Thursday, 31 October 2013

Scary Things

As a child I never did go trick or treating, probably caused by one of the major problems with having no siblings: living your childhood the way your parents are living their adulthood, at least if you've got parents that don't know any better. So for me Halloween never meant scary; more fantastical. Witches and goblins and evil spells and anything the TV would feed me that I would think of as scary. Which is why I don't like much modern horror: all the torture porn and the paranormal activity trying to make everything too real. I prefer Stephen King's style of things: colorful and scary in it's slight removal from reality, as if his stories take place in a parallel universe where everything's been moved just a little to the left.

Which isn't to say I never got scared. I was scared of the dark and later on developed a fear of heights, only to find out that the majority of people from my generation have this fear as well. In the end you just brush past it like it was nothing. And I was scared of movies too: The Mummy was the first one, the 90s version with Brendan Frasier which looking back is actually a pretty solid action movie. Then there was They, a little know horror movie produced by Wes Craven that kept me up all night; although my dad told me later that it was a rubbish movie anyway. Identity too, with John Cusack, also pretty crap; at least in retrospective. And finally there was Jeepers Creepers 2. It's one of my favorite so-bad-it's-good movies now, alongside The Wicker Man, but at the time it scared me so much I picked up my bed covers and lied down in my parents bedroom, only to be quickly shouted out of the room. 

Yet the most damaging movie to me was Monsters Inc. I love Sean Lock's routine, that's a British comedian by the way, where he talks about how disturbing Finding Nemo is; his mother and all of his brothers and sisters are murder within the first few minutes of the movie and the film basically involves Nemo being kidnapped from his father and smuggled away across the world. In the end Lock contemplates just showing his kids Scarface instead. And it's always had me thinking about how disturbing so many kids movies are, especially the ones from Pixar, which when translated into the real world seem to be about some disturbingly adult themes. And Monsters Inc really did have a damaging effect: during one of my many days out with my grandparents as a child they took me to see the movie, which I loved by the way, then proceeded to take me home as normal. That night I couldn't sleep with fear my parents would run away and I kept creeping to the edge of the stairs to peer down and make sure they were still there. This bedroom-confined horror doesn't translate completely to Pixar's movie but it certainly triggered something in my brain because for the next few months (child's memory - this could have went on for well over a year) I would panic horrifically until my parents themselves went to bed; sometimes even shouting down to ask them to talk more just as a conformation to me they were still here. 

Strangely though I was always considered the tough one at school. Partly thrown on me because I was the tallest and would slowly develop the deepest voice of anybody while in my early teens. And plus I would tell of all the horror movies I'd seen and how I hadn't been scared, and would buy F.EA.R 2 like most of my friends and be the only one not scared. But these apparently scary things: some were the fantastical fluff that I connected with commercialised scaring, and the ones that tried to be real were always hyper-real. How could I be scared of Saw, even if it was a real man behind the mask and all of the killings were done by machinery and traps not magical powers, when I associated so many more disturbing things with real life. In films these would be referred to as "adult themes" and includes addictions and abuse. On the dvd of A Clockwork Orange, during one of the special features where everyone involved gets their ass kissed, one speaker (a critic maybe? or possibly another important filmmaker) explains why people found the movie so disturbing (disturbing enough to cause copycat crimes and get banned in the UK) and his reason was that people were no longer scared of monsters and ghosts - and we're talking all the way back in the early 70s now - they were scared by real world problems that could come knocking on the door; just like the gang in A Clockwork Orange who go around during the night, going into homes killing and raping. 

During the 70s this invasion of people's real lives was made into some great horror movies. Why all the creeping around and comical murder weapons, why not something as loud and aggressive as a chainsaw? Texas Chainsaw Massacre. What about sex? The thing that rattles more nerves than blood. The Exorcist. So you think your safe in suburbia; your a teen who doesn't need to deal with ghouls and goblins, schools a bigger worry. Halloween. All of these would be swamped by sequels and would all return back to the fantasy; becoming so structured that Scream would come along years later with the mission to evoke more laughs from making fun of the genre than create genuine scares. 
But most will have encountered these adult themes at some points in childhood viewing. I remember seeing the middle chunk of Martin Scorsese's The Aviator when it first came on TV; now that was a scary experience. Seeing Leonardo DiCaprio, and bare in mind Titanic was one of my favorite films as a kid, sitting alone in a car in some sort of construction zone trying to spell out the word "quarantine". The guy seemed broken, and unlike all those kids movies adventures where the problems would be fixed there seemed to be no fix for this guy. I asked my dad after that scene "is he going to be ok now?" to which he simply replied "I don't know". Those quick snippets of the adult world, peering outside of my parent-created bubble, were the extension of those early scares: it went from the mummy shrieking as he came to life for the first time to Leonardo DiCaprio trying to say quarantine.

