Category Archives: Nirvana

Rocks In The Attic #642: Nirvana – ‘In Utero’ (1993)

RITA#642Last weekend I found a pair of perfectly good speakers on the side of the road. A handwritten sign – ‘FREE’ – was standing next to them. I did a quick u-turn and threw them in my car. New Zealand’s attitude to freecycling occasionally delivers gems like this. You could probably drive around all weekend and furnish your entire house with kerbside treasures that people are throwing away. The speakers are a lovely pair of Technics, standing 18” tall and my vinyl-collecting friend at work, who’s far more knowledgeable about hi-fi equipment, assures me they’re a very, very good find.

That’s if they still work, of course, because who in their right minds would throw away a perfectly good set of speakers? A quick trip to the local electronics store to get some speaker cable, and I can rest assured that not only do they work perfectly, but they also sound fucking awesome. It makes a world of difference to the set of (perfectly good for purpose) surround speakers I was running my turntable through previously.

Whenever I’m testing a new set-up – be it a new turntable, or a new amp, or a new set of speakers – the album I always turn to is Nirvana’s In Utero. My clear favourite of their three studio albums, it towers over their unripe debut, and their too-slick crossover follow-up. Steve Albini’s production sounds more like what I imagine the band’s natural sound to be, and it was the record I turned to when Kurt died as it was their final studio album.

The reason it’s so good to test hi-fi equipment is that it’s so dynamic, and so well recorded that it doesn’t sound like the product of pro-tools. After Albini’s initial production (foreshadowed by a great letter to the band), Geffen Records attempted to fix what they saw as an uncommercial record by employing Robert Ludwig to master it. Still unhappy, the master tapes were then given to REM producer Scott Litt, who remixed the singles alongside Andy Wallace (who had mixed Nevermind). With so many cooks in the kitchen, the album should sound conflicted, but to my ears it sounds perfect.

RITA#642aThe hi-fi recommendations in the inside cover of the CD booklet, something that you just don’t usually see in liner notes, have always made me chuckle. I suspect that rather than being a genuine instruction to listeners (unlikely), it’s an irreverent poke at the casual music fans the band were attracting (a more obscure jab than the lyrics to In Bloom).

RITA#642dAlthough I own a late ‘90s reissue of In Utero, I jumped at the chance to get the Steve Albini mix of the record, released to mark the album’s 20th anniversary. Running at 45rpm, and split across two discs, it’s a wonderful package. But while it’s very interesting to hear, I think I’ll always prefer the original version. Albini’s mix of the singles sound so much more in line with the rest of the album, and if anything the contrast shows how much the Scott Litt mix of those songs sounds like the range of dynamics you would hear on an REM single.

One thing I really liked around the 20th anniversary re-release was a memo that did the rounds on the internet, mocked up to look like a letter to record store owners, pleading with them to get behind the album’s reissue. I seem to remember some discussion at the time around whether it was genuine or not, but it’s clearly a joke – it’s dripping in cynicism, and reads like something that Kurt Cobain might have composed from beyond the grave.

I don’t usually pay much attention to the ‘thank you’ lists in liner notes, but there is one particular name on the In Utero sleeve that is deserving of a mention. The band listed Quentin Tarantino in this section – in 1993 a relatively cult director with only one film, Reservoir Dogs, to his name (and Pulp Fiction yet to be released). When the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction eventually saw the light of day in September 1994, Quentin repaid the favour and thanked the now-departed Cobain.

Hit: Heart Shaped Box

Hidden Gem: Radio Friendly Unit Shifter

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Rocks In The Attic #294: Nirvana – ‘Nevermind’ (1991)

RITA#294Like a lot of people my age, this was the first exposure I had to grunge music. At first, the very idea of grunge just didn’t appeal to me – a genre made up of scruffy guys with bad hair and lumberjack shirts. Then my friends kept playing Smells Like Teen Spirit, and the intro burrowed into my head like an earworm.

I have trouble listening to this record now. I can’t hear anything resembling punk or new wave anymore; all I can hear is the perfect production by Butch Vig – the fantastic separation of voice and instruments, and the rampant double-tracking on the vocals.

There’s a great episode of Classic Albums where Vig isolates the vocals on In Bloom and you can hear just how strong those vocal melodies are on the chorus – Cobain’s lead vocal double-tracked, and then supported by Dave Grohl’s backing vocals, also double-tracked. Vig convinced Cobain that this was a good idea because it’s something that John Lennon would have done. That in itself sounds like a million miles away from punk rock.

Of the two albums, I prefer In Utero as a piece of work, and always have done. The songwriting isn’t overshadowed by the production on that album; and despite that album being the soundtrack to Cobain’s suicide, there doesn’t seem to be as much hype and baggage to put up with. I do enjoy the second side of Nevermind though, when you get away from all the overplayed singles that are littered on the first side. The album just seems to breathe a little easier on that side.

