Playlist

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Murder Ballads
(Reprise)

"It sounds like you're playing that at the wrong speed," a co-worker told me as I spun this CD at my desk--and that's as succinct an encapsulation of Cave's pluses and minuses as you're likely to hear. He certainly has a singular style: His subterranean pitch and relentlessly morose tone suggest an extremely depressed Leonard Cohen after gulping a fistful of downers. However, his melodramatic approach can easily curdle into camp--the Weillian equivalent of a death-metal frontman screeching about disembowelings in the voice of a Drano gargler. Cave recognizes this danger, but rather than attempting more subtle effects, he aims instead for black humor. On "The Curse of Millhaven," for instance, he barks, "Since I was no bigger than a weevil/They've been saying I was evil/That if 'bad was a boot,' then I'd fit it/That I'm a wicked young lady/But I've been trying hard lately/O fuck it! I'm a monster! I admit it!" This approach tends to blur the line between the songwriter's serious narratives and his excursions into comedy--and while that may be Cave's goal, it can leave many listeners hungry for a little more sincerity. If you're an ironist, though, you'll likely be diverted by the nutty single-mindedness of this accurately titled disc (each of its tunes involves death and/or killing). "Henry Lee" and "Where the Wild Roses Grow," featuring, respectively, P.J. Harvey and Kylie Minogue, are unexpectedly lovely (in a ludicrously gruesome sort of way); "Crow Jane" finds Cave writing at his pulp-inspired best; and "O'Malley's Bar"--a fourteen-minute epic concerning an especially determined mass slayer whose crimes our narrator describes with particular affection and a perverse attention to detail--is embarrassing on so many levels that it exerts its own peculiar charm. Perhaps only the previously committed will have the patience for this record, but anyone with a taste for Jim Thompson novels and Coen brothers flicks may find Murder Ballads just their speed.--Michael Roberts

Andrew Bees
Militant
(Music Lion/Ras Records)

Bees, a 22-year-old Jamaican upstart, represents the latest stage of reggae music. Like many of his current dancehall peers, he makes music characterized by a youthful vigor and supported by strong synthesizer chord progressions and a slick hip-hop beat. But most of the thirteen tracks on Militant, Bees's debut, also include elements that seldom appear in generic dancehall, including African Nyahbinghi drums, acoustic guitar strumming and melodic vocal harmonies that complement Bees's beautifully nasal patois and decidedly conscious Rastafarian teachings. The result is an intriguing combination of upbeat, modern reggae and the kind of social and political messages that distinguished the roots music of the Seventies and Eighties. Songs like the title track and the opener, "Struggle and Strive," showcase the possibilities for this new sound, appropriately dubbed "hardcore culture." Like Bees himself, they sting.--Joshua Green

The Pogues
Pogue Mahone
(Mesa)

A Pogues album without Shane MacGowan: The perfect gift for anyone who loved those Doors albums without Jim Morrison.--Roberts

Cassandra Wilson
New Moon Daughter
(Blue Note)

Wilson's melancholia may be a touch monochromatic, but it remains a bracing antidote to the insubstantial nature of so many of today's jazz vocalists. Rather than offering up the same old scat tricks that have kept undemanding audiences cheering since Louis Armstrong was in his vibrant youth, she stretches and pulls the fruit of her expressive, throaty voice using techniques drawn not only from forerunners like Billie Holiday but from blues, soul and gospel pioneers as well. Just as important, she's developed a band sound that proves the ideal accent for her mournful swoops; musicians such as guitarist Brandon Ross and bassist Lonnie Plaxico create an eerie, atmospheric backdrop that's both rich and restrained. Wilson's originals--especially "A Little Warm Death," a modified samba that's erotic in a discreet, affecting way--take full advantage of these attributes. Her choice of outside material, by contrast, can be seen as somewhat cynical--one wonders, did she choose to cover U2 ("Love Is Blindness") and Neil Young ("Harvest Moon") for artistic or commercial reasons? Whatever the answer to that question, Wilson's eccentricities give a boost to each of these choices. Even her painstakingly deliberate version of the Monkees' hit "Last Train to Clarksville" exerts a tangible fascination: You can't help but smile when she delivers the line "Don't be slow" as slowly as she possibly can. As New Moon Daughter demonstrates, faster isn't always better.--Roberts

 
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