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Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus


Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

The double album "Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus" finds Nick Cave -- a deeply literate, and a hypnotic, disturbed writer with the novel "And the Ass Saw the Angel" to his credit -- in the brutally comic-tragic mode he's been honing for years. But something has changed; Cave is no longer simply the filth-encrusted fire and brimstone preacher pointing out mankind's frailties and atrocities with a quivering finger. Now, he's looking for salvation, and at least a temporary respite from the human depravity he's chronicled over the years. And throughout this remarkable set, he suggests that such transient sanity might be found in love.

Musically, the Bad Seeds have made a breakthrough here. Departed guitarist Blixa Bargeld could have ostensibly left a gaping hole in the band's sound, but what instead has transpired is a deepening of the Seeds' core materials -- simmering post-punk avant-blues, romantic balladry that resides on the sunny side of Sappy Street, and hypnagogic noir-gospel, which here is fleshed out by an actual gospel choir.

The splitting of the material into two seperate discs is a bit dubious; "Orpheus" features more ballads, "Abattoir" is dark and more rock-oriented, but the intermingling of the two has always been one of Cave & the Bad Seeds' strengths. That aside, this is the band's strongest work, from the unbridled rage of "Get Ready For Love," to the creepy blues-gospel of "Hiding All Away," to the striking, epiphianic album-closer "O Children," perhaps the first truly irony-free slice of beauty Cave has unleashed.

On "Abattoir Blues," Cave can now have fun with Armageddon, letting a broader humanistic outlook mask pointed political sentiments. "The sky is on fire/the dead are heaped across the land," he sings ominously. "I went to bed last night and my moral code got jammed/I woke up this morning with a frappucino in my hand." As you do.

-- Jeff Miers


Miles Davis

Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings 1963-64


Review: 4 stars (Out of 4)

It's as physically elegant and beautiful as anything in the extraordinary Miles Davis reissue series since that first box set collecting the complete Miles with Gil Evans. But while the music inside this is a magnificent -- and much underrated -- block in the entire Miles canon, there is also something almost like a dramatic plot in this seven-disc set. These years, which included an extraordinary performance at Buffalo's Town Casino, were years of search for the most notoriously difficult artist in jazz history.

By 1960, both Cannonball Adderly and John Coltrane had departed what was, arguably, the greatest small group in the entire history of jazz. Miles Davis, to put it bluntly, needed a band. He especially needed a front line saxophonist worthy of comparison to Coltrane, Adderly and Sonny Rollins. These were brilliant first efforts to form one including a glorious working group with tenor saxophonist George Coleman (whom Coltrane himself recommended, and for good reason), then to an unworkable concert in Japan with Sam Rivers (nice and far from Manhatan) and finally to that now-classic mid-'60's quintet with Wayne Shorter, the most compatible front liner he'd had since Coltrane.

And what a working band finally coalesced -- bassist Ron Carter, pianist Herbie Hancock and 17-year-old drummer Tony Williams whose clean, crisp cymbal storms were like nothing anyone had heard in jazz before. And George Coleman, for as long as he could stand life with Miles and his feisty young band, was perfect for Miles, as you'll hear here in studio dates and live concerts in Antibes and Manhanttan's Philharmonic Hall. As great as it was for Coleman musically, it was personally dispiriting and demeaning and he left. Eventually for a concert in Berlin, got the saxophonist he'd wanted all along, Wayne Shorter.

In the middle of this little jazz-CIA Odyssey, he was himself playing as well as he'd ever play in his life and his young band was kicking him into his late-30's with both burning abandon and exquisite sensitivity. He'd never equal the "Kind of Blue" sextet but with a band this good, who cared? The music, it should go without saying, is as alive as it was the minute it was made. Also obvious is that this is one of the jazz box sets of the year.

-- Jeff Simon


Various Artists

Enjoy Every Sandwich: The Songs of Warren Zevon


Review: 4 stars (Out of 4)

Before launching into a stripped-down, deeply felt take on Warren Zevon's "My Ride's Here," Bruce Springsteen tells the crowd assembled inside Toronto's Skydome that his recently departed friend was "One of the great, great American songwriters," and this was no emotional rewriting of history born out of mourning. Zevon was one of the most wittily literate and scathingly incisive rock writers in the history of the idiom, and he never fully received his due before falling victim to cancer last year.

But songwriters, like the deeply loyal cult following he'd earned over the years, always knew Zevon's worth. And some of the finest of the bunch, many of them friends and contemporaries of Zevon's, have offered their best to pay tribute to the man with the wonderfully engaging and often touching "Enjoy Every Sandwich." Sardonic and funnier than hell, Zevon's songs are also quite beautiful.

Zevon's friends abound here, from Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt, ("Poor Poor Pitiful Me") to Don Henley, (a poignant "Searching For a Heart") Springsteen, and David Lindley and Ry Cooder, ("Monkey Wash, Donkey Rinse") but there are plenty of surprises, particularly the Pixies' art-punk take on "Ain't That Pretty at All" and Pete Yorn's garagey "Splendid Isolation." Zevon's son Jordan invests himself fully in "Studebaker," and Steve Earle manages to make "Reconsider Me" his own. The crowning achievement? Bob Dylan's aching live interpretation of "Mutineer," which is delivered with such a profound sense of empathy that it comes close to topping the original. And that's really saying something.

We won't see the likes of Zevon again. But this tribute makes the parting a bit less sorrowful.

-- Jeff Miers


Ray Charles



Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

Good move: no one, for a second, ever thought that the music for the soundtrack of "Ray," Taylor Hackford's much-awaited upcoming film biography of Ray Charles (opening next Friday), should be sung by anyone other than Ray Charles -- in the classic performances if at all possible.

So, along an all-star tribute on TV this evening, what you've got on this soundtrack is as good a one-disc "Ray Charles' Greatest Hits" as you're ever going to find, from the 1953 R&B bounce "Mess Around" to a 1976 live version of "Georgia On My Mind." The most ardent Ray-O-Philes and scholars can quarrel into the wee hours with the selections here if they choose. This isn't the original and best two-part version of "What'd I Say" and it isn't the truly sublime live version of "Drown in My Own Tears" either. Nor are the disc notes adequately informative (about, for instance, who was in each edition of The Raelettes.) A Shrimp Scampi isn't Lobster Thermidor either. But if there is, somehow, an American home without a Ray Charles disc, this is the perfect place to start.

-- Jeff Simon

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