Picks and Pans Review: From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah
Kurt Cobain, who once lived under a bridge on the Wishkah River in Aberdeen, Wash., is often compared to another gifted, but sadly destined musician, John Lennon. Cobain was a lifelong Beatles fan, and on the way to his funeral, the 27-year-old singer's relatives sang a Beatles tune in his honor. One of Lennon's haunted anthems? No, Cobain's favorite Beatles song: "Yellow Submarine."
As this collection of live Nirvana performances (chosen by Cobain's surviving bandmates, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, from concert tapes recorded between 1989 and 1994) shows, the band was not about despair, even when the lyrics were. Cobain was an exultant paradox, growling bitter sentiments in funny, childlike ditties so pretty they made you glad to be alive. They seemed to make him feel the same way—sometimes. Even the familiar songs sound fresh and kinetic here: the antirape song "Polly," transformed from haunting ballad to stomping rocker, "Smells like Teen Spirit" and "Aneurysm," spat out in a 1991 postfame rage. The rare, '91 recording of Nirvana's first-ever song, "Spank Thru," proves Cobain could howl even as a newborn composer. Wishkah steam-cleans the music and lyrics, enabling us to hear them free of the distinct production styles the studio albums (often gloriously) imposed. This illuminating album reminds us that, judged on his future promise, not his past achievement, Cobain's demise may have been as great a loss as Lennon's. (DGC)