Thursday, February 26, 2009

Repost: Song of the Year 2007: “No Pussy Blues” by Grinderman

Since Paper Thin Walls proved too thin in 2008, I've decided to repost some of the reviews I wrote for them. This one's about Grinderman’s "No Pussy Blues," my song of the year in 2007. It was mentioned in Best Music Writing 2008 in the section, “Other Notable Music Writing of 2007.” If you want to hear the song, click this link to watch the video (or watch it at the bottom).

grinderman GRINDERMAN -
“No Pussy Blues”
from Grinderman (Anti-)

This is not just another song about some geezer being denied his sexual druthers, it’s a bittersweet declaration of age, masculinity, frustration and, well yeah, not getting any. Yes, Nick Cave, now aged 50, has become a mustachioed dirty old man (dig that Fu Manchu). Thinking about sex is his preoccupation. He’s compulsively doodled women’s nether regions on anything he can find for ages (see his King Ink books). The 7”’s for both Grinderman’s “Get It On” and “(I Don’t Need You To) Set Me Free” contained his illustrations, etched into side B, and wittily, “No Pussy Blues” did not, instead featuring the emasculated Rhesus monkey also gracing the album’s cover. It’s true he and his Grindermen―electric bouzouki player Warren Ellis, bassist Martyn P. Casey and percussionist Jim Sclavunos―likely have done and will do anything for a little lovin’.

Casting himself as a haggard Rodney Dangerfield, Nick Cave revels in rejection with the same excitement that inspired a 15-minute yarn in 2003 in the opposite direction―“Babe, I’m On Fire.” Whereas that song’s linchpin was an infectious chorus with a seemingly never-ending list of one-liners―this is a wounded-animal Beefheart squall; Cave’s previous shock techniques are no longer effective (hence the “Damn!” exclamation point he looses between “no pussy blues” blurts at the end) and he’s only left of his own devices. This is Nick Cave―the quirky guy who loves W.H. Auden and collects locks of ladies’ hair (this is fact) and lives down the street, baring all, just like how you or anyone collects comic books and reads Hot Rod magazine. As he’s said in interviews, this is an everyman. But moreover, this is the cry of the helplessly tortured everyman. Anyone whose been laid off as a result of George W. Bush’s (the biggest cockblock of all) and Tony Blair’s foolhardy conquests. Anyone living in fear of suicide bombers. Anyone whose wife makes them watch Project Runway instead of football (or vice-versa). Anyone who was gifted Led Zep reunion tickets only to find out the purchaser is the only valid entrant. Anyone who’s shown up too late to meet Mr. T at the mall (anyone whose life is Homer Simpson’s). Every man, woman, child, super-intelligent gorilla―Everyone! This is your song!

In turn, this song has inspired sort of a world pussy-pleading shockwave. Who, really, hasn’t followed some temptation, only to be denied? The first song released from Grinderman, it quickly became blogger fodder (because who gets less action than the terminally online, err, alone?). Snoop Dogg expressed his fondness for the song on Late Night With Conan O’Brien. And of course, this song predicted―well, kind of―French mime Marcel Marceau’s death (on Nick Cave’s 50th birthday, no less!) this year with the lyric, “I felt like Marcel Marceau must feel when she said that she just never wanted to.”

It’s no secret why it’s so universal―it’s on most people’s minds. And that’s part of Cave’s problem. According to a 1994 Kinsey report, 54 percent of men think about sex every day or several times a day (that’s only 19 percent of women). Men’s sexual fantasies tend to be more explicit than women’s, and men tend to be more concerned about whether his partner is enjoying her/himself than they do their own pleasure. Also, just less than half the married couples polled have sex on a monthly basis, and only seven percent have it more than four times a week. Statistically speaking, she just doesn’t want to.

Cave’s struggles with the opposite sex―objectifying or glorifying them, depending on the day―have inspired his songs since he began playing music. Just a quarter century ago, Cave was “Nick The Stripper,” or at least that was a character he sang about with his band the Birthday Party, “a fat little insect… [that] dances on all fours.” “From Her To Eternity,” Cave’s first “hit” with his Bad Seeds explicitly dealt with his need to possess the girl who lived in the apartment above him―but if he does, “to possess her is, therefore, not to desire her.” Although he recast himself as somewhat of a modern romantic for the two decades leading up to Grinderman, his innate need to beguile women never ceased. Just this year, he practically gave a girl a lapdance while doing his best Beyoncé, singing “Bootylicious,” though in fairness it was for charity.

