From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah

I'd finally reached a point where I could listen to Nirvana and think only "This is a cool song," rather than "This guy is dead." And now, along comes more new "product" -- an industry term that Kurt Cobain despised -- to remind us all over again of the singer's untimely nonexistence.

From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (a reference to the river alongside Cobain's hometown of Aberdeen, Washington) is a compilation of sixteen live tracks recorded between 1989 and 1994. The intent was to capture some of the energy of a Nirvana performance, for the benefit of anyone who never got the opportunity to see a live show and who hasn't already collected this material on bootlegs. Former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic took charge of track selection and sequencing.

And therein lies the problem. If they wanted to pay tribute to their erstwhile bandmate, you'd think they'd have been less inept about it. Novoselic's liner notes sound like a high-school essay on "how we spent our summer." (It's too bad Cobain wasn't around to do the writing; for a taste of what might have been, read the well-phrased but disturbing rant he penned for Incesticide.) And the song sequencing appears to be entirely random. It would have been helpful if the cuts were arranged in some sort of chronological order, either by the date they were written or the date the performance was taped, which would have allowed us to evaluate the band's progression. This album's primary value, after all, is as a historical document.

As for the songs, some of the choices are duds. Why, for example, the abysmal "Scentless Apprentice" instead of crowd-pleasers like "Territorial Pissings" or "Love Buzz"? (Maybe because it's one of the very few Grohl and Novoselic helped Cobain write?) And the inclusion of "Polly" on four of the six Nirvana albums extant goes way beyond overkill. (That said, the version offered here is terrific.) "Spank Thru" has limited artistic merit but will be cherished by completists, for the track doesn't appear on any other album; according to Novoselic, it's "actually the first Nirvana song."

Wishkah's saving grace is that the music itself is usually strong enough to overcome any inadequacies in packaging. During the brief, sonically punitive intro, the band sounds like a bunch of teenage rock-star-wanna-be's reveling in noise for the sake of noise. But after a couple of tracks, it's clear that these are sharp musicians who know exactly what they're doing. Listen to how smoothly they handle the time change in "Aneurysm," switching abruptly from the opening passage into the main body of the song. The rapid-heartbeat pulsing in the bridge of "Drain You" is a reminder that the key to Nirvana's appeal was the visceral quality of the music. Your body likes it even if your mind isn't sure why.

One of the best tracks here is "Milk It," recorded three months before Cobain's April 1994 death, on which silly, out-of-tune guitar plucking alternates with a slamming, full-throttle chorus. "Heart-Shaped Box" creates the disorienting impression that it's somehow slowing down in midtune, though a metronome would probably prove that's not the case. And it has a cool shimmering guitar effect that'll make you sit up and take notice.

Impossible to ignore too is Cobain's voice -- sometimes deliberately affected, as if he's parodying himself, but more often raw and wrenching. When he screams, it sounds like his throat is being lacerated, and you wince. That's gotta hurt. But maybe that was the point -- maybe he wanted it to hurt. For Cobain, music and pain seemed to be tied together, and he was never able to disentangle the two. Perhaps if he'd been able to have fun with it, he'd still be around.

-- Debbie Gilbert

Patti Rothberg
Between the 1 and the 9
(EMI Records)

We're all sick to death of those angry young women rockers mooning over unrequited love, right? Enough already with the Alanis generation.

At first blush Patti Rothberg appears to be working that same tired turf. The opening words out of her pouty mouth on Between the 1 and the 9, -- "Black clouds in a summer fire/Black clouds in your memory" -- sound like they were lifted directly from an especially lachrymose diary entry. But the debut from this one-time Manhattan busker only gets better. Rothberg manages to rise above Prozac poster-girl status by composing propulsive rockers whose sweet, layered melodies are a fitting foil to her snarling lyrics. "This One's Mine" is an energetic revenge anthem that spotlights Rothberg's taste for peppy beats and sumptuous Southern rock hooks, a la the Allman Brothers. "Treat Me Like Dirt" celebrates the dysfunctional approach to love with sly abandon: "I shut out acceptance so I won't get hurt/And move on to the next one who will treat me like dirt," Rothberg spits. Sure, she's pissed. But at least she's aiming the blame in both directions.

"Forgive Me" offers a slinky melody fleshed out by trilling organ fills, while "Up Against the Wall" is a delightful clamor of guitars and drums that marks Rothberg's closest flirtation with punk. She's at her best, though, when she places scorn above self-pity, and madness above wrath. The one classic on this fine collection, "Out of My Mind" is a down-and-dirty twelve-bar stomp that reveals the singer's obvious affinity for Janis Joplin.

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