Album review: "Grinderman 2"

September 22, 2010

Given the lavish praise heaped upon the self-titled debut by Grinderman in 2007 -- it was my choice for the best album of that year, and its intensity has diminished not a whit since -- let's get this out of the way right up top: The second album from Nick Cave's extra-Bad Seeds side project with violinist and guitarist Warren Ellis, bassist Martyn Casey, and drummer Jim Slavunos is not quite as great as the undeniable garage-blues eruption of that explosive introduction.

That, however, is a relative criticism. Can we really measure the brilliance of one four-star album against that of another? Could we honestly debate which is the "better" masterpiece, the Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat" or the Stooges' "Funhouse"? Both are essential listening, and the world would be a worse place without either of them. And so it is with Grinderman 1 and 2.

With the Bad Seeds and with this stripped-down, more guitar-heavy ensemble, the 52-year-old Cave is in the midst of a nearly unprecedented third-act career surge that could be due to his new life as a happy family man (though you'd think it would go the other way), an existence now free of heroin, or a pact made with the devil at the crossroads. His bitingly sarcastic, wickedly funny lyrical eye never has been more focused, and his ability to craft musical settings that are both Gothic and direct, steeped in decades of musical history but utterly fresh-sounding and unique ‚ never has been sharper.

Grinderman is the looser, sloppier group, hence the more immediate, often the funnier, and arguably the more shear-off-the-top-of-your-head powerful. The big surprise of "Grinderman 2," however, is that there's more to this group than raw power. It stretches out and experiments more here, and not always with good results: The quiet, plodding horror-movie soundscape of "What I Know" is effective as far as that goes, but only if you're in the mood for that sort of thing.

That's the only pseudo-misstep, though. The other songs grab you by the neck and put you in the mood, with more stylistic diversity than the first time around, from the howling, hellish incantations of "Evil!" to the bad-trip psychedelic epic of "Bellringer Blues," and from the nasty come-ons of the bluesy come-on "Kitchenette" to the shockingly melodic anthem "Palaces of Montezuma." And I didn't even mention that it all kicks off with a song called "Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man," and that the tune actually does justice to that title.

So, no, there is no "No P---y Blues" on "Grinderman 2." But "Grinderman 2" is so good, that doesn't even matter.

(Grinderman performs at the Riviera Theatre on Nov. 22, an eerily appropriate date, given Cave's love offering of "the spinal chord of JFK wrapped in Monroe's negligee in "Palaces of Montezuma." Tickets are $28.)

Grinderman, "Grinderman 2" (Anti-) Rating:4/4