Rating:Romantic dread is a uniting trope in the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds oeuvre, but rarely have their live albums seen that concept so deftly realized into a palpable atmosphere as on Live From KCRW. Recorded in L.A.’s Apogee Studio, the intimate setting sees the Bad Seeds tone down some of the pomp and circumstance of their studio albums, though the drama remains engrossing throughout. An aura pervades the performance, replete with the group’s swampy trepidation, but with a looser vibe and a heightened emotional resonance. Unsurprisingly, the set list focuses on 2013’s Push the Sky Away. With four of the 10 songs hailing from that more pensive record, we get Cave in his role as solemn yet observant sage rather than brimstone-fuming hoodooman. As such, the songs are largely of the more subdued, introspective vein. This isn’t to say there’s monotony to it, for the piano ballads here range in tone.
Establishing the show’s palette is opener “Higgs Boson Blues.” As Martyn P. Casey’s brooding bass and Warren Ellis’ languid guitar set a tone of adrift loneliness, Cave recites stream of consciousness imagery that could come from a drug-addled mind browsing Wikipedia at 2:00 a.m. In his rich baritone, Cave presents a narrator grappling with the existence of the God particle and how it may only magnify reality’s banality. Worth noting, the oft-referred to lines about Miley Cyrus and her fictional persona seemed hallucinatory nonsense when the song was first released earlier this year, but in this context, they seem prescient, chuckles from the audience aside.
From there, “Far From Me,” from 1997’s The Boatman’s Call, serves as the first of several austere, piano-led tunes with the flavor of vintage barroom odes. Ellis’ dusty violin makes the song drip in the ache of being rebuffed while Cave offers biting cynicism in lines like, “You were my brave-hearted lover/ At the first taste of trouble/ Went running back to mother.” Later in the set, “People Ain’t No Good” has a similar vibe, although with a more lacerating and less couth point of view, the sensitivity carried by the minor piano chords, Ellis’ returning violin and some affecting vibraphone work.
There are a few missteps. The most glaring sore spot is the presence, yet again, of “The Mercy Seat,” this time with the fury traded for the maudlin. Yeah, it’s his signature tune and it’s been played live more times than any of his others, but is another iteration necessary? It’s tradition for the song to have a place in nearly every Cave compilation, but it long ago crossed the line into thrill-devoid obligation. Various other songs from the Bad Seeds’ early or middle era would have been a welcome substitute for “The Mercy Seat,” serving the role of touchstone to the past showcased in a new light, among them “The Carny,” “Sad Waters” or “Do You Love Me?” On its heels is “And No More Shall We Part,” the overwrought sentimentality of which makes it plodding to get through.
Those cons aside, there is no shortage of highlights. “Stranger Than Kindness” is given a spaghetti Western shakeup to its noir theme and ends up splitting the difference between sexy and foreboding. The otherworldly ambience of “Push the Sky Away” makes it feel like a meditation for the morning after Armageddon, giving it a fallout chill. The zenith of the record, though, is “Mermaids,” specifically the haunting refrain that has the right amount of yearning and acceptance. Near the 2:45-mark, an unexpected distorted guitar solo emerges and runs on through the remainder of the song, building with intensity and calling to mind Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” Wrapping the show after some amusing banter among the Bad Seeds on trying to recall the song’s chords, the band’s Jekyll persona gives over to its Hyde side with “Jack the Ripper,” concluding the set with maniacal blues and deranged chanting. All told, the album is a concise sampler of Cave and his Bad Seeds, documenting the more restrained side of their live presence and showcasing the depth of their musicianship.