Other mediums have a much harder job trying to scare you. I asked for a scary book as a child and was handed "The Others" by James Herbert, which I never read a word of. The cover looked scarier at the time to what in retrospective I guess was in the book. And video-games have it hard too; my favorite genre of game as a child, my medium of choice, was survival horror. I would buy everything I could: spurred on by Resident Evil and Silent Hill, two great franchises that in a moment of history repeating itself would become swamped under a barrage sequels and eventually just became part of the machine. I never did get scared by these games, but I do believe no other medium can create the atmosphere games can; the eery music of Resident Evil as you explored a mansion and the pixelated graphics of Silent Hill as you travelled around a fog covered town. Both environments, even through their open-ended nature, felt more claustrophobic than any film has yet managed.

Music on the other hand is one that I predict most people won't believe can be scary unless they've experienced it themselves. I remember cruising around Burnout: Paradise, still my vote for the best racing game ever, when the games soundtrack would sometimes throw "Would?" by Alice in Chains at me. I had heard of them through my intense Nirvana fandom during the years leading up to that date, but never heard the music. It was the heaviness of the music. The vocals, only half understandable, throwing out lines like "I know I made a big mistake, try to see it my way". The backing vocals fading into the background like some spectral being swooping over the stretched out images of madness the music conjured up. I doubt people are scared of music in the same way as other mediums - no intense shaking or crawling into their parents bedroom in the middle of the night - but it's an unnerving feeling, like those adult themes, that makes you feel like you shouldn't be listening. Alice in Chain's "Rooster" could easily be called scary too; listening, at least when I first heard it, felt like stumbling into some obscure band's page on the internet that was unsupervised by anyone else. 

But scary things don't last. Listen after listen and you find a comfort in these scary songs. As if the scariness would turn off anyone else you know, and that songs' a new hiding place where no-one will ever think to look. And The Shining doesn't feel as cold as it did when I watched it late one night years ago; I really felt the cold of the snow in that film back then, I saw it all from Danny (the young boy)'s point of view. But now it's about so much more; about a writer succumbing to his demons, about a mother and her primal instinct to protect her son, and about Stanley Kubrick and Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall and that time and place. As with all horror familiarity and greater knowledge make you befriend horror more than fear it.

What's strange is I miss the feeling of being scared; maybe it's all part of that innocent childhood we all wish to return to, or maybe feeling scared, I mean really scared: sweating and panicking and worrying for safety, it makes us all feel alive. More than any other emotion, because it's the one caused by our lack of control of the things around us. And that's why Halloween's so great, and so important, because it's that fantastical side of horror; and as much a protection of innocence as Christmas, only Christmas sticks around, starts to become more hassle of course, but it's a constant link to childhood: a day when everyone tries their hardest to preserve innocence whether there's kids around or not. But Halloween is lost, it gives way to real horror, to the fear of heights or parents running away or people coming into the house late at night, but for just a few golden years Halloween protects all kids from the real scary stuff.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Arcade Fire: Reflektor

Reflektor was my first Arcade Fire experience, before this their cold outlook always leading me to turn away, so excuse my unfamiliarity with exactly what an Arcade Fire is. Not that Reflektor helped in any way; the production is deadpan throughout, reminding me of other apparently big rock albums that came off lifeless, a la Led Zep's Physical Graffiti and Alice in Chains self titled album, yet both of those felt like structured jam sessions whereas Reflektor certainly has the build of an album, an operatic feel in places and a "big" feel to it, but too many tracks just turn to mush: gone from the brain the second they stop and melded together with the tracks left and right.

