(Review by Steve Shafer)
After their monumental, game-changing Nevermind was released in 1991 (launching grunge, in particular, and alternative music in general into the stratosphere), Nirvana were inescapable: they ruled, fueled, and defined college/classic/modern rock radio, the music press, and MTV (back then, if you had told me that these three forms of media would be practically irrelevant 20 years later, I would have laughed loudly in your face). While I wasn't a huge fan--my musical preferences then were more along the lines of Britpop and ska/reggae (obviously)--I couldn't help but admire how at the core of many of Nirvana's hits lay an incredibly keen pop sensibility. These were intensely catchy songs that deserved to be hits, even if they were obscured by a sonic wall of punky grunge fury. That Kurt Cobain could write a damn good melody.
And that's a key component of what makes Little Roy's Battle for Seattle (CD/LP, Ark Recordings, 2011), a roots reggae album of Nirvana covers, such a brilliant (and completely enjoyable) success. A really well-written song is like a high-performance engine--it doesn't matter what car body you dress it up in, it's still going to drive like mad! It isn't limited by genre. But what really allows Battle for Seattle to transcend the usual shortcomings of a tribute album (mimicking the original artist out of an overabundance of reverence or fear of alienating the fans by deviating too much from the source material) is that this is a fully-realized, whip smart re-imagining--or, more appropriately (in Jamaican fashion, naturally), re-versioning of Nirvana's original tracks. Little Roy and Co. own these tunes.
As a result, it doesn't really matter if you are familiar with these cuts off of Bleach, Nevermind, In Utero, or Unplugged (though this record will probably blow the minds of hardcore Nirvana fans)--the tracks here sound as if they had been originally written as reggae songs (which reminds me--embarrassingly--of when I was a teenager in the '80s and heard Smokey Robinson & the Miracles' "Tears of a Clown" on the radio in Memphis, of all places, and thought, "that's a really good cover of the English Beat!"). Almost from the start, you realize, "Courtney, we're not in Seattle any more!" when the horn line in "Dive" abruptly shifts to incorporate the "Real Rock" rhythm, as if to boldly plant the Rasta colors and claim this territory in the name of Reggae. Clearly, album producers (who came up with this concept in the first place) Prince Fatty and Mutant Hi-Fi put much thought and care into adapting these songs to the reggae idiom. For proof, check out "Come As You Are's" eerie, dubby, Welson organ opening (from the bass line in Nirvana's original, which itself was pilfered from Killing Joke's stunningly furious "Eighties") or the bouncy "Is This Love" Bob Marley-ish arrangement of "Polly" (kind of ironic, since love certainly isn't in the equation here). Even the disposable sexual relationship of "About a Girl" ("I'll take advantage/while you hang me out to dry") is given an almost majestic context with these expansive, echo-throughout-the-landscape horn lines.
One of the other immediately striking things is that you can actually understand Cobain's often difficult, painful, and brutal lyrics (about abusive relationships, severe alienation, drug addiction, and deeply damaged minds), which Little Roy presents in a very straightforward, drama-free manner that's quite effective (the lyrics pack a devastating Joe Frazier punch all by themselves). In the bleak and ugly recounting of what one assumes was Cobain's mercurial, co-dependent relationship with Courtney Love in "Heart Shaped Box," Little Roy deftly brings out the humor of the "Hey!/Wait!/I've got a new complaint" chorus after heavy lyrics like "Throw down your umbilical noose/so I can climb right back" (yes, the heart-shaped box here is her uterus). "Polly"--with its horrific sexually sadistic subtext--comes across as more pathetic and mournful than malevolent and cruel. Little Roy's delivery on "On a Plain"--about a stuck-in-neutral, self-aware, but self-centered heroin user--is perfectly blase and non-commital--even blissed-out ("I love myself/better than you/I know it's wrong/so what should I do?/I'm on a plain/I can't complain"). "Come As You Are" (originally addressed to Nirvana's fans) is probably the closest to the ska/reggae ethos of acceptance and tolerance: "Come doused in mud/soaked in bleach" (and you definitely believe Little Roy's sincere when he states he doesn't have a gun hidden behind his back--Cobain did, but it was only to be aimed at himself).
Just in case you're wondering, Nirvana's (now cliched) signature alternating soft-and-melodic verse/blaring-crunch-blast chorus song structure is (wisely) abandoned--it's just not a reggae thing. All of Nirvana's bellowing rage is sublimated--reggae doesn't wear its anger on its sleeve like punk or grunge. It's expressed through supremely confident, never-faultering righteous indignation--a deadly cool, slow burn (captured best here as Little Roy sings "Lithium's" defiant in-the-face-of-madness chorus: "I like it/I'm not gonna crack/I miss you/I'm not gonna crack/I love you/I'm not gonna crack/I saved you/I'm not gonna crack").
One last comment about this album's sound: Battle for Seattle's super warm production by Prince Fatty and Mutant Hi-Fi conveys a clarity and immediacy that are really best heard through a proper stereo from a CD or LP. You'll miss way too much in the compressed Mp3 format playing through your computer speakers or earbuds. Go old school with this one. Little Roy's Battle for Seattle takes all kinds of wild risks in covering Nirvana's almost sacred songbook, but ends up triumphing big time. There are mighty few reggae records this year that can match the full-on glories of this one.
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Originally published on November 11, 2011.
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