The early Bad Seeds did a lot of that apocalyptic rock as well, but somewhere along the way Cave decided he didn't need to meet the Reaper in person, so long as the pair could keep up a meaningful correspondence. His records became more provocative than pummeling, and as the adrenaline subsided over the years he started to write about family, and trust, and varieties of love that don't necessarily require blood oaths. And fans of the old Nick sat nodding appreciatively, happy for his happiness but silently hoping he would throw something and start shouting at them.

With the new Nocturama (Anti-), Cave has hit his stride with his quiet period, and has figured out how to make it gripping even when he's not in heavy-brood mode. The opening track may share its title with the world's most overexposed Christmas film, but there's nothing corny about this "Wonderful Life": Frightening and tender at the same time, it contradicts love-song clichés while remaining essentially romantic. Musically, it jostles and stretches and explores hidden places without ever rising above the decibel level of everyday life.

The decibel level does rise, though. Hearing the Bad Seeds on Nocturama is like stepping into the sun after a week of bed rest; they have tiptoed around their boss' new mature world for a few years, and now they are going to remind him what they can do. They only flip the nitrous switch a couple of times - on "Dead Man In My Bed" and "Babe, I'm On Fire" particularly - but the rest of the album's tracks are energized by these explosions: Martyn Casey's bass struts arrogantly into "Bring It On," the boys make the nostalgic "There Is A Town" sound like the portentous opening scenes of a supernatural thriller. If this is what getting old sounds like, sign me up.

Sexagenarian white bluesman John Hammond has different notions of senior citizenhood - could be because he never stretched a self-destructive adolescence across three continents. Despite wearing one of the record industry's most famous monikers (his namesake dad was the legendary Columbia Records exec who jump-started the careers of Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and countless others) the younger Hammond was semi-obscure until Wicked Grin, his excellent 2001 disc of Tom Waits covers.

Hammond continues to bond with the West Coast's finest musical mad geniuses on Ready (Back Porch), which was produced by Los Lobos' David Hidalgo. Hidalgo's junkyard cool (honed through experiments with the Latin Playboys) is all over such highlights as "No Chance." Guitars quake with reverb until you think the strings will fall off, the beat is kept on things you just know aren't drums, and every now and then a rusty car door slams shut. The two Waits songs here - "Gin-Soaked Boy" and "Low Side of the Road" - are among the best (unlike two fiddle 'n' drawl George Jones numbers that, though strong, are sore thumbs); Hammond's caramel voice doesn't have Waits' grit and grumble, but it's an expressive match for standards like "Same Thing" and "Comes Love." The surprise here, though, is "Slick Crown Vic," the first original tune Hammond has recorded. It swaggers like a pick-up line delivered before the stop light turns green, sounds broken-in before you've even heard it twice, and fits snugly among these relaxed, happily run-down blues.


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