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Alive and Screaming

*** 1/2, NIRVANA "From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah," DGC

September 29, 1996|Robert Hilburn

The most startling and, in some ways, most revealing moment of this blistering live album by the most prized rock group of the '90s is leader Kurt Cobain's series of howls that leads into the 16 songs.

Listening to him now, you get the impression that Cobain's whole life as a songwriter, singer and guitarist was devoted to capturing in words and music the deeply rooted desperation--and, sometimes, affirmation--that he expressed in those primal screams.

As a writer, Cobain, who committed suicide in the spring of 1994, combined melodic strains as warm and seductive as Lennon-McCartney with thoughts sometimes as abstract, yet somehow as universal, as many of Bob Dylan's most admired lines.

Though often elusive individually, Cobain's songs when placed side by side in an album or concert gave us a marvelously absorbing portrait of a rebel's view of a world that for him was a frequently threatening and corrupt place. It was that anger and alienation that touched a nerve in a young audience around the world.

The most artful and even-handed summaries of Cobain's musical vision are still found in Nirvana's key studio albums, 1991's "Nevermind" and 1993's "In Utero."

But there are moments when extremes are more satisfying--times when you want to withdraw from the confusions and contradictions of life and close the door to the outside world while you try to regain your hope and strength. And that's the time when Nirvana's delicate, wistful "MTV Unplugged in New York" album assumes special importance.

There are other periods, however, when you feel so alive that you want to kick down the door and take on the world, and that's the spirit that is celebrated in "Wishkah," which is named after a river near Aberdeen, Wash., where Cobain and bassist Krist Novoselic met as teenagers.

Drawn fairly evenly from Nirvana's pre- and post-"Nevermind" music, it is a liberating and exorcising document. Unlike those live albums that clutter things with lots of applause and artist-fan interaction, there is a strangely isolated feel about this package. Despite occasional applause between songs, the focus on the music is so intense that you feel the band (also including drummer Dave Grohl) is in essence playing a private concert for you.

While it would have been nice to have live versions of post-"Nevermind" songs that were left off in order to provide more of a career retrospective, the juxtaposition of familiar and relatively obscure tunes gives "Wishkah" a welcome freshness and individuality.

One of the highlights, in fact, is "Sliver," one of the group's pre-"Nevermind" singles. It tells of a boy being left with his grandparents for the night and suddenly, desperately wanting to be home.

When Cobain shouts, "Grandma, take me home," over and over again, he conveys youthful longing and need with an urgency reminiscent of John Lennon's classic "Mother" on the 1970 "Plastic Ono Band" album. Listening to "Sliver," knowing all we know about Cobain's troubled life, your heart aches.


New albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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