Grinderman 2

22:00, Sep 12 2010

Released this week the second album by Grinderman - you can see they didn't waste much time dreaming up the title: Grinderman 2 (it follows on from the debut, Grinderman).

Grinderman is a band made up of Nick Cave and some of his Bad Seeds colleagues, Warren Ellis, Martyn P. Casey and Jim Sclavunos.

The first album - seen as something of a side-project, a bit of a goof-off in a way - was released in 2007. There were some Grinderman shows, they even appeared on the same bill as Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds at one point...and then it was back to Bad Seeds life, with Ellis also dipping back to The Dirty Three and him and Cave continuing with their duo soundtrack work (most recently for The Road, and the double-disc compilation White Lunar was released).

So now we have Grinderman 2 - and it's a more complete album than the first offering. The musicians are all road-tight, of course, but that doesn't have so much to do with it. It just feels like, this time, it's less of a joke, less tongue-in-cheek, less over the top. Though you might not think it to check out the superb and ludicrous video for first single, Heathen Child.

I've been listening to Grinderman 2 over the weekend and there are a lot of things I like about it.

First I like that it is just nine tracks long. And though a few tracks near six minutes and one nudges the seven-minute mark, we're not exactly looking at any side-hogging Freebird shenanigans.

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Remember when bands released an album that had nine tracks - four on side one and then five on side two, or of course the other way round - or even an album that was just eight tracks long? Sure, that's the tape/LP format but it seemed the right amount of songs to enjoy/endure. After that it often felt like filler - or the songs were just inconsequential stabs at power-pop; throwaways. Not everyone can write a two/three-minute pop gem so easily. Elvis Costello quit that caper a while ago and to the annoyance of many fans of his early work just continues to branch out, and out...

And that skill didn't exactly work wonders for the career of Marshall Crenshaw now, did it? (Sadly, I might add.)

Anyway, Cave is not a two/three-minute pop songwriter. Not these day, especially. He's singing songs about dark, mysterious strangers arriving to perform any deed at no fixed price but the overall cost is unspeakable. He has been working in daft-but-pleasing lyrical puns that are explained away as good dad-jokes because the sound of the band is huge, churning, chugging, pulsing and writhing behind him. And you need four, five, six and seven minutes to do that.

But to do that for 15, 16, 17 songs in a row will just wear the audience out, make them give up caring.

So, I like that part of Grinderman 2. I like the return to the values of the LP format, a CD that contains nine songs and uses up the space of the disc to offer 41 minutes of music, not 77 minutes just because it can.

And I like the video for Heathen Child - it made me laugh. It's what a music video should be - equal measures of puerile entertainment and cinematic moodiness. The feeling that a world - a fantasy world - has been created; that it exits for precisely the minutes that it takes for you to watch it and then it's gone. You want it back, you watch it again. That simple.

I also like that Cave - as the lead singer/songwriter/frontman - keeps pushing the work out there, knowing that his audience will reward him if he rewards them. Basically, the agreement between Cave and his fans - and it's been in place for about 15 years now, certainly for much of the last decade - is that if he releases (mostly) strong material it will be bought and enjoyed. The man knows how to deliver. He turns up and he works. He writes songs. He does the time. He is, as Tom Waits put it, prepared to "get behind the mule/In the morning and plough".

And I like the songs on Grinderman 2 (most important).

There's a real build from the first Grinderman album. Here, the opener, Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man, explodes from its quiet intro-noodling. Actually, speaking of Tom Waits and his Mule Variations, imagine The Stooges having a hit at Big in Japan, the opening track from that album.

Worm Tamer follows - and though it's cleaner, sharper, more sophisticated, more together and more, well, honed, it is fair that people keep mentioning The Birthday Party, Cave's earlier band. Grinderman is like the midlife-crisis-dodging version of The Birthday Party. The candles have all been blown out long ago, but something new is being made from the whittled-down wax.

The Nick Cave of Grinderman is a logical progression that has worked up through the early Bad Seeds material and on to everything post-Murder Ballads. That might seem too obvious to even say but the point is, a song like Worm Tamer is too sharp for The Birthday Party. But it could have appeared on Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus. Still there's something in the energy of this band - something so very ballad-avoiding - that it's understandable the reference comes out, skipping back to his pre-Bad Seeds work.

This time around there are a few nice changes in pace/pacing, particularly When My Baby Comes, the longest song. It takes nearly half of its seven minutes before it oozes out into the big sludge-sound. And then it's almost, dare I say it, Beatles-esque and Zeppelin-esque at the same time.

I guess the last thing that I really like about this album - the main thing, in conjunction with the actual songs - is that it's a record that grows as you listen to it, that doesn't show all its tricks at once, that doesn't just lead the charge and then fall away. For me, the best two songs are the penultimate track, Palaces Of Montezuma and closer, Bellringer Blues.

Cave is clearly a Leonard Cohen fan and if some of Laughing Len's craft was shown, particularly on The Boatman's Call and No More Shall We Part then the Grinderman material definitely shows more of the influence that Bob Dylan has had on Nick as a wordsmith. The puns, the run-on sentences, the cutely-timed phrases that only work in the context of the particular couplet they form, the overall sense of rhythm being the guide; the fact that the lyrical meter dictates the flow of the music, riffs being built to fit words, rather than the other way round.

Bellringer Blues has some of the, er, grind of The Brian Jonestown Massacre - a huge mash of sound with a loop of backwards guitar peeking out in places. It's ominous. And my favourite song at the moment; certainly the best album closer I've heard in a long time.

It's a stronger album than the first. The songs are bigger, deeper, better. Not just a collection of buzzing riffs and crude-but-sharp jokes. I liked the first album - a lot. But it felt like a gimmick; a tongue-in-cheek side-project. This feels like a great new album from a great new band. One that's been around for a long time - in one way or another - and is now comfortable and aware of the power that can be harnessed; ultimately it feels like Grinderman - as a band - is trying harder this time. And it has paid off.

So, some of my thoughts about Grinderman 2.

What about you? Will you be buying/downloading it? Checking it out? Did you like the first Grinderman album? Do you agree that Nick Cave's output across Bad Seeds, Grinderman and soundtrack work for the last five or six years has been consistently impressive? Or do you think he's releasing too much material? Do you think the quality has dropped/is erratic?

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