Album reviews: Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree, The Handsome Family - Unseen, and more

Also Moddi - Unsongs, Ray Charles - The Atlantic Years, and Lang Lang - New York Rhapsody

Andy Gill
Wednesday 14 September 2016 16:01
Nick Cave in his film One More Time with Feeling
Nick Cave in his film One More Time with Feeling

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Skeleton Tree


Download: Jesus Alone; Girl In Amber; Magneto; Anthrocene; I Need You; Skeleton Tree

There’s a satisfying continuity of texture, temperament and themes between Skeleton Tree and its predecessor, 2013’s Push The Sky Away – despite the awful intercession, in the intervening years, of the tragic death of Cave’s son Arthur, which might have been expected to reflect heavily on this album’s content. But in the recent documentary film about the album, One More Time With Feeling, Cave refutes the cliche that creativity is fostered by such tragedies, explaining that the trauma simply blots out everything. Significantly, only one of these eight songs was apparently written after that event, and it’s hard to tell which it is.

This gives some measure of the sustained impact of his current songwriting process, in which narrative and structural development is foregone in favour of allusive images seeking to span earthly states and spiritual transcendence, a gulf sketched in animal metaphors and disillusioned theology. The opening “Jesus Alone”, an expressionist sonic tableau of throbbing industrial noise, wisps of electronic tones and brief glimpses of piano and violin, concludes with the observation, in Cave’s sombre baritone, that “you are a distant memory in the mind of your creator”; towards the album’s end, in “Distant Sky”, his faith has been totally shattered: “They told us our gods would outlive us/But they lied.”

Which leaves us stranded here, bereft, in our state of clay, prey to bestial impulses and absurd fate. Allegorical animals inhabit these songs, from spiders and jellyfish to hyena, while even the most humdrum locales hide epiphanies: a supermarket is the site, in separate songs, of both murderous urges and visions of a lover’s transcendent purity. The most affecting piece here, though, is “Girl In Amber”, which most strongly reflects the anguish of bereavement: Cave’s wracked recital is joined, on the choruses, by an odd keening which, in its unadorned humanity, seems perfectly apposite, before the song ends on a repeated “Don’t touch me”, its narrator still numbed by cataclysm.

Musically, it’s much of a piece with Push The Sky Away, the songs being built from Warren Ellis’s loops and Cave’s piano feels, sensitively and sparsely addressed by their fellow Bad Seeds. It can be a sad, sometimes harrowing journey, though never less than compelling; and eventually, a measure of gentle solace is afforded by Skeleton Tree itself, which closes the album with Cave’s repeated assurance that “it’s all right now”. It’s like a shaft of sunrise dispelling a dark night of the soul.

The Handsome Family, Unseen


Download: Gold; Back In My Day; Tiny Tina; Gentlemen

There’s a pleasing congruence between the way that the surreal invades the ordinary in Rennie Sparks’s lyrics, and the way that Brett Sparks’ voice and music illuminates that invasion. In “The Silver Light”, the weepy dobro captures the dashed dreams and dejection of a casino’s slot machines; while Rennie’s lingering regret at passing over the childhood opportunity to see the dwarf horse in “Tiny Tina” comes draped in suitably fairground sounds of calliope and glockenspiel. At every turn, her eye captures the cinematic details of each situation with startling idiosyncrasy, nowhere more effective than in the first-person viewpoint of the fallen bandit in “Gold”, introduced with the line “Got a tattoo of a snake, and a ski-mask on my face”, now puzzled by the dollar bills scattering in the breeze about him. Brilliant.

Moddi, Unsongs


Download: A Matter Of Habit; Army Dreamers; The Shaman And The Thief

Unsongs is a collection of 12 songs from different cultures, all sharing the distinction of being suppressed – albeit that some, like “Strange Fruit” and “Army Dreamers”, have since become admired expressions of dissent. Inspired by “Eli Geva”, a tribute to the Israeli officer who refused to lead his troops into Beirut, Norwegian singer Moddi has searched far and wide for material, including a Pussy Riot song set to hymnal harmonium, a Mexican narcocorrido glamourising thug life, and a Chinese protest at the Tiananmen Square massacre on which his throaty, impassioned delivery is carried by hammer dulcimer. Most powerful of all is another Israeli song, “A Matter Of Habit”, sardonically depicting soldiers becoming inured to bullying and murder: “Our neighbours are vermin, they’re used to the blood/How can they feel pain when they live in the mud?”.