Not to say there's no highlights here. Arcade Fire have helpfully separated the good and the bad by putting them on different discs - albeit with one or two crossovers - with a straight-up rock disc (I'm guessing this is "vintage Arcade Fire") and a second disc I just couldn't work out. But first the good: the lyrics, most of which take on very broad themes of social alienation, came across very teen angst in the least annoying way possible. On "Normal People" things do sound a little 16-year-olds-diary but I'd be lying if I said I didn't like the us against everyone else vibe ("Is anything as strange as a normal person?/Is anyone as cruel as a normal person?") but in the end it works because it changes the tone ("I've never really ever met a normal person...Like you! How do you do?") becoming part love song without any real loveliness.

The lyrics that work best here all tread the line between relatable and asking-for-sympathy ("We Exist" about being ignored by those "normal people" is an example of the album nearly falling into this) but pull themselves up by taking some unique angles on what at first seem like vague problems ("Daddy it's fine/I'm used to 'em now/But tell me why they treat me like this?"). The lyrics ask a lot of questions (which are more for the band themselves than us) and usually involve a lot of repetitions of the title phrase - which keeps things flowing - while the best vocal moments are the backing vocals from Régine Chassagne who's voice acts as a lighter touch from the heavy instrumental sound, and the chant like lyrics that open "Joan of Arc" one of the most listenable tracks on the album.

The biggest compliment I can give the band is they don't waste their great numbers. They've got guitars, drums, vocals, keyboards, synthesizers and who knows what else to play with here and the tracks usually start out quiet, lead by a rhythm section or drum beat, which is built on by lead guitars and eventually keyboards and others. The adding of elements one-by-one makes the songs a lot more fun than they should be; the repetitive riffs don't seem like they could handle an album loaded with long tracks (most run over 5 minutes) yet the build up of different layers adds something to each track, even if what each individual instrument is doing does get lost in the mix.

Through most of this Arcade Fire has soundbites pop up, mostly linking to their live shows: an announcer, a crowd roaring, even a slurry Win Butler chipping in to ask "Do you like rock'n'roll music? because I don't know if I do" which does make you think but about what I'm not sure. A recording from their performance on Jonathan Ross shows up near the end of one track and you'd think the fractured sound would have a similar effect to Kanye West's Yeezus production but it doesn't; the unlively production effects say very little other than the want from a band to say more than their music does.

Yet as disc two starts it looks like it's all been leading to something with the first track "Here Comes The Night Time II" which does away with guitars and has a slowly building piano score, with the synths turned up too. It's here the focus isn't on the two greek statues on the front cover but on the deep unexplored space behind them. The whole track is building up and up as Butler repeats the title line along with the most moving line on the album "I hurt myself again, along with all my friends". The track has a floating feeling; the band is more loose here than anywhere else and the track is both the most experimental and most emotional on the album; and tellingly it's also the second shortest here too, all done in less than 3 minutes. Unfortunately Reflektor goes completely off the rails from here.

The album sinks here under the weight of references to the greek story of Eurydice and Orpheus, tracks that all stay over 6 minutes, and a more "epic" sound that only becomes repetitive quickly; and the album eventually self destructs on it's final track "supersymmetry" the most meaningless lyrically other than it's reference to the albums title. The real problem here though is that this 11 minute track is actually finished after 5 minutes, the rest is transmission sound effects. It's supposed to be the big payoff to the albums productions yet it ends up weighing the whole thing down.

It's hypnotizing stuff though. That's what the grandiosity does for it; it keeps people sticking around long after the show has ended. It's like those last 6 minutes of near silence on the album; I listened to them more intently than anything in the last hour of music, but I never really got much back. But it's easy to keep returning to this album, or should I say it's easy to feel that you have to. But in the end what's sad is that there's a disc of great rock music here; 7 tracks that feel big without any added weight, and is where Arcade Fire should have left it. We've still got those songs, but a lot more that we didn't need too.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Lou Reed 1942 - 2013

Lou Reed made rock'n'roll dirty. One could quite easily list the things The Velvet Underground have went on to influence: everything from punk to grundge to glam rock to goth stylings, but Reed should, although he won't be, be best remembered for taking rock music out of the sun and putting it into basements and drug dens. Him and his leather jacket and lyrics about doing heroin and John Cale by his side making the guitars go crazy. It's actually refreshing to listen to the four Velvet albums and hear music clearly at the birth of something special, as all music from this time was, but completely untouched by Beatles or Stones or Hendrix or Townsend. Actually, not before, or in the 40-so years since has anyone walked through such a twisted world (the Warhol-New York-art scene of the late 60s to be exact) with so little pretense. It's a cliche to say these tortured stars live these lifestyles so we don't have to, so we can just watch from a distance, but I think that's a lie: we all want this lifestyle, deep down, even if we know full well it's just a dream, but if we got there we would only know what to do because guys like Reed have already done it. And Reed, by going head first into the dirty romanticized the lifestyle more than anyone before or since.

