MusicUnplugged In New York. Nirvana (Geffen Records). The most disturbing thing about the MTV Unplugged series is that it exposes the basic failing of rock music: without all that volume and distortion there isn't an awful lot left. There aren't many pop musicians out there writing music that can stand the 'unplugged' treatment. More often than not bands are left sounding like a bunch of second-rate buskers. Such is the case with Nirvana. This is proof the late Kurt Cobain was not a genius: he was, like most rockers, a young man with a reasonable voice, three guitar chords and an attitude. Without the beef of a PA behind them, Cobain's songs sound repetitive and limited. One or two, Come As You Are for example, qualify as decent ditties but there is nothing here to suggest the world has lost a major talent in Cobain.
Woodstock '94. Various (A&M Records). The great tragedy of the '90s is that rather than look ahead with optimism to the new millennium, the music world is wallowing in the past in search of an identity. Woodstock '94 was a painful parody of the original event. Complacent and politically neutered bands and youths shed their credit card mentalities for a day and pretended to believe in free love and social and political change. The music on this live recording is OK but there is nothing here to compare with the likes of Jimi Hendrix et al. The Red Hot Chili Peppers sound frantically, yet somehow emptily, angry, Joe Cocker is his old self, Bob Dylan a sad reflection of his old self, and Peter Gabriel embarrassingly earnest. Add to these the likes of Sheryl Crow, Yossou N'dour, Porno For Pyros, Aerosmith, Nine Inch Nails, Zucchero, Primus, Metallica, and Violent Femmes and you have a show which remains strangely unsatisfying even though a lot of top talent was on stage.
Books The Myth Of The Explorer. Beau Riffenburgh (OUP). This somewhat dry paperback deals with the myths that grew up around the great explorers of the late 19th century. Men like Livingstone, Nansen and Scott were the heroes of the day, created by newspapers just beginning to realise the sales potential of sensationalism. The book deals with the symbiotic relationship between the press and those heroes and the sensation-hungry public which just could not get enough of their exploits. Although a touch academic in tone, it does contain some fascinating nuggets of information and makes one or two pithy observations about the nature of heroism, my favourite being the fact that the 'British most honoured (and most used) those who were dead'.
Face. Aimee E. Liu (Headline Books). It would appear that what with the success of The Joy Luck Club and Wild Swans, publishers just can't get enough of the Chinese/Caucasian experience. But it's time to take stock, people: just because a book is written by a Chinese who lives in the West, doesn't mean it's good. Take Face, for example. The novel suffers from being too subjective and autobiographical. The result is a badly defined heroine and a dearth of sympathetic characters. The reader is never totally sure of what is going on in this book and is almost continually wondering why he or she should be interested in these people or issues. The upshot is an irritating and rather uninteresting tale of a dysfunctional Chinese-American family whose central character seems little more than a self-pitying bore.
Video Cool Runnings. This charming comedy about Jamaica's first Olympic bob-sleigh team includes one of the much-missed John Candy's last performances. He plays a burned-out coach whose enthusiasm for bob-sleighing is rekindled by a bright but fairly hopeless bunch of Jamaican youngsters set on making it big in winter sports. The film is your basic 'underdog makes good' yarn but fine performances from all concerned - especially Candy - give it an extra bit of style. The film also gains from the fact that the apparently absurd basis to the story is grounded in truth: Jamaica did put together a bob-sleigh team for the Winter Olympics despite the tropical island's non-existent snow-fall.
Laser An Animated Christmas. The world renowned National Film Board of Canada's animation department has put together a delightful package. The laser disc contains a series of Christmas-oriented adventures bound to delight adults and children alike. The tales range from the didactic to the touching, from the absurd to the hilarious. The level of animation and design is superb. This will make a great gift and should certainly keep the children quiet as your brandy buzz gradually mutates into a hangover. Merry Christmas.