Rotation

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus
Anti Records

Back in the early '80s, when Nick Cave was still the crazed, young, jackbooted-junkie singer for Australia's perpetually destructing Birthday Party, he made it clear where he stood. "I am a figure of fun," he would bray while his bandmates committed all manner of post-Beefheartian sonic indecency, "dead pan and moribund." In the years since, Cave's image as Dark Lord of Gloom 'n' Doom has kept his audience populated largely by, in the singer's own words, "sweet little goth[s] with ears of cloth."

What doesn't seem to get through to his hordes of funereal, mascara-smeared minions is that their charismatic hero is now a 48-year-old novelist, lecturer and bandleader married to an ex-supermodel and raising a family -- he's the epitome of the "old rock 'n' roller with the two-seater stroller." Befitting such ostensible maturity, nearly every song on his brand-new double-disc set concerns those two interrelated Johnny Cash standbys: God and love. (Death, once Cave's grand subject, having been largely dispensed with after the unconscionable body count on 1996's Murder Ballads.)

Buy this album, and you'll be as floored as this woman.
Buy this album, and you'll be as floored as this woman.
Family life has taught the morbid master to start having fun.
Family life has taught the morbid master to start having fun.

The first disc, Abattoir Blues, starts off with "Get Ready for Love," in which Cave beseeches a frenzied gospel choir to "praise Him till you've forgotten what you're praisin' Him for" as the Bad Seeds stomp like Led Zeppelin leading a Wednesday-night prayer meeting. Later the band breaks out its trademark snaky "Red Right Hand" groove for the malevolent "Hiding All Away," in which a mischievous deity perpetually gives His seekers the slip. Abattoir also features two of the most accessible and upbeat pop tunes Cave has ever recorded, the soaring "There She Goes, My Beautiful World" and the snappy coming-of-age anthem "Nature Boy."

Although it begins with the snidely retooled mythology of its title track (rhyming "Orpheus" with "orifice" in a masterstroke of attitudinal assonance), the second disc here is by and large romantic, poetic and hopeful. "Breathless" is lighter than air and infectiously melodic with faux bossa nova beats and fluttering flutes, while the amorous and humorous "Babe, You Turn Me On" achieves the unthinkable by fusing Rod McKuen with Barry White ("I put one hand around your round ripe heart / and the other down your panties"). Elsewhere, "Supernaturally" manages to sound like Van Morrison's Astral Weeks sped up to 45. Or is that 78? Either way, this new collection proves Cave more vital and restless than ever, and his international supergroup equally so. It sounds like the old figure of fun has finally decided to loosen up and have some. -- Scott Faingold

Chuck Prophet
Age of Miracles
New West Records

Who put the bomp in the bomp shooby dooby bomp? / Who put the ram in the rama lama ding dong?

Listening to Chuck Prophet sing these lyrics, it's not hard to believe that maybe Chuck himself did. Age of Miracles is the latest in a string of four incredibly strong albums since 1997's Homemade Blood. But as satisfied as he is with the work, Prophet is in no mood for playing the artiste. "This one was tough, very tough," he says. "I need to stop making a record every 18 months." Even so, for all the stress and strain of a creative process that involves producing, writing and playing an orchestra's worth of instruments, Prophet has managed another minor masterpiece, something purely American but entirely genre-blurring, something derivative yet far, far beyond simple derivation. The album is a huge vat of pop-music influences that may appear at any moment in tracks that are instantly catchy and always vaguely familiar, in a primordial-soup way. Besides his wicked Fender Squire fretwork and the nasty elasticity of his suggestive voice, Prophet lays on an array of sounds that range from garage-rock Farfisa organ to torrid night-of-sin horns.

The album is full of tunes co-written with some of the biggest names in the business, and nowhere is the collaborative effort more successful than on the dark, surly "Pin a Rose on Me" (Kim Richey), the Neil Sedaka-meets-the Ronnettes bouncy Brill Building love song "Just to See You Smile (Angelo, Kim Carnes) and the funk-laden "Heavy Duty" (Dan Penn). But the ultimate highlights are purely Prophet's, like the rip-your-brain-out licks of "Automatic Blues," the straight-from-the-Tenderloin lyrical slyness of "You Did" or the sinfully fun "Monkee in the Middle." Fifteen years beyond his tour of duty in pioneering insurgent country outfit Green On Red, Chuck Prophet continues to put the hip in the hippie hippie shake. -- William Michael Smith

 
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