Rediscovering: Nirvana’s From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah

The last Rediscovering on The Fold Compilation took a lot of work. Two entire hour-long discs, both of which had to be uploaded to YouTube for preservation reasons. I’ve gotten some leads on some new music to dig into from it, but it’s distinctly not comfort zone material. Let’s do a Rediscovering that is, something I can blow through, and in fact, analyze incredibly in-depth. In the immortal words of Ben Minnotte, though, knowing me, there has to be a catch–the catch being that this one’s up against its original draft! Or at least, a mostly-accurate fan-made recreation of it.

Nirvana's From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah

Let’s talk Nirvana’s first live album, From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah.

My previous experience, if any

…You’re fuckin’ kidding, right?

I do suppose it’s worth addressing why I haven’t listened to this one yet. Although Nirvana were a whirlwind on stage, for a long time, I actually didn’t particularly care for their live recordings. Tiny Cammy thought of them as messier renditions of songs I already liked on record, and given how hard Kurt drove his voice, at its most ragged, you can best call the resulting noise…spirited. I might be a lot more charitable with them now, but I still don’t really do the live bootleg thing. Wishkah‘s Rediscovering, in my mind, is the point at which I actually confront the ghosts of the stage head on.

The history lesson

Krist and Dave had originally intended for Nirvana’s first posthumous album to be a double set called (of course) Verse Chorus Verse–one disc proper live recordings, one disc Nirvana’s recent Unplugged appearance, representing the two sides to the band. Grief is a bitch, so only the Unplugged disc came out that year. Nirvana’s camp still intended on releasing some kind of live album counterpart though, and soon, the single-disc Donkeyshow (another of Kurt’s favorite phrases) was announced. Donkeyshow also never happened, but in some way, shape, or form, it was reworked into 1996’s Wishkah, of course named after the river that inspired “Something in the Way”.

As I mentioned in the intro, I’ll be comparing this one to the Albums That Never Were recreation of Donkeyshow, which is mostly identical to what the actual disc would’ve looked like, save for a few tracks taken from unsurfaced shows on the real disc. Fan recreation or not, you can always expect soniclovenoize to get fairly close to official disc quality because he’s a fucking beast, and I wanted to see which of the discs would hold up better in the Current Year.

Well?

Wishkah starts off well enough with an intro track–Krist is a highly underrated bass player, so him jamming unaccompanied onstage is a pleasure to listen to. I was distinctly less sure of Kurt’s little screaming fit (in fact, it’s kind of fucking unpleasant to listen to), but it’s not like we won’t be hearing more of that throughout the 53 minute runtime, so I’ll allow it.

The disc simulates each of the songs being in the same show through crossfades, though with most of the stage banter excised (bah). 1991 is vastly overrepresented–nine of the 17 tracks here are from the post-Nevermind tour, and most of those are either from 11/25/91 in Holland or 12/28/91 in Del Mar, CA. One song is from 1992 (the Reading Festival of that year, natch), one’s from 1994, two are from 1993, and two are from 1989. You’re definitely mostly getting one specific era of Nirvana here. Thankfully, it’s a fairly diverse era, between the early muck of Bleach and around the time the In Utero tracks started to be road tested.

Holland is certainly a fine show and “School” from it is a fine opener, but Del Mar absolutely rips. It has far and away the most fun to listen to performances, the band is energetic and on the attack, Kurt’s voice holds together wonderfully during it, and though it only gets three songs, those three are also my favorites of the entire disc. Del Mar is so good, I consider the “Teen Spirit” from it to be the definitive version of the song. It’s genuinely magical to hear Kurt “I wish they liked my other songs more” Cobain lunge at the chorus with such speed and ferocity. The original album version was never a favorite, but that Del Mar rendition is.

I was really pleasantly surprised to see the tracklist for Wishkah too. You’d expect a live album cash-in deal to heavily favor the singles, but not so here. Frankly, the set seems to favor the fan favorites! “Spank Thru”, “Been a Son”, “Aneurysm”–they’re not songs that you know on a casual spin through their three albums, that’s for sure. I can’t really say if these are the best, definitive live versions of these songs, but they go over well enough, ranging from pretty fantastic (“Lithium”) to “a lot of noise at least” (“Negative Creep”).

That said, the further away from the Del Mar tracks you get, the less I’m stirred. I never liked “Sliver”, and the performance here does little to change my mind. Kurt mumbles weakly at the bottom of his vocal range until he screams, and even the band seems to just want to get through it as quickly as possible. “Scentless Apprentice” is always good for Dave’s drum chops, but I haven’t decided if all the extra speed adds to the performance or just makes things messier. On some songs, like the aforementioned “Negative Creep” and “Spank Thru”, Kurt’s screaming just comes at the expense of the vocal melody. The band stumbles audibly and uncharacteristically through “Breed”.

I’m sure there’s some high IQ individual who will opine that it doesn’t matter because it’s punk, but speed and noise is not the only thing that counts at a concert. It’s certainly not the only thing that counts on a disc you’re supposed to listen to at home. I suppose this is the same symptom that With the Lights Out exhibited, where it seemed like the performances were half-chosen at random. Imagine everything DGC has in their vaults–all the unreleased shows in full, transfers of all of Kurt’s demos as they hunted for boxset material–and look at what you actually got. It shouldn’t be this spotty.

Wishkah has its moments. Nothing is especially skipworthy aside from “Sliver”, and it even has its surprises, like the “song for the bootleggers” exchange that kicks off “tourette’s” (so you could put stage banter in, you just didn’t), or the surprise return of “Heart-Shaped Box”‘s “abortion solo”. Still, its issues do get a little glaring the longer you listen to it. I suppose because it’s Nirvana, I’m weighted more towards keeping it; any other band, I’d probably say no.

…Especially next to the Donkeyshow recreation.

I don’t just say this because Donkeyshow leaned much harder on Del Mar–though all the Del Mar highlights are here and in a much less fatiguing, more spacious-sounding master than on Wishkah. Even the stuff from other shows just feels much fresher. “Sliver” at least gets a fighting chance at being listenable here, having “Breed” towards the beginning (and having a much better rendition) definitely keeps the energy high for longer, and the early, eerie Paramount version of “Rape Me”, which Wishkah didn’t touch in any rendition, gives some color what’s otherwise a slugfest. Definitely a lot more highlights to this one, I’d say.

Donkeyshow doesn’t get everything correct, like the weirdly mixed “Dive” (though “Dive” at all on here is sick), retaining the Paramount “Negative Creep”, and still being a bit too long, but whatever issues it shares with Wishkah are much less prominent. There still isn’t a ton of stage banter, but what is there will probably make you giggle (“I’m a boy, I’m a boy, but my mom won’t admit it…”). It’s definitely the one that’ll be going in my iTunes library, but that doesn’t mean I hate Wishkah or that it’s getting tossed. It’s Nirvana, and what it does right, I like a lot. It just doesn’t do enough of it to be a favorite.

Are you keeping it?

Admittedly, yes.

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