I remember a friend handing me Sweet 75, Krist Novoselic’s post-Nirvana project back sometime late in my time at school. I also remember not thinking much of it –with age I begin to wonder whether I may have overlooked some essential quality within the album…So, given Novoselic’s post-Nirvana releases are so cheap on eBay I did some digging and decided it was time to revisit Sweet 75, the No WTO Combo and Eyes Adrift. What do Novoselic’s post-1994 releases demonstrate about Kurt Cobain’s chief lieutenant and are they worth time and energy in and of themselves?
Starting with Sweet 75, OK, it vanished without a trace at the time despite ongoing work right through into 2000 – curious to think of it as a five year project when Nirvana itself barely lasted seven. Of course it doesn’t seem to have been a band with great ambition behind it – a significant contrast to Nirvana’s 60-90 gigs a year heyday and regular recording and release schedule. That’s often the problem with something so casual – as a one-off, as a document of a specific moment in time, they can often be effective. But the idea that this album is a testament to efforts between 1995 and 1997 – the same length of time it took for Nirvana to go from Mrs Butterworth to the January 1988 sessions, through Love Buzz and all the way to Bleach…Of course, Wikipedia states that he met Yva Las Vegas at one of his birthdays – which would mean either the association began around May 1994 (which seems a bit swift and sudden perhaps?) or didn’t begin until May 1995…Oh well. What of the album?
This is going to come as a controversial statement, but the Sweet 75 album stands as a real testament regarding Krist’s hidden talent as a guitarist. Trying to focus down simply on his guitar-playing, it’s remarkable how adaptable he is. On Cantos de Pilon he contributes a beautifully finger-picked Spanish guitar backing. On Ode to Dolly, Dogs and Japan Trees you’ll hear a jazzy guitar vibe similar to Cobain’s Black & White Blues home demo. Lay Me Down, Six Years and Nothing all plumb the Americana vein. La Vida meanwhile is bloody crooner-jazz music more befitting Michael Buble…I admire that last piece of open-mindedness while still not wanting it on my stereo. The rest of the album has a firmer alt-rock feel but always with other touches emerging like Bite My Hand’s South American breakdown. He’s certainly a more traditional guitar player than Cobain – the moments of overdriven fuzz on the record are used sparingly while little here feels wildly out of control – he has a clear grip of technique and such a wide awareness of styles and techniques which he deploys with real precision. The song Six Years moves through several different feels and vibes in a relatively brisk four minutes.
The only slight issue one could point to is that across the album there’s a relatively limited tempo to all the songs. It’s like comparing top form Lil Wayne mixtapes to the walking pace approach on The Carter IV where he could barely break out of ‘talking speed’ for more than a song or two. The same affliction is present on Sweet 75 – it’s an album of half a dozen dominant styles, divided again by the diversions taken within each individual song, but all taken at the pace one might reserve for practising an instrument. Accuracy rules over heart n’ soul. Praising the openness to neat instrumental touches – like the really well placed mellotron interventions on Fetch, or the accordion on Oral Health – is genuine, the compositional talent on display is very clear but, again, it feels constructed in it’s precision while simultaneously lacking a unifying feel.
On Game’s The RED Album there’s a horrendous mid-album R n’ B segment which seems cynically planned to permit sales to the dominant music market and to open it up to the female demographic. It totally ruins the momentum of the overall album, destroys the flow – not to mention that the songs are appalling crap. There’s absolutely no sense of anything so strategically planned out (and strategically flawed) on the Sweet 75 album – it feels far more spontaneous, it is what it is…The problem being that there’s not much sense of a plan at all. Nevermind clearly has a plan – Cobain quite clearly is mapping out the flow of the LP and does so for quite a long time prior to the album’s finalisation. That album is also a very focused object – there’s no huge deviation into completely disparate territory and yet, simultaneously, it certainly doesn’t belabour a single sound nor outstay it’s welcome. The Sweet 75 album is of comparable length but flies off in so many directions there’s no flow or development to it – there’s no movement, no reason why a song should be in one place or another and as a listening experience it’s really audible. While the Game’s effort wants to be a gangsta rap revival AND a chart-bothering R n’ B EP all on the same overlong album, the Sweet 75 album doesn’t seem to have any determined identity, it simply flits between guises to the detriment of some good touches, good moments and details. It’s wrong to read too much into a single release but if it said anything about Novoselic it would be that he has an incredible amount of under-exposed and under-rated musical talent that went to waste in the dictatorship that was Nirvana – however, it suggests he functions better with a leader, with someone saying what will fly and what must die.
