The Upshot: Although Nirvana and Led Zep fans will never be accused of being particularly sophisticated or discriminating, a new pair of unusual tribute treatments put the lie to the maxim that tribute albums suck, one going the horns-and-heavy-rock route and the other taking a deep, dark, dub approach.
BY UNCLE BLURT
Die-hard Nirvana and Led Zeppelin fans, it must be said, will never be accused of being the most sophisticated or discriminating sort, uncritically lapping up any and every musical morsel and pop-culture doggerel put forth by their respective heroes. This is also why tribute albums for those two artists have been both plentiful and plenty flawed—because all one has to do is say, “I have a Nirvana/Led Zep cover that I’ve recorded!” and you’re guaranteed at least a momentary audience. As a veteran of concerts by both bands, however, not to mention having heard more than a few bootlegs by each, I would propose that covering them is an exercise in pointlessness; their songs are iconic, so indelibly imprinted upon the collective public imagination, that it would be impossible even to muster .001 percent of the original tunes’ creative mojo.
Into the ring now steps a pair of NYC groups: Super Hi-Fi, billed as “an underground supergroup whose members have backed up Beyoncé, Bill Frisell and others, tackling the Cobain legacy; and Beninghove’s Hangmen, which includes a couple of John Zorn alumni, aiming to wield anew the Hammer of the Gods. Doomed from the get-go, right?
Not so fast, Percy.
The Zep project takes a kind of heavy-rock-with-horns approach that’s the more straightforward of the two mini-albums, and while I can state honestly that I have never fantasized about hearing a New Orleans/Latin-flavored Zeppelin number, much less a sax-and-trombone interlude during “Kashmir,” these seven tracks generally deliver the goods. “Immigrant Song” in particular musters a degree of vigor that both Page and Plant could flick their Bics to. The Hangmen hold on to the in-your-face, balls-to-the-wall aesthetic that informed Zep even while probing sundry melodic and rhythmic nuances that often get overlooked by lesser mortals.
The eight songs comprising the Nirvana tribute, though, are just plain out there. I can state with equal honesty that even though I dearly love my dub records, I was a bit skeptical about listening to deep-dub treatments of Nirvana; but then, I have done my best over the years to avoid coming into contact with albums like that ghastly Dylan-done-reggae-style trib or pretty much anything by the Easy Star All-Stars (take “Dub Side of the Moon” or “Radiodread”—please). Here, though, against all odds, Super Hi-Fi creates something utterly unique from overly familiar material; in fact, only “Heart Shaped Box (9 Lives Dub)” bears enough resemblance to the original for the listener to make the connection right off the bat. Others, such as “Love Buzz (Doctor Sub RMX),” gradually emerge from these deep, rumbling/hissing clouds of riddim, while still others, like Polly (Prince Polo Dub),” would stymie even the staunchest Nirvana devotee. Super Hi-Fi—which also lists a trombone in its lineup—gets down low, real low, and rebuilds these tracks in their own heady, hypnotic vision, throwing in elements of Afro-beat as well, and as a result their album is perhaps the only truly original tribute treatment in memory.
In a rather whimsical yet salute-worthy twist, the Very Special label has released the two albums just on digital and cassette. Gimmick or not, it’s additional evidence that the people behind the projects set out to do something different on all levels, and that’s pretty damn cool.
DOWNLOAD: “When the Levee Breaks,” “Immigrant Song” / “Verse Chorus Verse,” “Love Buzz”