Worthwhile live albums are as rare in rock & roll as enjoyable drum solos. It may be that the form is inherently flawed — after all, attempting to transfer the magic of a great concert onto the frozen permanence of a CD is an iffy business at best (no one’s yet figured out how to capture the smoky, sweaty ambiance of a rock club). Often, removed from the context of the venue where it was recorded, music that may have struck concertgoers as transcendent is revealed as wooden, lackluster, or just plain substandard.
While there have been some seminal live albums — like the Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East — too many don’t measure up. There’s also the perception (too often the reality) that such efforts are a way for an artist to turn a quick buck, to release a ”new” album without working up fresh material.
In the case of From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah, the second live recording to be released by Nirvana since its demise, these gripes are mitigated both by the band’s historical importance and the void left by frontman Kurt Cobain’s 1994 suicide. Wishkah (the title refers to the river that runs through Cobain’s hometown, Aberdeen, Wash.) is the long-awaited electric sequel to Nirvana’s 1994 acoustic album, MTV Unplugged in New York. As selected by Nirvana’s surviving members, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl, along with Geffen A&R exec Mark Kates, Wishkah’s 16 songs (recorded in a variety of European and American venues between 1989 and 1994) present a vivid aural portrait of the untamed fury of Seattle’s favorite grungemongers. Loud, abrasive, and yes, muddy, Wishkah is a sonic sledgehammer of a record.
Things kick off with some brief free-form bass noodling from Novoselic, followed by a series of raw-throated primal screams from Cobain that hint at what’s to come. As a distilled overview of Nirvana’s oeuvre, Wishkah touches all the right bases, from the early antisocial anthems (”Negative Creep”) to the big hits (”Smells Like Teen Spirit”) to the punishing In Utero-era rants (”Scentless Apprentice”). ”Polly,” the infamous mind-of-a-rapist ditty best known in its 1991 acoustic form, is here in its fully rocked-out 1989 incarnation (it’s one of two cuts that feature early drummer Chad Channing). Former Germs guitarist Pat Smear, hired to beef up Nirvana’s live sound, is present on four tracks, though he’s only really noticeable on ”Milk It,” which spotlights some stridently atonal guitar chatter. No slight on Smear — it’s just that Nirvana, like Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience before them, were such a self-contained, full-bodied trio that outside musicians seemed extraneous.
Hearing these songs again evokes a potent nostalgia. Six years ago few could have predicted the enormous popularity and influence of Nevermind, the band’s 1991 breakthrough — least of all Kurt Cobain. A punk-obsessed malcontent who embraced a sub-bohemian lifestyle after dropping out of high school, Cobain was uniquely ill suited to adopt the spokesman-of-his-generation mantle that he accrued in the wake of superstardom. And while romanticizing his final, desperate act is ultimately as dumb as, say, choosing Sid Vicious as a role model, it’s worth noting that the too-much-too-soon syndrome has destroyed far hardier individuals than Cobain.
Viewed together, Wishkah and its unplugged predecessor perfectly embody the yin-yang dynamic at the heart of Nirvana’s art. Truth be told, MTV Unplugged in New York is a more accessible, nuanced, and varied album. But even if Wishkah contains no new songs or intriguing covers, it provides nearly as satisfying an addendum to Nirvana’s story. Anyone who’s ever basked in the sheer joy of anarchic noise will want to crank it — for Kurt, for punk, and for the life-affirming energy this monumental band could generate on a good night. B+