A long defunct yet somewhat mildly influential band known as Nirvana put out a little something for people to buy the other day...
Well, maybe not that little -- With the Lights Out compiles a comprehensive collection of authentic band rarities onto three CDs and 1 DVD. Only a nifty but bulky decorative box embossed with a tin/aluminum front cover and a spiffy, heat-activated graphic on the back cover could house it all -- plus a 70-page book filled with band images and assorted commentary on Nirvana's recording sessions.
High-rolling punkers with the bling can snag this supersized box set for about $40-$50. As for the rest of us, it makes the perfect holiday gift, so we can just put it on our wishlists to Santa Claus. I must note that many of these recordings are already available (in varying levels of recording quality) on bootlegs -- but since buying just two bootlegs would cost $40 anyway, why even bother?! Get the real deal dude.
After scraping the proverbial bottom of the barrel for more Nirvana-age to simonize to its legions of fans, board members of the multi-national corporation known as Nirvana, Inc. (aka Krist Novoselic, David Grohl and Courtney Love) had long wanted to release this box set, but long-standing legal issues (among themselves) had complicated their aims. Nonetheless, the year 2004 not only finally saw the release of the box set, but also a pleasant surprise of its increased size when Courtney Love contributed lots and lots of new tapes at the very last minute -- even some presumed to be lost forever.
So here's what you get with With the Lights Out:
Disc One contains lots of recordings from the pre-Bleach album era -- i.e. when Nirvana was less poppy and more Black Sabbathy, more grunge metallish. Lots of refreshing tracks such as the riff-heavy "Mr. Buttersworth" and the spastic upheaval of "Anorexorcist" represented early common Nirvana fare, as recorded from a radio show on KAOS. Back then, Nirvana took requests for covers during live shows, so they churned out a vainglorious cover of Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker." My personal favorites on this disc are "If You Must" and "Pen Cap Chew," the real grungy, screamy thrash tracks that would start to slowly shape and chracterize the Nirvana sound that we all know and love.
Live early performances of the fast nihilistic political screed "Downer," the creepy "Floyd the Barber" and a surprisingly fast (by Nirvana standards anyway), bass thumping "Raunchola/Moby Dick," which are also a cool treat for super punk fans. Yes, Nirvana did play fast at one point.
Some solo Kurt Cobain tracks on Disc One highlight the band's ruminations with sonic experimentation. "Beans" gives me pause to worry about Kurt's mental capacities, whereas "Don't Want It All," "Clean Up Before She Comes," and early versions of "Polly" and "About a Girl" show new forays into bluesy and light Beatles-inspired pop sounds.
Early demos of "Blandest," "Token Eastern Song" (A.K.A. "Junkyard" on some bootlegs) and a somewhat slow "Dive" show Nirvana's maturation into the Bleach era. One of the most pleasant surprises on Disc One is "They Hung Him on a Cross," a Huddie Ledbetter cover sung by a somber Kurt Cobain -- this song literally rings like a hymn in church with its religious overtones. The demo of "Even in His Youth" actually sounds far more spontaneous and therefore superior to the version found on the Smells Like Teen Spirit single. Finally, a great demo of an electric version of "Polly" ends the disc, a good contrast to the Nevermind version since Nirvana played the electric version on occasion.
Disc Two showcases Nirvana during its period as an up-and-coming band on the Sub Pop roster with the Bleach album under its belt and and a capability to tour internationally. Kurt Cobain's early solo demos debut new songs "Lithium," "Been a Son," "Opinion," and "Sliver" -- all a portent to a more poppy Nirvana. Just hearing these versions of "Lithium" and "Sliver" sends the chills of earnest nostalgia down my spine. The heavy-weighted voice of Kurt wailing and strumming to "Lithium" alone just shows the promise of a great bluesy tune. Also hearing an early demo of "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" (also known as "In the Pines" in some circles) would have made it all the better reason for it to later appear on Nirvana's "Unplugged" performance.
