Sunday, September 26, 2010

Two new albums by Grinderman and Dead Confederate

Grinderman - "Grinderman II"

When Nick Cave stepped away from his piano and picked up a guitar in 2005 and started writing the messy, blues-punk songs that eventually coalesced into his 2007 side project Grinderman, it was clear that the dour Australian was looking to break from the bleak confines of The Bad Seeds and have himself a little fun. Grinderman was a welcome departure, even for die hard Seeds fans like myself, completely tossing aside the Gothic melancholia of his regular band (at least in its more recent outings) and harkening back to his snarling days with seminal Aussie punk band The Birthday Party in the early 1980s. With the album's first single, the viciously hilarious "No Pussy Blues," Cave showed the world that he could still cut loose and have a laugh.

Now he's back with Grinderman II. Where Grinderman was a fun but ultimately pretty depthless diversion, the new album is probably Cave's best and most vital new music since the Bad Seeds Nocturama in 2003. At the very least, it's a marked improvement over both the first Grinderman album and the Bad Seeds' somewhat lackluster Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (2008).

Announcing itself with a roar from the very first track, the absurdly titled "Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man," Cave and his crew have managed to craft an album that has all the gnarled, messy punk-rock swirl of their first effort along with the brooding Apocalyptic menace of The Bad Seeds at their best. Whereas Dig had a few good songs sprinkled amongst a lot of filler and Grinderman sort of ran out of steam about three quarters of the way through, Grinderman II stays taut and focused until the very last note. This is music from the id. There's nary a misstep here.

And if you haven't seen it yet, you must check out the completely unhinged video for the album's first single, "Heathen Child" (NSFW). WTF?

Grinderman - "Heathen Child"
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Dead Confederate - "Sugar"

Dead Confederate are a really solid band from Athens, Georgia, who have never quite lived up to the promise of their first self-titled E.P. in 2008. That collection of five songs -- from the gloomy swagger of their first single "The Rat" to the bludgeoning stomp of the E.P.'s closing track "Shadow the Walls -- just came out of nowhere and crushed me. I don't think it left my earphones for about five months.

Their first full length album, Wrecking Ball came out at the end of that year, and had some real highs and lows. They re-recorded "The Rat" and somehow managed to sap the song of its energy, and other tracks like "Yer Circus" and "Heavy Petting" felt like half-baked filler. But they nailed it with "It Was A Rose," "Goner," and "Start Me Laughing." They were sort of dismissed by critics as Southern neo-grunge, but really at their best they were loud alt-country with a bite, displaying aural flourishes drawn from influences as disparate as Skynyrd and Floyd, Nirvana and Joy Division.

Their just-released second album, Sugar, is an odd departure. Noticeably absent are the alt-country touches that defined their sound early on. This record is much more rooted in late 80s/early 90s post-punk -- undoubtably influenced in no small part by their association with J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., with whom they toured last year and who makes a guest appearance on the album's first single, "Giving it All Away."

It took me about three listens to decide that this is actually a much stronger album than Wrecking Ball, which for all its assets can be a singularly frustrating experience to listen to all the way through. Where Wrecking Ball featured some real standout tracks but didn't cohere as an album, Sugar doesn't feature any one song that will jump out at you but somehow comes together magnificently as an entire work.

There's something weirdly fractured and unpleasant about this album ... and I mean that as a compliment. The songs drone and crash without any real obvious sense of purpose, but then somehow it all just comes together in the end. There's very little of what you could call a hook anywhere to be found, and yet the album as a whole has a strange momentum and builds a dark, almost schizophrenic mood that, by the end, seeps into your pores. It's what Sonic Youth and Fugazi do at their best.

Unfortunately, the one glaring weak spot on the album is the single. The song just kind of jangles along and then ends without any real impact. The only thing moderately memorable is Mascis's buzz-saw guitar solo. If it hadn't been for that, I would have said they should have just that one on the cutting room floor.

Luckily they've released another video for a much better song, "Run From the Gun." Check it out.

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