Tuesday 21 May 2013

In Review: Nirvana

I find it much harder to write about the things I do like compared to the things I don't. Which must be why I find it so hard to sum up why I like Nirvana. When you hate something the flaws stick out at you. They are the things jamming into your sides, illuminating the fact that this isn't so great. But good things are different. They're static. You like them because you like them. Maybe I'm too scared to look close in case I find something I don't like. But I'll try my best.

I already wrote one overly extensive post about Nirvana. I liked that one. I would have been happy to read that as a kid; get to know everything about Kurt Cobain that all of the music journo's kissing his ass dont tell you. Alas I didn't review his albums, just talked about them, how they were made. It depends completely on how into Nirvana you already are which article is for you.

I'm reviewing the albums with the same style that George Starostin used in his own site (which you can read here) call it stealing if you want, it will depend on how well written your complaint is if it manages to upset me.

Warning: This is a bit of a Nirvana wankfest. Not on purpose, simply because when I write about this band I just can't help it. I would hope these are fair minded reviews that do away with any hyperbole (please notice the word hope) and add to the enjoyment of the albums for people too soulless to make their own opinions. Enjoy!

Bleach (1989) 

1) Blew 2) Floyd the Barber 3) About a Girl 4) School 5) Love Buzz 6) Paper Cuts 7) Negative Creep 8) Scoff 9) Swap Meet 10) Mr. Mustache 11) Sifting 12) Big Cheese 13) Downer 

I was actually going to start writing about this being a down and dirty garage album, being that-that is the way I remember it, but listening to it again (I never feel the need to return to this album) it's actually more polished than you'd expect. Nirvana is really just Kurt Cobain's Pixies appreciation band (despite being better than that band) and the while Nirvana wasn't quite a pop band they were already on their way. 

It's an easy listen, like all Nirvana, filled with very simplistic hooks which draw you in and don't seem to go anywhere. The only problem here is that Cobain clearly wanted to keep his cred with the underworld of Seattle grundge and needed to make the whole sound dirty and sleazy enough to fit in. And sure enough he does; this is what I imagine what it would sound like if me and some friends got together (keep in mind: no instrumental skill) and made a band that attempted to sound like Nirvana. 

Ok, it's not quite that bad, there is moments of inspiration throughout. About A Girl is the albums highlight, a track Iggy Pop himself described as sounding like "someone gave Thorazine to The Beatles" something which would have probably pleased Cobain: the world's most unsuspecting Beatles fan. It's a great song, mainly because it's great for all the reasons the bands next album were great. Other than that you've got the bands first single Love Buzz which features some catchy guitar work, and that's about it. 

Actually the first five tracks are all pretty solid (it's a front-heavy album if there ever was one) and they show off Cobain's darkest lyrics. No sarcasm here, just stories about rape, murder and abuse. Actually the whole album, without any big-shot composer working some magic over the top, sounds surprisingly dark, not just in lyrics but in the tone of the instruments as well. The album does start to veer off in the middle though, the "Oh my god this is our first record" magic starting to disappear, ending with the final three tracks which sound almost unlistenable. 

This wil interest hardcore nirvana fans a lot more than it will interest newbies; if only to see where the band came from, and to notice how much they evolved from album to album. It's not perfect, not even great to be honest, but it has it's moments. But if you call yourself a fan then you should have already heard this anyway. 7/10 

Nevermind (1991) 
1) Smells Like Teen Spirit 2) In Bloom 3) Come as You Are 4) Breed 5) Lithium 6) Polly 7) Territorial Pissings 8) Drain You 9) Lounge Act 10) Stay Away 11) On a Plain 12) Something in the Way 13) Endless, Nameless 

It has the iconic baby album cover. It has Smells Like Teen Spirit. It is also arguably the most influential album since it's release back in 1991; it brought alternative rock into the mainstream, finally killed the 80s, and it dragged the grundge movement into the mainstream with it. And it's became the go-to answer for Nirvana's best album. 

Don't get me wrong; there isn't a single bad tune on this album. Cobain stopped acting like he was the front man of the Butthole Surfers and started writing some great pop hooks. They're catchy as hell, and the studio-added pop sheen that colors this album might have made Cobain consider himself a sell-out, but ultimately it's why this album was so huge; it''s a fun party-friendly pop album disguised as a rebellious alternative to the mainstream. 

All the songs follow the Nirvana structure here, but who cares when each track is doing it's own thing (making it the complete opposite of the generic bore-fests released today as "rock albums"). And all the tracks are so unassuming; no spectacular 8 minute rock operas, no weird experimentation; Nevermind is simply a clear-cut album's worth of solid tracks. That's why it was more successful than In Utero; a better album in my opinion, but one that is not nearly as safe. 

Don't worry, Smells Like Teen Spirit is still my pick for the best track; I won't bore you with any pointless hipster choice. Come As You Are is the best of the other hit singles from this album (with In Bloom providing the quintessential sarcasm and Lithium the quintessential teen angst) while the band even gets a chance to slow down for a second with the dark story of rape that is Polly (a true story as well; Cobain saw it in the paper while trying to think of lyrics for the songs) and the dark mournful album closer Something In The Way, Cobain's fictionalized account of living under a bridge. 