Still, Nevermind holds a lot of memories for me, and always will. That crazy photo of the baby underwater is a beautiful image – and proof that classic album covers didn’t die out in the digital age. Even the blurry photo of the band (on the back of the record sleeve, but on the inlay of the CD if I remember correctly) brings a smile to my face. In fact, the whole production design of the album is pretty awesome – the album title written in a font to make it look like it’s floating on top of water, and the back cover made to look like shimmering sunlight refracted through the water of a swimming pool. I spent many an hour of my teens just looking at the album art, and at that age you read far too much into every little thing. It just seemed important.

Throughout my adolescence (in the UK) I encountered plenty of people who were anti-American. These people will eschew anything from that side of the Atlantic, while singing the praises of anything recorded by the British, just simply because it’s British. I’ve never really understood this musical racism, and some of my closest friends have been blighted by it.

I was asked once why would I want to listen to an American chap singing about killing himself, when I could listen to an Englishman sing about living forever?

The answer is simple – there’s more joy and energy in one line of a Kurt Cobain’s song than in a lifetime of Oasis records. I’ll take invention and imagination over mediocrity any day.

Hit: Smells Like Teen Spirit

Hidden Gem: Lounge Act

Rocks In The Attic #203: Nirvana – ‘Bleach’ (1989)

RITA#202I remember wanting this album so much to be better than it actually is. That’s the curse when you start listening to music – your ability to critique isn’t fully established, so instead of just accepting that an album isn’t all that great, you just dig your heels in and listen to it more, as though you can potentially make it better just by the act of repetition.

Bleach is far from being as good as Nevermind, and it’s not even in the same league as In Utero, which I’ve always regarded as their best and most consistent album. Listening to Bleach now though, it seems to have aged very well. I remember listening to the album throughout the ‘90s was always a bit of a chore, something I had to do every once in a while to fulfil my duties as a Nirvana fan.

One aspect I could never get over at the time was how laid-back the drums were, by Dave Grohl’s predecessor Chad Channing. Again, in hindsight the drum parts don’t seem too bad. The technique and power of Dave Grohl from Nevermind is noticeably absent, but I feel pretty guilty that Chad Channing had been unfairly maligned simply for not being Dave Grohl.

Dave Grohl eh, I wonder what ever happened to him?

Hit: About A Girl

Hidden Gem: School

Rocks In The Attic #171: R.E.M. – ‘Monster’ (1994)

Unlike a lot of R.E.M. fans, I really like this album. It was the first album of theirs to be released after I started listening to music (I had started listening to music obsessively whilst Automatic For The People was oute, but I was too concerned with other bands to pay any notice to R.E.M. or to that album at the time).

A lot of people don’t like this album because it doesn’t sound like R.E.M. The guitars are more distorted than usual, and it comes across as more of a rock album than an alternative album. So what? That sounds perfect!

This was released a year (almost to the day) after Nirvana’s In Utero, which may go some way to explain the direction that band were taking. Even though the two bands are very different, they were both flagbearers for early-‘90s alternative rock, and you would be naive to think they weren’t keeping tabs on each other’s output (Monster even includes a song in tribute to the recently departed Cobain – Let Me In). R.E.M.’s producer Scott Litt had even been hired to fiddle with the sound of In Utero and to remix a couple of the album’s tracks before it was released, so perhaps a large part of the influence was channelled through him.

I have a very clear memory of discussing this album with my good friend Dominic Beresford a couple of years after it came out, when I was at University. The amusing question raised by the album’s opening track, What’s The Frequency, Kenneth, was how Peter Buck was expected the play the backwards guitar solo on the song when they were playing live. The idea of him travelling though time backwards via an onstage teleporter sounded lavish, implausible…but funny all the same.

I did see R.E.M. play live at Glastonbury a few years later – they did play the song, but my memory is sketchy as to what he did across those bars of the song. I did find the answer eventually – at a Simon & Garfunkel show a few years ago, the guitarist played a backwards guitar solo in the break of Hazy Shade Of Winter – without the aid of any Cronenberg-esque teleportation devices. Evidently there is a guitar pedal that replicates a backwards guitar solo. I don’t think Buck would have had that pedal at the time (it would have been reversed on tape in the traditional way), but the album does reek of a certain pedal – half the tracks are drenched in tremolo.

Another odd memory I have of this album is my roommate at University refusing to believe that the band released Bang And Blame as a single off this album. In the world of Google, this sounds like an odd thing to have an arguement about. These days, it’s too easy just to look on Wikipedia and confirm, but back then it was his word against mine. I knew it had been released as a single as I’d seen the music video, but he refused to believe it, I think because he was a huge R.E.M. fan, and this knowledge had somehow passed him by. Wikipedia – thankyou! – confirms it was the second single to be taken from the album.

