Bleach (Sub Pop ’89) Rating: B+
This is an enjoyably raw punk/hard rock debut by a band that went on to much greater things, as we all know. Kurt Cobain’s lyrics are repetitive and often unintelligible (so much for all those “universal truths” within his lyrics that critics always claim was the primary reason why Nirvana struck such a cord with America’s youth), and the music features a grungy (what else?) guitar crunch. The limited production, which cost all of $600, is murky, which was typical for a Sub Pop release and quite fitting for most of these songs. Dig within the murk, however, and signs of the band’s future eminence are there, if in limited dosages. For example, the hard rocking “School” is simple and thrillingly to the point, while “Negative Creep” impressively chugs along on its ominous self-loathing lyrics. I love the creepy bass on “Blew” (the guitar solo is cool too), and their cover of Shocking Blue’s “Love Buzz” is both melodic and rocking, but “About A Girl” is the album’s best example of Cobain’s burgeoning gift for simple but killer pop melodies (it also best exemplifies his love of The Beatles). Granted, the album lacks diversity and sophistication (Cobain’s songwriting hadn’t yet fully flowered), and drummer Chad Channing is no Dave Grohl. However, the band already had their own dirty sound down pat; in particular, Kurt’s guitar playing was technically limited but he sure could make a cool racket, and he could also scream with the best of ‘em. Still, needless to say the best was yet to come.
Nevermind (DGC ‘91) Rating: A+
This album heralded a revolution. Sick of all the slick, cheesy hair bands that dominated the late ‘80s due to MTV, America’s youth embraced this album as a call to arms, and the music scene completely changed, seemingly overnight. Shockingly coming from out of nowhere to knock Michael Jackson’s Dangerous from the #1 slot on the Billboard charts, Nevermind marked the exact moment when “alternative rock” music finally found mainstream acceptance. We can all debate whether that turned out to be such a good thing or not, especially in light of all the second rate copycat bands that ended up making “grunge” a dirty word in most music circles. But for a while there radio and MTV were actually pretty exciting places, largely because of this album, which sounds almost as fresh today as the day it was released. And why is that? Primarily, it’s because Kurt Cobain was a superb songwriter, and the songs here are such a quantum leap beyond Bleach that it almost sounds like a different band. Also, the addition of Dave Grohl (one of the best rock drummers ever) takes the band’s musical chops and chemistry (he also added backing vocals) to another level, and the major label production is miles more advanced than on Bleach. Of course, Cobain hated it, thinking it too slick and commercial for his purist sensibilities. He has a point, but the scuzzy sonics of Bleach could've taken the band but so far (commercially speaking), and this Butch Vig production does a good job of showcasing Cobain’s melodic gifts without sacrificing the vibrant energy of the music. As for the songs, the flagship single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (the one that “broke” the band) just might be the ultimate teen anthem ever, while “In Bloom” delivers a poppy sing along chorus to go along with crunchy power chords and Grohl’s pulverizing drum pop. “Come As You Are” is another all-time classic that’s led by an unforgettable bass riff (although he rarely gets much credit, Krist Novoselic’s cool basslines were an essential component to the Nirvana sound), an incredibly understated intensity, a technically simplistic but ear pleasingly terrific guitar solo, and memorably prophetic lyrics (“and I don’t have a gun”). “Breed” is one of several songs (“Territorial Pissings” and “Stay Away” are the others) that rage with a nonstop fury, while “Lithium” is an excellent example of what Grohl called “punk rock songs you could sing along to.” Elsewhere, “Drain You,” “Lounge Act,” and “On a Plain” are catchy rockers with just enough of an edge, “Polly” is a melodic ballad but with chilling lyrics, and “Something In the Way” is a shockingly understated (and successful) song that features sparse cello backing and Cobain’s barely audible voice, thereby foreshadowing their spectacular Unplugged showcase three years later. This instant classic was the most important album of the '90s, period. Note: Many of these songs start slow but soon swell to explosive crescendos; this soft-to-loud formula (admittedly borrowed from the Pixies) would become a slavishly imitated Nirvana trademark. Note #2: There is a hidden track approximately seven minutes after the last listed song ends, spearheading one of the more annoying ‘90s trends.