But the music did eventually become clean. 'Loaded' the last Velvet Underground album does away with guitar feedback and 17 minute punk-rock orgies and celebrates rock'n'roll. The producers told them they wanted an album "loaded with hits" and they used that to get the albums title. And you'd think the way they got the title and the fact they were descending down from art-rock experimentation and collaborations with Nico that they'd treat 'Loaded' as a joke. That they'd make an album recorded in sarcasm or at least try to find their own way around things. But on 'Rock & Roll' they dance and rock and entertain as much as the Stones ever did; the song isn't a tribute to rock it's an all out celebration of it. At the end as Reed screams "Baby it's alright" over and over he gets caught up in it, like rock'n'roll was all around him, drowning him in excess. That's why The Velvet Underground are possibly the best rock band of all time: certainly not prolifically or even in cultural weight, but in their willingness to play along with whatever was in front of them. They weren't self referential, or self mocking, but further than that their music didn't mock anyone else either. The Velvet Underground gazed over all music and accepted it all, it reveled in it. No matter how weird or out of the ordinary. The scope that the Underground's music covered seems tiny, yet it seems to point to all other music, and contradictory to what most big bands would do, it tips its hat to it.

This pointed to the success the Underground never had, or at least didn't have until a critical re-evaluation years down the line, but instead Reed buckled and went to London. He returned to The Velvet Underground for a short reunion in the 90s, although this heralded no new music and only furthers the Underground into grandiose "what if?" territory. Instead from 1972 to his death he created a helluva lot of solo albums; some great ('Transformer' the generally excepted classic and best starting place), some not so good ('Metal Machine Music' one that's at least worth looking up) some quickly forgotten ('Magic and Loss' anyone?) and some worthy of at least a pat on the back for the simple miracle of their creation (recent album 'Lulu' which he co-created with Metallica). In some ways Reed's career mimicked that of his good pal David Bowie. Both walked into as many musical styles and movements as they saw fit, never seeming full satisfied with one easily identifiable image. Yet this testing out of different styles didn't come from a place of uncertainty but simply from a lack of having anything to prove. Reed stood on the cultural sidelines, never expected to give his own answer to what the mainstream was doing (a trap that Bowie fell into), which left Reed to create a career that shot out in as many directions as the man could manage; putting out everything: the good, the bad, the weird, and watching to see what would happen. Whatever you make of such a career it was a good one; Reed's lyrics, evolving from his early tales of drug abuse and sexual desire and further into more poetic personal tales, should be remembered as some of the best lyrical work ever; both for the unique style and the influence Reed had as the first writer to tackle such taboo subjects in song. A great artist, who delved into both sadness ('Stephanie Says') avant-garde ('The Gift') and rock'n'roll fun ('Walk On The Wild Side') and everything in-between.

Reed was already some years into his solo career when he did a famous (at least to journo-wannabes) interview with Lester Bangs, a partially transgressional figure and the best rock journo you'll be likely to find. It was in 1975 and is hilarious, but also depressing, mostly because it paints Reed as some overgrown man-baby, looked after in the same way Justin Beiber is probably cuddled into submission by his henchman, and surrounded by the transvestites and outcasts he spent his early career singing about. It's not the introverted and unbeknowingly ambitious Reed of the Velvet Underground, or what little you can find of him at that time, or the gentle Reed of the last decade who seemed calm and happy in the knowledge he had done it all and didn't need to dream; probably the best, or only good form of old age.

But I bring up the interview because it's so unclean in image for an artist who has in the last few years been rebranded as a humble old master, and who will now due to his death be swallowed by a tidal wave of unquestioned hyperbole. Kids will hear about Reed in years to come and get to know his legacy through his grand achievements and innovations and as one who everyone, at least right now in 2013, seems to love. Which I guess his music does rightfully deserve, although I can't see the man, at least in his prime, ever having accepted this title with open arms.