As if to demonstrate the psychology of his frustration, the lyrics suspiciously follow the five stages of loss outlined in Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s model of grief―usually it’s applied to death or divorce, but isn’t the death of Cave’s sex life worthy, too? This four-minute song begins with a typewriter pounding away (perhaps the song really is fiction), and after Cave’s speech about performing, he says, “I must above all things love myself.” This is probably the most important lyric in all of “No Pussy Blues.” Not only does it imply Cave’s denial (Kübler-Ross’s first stage) that he has problems getting laid, but it reinforces his inflated ego and foreshadows the masturbation that will console his tears later. His denial continues as he sucks in his gut to be met with rejection. Then, stage two, the bargaining begins as he indulges humility (for the first time), fixing up her house and doing her dishes. The third stage is anger, highlighted by colorful bouts of misogyny (“I petted her revolting little chihuahua”; “I called her my little ho”) and the fourth is depression (drinking a liter[!] of cognac, the Marcel Marceau quip). His power, significance and virility―the delusions he began with onstage―have been replaced with submission, inconsequence and puerile whining. The final stage, of course, is acceptance, which is when he admits, “I got the no pussy blues.” While the song appears to be a macho comedy, it’s actually quite depressing at its core. Thankfully it doesn’t end in rape, like many Cave songs have in the past.

Musically, too, Grinderman represents a new middle-age for Cave, the songwriter. Now half a century old, he’s letting go of the bombast he’s clung to for the past two decades, which is most noticeable on “No Pussy Blues.” For his past few releases, he had confined himself to his study, working a 9 to 5 on the Bad Seeds’ macabre cabaret ditties. He wrote this album with the other musicians in person, playing guitar for the first time; the lyrics are simply off-the-cuff jokes he made for the band’s other three aging, hairy men (dig up a recent picture to see Ellis’s new mountain-man beard and the towering Sclavunos’s own bib). The tales are so funny because they’re truth and pain (Cave’s rejection) working together. Naturally, the album’s other songs have the same dark humor. Deep into his “words of wisdom,” “Get It On,” Cave sings, “He drank panther piss/And fucked the girls you’re married to.” Then there’s “Depth Charge Ethel,” about whom he says, “People come and bathe in her lake/And I do, but lately it’s gotten out of hand.” This acerbic misogyny are the words of a man who’s gotten his fair share through the years, which only rankles him more on “No Pussy Blues.” On the song, the bass plays a mostly static line throughout―not a I-IV-V7 or a I-vi-ii-V7, like most blues―and when Cave jumps on the wah-wah for a static-laden guitar attack, it’s clear these particular blues run deeper than muddy water. If longtime Cave associate (dude produced the Birthday Party’s “Release The Bats” single) and Grinderman producer Nick Launay did anything, it was merely pressing record.

This isn’t some revamped Birthday Party cakewalk, either, as so many other critics have asserted. Granted this is the first time Cave has played with a “band” since then, but “No Pussy Blues” seems cut from a different stone, as judging from Prayers On Fire and Junkyard’s gritty caterwauls Cave sounded like he had no troubles scoring after a show. Grinderman is also his first full-time band that doesn’t feature a member of the Birthday Party, and it in no way resembles his alma mater’s tortured art-punk. Nor does it resemble the dark Leonard Cohen/Paul McCartney-like singer-songwriter romanticism of songs like “Straight To You,” “I Let Love In” or (his “Let It Be”) “Into My Arms” that have enticed so many ladies and guys to hop in the sheets. No. This is the sound of a man who cannot take it anymore. Denied, defied and defiled. And too old and wise to turn his back in the event she does say, “Yes.” She’s got him where she wants him (and it’s probably there he should stay).

Grinderman’s Nick Cave and Jim Sclavunos on “No Pussy Blues”

Your lyrics seem more preoccupied with sex this time. Did this come from playing as a group?
Cave: I don’t know about you, Jim, and if this is the place to be discussing this sort of thing, but what the fuck? When you’re younger, you walk down the street and your eyes, they’re drawn towards a beautiful young girl. But the older you get, the more free-roaming your [eyes] become. So that grandmas…
Sclavunos: The possibilities become manifold. But on the other hand, you have to restrain yourself because you’re in a relationship, so there’s all these tantalizing possibilities, but they’re all completely off limits.

Where does “No Pussy Blues” come in then?
Sclavunos: Everybody’s been in those shoes at one point or another, younger and old. I think some people take it as a young man’s song and some people take it as the song for [the] everyman.
Cave: I was lookin’ at TV… and everybody on TV looked like they were getting it. And then I was going onto the street and everyone on the street looked like they weren’t. So I mean “pussy” in the broadest sense of the word. In all the things you can consume that might make you happy. And so, I thought I’d write this song for the everyman.
Sclavunos: And girls like it, too. We’ve gotten a very good response from ladies. They want to comfort us. They reach out to us. [Cave scowls]

You look incredulous.
Cave: He’s been on the internet again. [Laughs]

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lykke Li, 2/3/09

Lykke Li

Last week, I checked out Swedish indie-popper Lykke Li at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. As much as I like Lykke Li, the real draw for me was the opening band, Wildbirds & Peacedrums (check out “Doubt Hope” first). The drummer plays tribal rhythms while the singer plays a variety of instruments (including plucking a dulcimer) and wails soulfully. It’s experimental and unique and best experienced live. To give you an idea of their sensibilities, here’s a story the band submitted to me for Paper Thin Walls’ “So Tell Us a Story” column:

A couple of years ago, we were living on an island off the coast of Gothenburg. We shared an old, big house with a ex-alcoholic artist-couple we didn’t know before, and it all seemed very nice in the beginning: late-night saunas, early morning moped drives and fresh fish dinners! After a while, the couple started to make a fuzz (sic) about old spirits that kept them awake during the night—we hadn’t noticed a thing, but they insisted that the house was haunted.