A powerful demo of "Pay to Play," the precursor to Nevermind's "Stay Away," showed the song as it should have been -- before the chorus lyrics were changed for the Nevermind album. "Pay to Play" was a thumping, screaming vituperative against Seattle bar and club policies that forced bands to 'pay to play.' The band churns out a modestly happy Velvet Underground cover of "Here She Comes Now" -- well, as blissfully optimistic as Nirvana could probably get, anyway.
An early demo of "Drain You" is without the long, drawn-out, death prattle-like drum middle and instead with a long, drawn-out guitar solo. I prefer the death prattle. The Smells Like Teen Spirit single version of "Aneurysm" appears here as a slower yet more powerful and spontaneous version than on the Incesticide album. This version just reiterates why "Aneurysm," a pagan anthem to heroin abuse, remains one of my favorite rock-star-type ballads. a song that just builds on itself and sputters and collides out of control towards the end.
The Nevermind album era is also reliably represented, starting with "Smells Like Teen Spirit." The earliest demo of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" appears with slightly different lyrics -- and will be the subject of the endless rock-music enthusiast scrutiny. And I won't take exception...just kidding, I will.
A cool remix of "Breed" shows up, plus rarities such as "Verse Chrous Verse" and "Old Age," which show both the happy-go-lucky and somewhat gloomy side of Nirvana -- more moaning, sad droning tunes and less screaming. Yes, Nirvana doesn't just scream -- they can moan and wail, too!
The traumatic dirge of spontaneity known as "Endless Nameless" and an early version of "Dumb," both taped from the John Peel's BBC radio show, appears on Disc Two. Yes, there is a definite time length for "Endless Nameless" (the hidden track on some early pressings of the Nevermind album): 8:45 -- golly, I was just as surprised as the next person.
Nirvana loved the Seattle grunge punks the Wipers enough to record some covers: the moderately fast "D-7" and the heavy riff fest of "Return of the Rat."
My favorites on Disc Two include the pulsating grunge screamer "Oh the Guilt" (featured on a split single with the Jesus Lizard) and the wayward screeching of "Curmudgeon."
Finally the Butch Vig mix of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" ends Disc Two -- the song that launched (more than) a thousand alternative rock bands -- and the perpetual zealous platitudes of rock music critics. One wonders: where would Alternative Press magazine be today without this song? And Rolling Stone -- they would still be mired in kissing goofy hair metal asses -- they'd pucker up to lots of hair, stupid fashion antics and lots of insipid, flaming-lame solos. The Butch Vig mix is basically the Nevermind version with the drum signal boosted and guitars more crisp and not so smoothed over. I wished others could hear it on the radio as well as this -- raw and full of balls.
Disc Three contains the band output leading up to In Utero, and after. A Kurt solo acoustic "Rape Me" precedes a band demo of "Rape Me." The live demo has the song heavier than the In Utero version, and it's got Kurt's baby Frances crying in the background -- really representing a tender emotional moment for Kurt in his life.
The demo of "Scentless Apprentice" appears more like a improv jam than the formative stages of a song, with David Grohl shining while showing off his drum chops. But the raw finished end result of a demo "Heart Shaped Box" signals the darker turn for their sound.
What's wrong with a song called "I Hate Myself and Want to Die"? Geffen executives didn't take to it, so they put it on some compilation entitled Business and Nutbread (I think...). But we get the demo of that song, and it's unique to say the least: lots more feedback noise, Kurt's more sullen singing and a lot more crunchy guitars. And as any crust-punker knows: feedback noise is good -- a true sign of quality!
"Milk It" is demoed with different lyrics here. And there's nothing wrong with a song called "Moist Vagina," also demoed here, though I probably like the "All Apologies" single version better.