Maybe the lyrics do feel a bit teenage angsty now. A teen could probably write Lithium as easily now as Cobain sung it then. And some lyrics are too simple to be great, but as a whole the lyrics here are what people related to, and why it sold so well. Still it's the music thats king. Cobain might have been the powerhouse, but Nevermind is the best Krist and Dave ever got as an argument piece that Nirvana was a threesome, both the drumming and the bass here are nothing technically great, but they are loud and thrashing, and this album wouldn't have the same anger behind it if it wasn't for them. 

It ends on Endless, Nameless, originally a hidden track on the album. I remember being a kid trying to figure out how to unlock such a track, thinking it must be some sort of video-game style secret code entered into the buttons of my CD player, alas I didn't hear this until years later. It's just a bit of improvisation from the band after a take of Lithium went wrong, nothing great, but surprisingly well fitting with the other songs. 

Of course the album is at its best when there's pure rage coming out of your head phones, which is why Lounge Act is still the track I return to most, it's the most catchy of all and sums up the energy and adolescent anger that is Nevermind. 9/10

Incesticide (1992) 
1) Dive 2) Silver 3) Stain 4) Been a Son 5) Turnaround 6) Molly's Lips 7) Son of a Gun 8) (New Wave) Polly 9) Beeswax 10) Downer 11) Mexican Seafood 12) Hairspray Queen 13) Aero Zeppelin 14) Big Long Now 15) Aneurysm 

Incesticide is a compilation album made up of unreleased tracks, singles which hadn't been put onto their other albums, and some recordings the band did for the BBC in 1990. It's a bit of a schizophrenic album (although what do you expect from a compilation) that could easily be split in three; the tracks on part 1 feel like classic nirvana (albeit more raw than on their studio albums) but as soon as act 2 begins (Turnaround signals it) Nirvana goes into happy mode. Even the most tortured track on Nevermind, Polly, gets the happy treatment in a sped up version. But if it's "raw" you came here for just go to the last third of the album, it's got some of the weirdest things the band ever put together, some of it unlistenable, some quite great. 

Yet despite the album seemingly being the forgotten step-brother of Nevermind, Incesticide is at it's best when the weird is flushed away and the simplistic fun is in full spin. Thats why the best track is Son Of A Gun, a song originally by Kurt's favorite band The Vaselines, which is the best case for Nirvana being able to do inspiring pop as well as they do tortured rock. 

It lacks the consistency of Nevermind, and the studio sheen is missed when the screeching of crap like Hairspray Queen starts to play, but this is uncensored Nirvana, or at least the closest we'll ever get to it, which is basically the wave this album rides on. "Dive" has the very special honor of being Courtney Love's Nirvana song of choice, and while it doesn't quite live up to the standards you would expect from such a prestigious woman it does get the pulse racing, and gets you ready for (some of) whats to come. 

Another highlight is closer Aneurysm, the only rock anthem to be found here (neatly hidden at the end), the title means a blood vessel that is building up with blood, ready to blow, and while Cobain doesn't hand out any medical advice in the Lyrics the connection to the title is maid clear through the music. The track builds up (not slowly) until the whole song literally explodes. if you want a song to represent anger then you couldn't go wrong with this. 

Then again the final third of the album does have some difficult stuff on it. The sort of obscure, hard rock songs that Nirvana isn't know for, and will probably turn off even hardcore fans. It's that lack of consistency that has kept this from being a masterpiece, but the good stuff here is just too good to ignore. 8/10

In Utero (1993) 
1) Serve The Servants 2) Scentless Apprentice 3) Heart Shaped Box 4) Rape Me 5) Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle 6) Dumb 7) Very Ape 8) Milk It 9) Pennyroyal Tea 10) Radio Friendly Unit Shifter 11) Tourette's 12) All Apologies 

It was only 4 years after bringing out their first album that they were bringing out their last. It's become popular to call this the better album than Nevermind, most likely through a simple desire to be different, but even as a youngster first delving into Nirvana's back catalogue I always found this the best. 

Lyrically this is Cobain's most personal album. There's clear references to his personal life, which by that point was becoming a struggle. Heart Shaped Box, the albums bluesy lead single, is aimed at Cobain's wife Courtney Love, while Frances Farmer has obvious parallels with Cobain's daughter and the court case surrounding the family. Actually, the lyrics here didn't at all become relatable pieces of teen angst like that of Utero's predecessor, but they are the most structured and memorable of Nirvana's career, and stands this as Cobain's (and the band's) stand for artistic credibility. 

Even on the first track Cobain sings "Teenage angst has paid off well" in clear reference to Nevermind, and all that follows is a band trying to break free from the box the mainstream had pegged them into. It includes the most harmonic and beautiful tracks the band ever made, as well as the most angry and stimulating. You could say this was Cobain's "Tortured Soul" album but that would be a lie. It might be a harder, faster album than before, but the band never sacrifice any fun for the listener (a courtesy few bands since have given since). 