The guy, who was a man with big words and a strong hand—he collected cowboy boots and Hitler documentaries—decided to deal with the problem the old-fashioned way. He called for some monks from a monastery to get rid of the lost souls and to push them back down to where they belong... They came with hoods and smoke, and the ghost was released. The problem was that it got stuck inside of the girl instead, and she got possessed! The only thing to do was to bring her to the monastery for some good old exorcism for four days straight. It all ended happy with them breaking up. She acted like nothing had happened and he changed his artist career for a studies in Catholic soul care and found a new, 10-year younger island girl. We moved the next week.

Wilbirds & Peacedrums

Wildbirds & Peacedrums

Lykke Li (seemed to) come out late and, strangely, play her hit songs early. Knocking “I’m Good, I’m Gone” and “Little Bit” out of the way in the first five songs is a gutsy move, but as her performance proved, she had more than enough to back it up. Stomping around the stage in big black boots, banging on the cymbals of either one of two drum kits with a drum stick, and flailing her body possibly uncontrollably, Li commands audience attention like few artists. Midway through the set, she stared into the audience and said, “It's a whiskey voice and Doc Martins for you, Brooklyn.” And that is exactly what she delivered.

Li’s set was mostly originals, but as she said at her gig at the Bowery last October, she’s a “debut artist” and needs to play some covers to fill in the gaps. At that show, she did an incredibly moving cover of Ray Charles’s “After My Laughter Comes Tears.” Among Lykke Li’s covers in Williamsburg were Kings of Leon’s “Knocked Up,” Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” (simply called “Lil Wayne” on the setlist below and was really more of a sample than anything) and what seems to be her perennial, A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It.”

Throughout the show she chided the audience, made lovably ridiculous statements about how daring she is to have a good time and, well, delivered good times. Lykke Li is one of the best live performers I’ve seen in a while in that she communicates with the audience the same way Metallica did a couple of nights before, by pacing the stage and wholly embracing hubris. Unlike a lot of other “indie” bands I’ve seen in the not too distant past who seem to go through the motions, I’m looking forward to seeing her again.

Lykke Li

Lykke Li and friend595

Midway through the set, Wildbirds & Peacedrums joined Li for a song.

Lykke Li with Wildbirds & PeacedrumsLykke Li

Obligatory artsy-fartsy shots:

606Lykke Li

Brooklyn Vegan snagged the setlist:

Brooklyn Vegan setlist

Monday, February 09, 2009

Separated at Birth?

Special thanks go to my mom for drawing this conclusion during last night's Grammys.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Metallica, 2/1/09

Last Sunday, Metallica played the final date of their US Death Magnetic tour at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ (“where it all began,” according to Lars as he was hamming it up after the encore). My friend, Chris Weingarten, and I had seats in the 21st row, which is the perfect to be at a big concert like this. The Super Bowl was also that night, but really, Metallica or Super Bowl, what would you do? I’d much rather hear “Master of Puppets” and take iPhone shots like this:

The lasers!!

The band was as big-rock as it gets, not that I expected anything less. They had coffin-shaped lighting fixtures. They had lasers. They had fire you could feel in the 21st row (which Jaymz understandably avoided—at one point he just got on Larz’s drum riser with him until the fire was done.) Perhaps the biggest rock aspect of the show, though, was the fact the band played in the round. This made each member prowl the stage like animals looking to find a home every 15 seconds (save Lars, whose drum riser gradually rotated a full 360 degrees).

Creep on...

Song highlights included “Creeping Death” (during which Hetfield wryly said, “Creep on, Mr. Hammett” right before the solos), “Blackened” and “Breadfan.”

Ahem... Ride the Lighting

During the closer, “Seek and Destroy,” about a hundred black balls fell from the ceiling, each emblazoned with the band’s logo like a spherical “Black Album” cover… sort of. Watching fans smuggle these giant beach balls out of the place was a post-show highlight. When everyone was clambering to squeeze on the PATH and NJ Transit trains home, fans were struggling to deflate these balls to take them home. You know you’ve had a good night, when you don’t know what to do with your balls.

...And Justice for Balls

Here’s the setlist:

That Was Just Your Life
The End of the Line
Creeping Death
Harvester of Sorrow
Broken, Beat & Scarred
Sad but True
Welcome Home (Sanitarium)
All Nightmare Long
Kirk Solo #1
The Day That Never Comes
Master Of Puppets
Kirk Solo #2
Nothing Else Matters
Enter Sandman
Die Die My Darling
Seek and Destroy

Oh*, and here’s a video of the opener…

*With apologies to Machine Head