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Alpha Male Rock

Ann Powers
Los Angeles Times

There’s an indiscernible line, as critic Leslie Fielder once wrote, over which an archetype can slip to become a stereotype. One of art’s main jobs is to keep pulling such figures back into relevance. Consider the manly man, a character constantly resurrected with a new mustache and set of weapons. In films and television, superheroes, criminals and sheriffs perpetually stalk each other across imagined wastelands, creating order, unraveling it, building it back again. Advertising loves machismo too ” tight abs in Abercrombie.

Rock ‘n’ roll is no country for these warriors, though; it favors androgyny. This may seem odd, since it’s a male enclave ” count the women hard rockers on your fingers. But remember, Shakespeare’s heroines hid their manhood beneath skirts. Rock frees men from hardness and stoicism; it teaches them to flower.

Florid machismo has its problems, though. It can easily become a cartoon ” the Incredible Hulk. On top of this, rock’s biggest stars have been white artists pursuing a black muse via rhythm and blues. The racism that equates blackness with primitive virility makes minstrelsy hard to avoid.

Jim Morrison was the great role model, but his excesses reduced him to slobber. Bruce Springsteen spent years struggling to relax after he shoved himself into his All-American Levi’s. Hard-core punks beat each other up to prove they weren’t in love with each other.

Then there’s Nick Cave, a shock-haired Australian who dresses like a gumshoe cowboy and processes references to Homer and female body parts through the filter of the Delta swamp. This dandy bewitched by violence is the unlikely master of macho rock. With a baritone made for battle cries, Cave has long courted extremes ” including self-parody ” to unravel masculinity from the inside out.

Thirty years after he first howled “I am the king . . . junkyard king!” as frontman for goth dissemblers the Birthday Party, Cave’s vision is stronger than ever. Following the modernist blues of last year’s Grinderman side project, Cave returns in April with “Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!,” the 14th album from his cosmopolitan band the Bad Seeds. It’s profound, it’s sometimes obscene, and it’s unlikely to have a rival for best rock album of the year.

Cave’s youth was characterized by cathartic tirades thrown over beds of noise. His middle period found him meandering into piano balladry and lazy romantic platitudes. But in his 40s Cave started sharpening up. He’s realized he is not some lone Jeremiah, and “Lazarus” asserts his place as part of rock’s major canon.

These songs explore the ground Cave has obsessively covered for decades ” old gods in the modern world, the barbarism of sex, the beauty of failed love. But his lyrics have never been more precise, more carefully salted with humor and compassion for perpetrators and victims alike. Instead of abandoning himself within his brutal characters, Cave stays awake.

It helps that the eight members of the Bad Seeds grasp his goals. Most have played with Cave for a decade or two, following his lead through cocktail-lounge serenades, surrealist dirges and fractured Americana. The relatively tight songs on “Lazarus” let them prove their strengths without fuss.

Cave and the Bad Seeds prove that age only helps in the pursuit of manliness. He’s always seemed older; in fact, rock’s obsession with youth, and especially indie’s love affair with waif-ish tenor boys, may be one reason few have emulated him. Coincidentally, though, the release of “Lazarus” is paralleled by two other releases by artists who follow Cave’s lead and end up succeeding on other terms.

The Gutter Twins unites two semi-stars from the grunge era, the one moment in indie rock when deep voices and a tortured machismo came into vogue. Cincinnati-born career roue Greg Dulli was singer for the Afghan Whigs, the only band to proudly incorporate black music into the subgenre. Notoriously hard-living Mark Lanegan, raised in the rodeo town of Ellensburg, Wash., sang for the psychedelia-tinged Screaming Trees before becoming a solo artist and well-traveled collaborator. His baritone is straight from the tomb, and like Cave, he douses his songs in the antiquated sheen of folk references and biblical themes.

The two friends took upward of five years to produce their debut as the Gutter Twins, but the album (on Sub/Pop, the label of their youth) feels like something that might have manifest over one long, dark night.

It’s not sloppy, though, or in the least bit like a jam session. Dulli’s years leading the Twilight Singers, a collective that adds the flexible sounds of electronica to his beloved soul-rock blend, has taught him that expansive arrangements work only when they’re as strong as transparent wire. Lanegan too has explored electronica, most recently in league with the English production team Soulsavers.

With mood in mind, the two men wrote the Gutter Twins’ repertoire together, blending Lanegan’s death-letter intonations with Dulli’s sexy, predatory swoon. These 12 songs work best as an ambient experience” albeit a very forceful chill-out. The lyrics are mostly abstract, touching on the Cavean topics of personal excess, crime and religious apocalypse, and there’s zero humor. But breathing space comes from the artful sonic layering that marries Dulli’s swagger to Lanegan’s reticent gloom, linking the disparate frequencies of masculine expression.

Dulli and Lanegan are obvious heirs to Cave’s throne. Another group is emerging to take his legacy somewhere new. DeVotchKa is usually classified as part of the new wave of world-music-loving hybridizers, along with fellow Balkan music nuts Gogol Bordello, Cambodian popsters Dengue Fever, Zach Condon’s Eastern Europe-inflected Beirut and Africanists Vampire Weekend. But the band’s frontman, Nick Urata, is also finding new ways to illuminate ideas about the romance of masculinity.

DeVotchKa’s music is inspired by the mariachi bands of its increasingly Hispanic hometown of Denver, and by the Italian, Lithuanian and Gypsy songs members heard at family parties growing up. Urata locates himself within this immigrant paradigm as the mythical Dark Lover ” the Hispanic tango dancer, Italian spaghetti tenor or Gypsy wanderer the ladies love but whom men fear.

Pulling out phrases from B-movie scripts and operetta arias, and combining them in a maelstrom of imagery that plays off the band’s virtuoso hodgepodge, Urata embodies a macho man who casts new light on white privilege, ethnic difference and long-buried romantic cliches.

The band’s third album, “A Mad and Faithful Telling,” is its boldest effort. The songs careen through the band’s international sound repertoire. Thomas Hagerman’s violin goes pizzicato, then leads the string section into swells. Jeanie Schroder’s tuba offers an old-world oom-pah-pah. Hagerman (Urata’s writing partner, and classically trained like the rest of the band) switches to accordion for a tango.

In the center stands the rocker, Urata. But he doesn’t keep still. In one song, a lover rescues him, naked, from the side of a dusty road; in another, he awaits execution, but he promises to not go quietly. He sings these tales of desperate men in a showy, unhinged tenor, breaking into Spanish or Italian phrases that sometimes turn out to be lines from non-English-language pop hits. His whole being is unstable, ambitious, endangered. He is the quintessential man on the run.

DeVotchKa’s playful, gaudy vision of a Wild West that reaches back toward dozens of homelands opens up the territory Cave pioneered. Urata is nowhere near as focused and agile a songwriter as Cave, but he’s also a lot younger. Who knows, maybe he’ll make his greatest album at 50, and ride it into the sunset, an antihero whose work is done.