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Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds

Push the Sky Away

[Bad Seed Ltd.]

Rating: 4 stars

Nick Cave’s restless creativity has made him a moving target all these many years since he first emerged from Australia fronting the deliciously awful punk apocalypse known as the Birthday Party. With his Bad Seeds, Cave has crafted a handful of stone cold classics – “Let Love In,” “Henry’s Dream,” “The Boatman’s Call,” “Nocturama” among them. He’s led the side project Grinderman, with a disturbing fury that bordered on zealotry. He’s published two novels and two collections of lyrics and prose. With fellow Bad Seed Warren Ellis, he’s crafted a few highly evocative movie soundtracks, to boot.

This relentless flurry of artistic activity has presented several Cave personas, and different factions of his fan base have their favorite. Yet, at heart, Cave remains a romantic poet, and a crafter of sublime, simple and indelible melodies. This is the Cave who sat at the piano and cranked out some of the most affecting ballads of his age with “The Boatman’s Call.” And it’s also the Cave who’s steering the ship throughout “Push the Sky Away,” the 15th album to bear the Bad Seeds imprimatur, and certainly one of the most moving.

“Push the Sky Away” is stuffed to the brim with some of Cave’s most achingly ruminative melodies and devastatingly beautiful lyrics yet. There is much space in this music for these melodic poems to do their damage, too. Without Bad Seeds guitarist Mick Harvey, who left in 2009, there is ample room for the variegated contributions of multi-instrumentalist Ellis and the spare but spot-on pulse provided by rhythm section partners drummer Thomas Wydler and bassist Martyn Casey. The music breathes with more assured elegance than anything Cave has done this side of “Boatman,” and Ellis, who co-wrote every tune, shares much of the responsibility for this sonic eloquence. His string arrangements for his own multitracked violin and viola add immeasurably to the tragic beauty of “Jubilee Street,” as does Cave’s lyric, a vaguely sinister tale of flawed love that concludes with the narrator intoning “I am alone now/I am beyond recriminations.” Similarly, “We Real Cool” crawls through the dust on hands and knees as a creepy primal blues, until Cave’s piano and Ellis’ strings help it to its feet and splash a little water on it. It’s not so much a song as it is an implied short film set to music. The same could be said for “Higgs Boson Blues,” a twisted take on the “meet the devil at the crossroads” tale that name-checks Robert Johnson and suggests familiarity with Bob Dylan’s recent multiversed epics. David Lynch could make a deeply disturbing movie out of this one.

At 55, Cave remains as fatalistic as ever. In his cosmos, love is doomed, though still worth striving for, and humans are deeply and incurably flawed. And yet, with “Push the Sky Away,” he makes such a fallen state sound desirable.

– Jeff Miers

R&B

Aaron Neville

My True Story

[Blue Note]

Rating: 3½ stars

Aaron Neville has needed to make a record like “My True Story” for several decades. As its title implies, this new record gives us the genuine Neville, the New Orleans soul man with the voice of a fallen angel whose roots are planted deep in the soil of gritty R&B, early rock ’n’ roll, doo wop and primal funk. Away from his siblings in the Neville Brothers, Neville has been treated poorly by producers, who for the most part have buried this national treasure of a voice in tired pop tropes and sickly sweet treacle. “My True Story,” instead, has sparse and subtle arrangements centered on Neville’s gorgeous voice.

Co-producers Keith Richards and Don Was can take the credit for this, surely. Not since Rick Rubin reintroduced Johnny Cash to Cash’s own genius back in the early ’90s has the choice of producer done so much to reconnect an artist to his roots. A core band featuring Richards and Greg Liesz on guitars, Bob Dylan band drummer George Receli, bassist Tony Scher, and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench keeps things delightfully simple, leaving Neville and his background vocalists more than enough room to cavort freely through a playlist of seminal R&B, rock ’n’ roll and soul standards from the likes of Curtis Mayfield (“Gypsy Woman”), Doc Pomus (“This Magic Moment”), Hank Ballard (“Work With Me Annie”) and Phil Spector (“Be My Baby”). Not a dud in the bunch.

Neville could sing the morning announcements over a high school public address system and still sound amazing, one suspects. That said, we owe Richards a tip of the hat for bringing Neville back home where he belongs.

– J.M.

R&B

The Slide Brothers

Robert Randolph Presents The Slide Brothers

[Concord]

rating: 3 stars

It was the Randolph family band that brought us the musical news about something called the “sacred steel” tradition in American gospel music – a whole different way of both playing and featuring the pedal steel guitar that bore no relationship to the whine and treacle so common among pedal steel players in country music. Suddenly the Randolph family let us in on the secret – that in the House of God, the pedal steel guitar was featured in music that rocked so hard it moved a lot of earth on its way to heaven.

The Slide Brothers – Calvin Cooke, Chuck Campbell, Darick Campbell and Aubrey Ghent – were huge influences on the Randolphs, especially Cooke, who has been called “the B.B. King of gospel steel guitar.”

What Robert Randolph says in the notes here is that “for 80 years this music has been hidden inside the churches and these older guys were not allowed to play anything else. Now we’re all hanging out with the Allman Brothers, Buddy Guy and B.B. King and can use gospel and mainstream music to tell our story.” And that, finally, is what the Slide Brothers do here, playing George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” the Allmans’ “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’,” and Elmore James’ “The Sky Is Crying,” along with their own music and such traditional gospel fare as “Wade in the Water” and “Motherless Children.”

It would be a wee bit unfair to compare the horsepower of the unfettered Randolph Family Band with the Slide Brothers. The Randolphs, untrammeled, can just about blow the doors off any hall they’re in (their appearance on the TV show “Austin City Limits” became something of a legend). But their major influences are awfully good on their own, if not necessarily on their version of “My Sweet Lord” (the weakest selection on the disc, frankly), then their own songs and the great gospel and blues classics.

– Jeff Simon

Jazz

Mark Winkler

The Laura Nyro Project

[Cafe Pacific]

Rating: 2½ stars

Once upon a time, everyone and his cousin Chauncey played, sang and recorded the sensitive songs of Laura Nyro (The Fifth Dimension, Three Dog Night etc.).

It’s been years, maybe even decades, since we’ve seen anything that even vaguely resembles a Nyro wave on disc, which is, without question, the most unusual thing about West Coast jazz singer Mark Winkler’s full disc of Nyro songs.

After the first two – “And When I Die” and “Stoned Soul Picnic” – you’re in pretty recondite Nyro territory, too – songs like “California Shoeshine Boys,” “Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp,” “Sweet Blindness,” “Emmie.”

“I am moved by both her music and her words. Her songs create their own vocal world,” writes Winkler. Which is true, and that makes jazz vocal versions of her own vocal world – from a singer whose previous disc tribute was to the more congenial music of Bobby Troup – both less apt and less original than those leaving them in the mainstream folk rock tradition where they belong. It has some of the same problems as Roseanna Vitro’s recent versions of the music of Randy Newman: jazz rhythms and piano accompaniments do precious little for this music but interfere with their wildly individualistic melodies and words.

– J.S.