Ray Charles, The Atlantic Years In Mono


Download: What’d I Say; I Got A Woman; The Right Time; Lonely Avenue; Drown In My Own Tears; Mess Around

Ray Charles was the fulcrum around which pivoted the development of R&B into a powerful, popular medium, during a Fifties that his biographer David Ritz describes as “a period of stifling social conformity”. This box set of seven vinyl albums tracks his crucial years at Atlantic through dynamic, original mono mixes. Charles’s great breakthrough lay in secularising the gospel tradition to secure hits like “I Got A Woman” and “Hallelujah I Love Her So”, but it took the carnal call-and-response of “What’d I Say” to cement him as a major pop star. His crowning glory, though, is The Genius Of Ray Charles, on which he was finally given the budget to use a big band, incorporating members of the Basie and Ellington bands, and demonstrated his consummate grasp of both R&B and jazz modes.

Noura Mint Seymali, Arbina


Download: Arbina; Ghlana; Soub Hanak

On this follow-up to 2014’s Tzenni, Mauritanian griot Noura Mint Seymali’s songs swing between the secular and spiritual – one moment she’s offering an Islamic praise-song in native tradition, the next she’s complaining about being too heavy to hunt giraffe, or mocking the misfortune of someone whose bracelet has been stolen. But her Saharan desert music is both forward-looking – the title-track advises women to take early, preventive treatment for breast and uterine cancers – and even post-modern, with songs like “Na Sane” and “Suedi Koum” incorporating commentaries upon the progress of the songs themselves, and their morale-boosting qualities. Recorded in New York, the album breaks barriers with ease, as the skirling swirls of her band’s amplified ardine and tidinit lutes weave patterns fizzing with tingling psychedelic potential.

Lang Lang, New York Rhapsody


Download: New York Morning; Rhapsody In Blue; New York Minute; Somewhere (Dirty Blvd)

These days, classical music relies heavily on thematic albums and collaborations with mainstream genres, both boxes ticked here by piano virtuoso Lang Lang. Not only does New York Rhapsody draw together pieces about that city – though thankfully not “New York, New York” itself, presumably a touch too jazz-hands even for the theatrical Lang – but it also features guest spots from singers ranging from Andra Day (quite ghastly on an over-stretched “Empire State Of Mind”) to Jason Isbell, who inhabits Elbow’s fulsome tribute “New York Morning” with emotional acuity as Lang Lang lends his florid runs and ripples to Vince Mendoza’s stirring arrangement. The album’s centrepiece is a surprisingly simpatico pairing of Lang with Herbie Hancock on Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue”, the jazzman’s less rigid timing loosening what might otherwise have been too tight a reading.

Grumbling Fur, Furfour


Download: Strange The Friends; Acid Ali Khan; Heavy Days; Milky Light; Golden Simon

Grumbling Fur is Alexander Tucker and Daniel O’Sullivan, whose avant-rock pedigrees include stints with the likes of Fuxa, Ulver, Sunn O))) and This Heat, whose guitarist Charles Bullen returns the favour here by playing lovely cyclical figures of bulbul tarang – an Indian autoharp – on the delightful opener “Strange The Friends”. Furfour finds the duo at their poppiest: even though they create songs from improvised sounds, there’s an engaging, hypnotic charm to tracks like “Milky Light” and “Heavy Days” that’s strongly reminiscent of Eno’s pop side – indeed, I had to check it wasn’t him actually singing. Shimmering echo-pulse rhythms and arpeggiating guitar figures are aligned with twisting synth lines, while Can-like soaring tones send tracks such as “Golden Simon” spiralling into the ether. It all ensures, as they sing, that “sun keeps shining on the heavy days”.

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