Title: Murder Ballads
Format: Single LP
Catalogue Number: STUMM138
Year of Release: 1996
A1 Song Of Joy (6:47)
A2 Stagger Lee (5:15)
A3 Henry Lee (3:58)
A4 Crow Jane (4:14)
A5 The Curse Of Millhaven (6:55)
B1 Where The Wild Roses Grow (3:57)
B2 Lovely Creature (4:13)
B3 The Kindness Of Strangers (4:39)
B4 O'Malley's Bar (14:28)
B5 Death Is Not The End (4:27)
First of all, this is not an album that you should take seriously. There is a long tradition of dark, gallows humour in traditional music that Nick Cave is tapping into with this collection of songs. And it is a collection of songs, recorded over a number of years, rather than an album as usually recorded and released by this band.
It is also not a covers album, as some think. There are fewer re-workings of traditional songs than you might believe, had you read the publicity or accompanying reviews of the time. The vast majority are Cave originals.
The humour is not noticeable from the outset, though. Song of Joy, in which the protagonist has murdered his wife and children, and now recounts this tale as the innocent husband to elicit sympathy and a room for the night (or to perhaps commit more crimes in). A deeply gothic number, the title laced with irony, it's the creepiest of the Murder Ballads.
Immediately followed by Stagger Lee, for which you must check out the video on Youtube. This is one number that has an antecedent in American folklore. If you know the Nick Cave song, or have just listened to it and seen the row-of-tents-camp video linked to above, then you might be surprised how tame the original is:
I mean, nary a 'motherfucker' in sight! Just, "He's a bad man, Stackalee". Cave's version is modern and dirty; slinky bass, piano stabs that remind you of his own Red Right Hand, in-your-face homosexuality - my favourite line in the song being:
I'm a bad motherfucker don't you know
That I'd crawl over 50 good pussies
Just to get to one fat boy's asshole
And above all, it is funny. Overblown (as it were), ridic(k)ulous, and very, very funny. But above that, well-played, brilliantly done, and still played live to great crowd-pleasing effect, unfortunately without Blixa's amazing, glass-shattering scream at the, ahem, climax.
Henry Lee is the second and last, "Trad arr. Cave." Here is the original, and as I didn't say about Stackalee, is also taken from Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, and long out of copyright.
Much less has been changed here, but it has been turned into a duet with Polly Harvey, piano, a chorus and a bird added, and a great one-take video. They were lovers at the time, which is no secret.
Crow Jane is a relative low point, being a simple revenge tale, although the skirting around the unsavoury details of Jane's ordeal is unusual, given the explicitness of detail on offer elsewhere. This is also, notably, the point where the vinyl tracklisting beings to vary from the CD.
For better or worse, I know this album much better from the CD version, which has much better packaging, and a more sensible tracklisting. I'm guessing the running order had to be jiggered abut with to fit two sides of vinyl, but the CD has the same three opening numbers, then Lovely Creature; Where the Wild Roses Grow; Curse of Millhaven; Kindness of Strangers; Crow Jane; then the same two finishing numbers. I'm a fan of listening to albums all the way through, and I think it flows better on the CD. Here's a photo of the CD packaging & sweet lyric booklet to illustrate that first point:
Anyway, The Curse of Millhaven follows on the record, and is pure comedy. I have fond memories of being driven through the French countryside, in the passenger seat of a friends car, myself and the driver belting this out, to the increasingly bewilderment, and possibly encroaching fear, of the passengers in the back of the car. When you remember that Kindness of Strangers followed, which we also sang, that was understandable. And because that follows on the CD, I'm going to mention it next.
I love songs and stories that begin at the end, this one opens:
They found Mary Bellows
Cuffed to the bed
With a rag in her mouth
And a bullet in her head
At least, I love these types of stories when they are well done. Feel free to suggest both good and bad examples in the comments section. Recent Star Wars trilogy = bad. American Beauty = good. And a beautiful song this is. It's kept too late on the record though, and the impact is lost after Wild Roses and Lovely Creature. The crying is credited to Anita Lane, who co-wrote some of the Birthday Party stuff, but never previously appears on any records.
There's a four-part version of O'Malley's Bar on the B-sides and Rarities box that was recorded for a Mark Radcliffe Radio Session back when he (Mark) had a solo evening slot on Radio 1. It's well worth checking out. The original is again good fun, with a high death count, luridly described, and some exceptional organ accompaniment. What more can you ask for, really?
Death is Not The End, is a Dylan singalong. I think I disagree with the sentiment, but not for any obvious religious reason more that I appreciate Nietzsche's argument for eternal recurrence, whilst acknowledging that a positive or negative is essentially unknowable.
It also happens to come from the least popular Dylan album of all time, which is some feat: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Down_in_the_Groove
One last video link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Am1kJM823Vk, and I'll just say that you should own a copy of this album, one way or another.