What more can I say? At its core Sweet 75 has a suite of really excellent alt. rock songs with Take Another Step and Red Dress being tracks I’ll happily listen to again – there’s something that reminds me of Babes in Toyland about the vocal delivery which is eminently listenable. Around those songs, however, are so many diversions it’s impossible to love it all. I’ve spoken to two journalists who say that after Cobain’s death they had to move away from working on rock music because Kurt, for them, had exposed all the gross consequences and endings of the clichés of rock n’ roll. I would understand Novoselic wanting to play something a world away from Nirvana – which he does here – but at some point this album needed someone to decide what it was, it doesn’t have that. Foo Fighters got it right; a punk rock/pop rock band – set the controls, go. It doesn’t mean I always loved them but it was clear what was being delivered. Sweet 75 is three EPs in 14 tracks – I still don’t know who they are.
Eyes Adrift is a firm correction of almost all those question marks. It further expands my appreciation of Novoselic as a musician too – Krist sings! And he does a good job of it too! His voice is surprisingly similar to Curt Kirkwood’s, maybe his voice is just something he had to grow into because it’s a world away from his 1987 take on Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves. I’m immediately fond of his gentle approach on Inquiring Minds – it’s a great lil’ song! And, this time around, Curt clearly provides the leadership and the focus lacking from Sweet 75 – the album has a defined identity, a solid core, a unity that lends coherence. But wait…Agh. OK, I like the Meat Puppets, I like Meat Puppets II, I like Up on the Sun…But the problem is there’s only so much southern hospitality rock I can take. The focused identity of the Eyes Adrift album is that particularly gentle country rock vibe Meat Puppets ended up with – it’s ultimately a Meat Puppets album with one Krist replacing one Cris, when what would be a neater thing would be a Nirvana-ish album with one Curt replacing the other Kurt. Instead it just feels a bit…Gentle, a bulbous summer warmth that never boils into sweaty motion or dries to frazzled crispness. It also shows Krist, on the Dottie Dawn & Julie Jewel track, again proving quite keen on the Leadbelly guitar influence a few decades too late. But maybe it’s just me. Middle-of-the-Road indie is as irksome as MOR rock always was.
Which brings me to the No WTO Combo – phew, Gods, it’s nice to hear some raw guitar and an impassioned vocalist at last! On Full Metal Jackoff Jello Biafra’s delivery recalls Johnny Rotten’s style on Pretty Vacant – a good sound to emulate. Again, there’s a clear leader here – the first fifteen minutes are Jello hyping the cowd, there’s a Dead Kennedys’ song, there’s a song from his 1989 collaboration with D.O.A., there’s two new songs he’s written. But what the hell, it means there’s a sound being aimed for and it works well. Plus it’s a focused recording – a single night, a specific point in time, a quality line-up including Kim Thayil who kills on guitar. When defending Sweet 75 or Eyes Adrift I can understand people saying that they’re unpretentious records, that they’re the sound of musicians enjoying themselves…Except I think the No WTO live show sounds a lot less pretentious, a lot more like musicians enjoying themselves – the albums are not people just cutting an album for the hell of it, they’ve made an album because they want to release some music and have formulated it as such. No WTO Combo is about highlighting a cause, getting attention, putting the word out there…But it kicks ass in a way the other two don’t. There’s a real feeling of being sat bobbing head up-and-down on the corner of a stage in a club so full everyone has an elbow in there gut one way or another – the production is somehow so clear and yet it also that slight mist over everything that makes it live – you can hear Jello breathe…Momentum matters, Jello spending a minute or two ranting doesn’t break the intensity at all thanks to his practised delivery, it just lends outrage in between the bursts of straight-forward punk.
I’m definitely aware that what I’m feeling is my preference for rock over indie – my assessment has to be judged on those terms, that I’m arguing from the perspective of someone who ‘feels’ the rough-edged punk guitar but feels no affinity for quite a lot of country-influenced music (there are exceptions! The Broken Family Band, early Meat Puppets, Herd of Turtles!) The drift toward stripped down acoustic music seems to be a simple part of the life progression of the average noisenik or ex-alt. rocker, even Thurston Moore has ended up there (thank God for Chelsea Lights Moving and Twilight) while Michael Gira has really owned it (thank God for the Swans revival but also for Gira being able to make even the most lite song sound menacing.) Being aware of it, that eventually turning down the volume is all anyone seems to be able to do doesn’t make me a vast supporter of it. The directness of the No WTO Combo, the absence of any attempt to create an album makes for a far stronger connection with the artists while Sweet 75 and Eyes Adrift…They don’t speak with me, I don’t feel someone communicating to anyone outside of the circle of players. Ah well.
Again, the inlay booklet presents Krist on articulate form – he wears his intelligence lightly, it’s been impossible for years to ever mistake the guy for a fool. He writes well, speaks well, makes points effectively and with a clear depth of knowledge and awareness. Again, reading the liner notes of the No WTO Combo gave me a further appreciation for Krist Novoselic. Really glad I spent the £6-7 it took to get hold of the three records even if they reminded me of what was lost when the stakes got too high. The result is that zone of comfort, of lack of consequence to music – when it’s just something nice to do rather than something one has to do, the millionaire rock star syndrome or just the aftermath of the horror?