I like most of this album but the one song I really love, Crush With Eyeliner, became a firm favourite of mine when I used to DJ at Oldham’s 38 Bar / The Castle.

Hit: What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?

Hidden Gem: Crush With Eyeliner

Rocks In The Attic #104: Nirvana – ‘MTV Unplugged In New York’ (1994)

Rocks In The Attic #104: Nirvana - ‘MTV Unplugged In New York’ (1994)Released following Cobain’s suicide, I guess this is the first example of Geffen Records cashing in on his death. None of the other contemporary bands that recorded an Unplugged performance on MTV went on to release them on record (except for Alice In Chains and Alanis Morrissette) – the tracks usually found their way onto singles as B-sides (or existed in full only on bootlegs). An Unplugged album was more of a classic rock thing to do – hence the releases by Clapton, Dylan, Bryan Adams and the Page & Plant reunion.

I wasn’t a fan of Nirvana at the time this was released – mostly because I didn’t like that he wasn’t particularly a good guitarist. Learning the guitar will give you crazy notions and put you off bands like that. I later realised that it’s far more important to be a good songwriter than it is to be a good guitarist; a guitar solo is never going to change anybody’s life.

Trying not to like them, and failing miserably as this performance was getting a lot of airplay on MTV, the songs started seeping in and I started to become a Nirvana fan, purely by osmosis.

You know those famous questions – ‘Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?’ or ‘Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell?’ – the first such question I can remember in my lifetime was ‘Where were you when Kurt Cobain shot himself?’ The answer: travelling home in a taxi, on a Friday night, leaving Middleton and just reaching Chadderton. We asked the taxi driver to turn the radio up, and still shocked, had to explain to the taxi driver who had died.

Hit: Come As You Are

Hidden Gem: Oh Me

Rocks In The Attic #41: Aerosmith – ‘Done With Mirrors’ (1985)

Rocks In The Attic #41: Aerosmith - ‘Done With Mirrors’ (1985)This was supposedly Aerosmith’s comeback album – their first with Joe Perry and Brad Whitford back in the band, and their first on Geffen records – the glitzy record label that had suddenly appeared out of nowhere in the 1980s. Unfortunately for everybody involved, they would have to wait another two years to release their real comeback album – Permanent Vacation – an album that rightfully put them back at the top of the tree.

This isn’t a bad album, it’s just poorly produced (by Doobie Brothers and Van Halen producer Ted Templeman). It feels very flat – and while the sound is very clear, there’s nothing special to grab your attention. This would have been the first studio album that Aerosmith would have released on compact disc, and possibly they were so taken with the new technology that they forgot to actually make a decent album.

The other thing this album has to work against is the fact that some bright spark at the record label decided to get creative with the name of the album. On its release, all text on the sleeve including the name of the album – and even the name of the band – was printed in reverse, and could be read normally by holding up to a mirror. Now I like this, it’s something different, but I’m very aware that a large proportion of rock fans tend to be cerebrally challenged – so this surely would have been commercial suicide. It’s okay when you’re the biggest band in the world and you put out a record without your name on it (eg. Led Zeppelin IV), but if you’re on the comeback trail it might make a bit more sense to actually make it loud and clear who you are.

David Geffen really must have started rubbing his hands with glee during the 1980s. Not only did he have Aerosmith on his new record label by 1985 – but he’d very soon have Guns ‘N Roses joining them, and after that Nirvana. There used to be a time when I could quite happily pigeon-hole an Aerosmith album as good or questionable depending on which label the record was on. Records on their original label Columbia were mostly good, while the stuff on Geffen was always questionable. This no longer works however, as they went back to Columbia in 1997 and have released mainly rubbish ever since.

Hit: Let The Music Do The Talking

Hidden Gem: Shela

Rocks In The Attic #18: Stone Temple Pilots – ‘Purple’ (1994)

 

I was always very anti-Nirvana when I was getting into music, in the early nineties. I’m never one to follow hype, and everybody loved them. The band for me at that time – at least the American band for me – was Stone Temple Pilots.

I remember seeing Weiland singing one of the big songs from Core (1992) – probably Plush – on an MTV Awards show, and not being terribly impressed. Yet another vocalist, singing in the style of Cobain and Vedder, I had probably thought. Then when Purple came out and I heard the single Vaseline, I was hooked. I went out and bought the single (the MTV video was in heavy rotation), and probably the album not long after.

Due to Weiland’s drug problems putting the band into hiatus upon the release of their (very underrated) third album, I was never able to see them play back in the 90s. I saw them play in New Zealand last year though (their first time in this country), and they rocked, playing my favourite song from PurpleStill Remains – along with their great cover of Zeppelin’s Dancing Days.

This is one of many coloured vinyls I have in my collection. Needless to say, it’s purple.

Hit: Interstate Love Song

Hidden Gem: Still Remains