The Birthday Party
The Birthday Party's 1980 arrival in London came at just the right moment. Punk rock had died, and the somber, icy tones dubbed "post-punk" (more as a requiem than as a symbol of progress) had turned punk's corpse into a zombie. Back home in Melbourne, Australia, vocalist Nick Cave and four of his high school friends were becoming fascinated with the sound of collapse -- whether it was a performer's cathartic exhaustion, or an instrument driven well beyond its means.
The band relocated to the birthplace of punk excess, bringing with it a parched form of desert jazz and drunken lounge music. However, the Birthday Party's aggressively clumsy art rock failed to turn heads at the time. Instead, it crept like a muddy ooze into the crevices between the prophylactic electropop of New Wave and the bleak, sonic rigor mortis of Public Image, Ltd, Wire, and Joy Division. If the music of the era was frigid, British audiences were even cooler to the five-piece band.
Still, the Birthday Party soldiered on until 1983, releasing nearly everything in pairs: two full-length albums, two 12-inch EPs, two Peel Session recordings, two live albums and a smattering of singles collected as Hee-Haw. In the years since the group's collapse, its popularity has continued to grow, even reaching legend status in goth-punk circles and helping cultivate Cave's image as the poster boy for tousled-black-hair-gothic-cowboy-heroin-addict chic. Spurring this popularity with more accessible yet equally challenging music, Cave continues to foster the lounge-lizard Lothario aesthetic (with assistance from ex-Birthday Party multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey) in Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
The first 10 songs of this 17-song disc are culled from a 1981 performance at The Venue in London, tracks 11 through 16 from a German set in 1982, with the cacophonous closer taken from a Greek show the same year.
As an example of the band's love for sounds of malfunction, the track that opens the disc, "Junkyard," is a jumbled merging of piercing feedback. An intrusive high-pitched whine is (deliberately?) draped over Tracy Pew's throbbing and lumbering bass line, which leads the mortar-fire blasts of snare-drum cracks and shrieking guitars on the group's paean to London's Thatcher-era urban decay. The feedback squeal is just adeceptive tease, though. The songs on the rest of the disc are actually fuller and more powerful than most found on the Birthday Party's studio recordings.
Unlike the pair of chaotic and sloppy live albums issued against the band's wishes (1985's It's Still Living and a split set with Lydia Lunch, titled Drunk on the Pope's Blood, from 1982), the performances captured here are nearly flawless.
"I stuck a six-inch gold blade in the head of a girl," Cave declares on "Six-Inch Gold Blade," his voice suggesting sexual thrill more than remorse. Meanwhile, Pew's rumbling bass calmly struts between Harvey and Rowland S. Howard's gouging guitars. As the lunging "King Ink" crescendos, a guitarist kicks the reverb springs on his amplifier, creating startling metallic crashes as Cave gnaws at the microphone and drummer Phil Calvert erupts with hissing cymbals and offbeat snare thwaps. Songs like "Bully Bones" and "(Sometimes) Pleasure Heads Must Burn" (which had appeared on only the treble-drenched Peel Session recordings previously) sound especially heavy and propulsive in this collection.
Appropriately enough, Live '81-'82 closes with the Birthday Party's jagged dismantling of the Stooges classic "Funhouse." Harvey supplies saxophone bleats that trail after Cave's frenzied screams, as both overload the soundboard to create a bristling, distorted mush over the song's rigid James Brown beat. By the end of the seven-minute mini-opus, the whole band succumbs to Cave's shrieking exuberance with everything falling apart much as it had begun. -- Dave Clifford
Eyes Wide Shut: Music From the Motion Picture
The City of Prague Philharmonic
Dr. Strangelove: Music From the Films
of Stanley Kubrick
Ever since he ensured that the thunderous blast of Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" and the gentle lilt of Johann Strauss' "On the Beautiful Blue Danube" would be associated with twirling spacecrafts and floating fetuses, it's been clear that the late Stanley Kubrick had a gift for selecting the perfect music to accompany his cinematic visions. The soundtrack to his unfortunate swan song, Eyes Wide Shut, is no exception. The album begins with the film's signature piece, "Musica Ricercata II" by modernist Transylvanian composer György Ligeti.
Like the movie in which it's heard at least once too often, this work for solo piano, much of which is plunked out by a single finger, is slow, attenuated and one-note. Also like the film, the Ligeti piece, performed by Dominic Harlan, has an undeniably eerie force. It's to be played "Mesto, rigido e cerimoniale," and the pianist certainly can't be accused of shirking this interpretation. But the result, sadly, is pretty characteristic of the album as a whole -- austere and respectable, but not durably listenable.
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There are two really tasty cuts: Chris Isaak's growly "Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing" -- used only briefly in the film but cannily employed in the TV ads -- and Dmitri Shostakovich's passionate, slightly decadent Jazz Suite, Waltz 2, performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. There's some tolerable supper-club-style dance music, like "When I Fall in Love" by the Victor Silvester Orchestra, or Duke Ellington's "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)" by the Oscar Peterson Trio. And there are what seem like hours of creepy but incredibly annoying drones and groans created by avant-garde composer Jocelyn Pook. In spite of a couple of high points, this CD will likely gather dust in your collection.
If you want a definitive, if peculiar, assortment of musical Kubrickiana, try the Dr. Strangelove omnibus CD, which includes at least one selection from each of the director's features except for Eyes Wide Shut. There are the aforementioned pieces from 2001, Alex North's overture to Spartacus, Handel's "Sarabande" from Barry Lyndon, Wendy and Walter Carlos' electronic version of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" from A Clockwork Orange, Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind's brooding theme from The Shining, Abigail Mead's themes from Full Metal Jacket and the Bob Harris love theme from Lolita.
Most interesting for Kubrick buffs is a suite of music written by journeyman composer Gerald Fried for the director's early movies. There are passages from The Killing and Paths of Glory, the score for the memorable fight in the mannequin warehouse in Killer's Kiss, and some surprisingly heartfelt, compelling music from Kubrick's little-seen first feature, Fear and Desire, and his debut short, Day of the Fight. My favorite cut, however, is "The Bomb Run" from Dr. Strangelove, a driving arrangement of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" by Laurie Johnson that shows Kubrick's musical sense at its best -- a splendid mix of irony, terror and exhilaration.
Be forewarned, this isn't an album of soundtrack cuts. The selections are played, competently enough, by the City of Prague Philharmonic, with a few exceptions: The Ray Noble Band, with vocalist Al Bowlly, performs "Midnight, the Stars and You" from The Shining, the Trashmen perform "Surfin' Bird" from Full Metal Jacket, and the album closes with Vera Lynn's rendition, ominous in the context of Dr. Strangelove, of "We'll Meet Again." -- M.V. Moorhead