Incesticide (DGC ’92) Rating: B
Not since the Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks had an album caused people to think in terms of “before” and “after.” Nevermind completely changed the rock landscape (for the better, at least for a little while), and it's superior to anything the Sex Pistols ever did to boot (though I’ve grown to belatedly love Bollocks as well). While regrouping from their seismic success, the band released this assorted collection of b-sides, singles, and cover songs. Unfortunately, about half of this album is subpar and simply should have remained in the vaults, making Cobain come off as a bit of a hypocrite, what with his haughty album essay and previous slagging of Pearl Jam’s alleged “corporate” rock. For such a stout extoller of “integrity” he doesn’t give his fans much value for their dollar here; I know that I was disappointed by it. The first half is quite good, however, with several simple, grungy, hard rocking tunes (such as “Dive” and “Stain”) that bring Bleach to mind. “Sliver” has a nice pop melody, the main element that distinguishes Nirvana's good songs from their more generic attempts, while the catchy “Been A Son” showcases Cobain’s well-known sympathy towards women. “(New Wave) Polly” is a fast, punked up take on the Nevermind song, while “Molly’s Lips” and “Son Of A Gun” are cool covers of an obscure (though not for long) Scottish band called The Vaselines, though in truth these songs sound a little out of place here and are in fact inferior to the original versions (recommended listening: The Way Of The Vaselines: A Complete History). I also like their Devo cover, “Turnaround,” a rare Nirvana song that’s actually danceable, but to say that the quality of this album drops off during the second half is an understatement; falls off a cliff is more like it. Thankfully, “Aneurysm” ends things on a great note; there’s a reason why it later became a much played cut from their live album, From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah, which also resurrected “Sliver” and “Been A Son.” Though hardly necessary for casual listeners of Nirvana's music, Incesticide contains enough solid stuff amid its trashy disappointments to tempt serious fans of the band.
In Utero (DGC ’93) Rating: A
This was supposed to be Nirvana’s raw punk rock record. Fortunately, though it is much rawer than Nevermind, Kurt Cobain didn't discard his pop instincts completely. Although there are a couple of throwaway tracks towards the end ("Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" and "Tourette's"), this is another great rock album that saw Cobain grappling with his sudden fame and the monstrous responsibilities that came along with it. Produced by Steve Albini, whose abrasive sound Cobain admired (for his work with The Pixies, among others), In Utero is a brutal soundtrack to a troubled mind. "Serve The Servants" begins the proceedings with a raw verve and energy, not to mention memorable lyrics ("teenage angst has paid off well, now I'm bored and old"), "Scentless Aprentice" has a massive, utterly corrosive sound, and "Heart Shaped Box" was the album's first single, and a damn good one at that. "Rape Me" was a song that was practically begging to be misinterpreted (it was), though its most impressive aspect is how it demonstrates the band's explosive group dynamics. Like "Serve The Servants," "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle" is an unfairly overlooked song that's notable for its lurching rhythm, its singable chorus, and its great lyrical concept. "Dumb" is a mellow, melodic gem a la "Polly," enhanced by mournful cello, while "Very Ape" has very good riffs/rhythms along with more quote worthy lyrics ("I'm buried up to my neck in contradictory lies"). The hard rocking “Milk It” establishes a creepy mood and sees Kurt screaming his head off, while "Pennyroyal Tea" starts sleepily but then surges as only Nirvana can, plus its lyrics are (in retrospect) almost unbearably poignant and powerful. Finally, "All Apologies" ends the album on a sublime note that my meager words can't hope to adequately express. For all of its savagery, most of In Utero is still accessible, since enough melody seeps through the raging guitars and Cobain's visceral screams to let this "difficult" album again win over mainstream audiences, though not as willingly. It's too bad about the noisy filler (especially the mercifully brief “Tourette’s”), though, which Kurt no doubt included in order to preserve his punk rock "credibility." I wish that he hadn't been so conflicted about "selling out" to make his music more palatable for mass acceptance (he did let Scott Litt sweeten the mix on a couple of tracks), because if he hadn't been he might still be alive today, and (less importantly) In Utero could've been incredible instead of merely great.
