Nirvana

Soaked in Bleach (2015)

Release Year: 2015

Rating: 7/10

Ever since his death in 1994, theories have been roaming that Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain was actually murdered by wife Courtney Love. There have been several books and films stating the case for why Cobain’s death wasn’t actually a suicide. People have been begging the Seattle police department to reopen the case for years with no success. This conspiracy has divided the Nirvana community with some believing Cobain was murdered while others are willing to accept the suicide. Just when it seemed like the murder theory was something that only lived on in forums, Benjamin Statler’s Soaked in Bleach came out last year.

The film begins with the main points of how Cobain’s death was a murder: the lethal heroin injection, the weird suicide note, and Courtney Love hiding things from private investigator Tom Grant. Admittedly, some of it is convincing but it seems like it’s trying to rile up viewers from the get go. One weird thing about the film are the reenactments of conversations between Love and Grant. The acting isn’t terrible, but it’s kind of bizarre. You don’t start the film expecting to see people calling themselves Kurt and Courtney. It makes you think of America’s Most Wanted. The reenactments are sometimes accompanied by actual audio recordings from Grant. At one point when he and Cobain’s friend Dylan Carson are walking around the house, Grant remarks how there’s some weird statue in the closet only to have the reenactment show a horrible replica of the In Utero angel. It’s one of those moments that makes you question if it was necessary.

There’s a point where Stalter interviews Cobain’s former “friends” and even Aaron Buckhard about what type of guy he was. And all of them say the same thing: he didn’t seem suicidal or he wasn’t depressed. He seemed like a happy guy. The film presents these opinions as if to say “See? He was happy, so he couldn’t have killed himself.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that Cobain was neither of those things. Suicide and depression can be hidden quite well. Look at the case with Robin Williams. We can’t go by stereotypical notions of what someone who is depressed or suicidal looks like. So having a bunch of people, who probably didn’t know Cobain that well, say he was really happy doesn’t do anything for the murder case. It’s also an unhealthy view on what depressed or suicidal people look like.

Whether you believe in the murder theory or not, the film does have some credit by getting field experts to voice their opinions, though they all side with Statler. There are testimonies from forensics experts, handwriting experts, the former head of Seattle police, and even an EMT who was on the scene of Cobain’s death in 1994. The insights they provide, such as what they found weird or what the Seattle police department did wrong, are interesting and do make you think twice about what we know about Cobain’s death, which is very little. Not only this, but the taped conversations are fascinating, especially ones featuring the Cobain’s lawyer Rosemary Carroll. She expresses her doubts about the suicide note and how Dylan Carlson knew Kurt was dead. She has since later gone on the record to deny all of this. It makes you wonder what else she knows about the case.

Other than this, there is very little new information here. A lot of the evidence that’s been used to prove Cobain’s death was a murder has already been recounted in books Who Killed Kurt Cobain? and Love & Death. Fans who believe in the murder theory will find very little new information here. Rather, they’ll be reminded of why the theory seems convincing at times. As with most films, especially ones about famous figures, you can’t trust everything being said. And it’s most likely the case some of the events and information were dramatized to amp up the entertainment factor. Still, the film will be interesting for anyone with a passing interest in the conspiracy theory. Will it sway non-believers? Probably not. But it’s at least a decently made documentary that only adds to the Cobain myth.

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Playlist: For Kurt

Last week marked 22 years since the death of Kurt Cobain. As usual fans and critics paid their respects from posting pictures on Twitter or writing lengthy pieces on the late singer. But instead of thought pieces on who Cobain was or why his death isn’t as straight forward as we want to believe, the best way to remember him is through the music. This month’s playlist is dedicated to covers of Nirvana songs. There are a lot of them out there and I couldn’t possibly cover every one, so here are some of my favorites.

“In Bloom” – Sturgill Simpson

I honestly don’t know much about Sturgill Simpson, but his version of “In Bloom” has been spreading around the internet last week. While it’s not the best Nirvana cover I’ve ever heard, it is the most interesting and musically diverse. When the song starts you’re looking for that familiar growl of the guitar riff. You can’t even tell what song it is until Simpson starts singing. His Southern twang in his vocals oddly works with the lyrics along with the light music and Western feel. The track comes alive at the end when an unexpected brass section joins in. I’m actually surprised by how much I like his mellow, soulful version.

“Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” – Jay Retard

I remember listening to the In Utero tribute album released by Robotic Empire a few years ago. And it was fucking awful. The only redeeming quality was this cover by Jay Retard. Sounding like he’s submerged underwater, his version is more rock and a bit psychedelic than harsh and heavy. It’s not too drastically different from the original, but Jay Retard’s touch makes this cover interesting and at least not a carbon copy of the original.

“Lithium” – The Vaselines

It’s pretty cool that The Vaselines did a cover of this Nirvana single since the guys covered one of their songs in their early days. Unlike the original which is instantly catchy, harsh, and melodic, this version is haunting and subdued. There’s very light music recreating the unforgettable riff and Frances McKee’s vocals are fragile and soft. What makes it even more eerie is the background singing that sounds like moaning and the swelling organ that becomes more apparent as the song reaches its end. It’s actually really beautiful and something Kurt might’ve appreciated.

“All Apologies” – Sinead O’Connor

For some reason, this Nirvana song is a popular one to cover. It’s been done by many artists, but Sinead O’Connor’s version is among the best. She presents a delicate version of the tune. It’s nothing but her and a soft guitar that sounds like only two notes are being plucked. She brings out even more heartbreak and sadness in the song with her light delivery of the song. Just when you thought the unplugged version of the song was depressing, O’Connor makes things even worse.

“Stay Away” – Charles Bradley

Ever wanted to hear what Nirvana would sound like if they were a soul band? Charles Bradley gives you an idea with this soulful rendition of “Stay Away.” It’s different from most Nirvana covers out there, which either try to recreate what the band did or just play the song louder. I’ll admit it took me a bit to appreciate his version, but I actually like the different take on the song. It slows things down a bit and adds a little funk to the mix. Bradley succeeds in showing how Nirvana’s music can span various genres.

“Lithium” – Muse

Muse aren’t shy about their love of Nirvana. In various interviews, the members have talked about how Nirvana were one of their early influences and part of the reason why they started their band. Though they haven’t officially released a Nirvana cover, they’ve played their songs several times live. When they played Lollapalooza in Brazil, it was the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death. They acknowledged it by playing “Lithium” and they did a kick ass job with the song. It’s a very straightforward cover, but Bellamy’s voice surprisingly works well with the song. And watching the clip, which is interrupted by interview footage, it’s clear Muse are enjoying themselves while playing the song.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Tori Amos

Tori Amos version of the famous Nirvana song often pops up when looking for the best Nirvana covers and for good reason: it’s beautiful. Apparently, she was the first artist to cover the song and she made it her own. She takes this angst ridden song filled with aggression and anger and turns it into something heartbreaking. It’s nothing but Amos and the piano, which gives it a classical air. Her version changes the entire mood and vibe of the song turning it into something completely different. It’s so haunting you’ll have chills as her voice hits those soaring notes. Cobain even commented on the cover, calling it “a great cereal version.”

“Heart Shaped Box” – Dead Sara

If there’s any band fit for a Nirvana cover, it’s Dead Sara. Emily Armstrong’s vocals are rough and raspy, which perfectly fit with the grunge genre. Their cover the In Utero track is pretty straightforward. They keep same mood and vibe as the original. Still, Armstrong and crew sound amazing when performing the song. The guitars are harsh and dirty while Armstrong’s vocals hit all the right notes. It doesn’t do anything new with the song, but it’s still a respectable cover.

“Breed” – Titus Andronicus

Recorded for Spin’s tribute album to Nevermind, Titus Andronicus takes on Nirvana’s “Breed.” It doesn’t stray far from the original keeping the same general vibe and feel. Where their version does differ is it’s a more raw, sloppy, punk rock version of the Nirvana track. The music is generally the same, but Patrick Stickles’ vocals are edgy and on the harsh side. It’s simple, but it’s very satisfying to listen to.

