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Short Cuts

Pearl Jam's money grab; Scottish cult heroes.

Do you remember last August when Eddie Vedder sang that double-time version of Elvis' "Can't Help Falling In Love"? Wasn't that unexpected? Or remember when the band vamped out on an extended version of "Better Man"? Wasn't that awesome er transcendent? Remember? If you were at the show, good for you. If you bought a commemorative concert T-shirt, you might be interested in this double-live gonzo souvenir as well, so you can relive Pearl Jam's lithe, grand, familiar if not-yet-classic hard rock in your own home. But what if you weren't at the Memphis show? What interest does this release hold for you?

This question looms large as the band continues their bizarre live music "project." As you may know, Pearl Jam has already released every single show from their European tour in cheaply priced, cheaply packaged, and virtually indistinguishable double-CDs. The Memphis show is part of the first 23 shows on the band's United States tour, all of which have been similarly issued. The grand total for officially released, live double-albums is nearly 50 (or about 100 CDs), with more promised as the second half of the tour kicks off.

In the face of such a glut of product -- one of the most horrifying acts of consumer fraud I've ever encountered -- my question remains unanswered: What makes this concert more special than the preceding concert in New Orleans on August 14th or the following show in Nashville on August 17th? Well, there's the Elvis cover, but it's the only rarity on the entire album; 15 of the 29 songs were played at the concerts that bookend the Memphis show, and the other 28 songs are played on the U.S. tour at least 10 times across 24 shows. So much for the uniqueness of live performance.

Most importantly, what music fan in his or her right mind would demand or welcome 100 live Pearl Jam albums? This isn't Miles Davis or James Brown or Bruce Springsteen or even the Grateful Dead, all artists whose concert indulgences and musical firepower might make such an endeavor fascinating and worthwhile. This is Pearl Jam, whose idea of improvisation is to end a set with "Baba O' Reilly" instead of "Rockin' in the Free World." This affront to discretionary income is no service to fans; that's what file-sharing is for, isn't it? It's just another baffling statement of principle from America's most baffling and principled major band. Nice to know that their integrity has finally paid off. -- Addison Engelking

Grade: D-

The Red Thread, Arab Strap (Matador)

Pare Arab Strap down to their lyrics and you get sexually charged, intelligent verses written by and about (but not necessarily for) commitment-phobic males with alcohol issues and the myriad problems that surround that existence. Arab Strap are two Scots who have purged from themselves a body of work that most contemporary underground pop artists will never be able to touch. They can take the feeling of waking up on the bathroom floor and set it to music, inspiring resplendent emotion in the process.

Aidan Moffat is the wordsmith in question, and like the Wedding Present's David Gedge, he has no problem with positioning himself as a clown prince of the metaphorically challenged -- Moffat's songs leave nothing to the imagination. His dialectical and largely spoken (mumbled) delivery incites cries of "acquired taste" among many, and admittedly, it can be like trying to understand Trainspotting over a baby monitor, but this obstacle easily becomes trivial when the whole package is examined. Moffat writes lyrics that forgo musical influences and instead recall the direction of literary figures like Russell Banks, Raymond Carver, and the easy one that I'm not entirely convinced of: Charles Bukowski. Understanding the gauze-gargling slur is the first step in discovering normal, everyday stuff (as retold by a 30-year-old drunk experiencing open-wound emotional discourse) addressed with all the subtlety of acute hives.

Meanwhile, musical mastermind Malcolm Middleton stays true to the Scottish tradition of crafting sublime and brilliant song structures. Maybe because Moffat's vocals serve as such a trademark, Middleton feels that he has to counteract with the laughably rare feat of an eclectic approach done correctly. With Factory Records-like dynamics, percussion evenly split between kit and tasteful drum machine, and lots of piano, every note hit will raise your neck hair: The Red Thread -- a return to original label Chemikal Underground (licensed by Matador in the States) after a two-album stint on Jetset -- is number four in a run of albums that are all essential listening.

So, similar to the posthumous fashion in which My Bloody Valentine, the Pixies, Slint, and Galaxie 500 serve us now, I predict that Arab Strap will be on tongues and (maybe) reissue itineraries a decade from now. -- Andrew Earles

Grade: A

No More Shall We Part, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (Reprise/Mute)

There are three sides to Nick Cave. First, there's the faux Southern Gothic troubadour appearing on albums like Tender Prey, a man obsessed with the secret underbelly of the Reconstruction South -- its inbred cultures and spooky stories. Then there's the bawdy Elizabethan of Murder Ballads, whose ribald humor is matched only by his insistent vulgarity. And third, there's the emotionally sincere balladeer of The Boatman's Call, who examines questions of love, guilt, sorrow, and death with a sensitive manner and a troubled soul.

All three Nick Caves are on full display on his 11th album, No More Shall We Part. The intense "Oh My Lord" burns with a narrative momentum that suggests a coked-up Faulkner, while on the crazy "God Is in the House," this profane soul alternates between a nasal whine and a hysteric stage whisper that satirizes modern conservative religious mores. And the title track moves slowly and beautifully, a hymn to love and the immense pain it brings.

Cave sounds a little hoarse on some songs, especially the opening "As I Sat Sadly by Her Side." His deep baritone sounds damaged and done for, but he still invests each song with as much soul as he can muster. He manages to create an intimate theatricality, and the strain in his voice makes it all the more affecting.

The Bad Seeds sound as brooding and threatening as ever, anchored by longtime Cave cohorts Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey. More recent additions to the lineup infuse the music with sinister rumblings of atmosphere and sonic melancholy. On "Hallelujah," for instance, the Dirty Three's Warren Ellis rips his soul apart on violin.

As with his past efforts, No More Shall We Part proves that only Nick Cave can create this twisted brand of rock music, and his cocksure bravado and tender heart not only make it succeed but allow absolutely no room for failure. -- Stephen Deusner

Grade: B+

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