Live 1981-1982 (4AD Records)

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During their just-brief-enough career, the Birthday Party forged a unique sound that was fueled solely by each member's high-octane personal vision. With five musicians in two songwriting teams (Nick Cave and Mick Harvey or Rowland Howard and assorted friends), the question arose as to who was the catalyst for the band's incendiary performances -- Cave and his inchoate screams against God-man-woman-love-alcohol- pleasure-hate-fuck or Howard and his treble-shredding, rusty-chainsaw-cum-guitar-hero theatrics.

As singer and primary lyricist for the band, it was Cave, with his grim tangled poetry and trenchant wit, who often seemed to be the focus for the group's dark visions. Howard's music provided the ramshackle framework for Cave's howls, though, and so the argument began. What was clear from the beginning was that while their contemporaries struggled to find a post-punk/new-wave identity, the Birthday Party recognized that there would have been no Johnny Rotten without Johnny Cash, and their music was the passion-play soundtrack for the night the blues knocked up country/western and sired that ornery bastard rock & roll. Birthday Party Live is a bloodstained snapshot of the band celebrating that night with biblical fury, and it finally puts the argument of Cave vs. Howard to rest.Cave smolders with the heretical intensity of an Old Testament prophet, barking and growling and whooping it up as the band crashes through its sets with reckless abandon. Coming over the top with him is Howard, who flays each song with the original six strings that drew blood. He wields great atonal blasts of nameless chords effortlessly, though they owe as much to his battered amplifiers and heroic intake of cocktails as they do to his warped brilliance. Through 16 songs they twist and writhe, but in the end neither man emerges as the heavyweight champion of the Birthday Party, for both men are out-punched by the world's last dangerous bassist, the late Tracy Pew. His growling bass is the lascivious throb that engorges the BP's canon of mordant hymns with their swagger and menace. Greasy and muscular, lewd and gritty, Boss Shitkicker's bass is the leering drunk who breaks your nose, steals your high-school sweetheart and coerces her into becoming a whiskey-breathed slattern with skinned knees. He manhandles the Stooges' "Funhouse" down to the floor and pounds it into a chunky red pudding with his fists while the rest of the band circles the body. Cave shrieks, "These Funhouse Boys will steal your heart away!" and you know he's singing about Tracy, the filthy brute with reptilian charm. Cave's startling lyrical outbursts and Howard's ferocious musical contortions may have captured the most attention, but Birthday Party Live proves unequivocally that Pew, may he rest in peace, was the match in their gas tank.

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