What's the most ridiculous sounding title that you could put on a song -- while stoned off your ass, nonetheless? How about "Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flowing Through the Strip"?! It's basically Nirvana's improv with a more loungey, elevator-music-type feel -- slowed down and paced. Maybe Nirvana, Inc. couldn't find another noteworthy title for the other improv jam, adroitly entitled "The Other Improv."
Lots of In Utero-era songs are demoed by Kurt acoustically -- redeeming an adage that the best songs have to sound good on an acoustic guitar first. (Rivers Cuomo of Weezer is living proof.) "Serve the Servants" and "Very Ape" are featured in its very primitive stages of development whereas "Pennyroyal Tea" appears ready to be ultimately the final single from In Utero.
During Kurt's suspicious downtime during the In Utero recording sessions, David Grohl put down "Marigold" to tape, a deliciously shimmering tune, which would later surface on the Heart Shaped Box single.
Nirvana had always performed and demoed the tune "Sappy" in varying capacities, but Kurt Cobain thought that he never could get it right, until he did in 1993. "Sappy" reflects so much of Kurt's sullen desperation beneath the veneer of a poppy chorus and a catchy chord progression, that it remains one of my favorite all-time Nirvana songs of today. I just wished it had been on the In Utero album--it's a way better song than "Very Ape."
An early demo of a Vaselines cover "Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam" has Krist Novoselic grabbling the spotlight on an accordian, just like during Nirvana's "Unplugged" performance.
Another great surprise is a demo of "Do Re Mi," a surprisingly sugary acoustic tune for Kurt Cobain, with Kurt tenderly churning out the chorus "Do Re Mi" -- it's nothing short of pop genius.
Finally, Kurt's solo acoustic performances of "You Know You're Right" and "All Apologies" round out Disc Three and the audio portion of this box set. "You Know You're Right" is the ironic, turbulent swan song for Kurt Cobain as he careens and meanders throughout the chorus: "Paaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaain." "All Apologies" signals the epitome and the pantomime of despair for a disillusioned Kurt Cobain.
The DVD itself is a great refreshing look at the band itself, with performances varying from the earliest in Krist Novoselic's mother's house (featuring a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song") to a loud, production-heavy rock star treatment of their live sets. The mopey "Big Long Now," the grunge genius of the Sub Pop "In Bloom" video, the live version of the pop anthem "Sappy," and heavy performances of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Territorial Pissings," and "Scoff" are decidedly the great highlights on the DVD. The grainy video of "Love Buzz" contrasts nicely to the live production of "Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam." The DVD shows enough of the lowlights along with the pinnacle of the highlights to merit repeat viewings. Plus, it shows some footage of the band's humble roots enduring hard-luck touring times. It's layered...and layering is good.
The enclosed booklet, resembling something to be put on a coffeetable, makes a nice conversation piece, and it outlays versatile moments of Nirvana's recording history, assorted commentary from band members, and musical rigamerole from Neil Strauss and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. Plus, it's got some novelty shots of the band's live performances, publicity items, and pictures of the actual tapes of the recordings.
For hardcore Nirvana fans, this is the motherlode (and this odyssey of a review is proof) -- this is their redemption for rock star nostalgia. But this is also a poignant moment for punkers like yours truly, a former Governor of California. Nirvana helped turn lots of people onto punk and indie music. For us punkers, we're not living in Frank Sinatra's world anymore -- we've junked it and let a Seattle grunge band instead forge a new musical path. Then we reconstructed another one for ourselves from the smoldering, flaming wreckage. And now we have a box set to definitively close the chapter on the Nirvana influence -- and to pay tribute to the band that caused many to start caring about music again. Nirvana's B-sides and rarities were just as good as their Top 40 radio airfare. And now with the record laid mostly bare (because I know Nirvana, Inc. is still holding back little bits), all the rock critics can churn their flywheels, revise the record, and see just how profoundly musically great and talented Nirvana was and is.
Get this one, and get another one for your punk-minded friends. Get it for the nostalgia; get it to complete your music collection and get it for the incidiary music.
This box set gets and deserves my highest recommendation.