Reed still won't gain any major mainstream acceptance other than a quick spike in interest, but to those interested he will most likely be placed among the great rockstar figures of the 60s and 70s, possibly ranked up next to the likes of McCartney or Clapton, or more fittingly Jagger; the two come from blues-inspired rock bands and are both trademarks of the "cool" rockstar. But Jagger, even in his rebellious status, is like a firework explosion of all rock'n'roll - not good or bad - and all the things that rockstars can strive to achieve; all the way from his police mugshot to his knighthood. Like the Stones themselves Jagger has spent decades changing himself, morphing himself into what is needed to make a man of his age or cultural position the biggest he can be. But on the other hand not even a pleasant older version of Reed has cleaned away the dirty image of that kid playing to only a small selection of fans at Max's Kansas City, at the height of the Velvet Underground's success, chatting calmly to the audience, asking them if they want one long set or two shorter sets, and moving when ready into a selection of the grundgy or avant-garde songs that made up the Underground's back catalogue. When he asks the audience "have you all got school tomorrow?" he seems like a guy trying to be cool, yet ends up showing the vulnerability expected from anyone in front of a crowd. Not like Jagger, who worked to create the rockstar-myth: an unattainable sex god figure, unquestioned as the darker side of celebrity. His stage presence a sight to behold, but only furthering his separation from the audience. Yet Reed, in his vulnerability and his trying was a real rockstar. He was the ordinary guy, maybe even a fan, fulfilling the rockstar dream, the sex and drugs and rock'n'roll lifestyle. Only he reached it and must have been pretty bored, bored with how far the hippy's had taken it, and decided to take everything much further. That's why out of all the great Lou Reed's people are wanting to remember the one that should be remembered is the one sitting in some hotel room shooting the shit with Lester Bangs, putting shitty records on and talking with weird creatures that Bangs couldn't read as either men or women, and telling Lester Bangs his writing had went downhill and acting like a baby when the people employed to look after him told him it's time to go to bed. That's the Loud Reed we should all remember, because in it's ugliness and complete removal from reality and one sided nature it is what rock'n'roll is and what it will always be.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Lorde: Pure Heroine

So Lorde (pronounced Lord, depressing like Maude, and not as pompously fun as Lordy like I originally thought) is 17 next month, same age as me. It's still weird to get celebrities the same age as me. I can only pass off envy for child actors like Joel Courtney and Asa Butterfield, which is silly in the sense that not even my dream job would be acting; I imagine myself doing their interviews and adding some sense of controversy or humor to their monotone, and sitting on movie sets, sunglasses on, lapping up more praise than I deserve. As for the women; well it's easy to throw carnal desire at Dakota Fanning and Chloe Moretz, although I found myself more envious of Lorde, probably because she's the least manufactured: writes all her own songs and has made an album, Pure Heroin, where everything sounds drenched under the same murky sheet of sound.

Or maybe it's because she comes off asexual, one Youtube comment summed her up with "she makes my dick confused" I wouldn't agree, but in terms of sex Lorde neither eliminates possibilities or leads you on. She's good looking but not at all seductive, and her age could mean anything from taboo to complete inexperience. Her dress sense gives us no leads and her album cover is simply nothingness. The title, creating a clean-cut hero woman image, is more interesting as a cheeky wink to the drug and the image of rock'n'roll lifestyle it conjures up, yet despite some interesting musings on modern culture's celebrity obsession the album never fulfills this promise. She could quite easily slip into a world of chart sheets and grey office blocks, and that's what she does on the lesser moments of Pure Heroine, although the album stays afloat on moments of personality seeping through the cracks and a production that seems fully aware the star has not yet decided an image for herself.

The monotone of Lorde's voice fits well for album opener 'tennis court', first line being "Don't you think it's boring how people talk?" which becomes this albums mission statement. She is in no way the outcast, but this line sets up an album of youth-focused social commentary as she places herself above the other people of her (my?) generation, at least to the point of being able to give out generalized criticisms. The lyrics never sound self-loving yet Lorde feels invisible in the scenarios she creates. It's a straight-up criticism of the mainstream, and not just music but people in general; the popular kids at school and the fame-seekers. It's the same pose hipsters and people apparently too cool for their own time period have been taking for years. Later on she sings "I'm kinda over getting told to put my hands up in the air". If it didn't feel like such a bored sentiment it might actually spark excitement at the thought of a recent no.1 hit slating the mainstream, but this seems like a teenager acting smart rather than having anything smart to say on youth and popularity discrimination.