This isn't Incesticide, but it does have a very natural feel to it. It's a million miles away from Nevermind. It was composed by Steve Albini, one of the biggest rock producers in the world at that point who was famous at the time for doing some of the Pixies album (One of Nirvana's biggest influences) and he found the perfect tempo for all of the songs here. 

Yet what's really great is that even with all of the emotion put into these tracks, and even though some of the guitar work here more complex than before, this is still such an easy listen. It flies over. each track does it's own thing, and what your left with is an album that seems like it was the apex of what Nirvana was at the time. It's more soulful than anything the band had ever done, and Cobain, despite what was next, finally seems to be confident in his own skill as a musician. 

And then comes the end with All Apologies. It's the complete opposite of what is expected of the angry rockers everybody thought they were, and even points to where nirvana might have gone next. All Apologies ends the Nirvana story perfectly, and when you listen to this album from the start it feels like the band has made their full transformation into something new. 

The best studio album the band ever gave us, and the best rock album since it's release. 10/10 

Unplugged in New York (1994) 
1) About a Girl 2) Come As You Are 3) Jesus Doesn't Want Me For A Sunbeam 4) The Man Who Sold The World 5) Pennyroyal Tea 6) Dumb 7) Polly 8) On a Plain 9) Something in the Way 10) Plateau 11) Oh Me 12) Lake of Fire 13) All Apologies 14) Where Did You Sleep Last Night?   

Who knows if Kurt Cobain meant this as a suicide note or not? He did get the stage for this performance (one of the band's last) to look like a funeral; all of the flowers and empty space being both perfect for the set they had prepared, and scarily telling of what was to come. It truthfully doesn't matter, it's a beautiful performance anyway, and fans shouldn't stay away from it just because it's live. If anyone ever dismisses Nirvana as angry noise or teenage angst then first slap them in the face, and then get them to listen to this album. I can think of no other live show which gets everything so right. 

In Utero is the bands best statement as a rock band, but this is something more. It shows a side to the band that was only just starting to blossom. All of the songs on here sound better than the original album versions. And all of the covers the band does sound way better than the originals. The Meat Puppets, who are covered 3 times here, even performed with Nirvana that night, and their original versions (all solid lyrical works overshadowed by unlikeble music) find their perfect home in Nirvana. 

It might sound like I'm kissing a bit too much ass on this one, but I did warn you at the start, and if there ever was an album that deserves it, it's this. The bands cover of David Bowie's The Man Who Sold The World has became more well know than the original, the three Meat Puppets songs sounded even more natural coming from Cobain than from their original creators; with "Oh Me" being my favorite track of the whole CD, and the bands cover of Leadbelly's Where Did You Sleep Last Night ends the CD in truly perfect fashion. It shows the band had become quite brilliant with their guitars, despite the what some might claim, and that Cobain's voice had become something truly special. 

That might sound like a lot of covers but they all fit perfectly with Nirvana's other work. The only song which sticks out is On a Plain which to be fair is a bit too much of a faster rock song for this set. 

And what more can I say? I can think of no other album more perfect than this one. Every track is brilliant, and as a whole this album is the best thing they ever did. In Utero might been my favorite of the band's studio albums, but it has nothing on this. This was their utter peak, and my favorite album of all time. 10/10 

Other Stuff
Reviewing all of Nirvana's stuff was harder than I thought it would be. There is some bad stuff in their library; I very rarely feel the need to return to Bleach, and some of the stuff on Incesticide just hurts to listen to, but Nevermind has earned it's place as a classic, and In Utero and Unplugged are some of my all time favorites. Whatever bad music they created they sure made up for it. 

I do sort-of understand when people say they don't like Nirvana (despite it filling me with murderous rage) but in truth it doesn't matter at all, Nirvana always meant a lot more to me than the music. Being born in 1996 there has been no real figures like those of this band for my generation. Maybe todays culture simply wouldn't allow it. Cobain never asked for the title that was thrown onto him, he was simply given it by the people, and in todays music industry where whats good and bad seem to be decided by the industry I  doubt such an idea could exist today. 

My generation is filled with people who think they can do anything, Nirvana may have inspired people, and the story of three small-town kids becoming kings of the music industry for a few years obviously has it's influence, but Nevermind, even it's name, is a better message than any that have been given out since, and something the people of my generation simply wouldn't understand unless they grew up with it (and believe me, you can literally spot these people out; maybe not Nirvana fans, but people who at least understand the message they were sending out). Kurt Cobain understood that life was whatever you made of it, and that if you had any sense at all, that was what was happening today, not tomorrow, not next week, not next year. 

And that carry's over to the music too. There's an effortless-ness to all Nirvana music. The guitar work isn't impressive because of any real technical mastery or amazing guitar solos, it was great because of the emotion is summoned. And Cobain's lyrics worked because they didn't preach any messages or even good morales. They were sarcastic and purposefully controversial, they accepted a generation of people who didn't actually want to do any good. They represented something real, not something purposefully. 

I don't really know how to end this. If you haven't already, get yourself listening to some Nirvana, and if you have already then go listen to some Pixies and Husker Du, you like Nirvana you'll like them. Otherwise, nevermind. 

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