Unplugged In New York (DGC ‘94) Rating: A
This showcase of the mellower side of Nirvana was a startling showcase of Kurt Cobain and company’s versatile skills, as the band turn off the amps and still deliver memorable, powerful performances with an understated skill that few figured they possessed. Although I prefer most of the original versions of the Nirvana songs, the ones that are noticeably different from their album versions, such as “Come As You Are,” “Pennyroyal Tea,” and "All Apologies," are nevertheless extremely successful on their own terms. The other Nirvana originals are enjoyable but offer nothing new, since they’re mellow songs to begin with and are faithful to the original album versions. To me, where this concert really achieves ignition is on its memorable cover songs, which confirm Kurt’s good taste and show off the sources of some of his inspiration. There are six improbable cover selections in all, including David Bowie's “The Man Who Sold The World” and The Vaselines’ “Jesus Does Not Want Me As A Sunbeam.” The band cheats by plugging in on the fine former rendition, while I've always found the latter song particularly moving. Cobain is also assisted by Kurt and Lyle Kirkwood on three Meat Puppets songs, “Plateau,” “Oh Me,” and “Lake Of Fire,” making more than a few people run out and get (or dust off) Meat Puppets II. The concert's most riveting moment, however, is a stark, harrowing take on Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” which features an incredible Cobain vocal as he completely loses himself in the moment. Although Cobain’s voice cracks repeatedly throughout Unplugged In New York (for my money the best "Unplugged" concert ever), the raw vibrancy of this intimate show overcomes whatever flaws there may have been. Little did we know that it would be an epitaph, as Kurt Cobain would commit suicide shortly afterwards; this show's constant airing on MTV thereafter makes it all but impossible not to think of the hideous subsequent events when hearing this performance, which I guess in retrospect only adds to its poignancy.
From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah (DGC ‘96) Rating: B+
If Unplugged In New York had showcased Nirvana’s heart, this final souvenir shows the band’s guts in gloriously raw performances. Compiled by band members Grohl and bassist Krist Noveselic from various concerts culled from 1989-1994, From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah has little overlap with Unplugged In New York and can act as a companion piece. This album shows Nirvana as a plugged in juggernaut of barely contained fury and power, though it reinforces what we already knew rather than offering any new insights. Revisiting the bands debut, Bleach, on “School,” “Negative Creep,” and “Blew,” these songs are improved by virtue of Dave Grohl’s drumming. In addition, the band’s very first song, “Spank Thru,” is included on a Nirvana album for the first time. Beginning with a slurred, Elvis Presley like vocal, the song soon explodes into more familiar territory, keeping it in line with the rest of the album. Elsewhere, the version of “Polly” (the only repeat from Unplugged In New York) here is an amped up powerhouse, the surging, monstrously pumped up "Aneurysm” (another definite improvement on the original) and a strong rendition of “Drain You” both deservedly made it onto modern rock radio stations, and the version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” captures the organized chaos that is the song's essence. Granted, some listeners might quibble with certain song omissions (i.e. songs that were already on Unplugged) and inclusions (“Been A Son,” “Sliver,” “Scentless Apprentice,” “Milk It,” and “Tourette’s” are lesser known and in some cases lesser songs revisited), as well as the occasionally muddy sound quality and often muffled vocals. But live performances are rarely perfect, and this worthwhile album is an accurate representation of what Nirvana sounded like when they were alive and live.
Live At Reading (DGC ‘09) Rating: A
Wow, this live album blows away the enjoyable but inessential Wishkah, making me wonder why it took so long for it to be released. For one thing, live albums tend to work better when an actual start-to-finish performance is captured rather than piecing together a compilation of several performances, and this performance at the 1992 Reading Festival is a corker, being agreeably raw and powerful but also well recorded. The only problem that prevents this album from being a definitive live showcase is that it was recorded before In Utero was released, so that album is scantily represented by early versions of several tracks (“All Apologies,” “Dumb,” and unfortunately, “Tourette’s”), as the bulk of this 24-track set list is comprised of the majority of Nevermind as well as the best songs from Bleach and Incesticide. A couple of new covers (Fang’s “The Money Will Roll Right In” and The Wipers’ “D-7”) are also included and both are right up Nirvana’s alley, the first with its dirty riffs, the latter being more dirge-like. The bottom line is that when you tear away the Nirvana myth and focus exclusively on the music, they were a band with great songs who rocked HARD, and these performances are fittingly furious and are also not without humor (better captured on the DVD which also includes an extra track, presumably due to CD time constraints). Sure, some of the Nevermind songs in particular (“In Bloom” comes to mind) lack the spit shine polish of the studio versions, and some may find the song sequencing a bit curious (most of the biggest hits appear towards the middle of the album), but most of these versions are extremely exciting, as Live At Reading showcases a great rock band doing what they do best, nothing more and nothing less. As such, this was a welcome archive release that further enhances the band’s rich legacy.