The production is a highlight; it stays out of the limelight for most of the album, and the tricks that are implored are simple and not exactly hard to decode, similar to the lyrics. The best track on the album 'Teams' starts off slow, Lorde coming to sing the line "the call I send" over and over while the production distorts her voice more each time. The message is clear: modern music has become stagnant and boring, and this distorting leads into the most addictive beat on the album. The rest of the music here is a mixed bag of addictive enthusiasm ("Royals", the recent no.1) and misplaced boredom ("ribs" which makes it's point with it's quiet lyrics and droning beat, but never gives you much of a reason to listen).

But for the most part Pure Heroine is very enjoyable, only starting to loose juice in it's last few tracks. Her biography page on Spotify describes her style as "confessional bedroom pop" a fitting description that I would never have thought of; the sound she creates, despite not offering a great flexibility, is Lorde's most unique asset. Lana Del Rey comparisons seem easy enough, but Rey's music, especially her backing tracks which border on melodramatic, create a much bigger scope than Lorde's; it's a communal angst, while Lorde's music really is from the bedroom, it's not a claustrophobic sound but it does trap you, the sound here is narrow, the variety limited and the sounds that were aloud in all conforming to the little image Lorde has created for herself thus far, so from the second you enter Pure Heroine the sound is focused and unlike Del Rey who oversteps her personal aspirations with big productions Lorde never over-does it.

Yet that sound-scape will have to be expanded in the future, that's the only really direction for the music here to go, which will be the actual test of Lorde's talents; this is just a debut after all. The most concrete talent here is the lyrics. I don't have a favorite type of lyrics, wrapped in metaphor is just as good as storytelling, but there is something about lyrics that just simple state something; current emotions and actions, that has to be admired. Lorde sings "Pretty soon I'll be getting on my first plane" and the line really is that simple, not that there isn't more going on in the words of this album, but lines like that add to the mood, and to our image of the singer, bit by bit building up throughout the album.

So is that what I'm envious of? That someone my age is making good music, and it's successful too. Kinda. Although I couldn't help but think Lorde isn't the first person of this age to reach this point of success, yet made it through an entire album without saying anything about other stars of the past, or of the effect of music on her life. While listening to Pure Heroine I could never remove the artist from the music, her age and current level of success helping to colour the lyrics and the ultimate meaning; yet for an album where the real world made itself so visible there was no hint of post-modernism to be found. Throughout I kept getting the image of Johnny Rotten in his mainstream hating "I hate Pink Floyd" top, only not in some grungy 70s night-club but in a frat-boy house party in 2013, and it says he hates one of today's pompous giants like Coldplay or Frank Ocean, only he doesn't really hate them, he just wants you to think he does, the same way Lorde isn't bored of throwing her hands in the air, she loves it really, and her album's best when she's accepting that. A fun album, but an annoying contradiction, both in it's message and it's music. Although it seems like a good tease of what's to come.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Rebranding (A New Beginning)

For anyone who's looking through the archives: this blog used to be called Culture Vulture, had a horrifically bland amount of white on it, gave pointless number ratings on all it's reviews, and was clearly run by some one who had very little interest in blogging.

So this is like my mission statement, it's my second actually, I already got high off the blogging juices a few months ago and wrote a perfectly full of myself post, but this time it's for real; you can tell because I even made my own banner for the site, one with lots of dead musicians on it, or three to be exact, despite my intention not being to depress at all.

But the banner, and the reference in the blogs name that I hope to high heaven that you get should get across the point this is a music blog. I'll still be yapping on about all manner of stuff, but I noticed it's music speak that most easily floods out of my brain. So I'll be deleting the huge categories list as well.

Oh yeah and if you could just get me lots more readers, a boat full of cash, some pretty ladies and some unreleased Nirvana CDs that would be great too.

