About a decade ago, a young lady I was dating turned me on to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! album. Thank goodness. My fandom outlived the relationship, but we’re still friends, and I owe her much. Little did I know at the time that I was catching the Seeds just prior to a major transition. Never again, at least not until present day, would I hear that band rock with such fervor. Now, they brood. And beep and clank with atmospheric electronics and ambient soundscapes. Thank goodness for that too. I could make the argument that everything that I’ve heard since Lazarus could be considered a masterpiece. And I’ve heard them all except 2019’s Ghosteen. When that came out, I was still licking my Skeleton Tree wounds, which is the heaviest thematic record in my collection. But I’ll circle back. Seems like a missing piece to an astounding trilogy. And Carnage fits the scene too, but it’s not a Bad Seeds joint. Carnage is credited to just Cave and his own personal Watson, Warren Ellis. They make almost all the sounds save for those made by a string quartet, a choir, and the occasional percussionist. Whew, boy! This is a stiff drink.
You’ll realize that right away. The hallmarks are clear. Cave talk-singing his mystery poems. Ellis’s loops and samples and beats and synthesizers. Drums are disguised if they’re present at all. Slow builds, deep reflections, ethereal textures abound. Skeleton Tree tackled Cave’s most personal tragedy, the loss of his young son, and Ghosteen apparently addressed the same, but from more of a distance. Carnage finds Cave surveying the wreckage of our wider world, both physical and moral. “White Elephant” takes some of our ugliest current events head-ons. Obviously, one must be selective as there would be no way to address them all within one song’s scope. Or an album’s worth of songs. Cave chose the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery by “concerned citizens,” almost certainly, along with any number of killings of dark-skinned (mostly) men at the hands of law enforcement. And perhaps the tendency for some of us to worship symbols while ignoring the values they’re supposed to represent. I mean, “The white hunter sits on his porch / With his elephant gun and his tears / He’ll shoot you for free if you come around here / A protestor kneels on the neck of a statue…” Pretty succinct. And then “The president has called in the Feds / I’ve been planning this for years / I’ll shoot you in the f*cking face if you come around here / I’ll shoot you just for fun.” So… yeah. Unafraid. And artistically capable. If you can, you must. So Cave does.
All of it feels a bit like therapy. Personally, it’s helpful to have someone like Nick Cave around who is clearly in touch with the way he’s feeling about the state of the world. And that gives me the courage to try to identify and clarify my own feelings and thoughts when I’d rather take a nap. You could ask me how I feel about something at any given moment, and I might not know. Whether that’s due to fear of being wrecked and overwhelmed or simply a limited emotional vocabulary doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I’m tired but galvanized by Cave’s emotional bravery. It seems like you’re sitting next to him while he sorts through the ruins and the runes. Focused listening is required. Anything less is a waste.
Carnage is sonically solid. The content is more impactful than the production, which is a little thin in general. According to my research, the vinyl was pressed at some facility I’ve never heard of called “Takt Direct,” according to my research. Looks like it has been in operation since 2017 in Europe, and I think this is my first exposure to their work. Online commenters are split right down the middle as to whether they got a good pressing or a filthy one. I give my records a thorough cleaning before a first listen, so I don’t know what mine sounded like before, but it’s above average after a run through the Degritter. This one’s not for the squeamish, but this is no time for hiding. If you can, you must. Get in the ring. We’re going to have to at some point anyway.
Jenny Lewis’s debut solo album was released in early 2006 while she was still a member of Rilo Kiley. The band was allegedly great. And Jenny Lewis certainly still is. But, though I enjoyed them, I never got quite as much out of her later records as I did Rabbit Fur Coat. Seems as if she likes it too. Much of her (admittedly brief, but undeniably stellar) set at 2013’s Bridge School Benefit was tied up with performances of these tunes despite the fact that she’d enjoyed lots of good press for her Acid Tongue record which was two years younger. She reissued Rabbit Fur Coat on (red) vinyl for its tenth birthday in 2016, then went out on a quick tour supporting the reissue. And now we’ve been gifted with a repress of the 2016 reissue but on standard black vinyl this time. Can you imagine? A record pressed on black vinyl?! In 2021??!! What’s next? A reality TV game show host as President of the United States? Let’s come back to reality, yeah?
The reality is that Rabbit Fur Coat holds up and will continue to hold up longer than any of us will. Granted, there are forces at play to hasten our timeline, but it would even if there weren’t. It doesn’t age. Lots of acoustic guitars and vocal harmonies courtesy of Lewis and the Watson Twins. The ladies go together like Sriracha and honey. Lewis plays the role of Sriracha. She’s got the range, the power, and the technique to make it all fly. And Rabbit Fur Coat makes liberal use of a sort of Appalachian Gospel quality that really is timeless. Almost literally. We get that right away during “Run Devil Run.” Shortly, we’re hearing drums, and bass, and a second guitar, and… hand claps. Nothing that couldn’t have happened in the 1800s or that couldn’t happen again in the 2800s if we were going to make it that far.