“Come as You Are” – Yuna

Yuna is a Malaysian singer/songwriter who does a lot of covers of popular artists, like Drake. Her version of “Come as You Are” is something you wouldn’t expect to like. She slows things down considerably, turning the grunge song into something mellow. Her vocals are relaxing and flowing as she sings the familiar chorus. Her voice is actually beautiful and works really well with the R&B/indie pop vibe of the song she’s set up. The whole thing is really dreamy and soft, something you wouldn’t expect from a Nirvana song.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Patti Smith

For her 2007 covers album Twelve, Smith did a folk rendition of the Nirvana classic. With her wavering vocals and plucks of a banjo, the track sounds fragile and haunting. If it wasn’t for the well known lyrics, it’d be difficult to tell it was a Nirvana song at all just because the mood is so different. Smith takes liberty with the bridge where she starts speaking about injustices and problems within the world. This part isn’t for everyone and it kind of kills the mood, but it wouldn’t be a Patti Smith song if there wasn’t some sort of commentary on society.

“All Apologies” – Cage the Elephant

For a live iHeartRadio broadcast Cage the Elephant, who have always had some similarities to Nirvana, covered “All Apologies.” Unlike Sinead O’Connor’s version, this one doesn’t stray far from the original. It’s very bare bones featuring only Matt Shutlz on vocals and Brad Shultz on an acoustic guitar. Though Matt’s vocals are raspy and raw like Cobain’s, it never sounds like he’s trying to copy the late singer. Instead he does things naturally. His voice works so well, I would love to hear more covers featuring the entire band.

Which Nirvana cover is your favorite? There are a ton out there, so which one did I miss? Let me know in the comments.

Worst Album of 2015

Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings

Montage of Heck was both one of the best and worst things about 2015. The movie was an intimate look at Kurt Cobain and though it may have fudged some things and didn’t really give fans anything new, it finally felt like we had our essential movie about the late rock star. Then comes the soundtrack that shat over all the good the film did. Fans were disgusted with the content and cried exploitation. Look, Cobain has been exploited since his death and we probably should’ve been outraged a long time ago. But that doesn’t stop the soundtrack from being a poor excuse for raking in money.

Out of everything I listened to this year, this soundtrack was the only one I got absolutely no enjoyment from. I wasn’t even halfway through the album before I got bored and wanted to turn it off. As I pointed out in my review, the biggest problem is without Cobain’s perspective the recordings feel pointless and random. There were times where it sounded like my ears were being tortured with all the weird samples, distorted vocals, and various screams. The album was so bad that as a Nirvana collector I refused to buy it. Yes, I still want it for collecting purposes but I don’t want to pay more than 2 bucks. And since the LP only sold 5,000 copies in its first week I’m sure it’ll pop up in bargain bins soon.

The biggest issue with the album is these recordings meant something to Cobain, but they mean very little to listeners. Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings was a poor way to show Cobain’s genius or whatever shit Brett Morgen was spouting. The saddest part about this whole thing was how Cobain had no say over the release. It’s not his fault the record is shitty, but rather the fault of Morgen and his estate for giving it the green light. As many critics pointed out, there isn’t anything new to say about Cobain, so maybe it is time to stop talking about him.

Montage of Heck: The Home Recordings

Release Year: 2015

Rating: 4/10

One of the biggest events of the year was the premiere of what was to be the essential Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck. As expected, the film was well received, though a few have since come out against it. With daughter Frances Bean Cobain in the producer’s chair, the film provided an intimate, respectful, and deep look into the man that was Kurt Cobain. The companion soundtrack takes everything the movie did so well and shits all over it. There’s no question that Cobain’s life has been exploited and romanticized for years and this so called soundtrack is one of the worst of the bunch.

The album culls 13 (or 31 if you shelled out $127) tracks of demos, sound experiments, and recordings from the former Nirvana frontman. And right from the opening track “The Yodel Song,” which features Cobain wailing over harsh music, you’re not sure where the album is going. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get any better from there. When I got to the middle of the record I knew I would never listen to any of this again. Most of the recordings are jarring with distorted samples, screaming, and toilet noises that all seem random to listeners, but clearly meant something to Cobain. And this is where the problem lies.

