Everyone seems to adore the new Grinderman album. The band, if you are not familiar with them, is basically a stripped down version of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and features Nick Cave, who has decided that he should grow a ridiculous handlebar moustache, Warren Ellis, Jim Sclavunos, and Martyn Casey. Their new self-titled CD is getting great reviews as people are likening this project to the Birthday Party, Nick Cave’s vitriolic first band. The truth, however, is that this group couldn’t be further from the fury and intensity that defined the Birthday Party. It was destitution, youthful angst and copious amounts of drugs that drove them at their core. Grinderman is nothing of the kind. In many ways, they are the opposite of the Birthday Party, as Nick Cave is fairly uninspired, wealthy, drug free and pretty much has nothing to say these days, so he relies on mundane catch phrases and jokes in the place of the his first group’s glorious, often psychotic prose.
The reason that the new band is garnishing comparisons to the Birthday Party is because their music is a little bit more aggressive than much of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ recent material. Most of the record reached fruition after the band played back various rehearsal sessions that were recorded early in 2006. Taking loops and other ideas from these practice sessions helped them to create a more spontaneous album. This was an exciting departure from their usual work ethic, where Nick Cave goes to his office and spends hours writing songs that he later presents to the Bad Seeds for arrangement purposes. Thus, Grinderman includes more direct songwriting involvement from the other three band members. In addition, Nick Cave plays guitar on the record, which is something that he has very rarely done in the past so that adds another dynamic.
Musically speaking, the album has some great songs. Warren Ellis adds a heap of dissonance to the tracks with his frequently overdriven violin, viola and electric bouzouki. The bass playing of Martyn Casey is characteristically cool and groove oriented. However, missing from Grinderman are two essential Bad Seeds: Cave’s career long cohort Mick Harvey and drummer Thomas Wydler. On the record, drummer Jim Sclavunos lacks the intricate sophistication that Wydler adds to the Bad Seeds with his jazzy style of playing. Also, having multi-instrumentalist Harvey out of the picture further damages this group’s ability to come up with any ornate song arrangements. So, what we get here is a fairly basic garage band sound that is a welcome change as far as side projects go, even if the music is more impulsive and less well crafted than that of the Bad Seeds.
The real letdown with this record though is Nick Cave. The lyrics in this album are awful and the song titles are stupid to the point of making them sound like they should be Jennifer Love Hewitt songs. Examples of some of the song titles are “Love Bomb,” “Get it on,” “Honey Bee (Let’s Fly to Mars),” and “Depth Charge Ethel.” This is absolutely terrible coming from an intelligent man who used to be known for the literature that was the foundation of his songwriting. Where Nick Cave was once poetic, now his songs are wrought with lame jokes. In the Bad Seeds, he possessed a canyon of black humor and now he only provides quickly forgettable teenage tag lines. It is hard to believe that the songs of Grinderman were penned by the same person who was responsible for such great albums as The Firstborn is Dead, Your Funeral, My Trial and The Boatman’s Call. Even the picture of the monkey on the cover of the record is embarrassing. It forces the music to have an artless feel to it before you even put it on the stereo.
There are still some good songs on here though that make the CD listenable. “Electric Alice” contains a short, simple lyric reminiscent of modern Bad Seeds that is one of the few non-cringeworthy ones on the album. The surreal sliding bass, wah guitar and smooth drumming provide a fitting soundtrack to the unelaborated lyric. The song “Grinderman” is a slow, discordant dirge with another short lyric where Cave does avoid awkward, macho humor. Both of these tracks are satisfying, but they are among the shortest on the record. “(I Don’t Need You to) Set me Free” has a nice melody that is similar to something from Abattoir Blues, but the lyrics are worthy of a basic 1970’s radio anthem. “When my Love comes Down” also follows a similar pattern to the former. The lyrics here are actually not too bad until the chorus, where the silly title is repeated. Musically, it is one of the better Grinderman tracks. The cavernous drums and noisy guitar playing make this one of the more memorable songs on the release.
This record is mixed up in many ways. When it is good, it is pretty good. The musical approach adds a freshness that makes it more immediate for the uninitiated. Nick Cave’s singing sounds more like him during his better days with the Bad Seeds. On some of the more recent Bad Seeds albums, he has tried to alter his voice a little, which did not work so well. During the times when the album is bad though, as it often is, it is terrible. Cave’s lyric writing has suffered tremendously over the past ten years and his humor has become too bland and obvious. At times Grinderman even sounds like a parody of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, which does not warrant much repeated listening. The recent Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus double CD was pretty solid, but Grinderman probably ranks down there with the worst of Cave’s releases, Nocturama, from 2003. This record sounds more like a whirlwind of Nick Cave in a mid-life crisis than it does like an energetic return to form. Their recently released collection of songs is mediocre at best, mainly because the lyrics lack the skill that Nick Cave is capable of writing. The album’s goofy sleeve design and asinine song titles prove that it may be true that you can judge a book by its cover after all.