More than a month after Kurt Cobain’s overdose, one image from that incident lingers like a wave of guitar feedback. It was a simple black-and-white photo, published in the U.S. in People, of the inside of the Italian ambulance that whisked him away. Lying on a stretcher with a paramedic at his side, his face covered with an oxygen mask, Cobain is barely recognizable. Sitting a stethoscope’s stretch away is a bleached blond clutching her sunglasses. The woman is, of course, Courtney Love, Cobain’s spouse and fellow musician, and her face-a numb, bleary-eyed mask of shock and vulnerability-captures the feeling many of us had when we heard the news. It may be one of the most chilling rock photos ever taken.
Just as revealing, the Love caught in that photo hardly seems like the caterwauling ex-stripper and media junkie (and junkie of other sorts) of her self-created legend. Instead, she looks like a woman in relative control of a horrific situation. That same impression extends to Live Through This, the second album from Love’s band, Hole. Pretty on the Inside, the group’s 1991 debut, seemed mostly an excuse for Love to throw a musical temper tantrum. Only she and guitarist Eric Erlandson remain from that first edition of Hole, but a new, steadier rhythm section (bassist Kristen Pfaff and drummer Patty Schemel) isn’t the only noticeable change on Live Through This. The album practically screams out its credo: Love can do more than supply magazines with how-could-she-say-that? quotes-pleasant surprises of surprises, it turns out she can carry a tune and write a decent song, too.
For starters, Love is noticeably more restrained and lucid on Live Through This than on previous recordings. It takes her a full 10 songs, for instance, before she summons up all the requisite phlegm in her throat and unleashes a standard, full-throated, glass-cutting ”f – - yowwww!” Life in the media spotlight, motherhood, being called Nirvana’s Yoko Ono, the idea that love and sex strip women of their dignity-these and other thoughts are on her mind, and her frazzled, occasionally venomous observations make for what amounts to a shrink session with a beat.
”I want to be the girl with the most cake,” she sings in ”Doll Parts,” while doubting her own lust for fame by adding ”I fake it so real I am beyond fake.” The lulling, creamy-sounding ”Asking for It,” inspired by the time Love leapt into her audience and had her clothes ripped to shreds, leads her to muse, ”Everytime that I sell myself to you/I feel a little bit cheaper than I need to.” As for child-rearing, Love’s sentiments would make those familiar with Carly Simon’s similar cooings 20 years ago blanch: ”I don’t do the dishes/I throw them in the crib,” she bites off in ”Plump,” her ode to pregnancy and carnal desire. Love also sets the record for using the word milk on an album, and she isn’t talking about having a bowl of Cap’n Crunch.
Making a case for ”the family that wails together,” many of these songs, like those on Nirvana’s In Utero, open with mid-tempo strumming-the musical equivalent of a slacker nodding off-then whip themselves into modest frenzy in the choruses. The approach adds a sense of musical dynamics missing from Hole’s first album, but just as often, the deliberate underproduction works against the songs. The guitars, in particular, don’t kick you in the gut enough. ”Rock Star,” a jibe at the riot-grrrl scene that now disses Love, has some great lines (”We look the same/We talk the same/We even f – - the same,” Love sneers back). Still, its mild roar isn’t likely to put much of a scare into any of those young bile-spewers. As with other tracks on of the album, what you take away isn’t a guitar riff but Love’s voice. A thick, reedy instrument that makes her sound like the younger, brattier sister of Johnny Rotten, it stands out like a suited IBM executive at Lollapalooza.
Maybe that’s how it should be. It isn’t uncommon to find a woman with an electric guitar fronting a band in 1994, be it a shock-value feminist like PJ Harvey, a somewhat overrated critics’ darling like Liz Phair, or the charmingly doofy Kim and Kelley Deal of the Breeders. Love isn’t as musicianly as those others-the distorted vocal on ”She Walks on Me” would have sounded fresher if the Breeders hadn’t done it first on ”Cannonball.” What Live Through This makes perfectly clear, though, is that Love is a greater star. She has charisma and attitude to burn, and she knows it. And these days that simple distinction can mean just as much as slick production-be the player male or female. B+