Wednesday, 13 January 2010



Released in October 1993 No Alternative was the alternative rock contribution to the much-respected Red Hot series of the AIDS relief compilations.  This release sat between Red Hot + Dance and Red Hot + Country.  In subsequent years it has become best known as being the home of “Verse Chorus Verse” by Nirvana that originally appeared on the album as a hidden track.  In the 90s every album seemed to have a hidden entry at the end of the CD.

This is a well intentioned but strange selection of acts.  Just about arriving pre-Kurt committing suicide, these acts (nineteen in all) were more the major label, signed side of college rock rather than actual indie acts.  That’s not to say it is immediately bad, just that the intentions maybe were not as earnest or pure as some of the better acts of the era.  Essentially this was more MTV than Sub Pop.  Also its left leaning without courting anyone acting controversial.

In addition to Nirvana, representing grunge and punk rock were Soundgarden, Bob Mould, The Breeders, Pavement and Smashing Pumpkins in addition to that old warhorse Patti Smith appearing at the end.  Then expanding the scene slightly Buffalo Tom and Urge Overkill comfortably sit in as genre credentials stretched to acts such as Soul Asylum and Goo Goo Dolls.  Also with one foot safely in rap and the other in rock the Beastie Boys qualified mostly from being designers of the music zeitgeist.

In many ways the first track on the album perfectly captures the vibe and intention of the project and time.  “Superdeformed” by Matthew Sweet is a rocking fuzzed up track with explicitly self-depreciating lyrics and a cap that perfectly fit the generation.  Sweet was never a big gun during the 120 Minutes era but he carved out a career with perhaps a perfect trajectory and balance that keep him just the right side of the rock radar.  This is a big sounding song with big hooks.  And for many that was enough.

Being a tribute album a number of acts took the opportunity to do cover versions and the results are mixed.  The generally embarrassing Soul Asylum comes off worst with their shameful cover of “Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye.  It was a cheesy song in the first place but now semi gormless stoners with a range of hairstyles were making apparent promises they could never keep.  Surprisingly more respectable is the Goo Goo Dolls rocking take on “Bitch” by the Rolling Stones which is surprisingly solid while the Uncle Tupelo version of “Effigy” by Creedence Clearwater Revival is very Crazy Horse.

So dividing the heavyweights and the lightweights: Soundgarden chip in with the passable “Show Me” which at times almost sounds like Guns N’ Roses.  In contrast Bob Mould does what he does best with “Can’t Fight It” which is getting to the fucking point in the most magnificent manner possible.

The threesome of live tracks is a mixed bag.  Patti Smith’s live acapella rendition of “Memorial Song” dedicated to Robert Mapplethorpe is middling while The Breeders performance of “Iris” from Pod is sweeping and wonderful very much like the studio version.  And the Beastie Boys “It’s The New Style” is appropriately energetic if not ecstatic.

If it is funny to note the Smashing Pumpkins sat next to Pavement considering the apparent feud/cross words penned by Stephen Malkmus on their single “Range Life”.  Contribution wise Billy Corgan offers a chilled, delicate dose of drifting melancholia in “Glynis” while Pavement drop explicit dedication to REM via “The Unseen Power Of The Picket Fence”.

Additionally playing into the formula Urge Overkill rock out with a strange hybrid of Live, Led Zep and Eddie Vedder in “Take A Walk” while Buffalo Tom appear achingly restrained in their swirling distribution of “For All To See” which seeps/screams Bob Mould in influence.

Of the rest there is almost a sense of making up the numbers.  American Music Club exhibits a unique swagger akin to Soul Coughing/Morphine/Cake that works well situated here but others such as Straitjacket Fits and The Verlaines are not quite necessary while Barbara Manning and Sarah McLachlan are just a bit too normal for this show.

So how about that Nirvana track?  Its In Utero era Kurt Cobain.  It’s flighty and bombastic with heavy drums and big guitars.  The hook is huge and Kurt’s voice clear in a song previously oft bootlegged in demo form under the names “Another Rule” and “Sappy”.  Later to further complicate things another Nirvana song wound up possessing the title “Verse Chorus Verse”, which at one point I believe also was a suggested album name ahead of In Utero.  No wonder it is unlisted in the running order.

In the end the album just needed REM (and maybe Sonic Youth).

Thesaurus moment: betoken.


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