Lots of love and smoochy kisses
Charlie x

Saturday, 12 October 2013

In Utero: 20 Years Later

The greatest moment for me listening to In Utero again in it's 20th anniversary form didn't even have anything to do with the new and remastered music, but was the moment of realization that 20 years was the amount of time it's took to stop In Utero from being a Kurt Cobain suicide note, a Nirvana sign-off or just a deeply depressing disk seen only through the veil of a shotgun-fueled tragedy that occurred months after the albums release. In Utero, both because of the 20 on it's box and the extra material, which leads into alternate cuts, outtakes and live performances, has finally become just another Nirvana album; a piece of the furniture. Most discs wouldn't survive being taken out of their place of importance or innovation or cultural relevance, but In Utero does because it has the thing that made Nirvana so great, and it has it in spades: that unassuming quality, the delivery of great rock music with no fake importance, painful levels of emotion without the need for an excessive production. 

Yet the biggest praise normally leveled to Utero is that it sidestepped the major commercial success of their previous album Nevermind and actually reversed Nirvana back somewhat, away from the mainstream and into a much more raw, darker place that would make more sense alongside the obscure Seattle grundge rockers that Nirvana's success had left behind. Yet this is partly untrue; Nirvana did deliver an album almost purposely aimed away from the mainstream, but they in no way managed to escape the shadow of their success; everything from this albums first line ("teenage angst has paid off well, now I'm bored and old" - which here returns back to it's original sarcastic quip, and not the dark self-contradiction it could be seen as) to it's mainstream-crushing song titles (Radio Friendly Unit Shifter is the antithesis of a mainstream seller) all meant as a response to the band's success, which this whole album is; a darker, more personal, less clean response to an album that was squeaky and shiny and ironically the furthest Nirvana ever went from their signature sound. 

And as an album on it's own, forgetting the personal and commercial implications, In Utero has always been a masterpiece, dark and personal for sure, but in musical terms a fast and angry punk-rock release; no remastering required. Which is why it's thankful the remaster has no resemblance to the lifeless remastering of Nevermind from two years back. Not that your stepping into a completely re-organized land of clarity, but this disc updates the original disc without stripping any of the personality out, and on top of that there's a "2013 mix" of each track, produced by original composer Steve Albini, that adds some slight differences to each song. The word slight should be kept in mind; the 2013 mixes don't have any jarring changes, not at all jarring enough to change anyone's opinions of these tracks, and probably un-noticeable completely to the un-Nirvana-trained ear.  

Better than that is the entire "MTV: Live and Loud" performance from 1993. I caught most of it on Youtube around a year ago, and listening here without the stage persona, the impressively lively one that Nirvana had, to look at, does weaken things a little; but it's made up for with the great sound quality and some recordings which apparently never aired on TV. I'll stand by my assertion that the live versions of "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" and "Scentless Apprentice" are better than the album versions; the lyrics are actually understandable and Cobain's gargled singing (and screaming) become less threatening. The highlight of Live and Loud though is a cover of David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World", there's already the acoustic version from Unplugged in New York, that has over time become more popular than the Bowie original, which is still the more impressive version, but the version presented here is a faster rock n roll version; and to compare the two is to see the two very different opposing sides of Nirvana. 

And now for the real draw; the unreleased material. It was with these that I started to see In Utero in a different light. These recordings take In Utero out of the weird underworld it has always been heard, that spectral world from the Heart Shaped Box video filled with broken hymens and biblical illusions, and takes us straight into the studio it was recorded in. Which was itself a fiery two weeks of recording; probably filled with recording sessions as claustrophobic as many of the tracks found here. The highlight for me was "Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip" a track originally promised on my CD copy of In Utero as a "Europe only track" that my copy still never played. At 7:35 it comes in as the longest track in the Nirvana cataloge; the first half takes you into Cobain's parental fears, in all his screeching lyrical glory, but in the end it's hard to truly believe this track is any more than a part-sarcastic wink at his own personal troubles, confirmed by the second half of the track which is a rambling jam session, including Cobain confirming there's "one more solo" and heavy guitar feedback. And it's strange to hear this messy Nirvana for the first time; because for all the talk of slackers and greasy hair Nirvana wear always well-practiced and the unceremonious length of all their other tracks is testament to unacknowledged professionalism. It's a sad song really, taking you so close to the band members, and to someone the world left back in 1994, but it didn't stop me from listening again and again. 

