After Kurt Cobain took his life in April with a shotgun blast to the head, the 27-year-old leader of Nirvana was canonized as rock ’n’ roll’s savior. A self-styled punk, Cobain had picked up the blowtorch dropped by Britain’s Sex Pistols more than a decade earlier to create a raw, passionate, uncompromising music for the 1990s. The success of the grunge sound paved the way for numerous other Seattle bands, including Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, which combine Nirvana’s punk-like intensity with the crunching sounds of hardrock groups like Led Zeppelin. Now, a live acoustic album by Nirvana sheds new light on Cobain’s considerable talents. It comes at the same time as the latest studio recording by Pearl Jam, Nirvana’s greatest rival. Meanwhile, Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page have reunited for a new album of their own—as have another fixture of the 1970s, the California rockers The Eagles, whose breezy, country-rock sound is the antithesis of the hard-driving music of Zeppelin and the grunge bands.
Nirvana’s Unplugged in New York (Geffen/MCA) is a stark showcase of Cobain’s gifts as a mesmerizingly tormented poet-performer. Recorded in November, 1993, for the U.S. MTV network in front of a studio audience, the album presents 14 songs, including eight Nirvana originals (although not the huge hit Smells Like Teen Spirit, which MTV helped popularize) in their most soul-baring form. Accompanied by band mates Krist Novoselic on bass and Dave Grohl on drums, Cobain sounds vulnerable on
the plaintive Christian ballad Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam and possessed on Leadbelly’s anguished In the Pines.
Cobain’s own lyrics, full of his trademark contradictory emotions, seem transformed by his death. Come as You Are, with its wobbly, snaking guitar, includes one line that may make fans feel angry, even cheated, given how Cobain died—“I swear that I don’t have a gun.” And when he repeats, “All alone is all we are,” in the droning All Apologies, the mantra takes on a haunting resonance. But the album’s most chilling moment comes during Pennyroyal Tea, when Cobain, performing solo, pleads: “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld, so I can sigh eternally.” Like much of his performance on Unplugged, it serves as a poignant postscript to a brilliant, but tragically brief, career.
Like Nirvana, Pearl Jam evolved from a grungy bar band into one of the top touring acts on the rock circuit. And like other Seattle acts, it owes much of its success to Cobain’s groundbreaking trio. Pearl Jam’s invigorating new album could almost stand as a life-affirming response to Cobain’s death. Several songs on the new album, titled Vitalogy
Some rock hard, some rock exotically and some hardly rock at all
(Epic/Sony), seem to comment on his suicide. Immortality includes references to someone who “cannot find the comfort in this world,” while on Tremor Christ, singer Eddie Vedder insists, “I’ll decide/take the dive/take my time/not my life.” The album also includes a few straightforward ballads and a couple of nonsensical, throwaway tracks.
Vedder and the band are best when delivering the reckless, unbridled energy that has made them a big-ticket draw. That comes through strongest on three fast, thrashing punk numbers: Last Exit, Whipping and Spin the Black Circle, which decries the death of vinyl recordings. Sounding like a frenzied Zeppelin for the 1990s, Pearl Jam displays admirable gusto.
Paradoxically, Page and Plant sound less like Led Zeppelin and more like an adventurous world-beat band on No Quarter (Atlantic/Wamer). Produced as an “unplugged” project for MTV and humorously subtitled Jimmy Page & Robert Plant Unledded, the album represents the first major recorded collaboration between the two musicians in
14 years. And how times have changed. Where Plant and Page once dabbled in the mystical landscapes of Indian and Arab cultures, here they have thrown themselves headlong into those exotic worlds. Backed by traditional Moroccan musicians and an 11-piece Egyptian ensemble, they create rich versions of early classics like Friends and the epic Kashmir, which originally used synthesized Arabic orchestration. And The Battle of Evermore, a song steeped in British folk traditions, features Page on mandolin and a stirring duet between Plant and Anglo-Asian singer Najma Akhtar. There are also three new songs full of African percussion and Arabic ouds (lute-like instruments) and flutes that will appeal to lovers of global music. Fans of Zeppelin’s hard rock, however, may be disap-
pointed. Also back (due again to MTV), after a 14-year absence, are The Eagles. Hell Freezes Over (Geffen/ MCA) features four new songs and 11 rerecorded favorites drawn from the band’s reign through the 1970s as the leading purveyors of countryrock. The album’s title is an ironic reference to The Eagles’ denial that they would ever reunite. While it is good to hear such classics as Hotel
California, Tequila Sunrise and Desperado, the collection seems little more than an excuse to promote the aging band’s reunion tour and replenish its coffers. Don Henley and Glenn Frey, who was forced out of the tour with an intestinal ailment, bring no fresh emotion to the old hits. And with the exception of Get Over It, a post-New Age rocker that includes the scathing line, “I’d like to find your inner child and kick its little ass,” the new material sounds like limp retreads. Recorded on Nirvana’s record label the same month as Cobain killed himself, Hell Freezes Over is the very kind of music—safe and crassly commercial—that the grunge god despised.
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