Little Roy – Battle For Seattle (Ark Recordings)
By Joseph Kyle
Get past the shock of the new. Look past what your fan-fueled thoughts may tell you about what Nirvana means, or what Kurt Cobain‘s legacy should be, because if you get caught up in such thoughts, you might fanboy yourself out of the wonderful experience of Battle For Seattle, the latest album by reggae/rocksteady legend Little Roy. Yes, it is an album of Nirvana covers. Yes, it is reggae.
You over yourself yet? Good.
For the record: I am not an expert on reggae music. I like what I like but have never made an academic study of the genre, so I couldn’t tell you whether something is technically good or generic. I simply take pleasure in the sound of the groove, and while I can understand the hardcore enthusiast’s point of view, I am not one, nor make any pretense about who and what defines the genre. To my ears, though, Battle For Seattle is the best treatment of the genre – and Kurt’s music – since the wonderful Grunge Lite.
Still, it’s a pretty fantastic thing, this Battle For Seattle. I’d first heard Little Roy’s cover of the ‘Sliver’ single; it was a good starting point, an out-of-nowhere single and concept. It was and is an addictive number; the song’s repetitive chorus of “Grandma take me home” becomes a dizzying, blissful refrain; its B-side, ‘Dive’, starts off the album. It’s a good thing I was already quite familiar with his cover, because I don’t think I’ll be listening to it much, because among the rest of the album’s songs, it’s clearly the weakest song on the record.
Then again, any song that preceded his cover of ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ would invariably pale in comparison. In his readjustment, Little Roy has taken the angst and psychosis out of the equation, and has exposed the song’s secret underbelly – that it is, essentially, a love song, a ballad, and actually a rather tender one at that. Of course, I always knew that, but Little Roy has exemplified it so brilliantly, stripping it of the C-word subject the song is thought to be about.
Another In Utero song follows, ‘Very Ape’, and its circus-like melody also helps to highlight an aspect of the song that Kurt just wasn’t able to highlight: the point of view. Yes, the song is the juxtaposition of the human-as-superior-species as taken from an ape’s point of view – or is it? It’s an abstract lyric, but Little Roy creates the vibe – at least for me – of a caged zoo animal, which, of course, probably was exactly how Kurt felt about himself.
His take on ‘Come As You Are’ amazes in another way; the slowed-down yet somewhat chipper melody builds up to the unforgettable chorus, “I swear I don’t have a gun,” and the arrangement makes the song become an interesting sequel to ‘I Shot The Sheriff’. Maybe that was the point, or maybe it was an unintended consequence? I’m sure Kurt probably couldn’t have imagined it as being that, but that’s the magic of reinvention.
Then there’s album closer, ‘Lithium’, a song that’s already been discussed, argued about and highlighted here – and you would be well-advised to seek that one out – and I’d never thought about how much ‘On A Plain’ sounds like ‘Dumb’ until now. (For the record, “The greatest day I ever had was when I learned to cry on command” is an awesome lyric.)
But the best part about Battle For Seattle? The best song on here isn’t even Kurt’s! The penultimate track is a cover of The Vaselines’ excellent ‘Son Of A Gun’, a favorite of Kurt’s. The song’s childlike sing-song melody translates quite well into the Jamaican arrangement. I would never be so presumptuous to state “Kurt would have liked this”, as I didn’t know the man. I can’t help thinking that on some level he would be pleased that on an album that pays tribute to him, Nirvana is bested by The Vaselines – and leaves the listener feeling that they’re the band that really deserves the Little Roy treatment. May it one day be so.