ve heard online, the nearly omnipresent falsetto works much better when well coated in the cinematic blur of the production.  Still, that has no bearing on the album, which offers some of the prettiest, most melancholy moments in music this year.

British Sea Power – Do You Like Rock Music?
Why yes.  Yes, I do like rock music.  And Do You Like Rock Music? offers it up in a big, heartfelt style that brings to mind both the Arcade Fire (see “Waving Flags”) and early U2 (see “A Trip Out,” which merges Boy-levels of anthemic youthfulness with a guitar riff that simultaneously brings 70s-era Eddie Van Halen to mind).  The album overstays its welcome a little and struggles to establish an identity from pretty standard rock moves, but there are enough moments, like the bracing “No Lucifer” that deserve a listen.

Calexico – Carried to Dust
Last year’s Garden Ruin confounded a lot of Calexico fans who’d grown accustomed to their slow-to-mid-tempo mix of atmospheric Southwestern and Mexican.  Joey Burns and John Convertino took the band in a decidedly “rock” direction, speeding up the tempos and raising the volume.  The horns that might have sounded like ideal mariachi accompaniment in another context instead made Calexico sound like Forever Changes-era Love.  I loved it, but not many agreed.  Carried to Dust sees the band returning to more familiar styles, and while I miss the rave-ups, it’s hard to find too much fault with it.  It’s a solid Calexico album, but there’s nothing you wouldn’t expect if you’ve heard The Black Light or Feast of Wire.  The band knows how to end an album, though.  Garden Ruin’s finale, “All Systems Red,” was the perfect apocalyptic end for that set; the quiet, creepy, almost Lynchian “Contention City” is the low-key conclusion of this one.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
Each of the last three studio albums Cave has released have seemed like rebirths of a sort.   First came The Lyre of Orpheus/Abattoir Blues, a double-shot of big, mythological imagery and sounds to match – there were still the stately piano ballads on which he’d been focusing for the latter half of the 90s and beginning of the 00s, but they shared space with ornate rock and gritty swagger.  Then came the Grinderman album, which featured Cave and a scaled-back Bad Seeds churning out unsubtle and skeletal songs like “No Pussy Blues.”

But this… this is the real rebirth.  Blixa Bargeld departed the Bad Seeds some time ago now, but it took until Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! for it to be clear that genius violinist and noisemaker Warren Ellis has now assumed Bargeld’s role as chief collaborator with Cave and other longstanding Bad Seed Mick Harvey.  While Cave’s lyrical preoccupations remain familiar, the arrangements load on the electronic effects and percussion (Jim Sclavunos and Thomas Wydler, who, on past albums, alternated on drumkit, now seem to play simultaneously on all songs).  It’s a revitalized, more modern sounding Bad Seeds.  The title track and “We Call Upon the Author” are practically funky.

This new musical potency suits Cave’s lyrics well.  As he did on The Lyre of Orpheus, he’s bold enough to take on Greek mythology; “More News from Nowhere” is a trippy Odyssey riff that’s as much Homer as a trip through Cave’s musical and personal associates.  But nowhere is the link between Cave’s lyrics and the Bad Seeds’ new sound more evident than on “We Call Upon the Author,” a savagely cynical piece that breaks down into a distorted hip-hop beat and seems to be about authors, both earthbound and heavenly (Cave, ever the idiosyncratic believer, never fails to devote some time to a God he seems to alternately embrace and challenge).  Who else these days is writing lines that balance poetry and the gutter like this?

Who is this great burdensome slavering dog-thing
That mediocres my every thought?
I feel like a vacuum cleaner—a complete sucker!
It’s fucked up and he is a fucker
But what an enormous and encyclopedic brain!
I call upon the author to explain

In the same song, Cave also ensures that John Berryman remains the literary name-drop of choice for discriminating rockers for the third year running (The Hold Steady’s “Stuck Between Stations” in ’06, Okkervil River’s “John Allyn Smith Sails” in ’07):

Bukowski was a jerk!
Berryman was best!
He wrote like wet papier-mache
But he went the Hemingway
Weirdly on wings and with maximum pain

Cave’s no bandwagoner, though; he’s been referencing Berryman at least since Henry’s Dream in ’92.  And on Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, he and the Bad Seeds continue to prove that they’re trailblazers, never followers.

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Written by Dave

December 10, 2008 at 7:58 pm

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