The rest of the recordings are no long lost treasure chest but they further illuminate some of the more messy sides of Nirvana; "Marigold" sees Dave Grohl preparing for Foo Fighters with what I imagine is his first recorded vocal performance. A live Foo Fighters version recorded around 15 years later is available, and like everything Nirvana-Foo it's the tidy, well executed and mostly emotionless ying to Nirvana's darker, more haunting yang. Not to pick sides, or even write about something that's pointless and needing of much more space than it would get here, especially when Grohl's enthusiastic rock is a joy Nirvana never gave out, but I've always prefered the older band; and the emotion poured into the final In Utero, along with willingness to go further out into places no-one knew they were even think about in these back-stage recordings, is my quickest way to explain why, and it's all their in "marigold" for you to see. 

"I Hate Myself and Want To Die" pulls no punches; no explanation, no sarcasm, it's actually all nonsense to the point that it's title line is never even mentioned. It fits the muddled sound of the album, punctuated by a catchy hook, and was probably dropped more for it's name than any tonal flaws. It originally shared the name of the album before Krist Novelistic persuaded Cobain they were only headed for a lawsuit with that one. Strangely absent from the set list is "Verse Chorus Verse", youtube available, that was also an early album title, and adds to the themes of artistic boredom and personal anguish, but for some reason was not felt worthy of mention here. And yeah, there's other stuff too, there's an instrumental track and a even some demo's, one's called "Jam" although I still can't - even after two or three listens - remember anything about it. You'll gloss over most of it; even a lot of the good stuff, because surely the 2013 mixes are pointless and the live show deserves a separate listening sesh, no: this collection is an excuse to return to a great album, itself expanded by some extra tracks. 

And this one's always been my favorite Nirvana disc. Nirvana's discography has always made me stop and stare; the three discs they released, the same two year gaps between each, and the emotional turmoil and changing living arrangements of everybody involved during these three releases all comes across as a perfect beginning, middle and end story. An amateurish garage record that received little success, a mammoth pop record that shot into superstardum, and this, a darkly personal record that went further into both blues and metal, and even had time for their acoustic ready-side ("All Apologies" just makes sense as the final Nirvana track on their final album) and even without the same commercial success has became the band's most loved album. 

And the album itself: it's a fun record. The lyrics are simpler and less straddled with the great weight they're thought to have, but they do have meaning, however obscure, and represent Cobain's greatest moment as writer; from the scope of disturbed imagery created ("Meat-eating orchids forgive no one just yet/Cut myself on angel hair and baby's breath") or the softer moments savored for things more thoughtful  ("Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld/So I can sigh eternally"). It's up to you entirely if you want to add some meaning to a song as blunt as "Rape Me", lots of fans do, some see it as a song about isolation, while other's see it's similar cords to Teen Spirit as a joke on artistic rape by the mainstream; it's far fetched but believable, although meaning or not it's still an obvious call for controversy, smartly done at least.

The actual sound of the album is very aggressive; the opening guitar riffs on "Very Ape" literally rip through the air molecules as you burst into the song which feels like an explosion of inner turmoil, all done in less than two minutes. It's not exactly punk; it's more structured and thoughtful than anything Nirvana had done previous, and songs like "Dumb", while not exactly slowing things down, do provide a more identifiable image of the emotions flying around. Each track tries to do something completely different from all the others yet when you get to the end it feels like a well rounded experience. Yet it's really the flaws that make this album. Some might find that strange, but have you ever listened to an album and simply went with every song there? Good maybe, but boring, and not much of a challenge for the ears. "Tourette's" is heavier than Metallica, and a lot more scary, and I've already mentioned the gargled lyrics and violent screaming on some tracks just come on too strong, but all these tracks really feel like they're going for something, pushing against each other with jagged edges; you wouldn't be expected to like it all. In the end it's just good music, simple as. 

And that's really all there is to say. Go listen and enjoy. In Utero has always been tagged as the Nirvana album people who don't like Nirvana like, and the extras are only a support act to that. And it's an even better thought that people would discover the band, or at least the album, in this form. 

(I'm going to stop giving a rating in my reviews from now on, it's always felt pointless giving them out so I'd rather just let the review speak for itself)