“Rise Up With Fists” is the centerpiece here, y’all. Trust me on this one. It’ll get you every time. I could listen to it on constant repeat for hours. And I know because I have. There’s pathos and humor and more pathos and amazing vocals and songwriting chops. Feels simultaneously celebratory and sad. Like we’re celebrating our ability to feel sad and to carry on despite it. I live an emotional lifetime within the song’s 217-second run-time. “Are you really that pure, sir? / Thought I saw you in Vegas / It was not pretty / But she was / But she will wake up wealthy / And you will wake up forty-five… / There but for the grace of God go I.” Mercy. Wish I’d written that. Wish I could sing it.
The rest is great, too, much of it in the same vein. Three-quarters of the Monsters of Folk contribute to the recording, but Jim James, my favorite quarter, is absent. No matter. I still need it. And if you do too, the time is nigh. Chris Bellman cut the lacquers, and Pallas did a more than a passable job with the pressing. A focused listen will reveal a couple of stray ticks and pops here or there, but nothing repeatable. I used to trust Pallas’s work implicitly. So it’s a shame to say that I’m just glad they didn’t botch the job at this point. Rabbit Fur Coat is similar to Nick Cave’s Carnage record in that it’s not going to challenge any of today’s audiophile Jazz reissues for sonic supremacy. But it sounds better than ninety percent of what passes for Pop music today. Airy highs and solid – if not cough inducing – lows. Lots of details and textures throughout. You can feel the wood in the acoustic instrumentation. But the real highs and lows are found in the depths of the songs and performances themselves. So if you need a record in your collection that straddles the line between Folk and Country and Soul and Gospel and Pop and Comedy, look no further. There’s a surprise in every tune.
Lest we forget, and it would be easy to do so based on the lackluster list of available releases, there was a second Record Store Day event on July 17 of this year. I was thrilled at the prospect of the first-ever vinyl release of Jerry Garcia Band, but that got delayed due to pressing issues, which is fine by me. A delay is way better than plunking down $100 for a bunk five-album box set. So, I skipped the lines and just went to a local shop in hopes of grabbing Consenting Adults by M.T.B. I almost overlooked it but landed on the description a few days before RSD, and knew I wanted in. This is one of the earlier recordings by Brad Mehldau (piano), Mark Turner (sax), and Peter Bernstein (guitar). Fortunately for the trio, Larry Grenadier (badass bassist) and Leon Parker (on drums) got on board for support. It’s a mystery as to why those players’ initials didn’t make it into the band’s name. They’re contributions are absolutely equal to the others’. And the performances are superb.
The session that birthed this collection happened on the day after Christmas in 1994, but the album was not released until five years later. The performances could have happened in any era, but the cleanliness of the recording tips this as a modern production. That’s not to suggest that the environment is overly or overtly sterile. Just that there’s a degree of separation between the instruments and sounds that would not have typically been achieved prior to, say, 1971. The instrumentation is acoustic across the board. Grenadier’s bass is especially lively and present in the room, which is a lovely contrast to the way that the instrument often sounds in vintage recordings. His solos during “Belief,” Parker’s composition, and “Little Melonae I,” Jackie McLean’s, reveal enough detail to occasionally distract. The sound of his digits against his fingerboard add a percussive element that’s especially groovy. When mixed with Parker’s rimshots, it almost sounds like tap dancing. Parker’s drum solos are tasteful but not restrained. He administers the meds with a spoonful of sugar. I’ve been fortunate enough to have caught Bernstein a couple of times over the years, usually as an accompanist to Dr. Lonnie Smith. His playing with Turner is especially symbiotic, and two of his compositions fill the entirety of side two. He takes a fluid lead on “Phantasm” and cedes the spotlight to Mehldau on “Afterglow,” which might be perfect for a slow dance with your partner to wind down after a night on the town. While all members of the quintet are working and in demand almost three decades after this session was tracked, Mehldau is the player that seems to have gone on to the greatest renown. He’s special. His notes are always in the service of the song, never for the sake of demonstrating his considerable skill. He composed this album’s title track, and I’m really looking forward to seeing his solo performance at the SF Jazz Center next February. I hope it goes off.
Consenting Adults could be the soundtrack at a party of special things to do. Like you’re meeting a new batch of upwardly mobile, sophisticated friends who can turn you on in ways you weren’t privy to until now. You’ll need to remove your jacket, loosen your tie, and undo the top button to get it all right. I wasn’t able to get my hands on a copy in person, so I ordered mine online as soon as I could. 1200 were made. I should have waited because there were a 1,199 copies available later for less money, and there still are. I recommend you get one. There are some ticks in the pressing, including some that repeat, but I was able to scrub a few out so I’m hoping I can achieve greater clarity through additional work. I’m unsure of where this was pressed, but the hype sticker advises anyone who cares to read it that Bernie Grundman mastered this for vinyl and that he also cut the lacquers. This is knocking on the door as a legitimately great release, even if there were some digital steps in the mastering chain.