Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Battle For Seattle

Little Roy - Battle For Seattle
released 5 September 2011 on Ark Recordings

Musician Earl “Little Roy” Lowe has been making records since the 1960s. He’s worked with The Wailers and Lee “Scratch” Perry, and was responsible for the first Jamaican hit single about the Rastafari movement. Like the vast majority of reggae artists, he’s been largely ignored by the rock-centric mainstream media for practically his whole career. Until now, that is, because Little Roy had made an album consisting entirely of cover versions of Nirvana songs.

Before you can shout, “novelty record,” it should be pointed out that these tracks are treated with the care and reverence they deserve. There’s nothing remotely ironic or tongue-in-cheek about it, Little Roy and his band are simply interpreting some great songs in the best way they know how.

And what songs they are. Battle For Seattle proves once and for all that Nirvana were always far too talented to be tied by the constraints of the inward-looking grunge movement. Kurt Cobain, as well as being an avid fan of Pixies and The Melvins, was a disciple of The Beatles and The Vaselines amongst others, and stripping away the layers of distortion really showcases the quality and, in some cases, beauty of his compositions.

What’s particularly noticeable, especially on tracks like Heart Shaped Box and Lithium, is how incongruous it sounds to hear these well known songs rendered in such an uptempo style. It’s certainly an interesting juxtaposition when paired with some of Cobain’s more challenging lyrics, but the arrangements are so deftly handled it feels like some tracks (Polly and Son Of A Gun, for instance), were specifically written to be performed in a reggae style.

One noticeable absentee from the album is Nirvana’s most famous track, Smells Like Teen Spirit. In fact, some of the choices are far from obvious (there are three songs from compilation album, Incesticide) and it would be particularly interesting to know the logic behind the selection process.

Unplugged In New York showed the world Cobain was a great songwriter and Battle For Seattle reasserts that. The off-beat, choppy guitar licks accentuate some of the more daring chord changes (see Very Ape or Polly) and a bassy, sparse production frames On A Plain wonderfully. Little Roy has made the best of great material and has incorporated some great touches – the horn accompaniments on Dive and Lithium are fantastic, and the backing vocals, including a joyous “oo-WOO!” at the end of each verse line, make his version of Sliver the best track of the bunch.

Battle For Seattle isn’t perfect – Come As You Are lacks the punch of the original and the opening riff is replicated in a grating, Muzak style – but it’s a great attempt at an idea that had the potential to go disastrously wrong. The sheer variation on offer here is also commendable; it’s always quintessentially reggae, but varied enough to keep the listener interested throughout. It’s also a damn sight better than any grunge reworking of Exodus is likely to be.

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