I'm not a rock star... but I play one on TV
This is the kind of record that can be spiked with the most casual sort of description. Really, you only have to say that Michael Pitt, the actor who played a character loosely based on Kurt Cobain in Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, has made a record that sounds really a lot like Nirvana to start to draw blood. The fact is that parts of Pagoda’s debut full-length are quite enjoyable, especially if you liked Nevermind (and who didn’t?). And yet, other parts cut so close to Nirvana’s most famous riffs, chords, and melodies that you have to wonder how Ecstatic Peace’s Thurston Moore signed off on them. Could he not have noticed big chunks of “Come As You Are” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” wedged into Pagoda’s debut? Did he really not care?
The first hint of larceny comes about a third of the way through “Lessons Learned”, immediately following a slurred slacker yowl of “Here we go.” Here we go indeed into the very same burnt and bruised melody from “Come As You Are.” Try singing, “And I swea-ar that I don’t have a gun” along to this song. It’s a perfect fit. Later, in “Fetus”, Pitt borrows the abortion metaphor from “Pennyroyal Tea” and the very famous guitar part from “Smells Like Teenage Spirit.” It’s a blatant, note-for-note creation of part of Nirvana’s most famous song. What were they thinking?
The problem is that anyone hearing Pagoda will immediately rifle through the racks for their copy of Nevermind, just to place those indelible riffs. And, the minute you put on the original, it becomes apparent how thin the copy is. Normally, I’d consider it cheap and unfair to A/B a brand new artist with one of the best bands of my generation, but damn it, Pagoda is asking for it. The differences jump out at you. First, Nirvana was a band, not a movie star and some guys who hung with him in Italy for a couple of weeks. Even when Cobain is singing, even in the quietest, least complicated parts of Nirvana’s songs, you can hear the other guys. There’s Noveselic plunking away at his evil bass lines, Grohl pounding and slamming and kick-drumming under the melodic line. When Pitt takes a star turn, everything else stops, the deck clears and its just him. Second, Cobain was a much better singer than Pitt. Anytime he’s not screaming (and sometimes when he is), Cobain was on the right notes, tracking the melody. Pitt, by contrast, rasps and slurs and breaks even on the quiet passages and totally loses it in the loud ones. And third, Nirvana could kick from blues-acoustic lament to head-throbbing metal thrash in a measure or less; no one, not Pagoda or any of a hundred other imitators, has put melody and volume together in quite that sort of uneasy symmetry.
No matter how pretty any Nirvana song was, you knew that it could always explode, any time, without warning before or apology after. Pagoda never unites the extremes the way that Cobain et. al. did. And there are other, structural differences. Pitt makes heavy use of strings, particularly cello, which is mostly a plus, and of samples, which is mostly distracting. Nirvana never had much use for embellishments or gimmicks, but then, they got a lot more than Pitt does out of the standard guitar-bass-drums line-up.
Okay, so Pagoda is not Nirvana, no matter how closely Pitt borrows from his obvious source. That’s fine. Hardly anyone is. The question becomes: Judged solely on its own terms, how does the record do? It’s not bad. If you can ignore the obvious quotations, the letter-perfect shifts from damaged whisper to huge power chord breaks, cuts like “Bothus”, about a Mexican child “only eight; he only ate if he had a good day” have a slouching glory to them. (Pitt sounds more like Jim Carroll than Cobain on this one.) “Sadhartha” with its lush, throbbing cello and spike-sharp stop-start rhythms, is rough and forceful and wonderful (and not at all Nirvana-like, if you’re keeping score). And “Death to Birth”, opens gently with a scarred, wounded whisper and folk-picked acoustic guitar and blossom slowly into a swirling psych-dripping violin-laced dance. This is good stuff, vaguely reminiscent of other songs, other artists, but not chokingly familiar. If the whole album were like this, no one would be up in arms about it.
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