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 This album's primary value, after all, is as a historical document.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
Between the 1 and the 9
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.
No, she's not that good. But at least she's mining the right sources.
-- Steven Almond
Patti Rothberg opens for Primitive Radio Gods Monday, October 28, at the Hard Rock Cafe, 401 Biscayne Blvd; 377-3110. Showtime is 10:00. Admission is free.
Scud Mountain Boys
When this Triple-A styled country quartet's debut for Sub Pop was released earlier this year, I missed it. I heard it, but I didn't really hear it. It spoke too quietly: Compared to the raucous barrelhouse stomp of the Bottle Rockets, the evocative honky-pop of Wilco, and the plaintive ache and raw emotion of Son Volt, the Scuds' hushed vocals and relentless downer vibe seemed a pretentious take on country's infatuation with torment and melancholy.
Still, something kept pulling me back to Massachusetts, and now, too many months after its release, I hear it: The downer vibe has the natural feel of real life, and those hushed vocals make perfect sense after discerning the lyrics, which chronicle the lives of heartbreak stoners, alcoholics, and other broken-down casualties of tormented, melancholic life. Joe Pernice sings like a whipped dog, barely audible on the suicide lament "In a Ditch," and soaked in regret on "Grudge ****," a late-night call to a lost love. His defeatist moan on "Big Hole" and "Penthouse in the Woods" is undercut by Bruce Tull's gorgeous lap and pedal steel guitar, and the band conjures an effective kind of rocking honky-tonk choog on both "Cigarette Sandwich" (a song as funny as its title) and "Lift Me Up," a drinking song that defines perfectly this band's singular brand of rural pathos.
-- John Floyd
Never knew there was such a thing as Argentinean hardcore? Me neither, but Fun People serves notice that you don't have to put brown contacts on Madonna to hear the new Argentina. The Buenos Aires quartet has released two full-length records on Frost Bite, one of their country's biggest indie labels. The band's first release, Anesthesia, was full of hard-hitting, upbeat tunes that registered on the metal end of the hardcore spectrum. The lyrics, many in English, offered intriguing glimpses into the political consciousness (and passable English) of Argentina's youth -- or at least those who, like singer Nekro, wear blond dreadlocks and know who GG Allin is.
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Kum Kum shows the band mixing some morsels of melodic experimentation with the usual hardcore formula of double-time yelling and midtempo chanting. The result is, well, mixed. "Mother Earth," with its bouncy guitar hook, is an enjoyable nod to whoa-whoa pop punk. Several tunes feature off-time beats and horn sections, hinting at Voodoo Glow Skulls or maybe Fishbone. "In the World of Hate" starts of as a ballsy rant, then breaks down into Nekro doing his best Roy Orbison impression. "Sabado" is strummy, clean-guitar, finger-snapping Fifties pop that Ritchie Valens would have liked.
Some of these ventures work, especially "Easy to Come" and the stirring "Rebel Pose." Others fall flat, especially the ones where the band drops back and Nekro's tenuous command of English pronunciation is glaring ("Bad Man" will make you squirm). The best stuff on Kum Kum is the hard stuff. "Kops" shows off some super-heavy playing from the three-piece band and some really excellent snarling from Nekro; "Sometimes" is a blistering pit anthem.
Like many bands that admire Anglo music from afar, Fun People does some inappropriate and jarring genre bending. Still, the hardcore highlights of Kum Kum hold up just fine next to their U.S. and U.K. counterparts.
-- Ted B. Kissell
Fun People performs Sunday, October 27, at Cheers, 2490 SW 17th Ave; 857-0041. The all-ages show begins at 8:00. Admission is $5.