These are all ideas Cobain had for potential projects at one point in his life, but very few of them are complete. You can hear hints of later Nirvana songs in tracks like “You Can’t Change Me/Burn my Britches/Something in the Way” and “Been a Son” demo, but most of them feel pointless. You’ll ask yourself “Why I’m I listening to this?” before the album is even over. Most of the songs don’t even have lyrics and we get to hear Cobain mumble his way through them. The only worth while track is the Beatles cover “And I Love Her,” which is pretty haunting. To us these snippets don’t mean much as there isn’t much to cull from them, but at one point Cobain saw something from them, but decided to not release them. And that was probably for the better.

Fans aren’t missing out on anything exclusive or rare here. There isn’t a deep cut that should’ve made one of their albums. A lot of it just sounds like unnecessary noise and instrumentals that are interesting for one listen, but wouldn’t survive a second go round. The only track I remember is “Clean Up Before She Comes” and that’s only because he’s interrupted by a quick phone call. What are fans supposed to get from these recordings? His genius? How talented of a musician he was? We already know this via the music he released during his lifetime. And like all rough drafts, these recordings aren’t necessarily Cobain’s finest. There’s a reason writers don’t rely on their first drafts for stories; they often suck and are embarrassing. None of these songs sound that good. It felt like torture getting through the entire LP at times.

This isn’t an album you’ll play repeatedly, once a month, or even once a year. It’s something you put on your shelf with other post-humorous Nirvana releases and endless books. Everything about the album feels random and you’ll begin to question why you’re even listening to it. We all know why Kurt Cobain was such a talented man, we don’t need some slapped together cash cow to try and tell us why we should remember him. If you don’t care about having everything Nirvana has ever released, then it’s best to stick with the movie and pretend like Brett Morgan didn’t rummage through an old box of tapes and put them together for this so called album.

Montage of Heck (2015)

Cobain-Montage-of-Heck-600x450

Rating: 10/10

What is there left to say about Kurt Cobain? The Nirvana frontman died 21 years ago, yet he’s still the topic of many online discussion groups, think pieces, and debates. Every year there’s at least one new book about him or the band offering little new information. So many have retold and rewritten his life story, it’s hard to know what to believe. Director Brett Morgen found a way to let Cobain tell his own story in the form of Montage of Heck. It presents a haunting, yet truthful look at the man we’ve been mythologizing since 1994.

The issue with most films on Cobain is they rehash the same information, photos, and videos fans have seen since his death. Since Morgen received unlimited access to the Cobain estate, the film is filled to the brim with so much unseen material it’s hard to keep up. Everything from baby Kurt’s first birthday to intimate moments with Courtney Love are on display. Towards the end of the movie there’s even a brief shot of Cobain’s will. This footage isn’t just lazily tossed together to keep viewers engaged. It’s crafted and place carefully to show different facets of the late frontman’s personality. It allows audiences to get an idea of who Cobain was behind closed doors: a loving, sensitive person who was also racked with guilt about fame and drug abuse. In a way we grow up with Cobain in this film and get to know the man the media has made a myth out of since his death.

Another thing that makes the film a unique, intimate experience are the interviews. Morgen only spoke with those who were close to Kurt. No music experts, no journalists, no musicians. Just his family, lovers, and bandmate Krist Novoselic. Limiting who he spoke to makes everything they’re saying that much more genuine. The interviewees share stories about Kurt, about his childhood, working with him, and living with him. While a lot of what they say isn’t drastically different from what’s been said before, there were a couple of heartfelt revelations. One of the biggest came from Kurt’s mother, Wendy, confronting him about his heroin abuse and how he burst into tears. Courtney Love also dropped a bombshell by claiming Kurt’s Rome suicide attempt was his response to her almost cheating on him. Love has a well known reputation for fudging the truth, so viewers may want to be careful with information like this, but it’s still an interesting possibility.

While promoting the film, Morgen kept saying how he wanted Cobain to tell his own story using what he left behind. And he did a damn good job of it. He presents audio recordings, which come to life with amazing animation by Hisko Hulsing and Stefan Nadelman, journal entries, and artwork to tell his ambitions, dreams, fears, and sadness. It’s all laid out for viewers to interpret any way they want. The way it’s presented is absolutely beautiful, especially footage of Kurt playing with Frances. Seeing him flopping on the bed to make her laugh, putting on funny voices for her, and letting her bite his nose will make you coo. There was no doubt that he loved his daughter, but seeing him interact with her is just something you can’t get from looking at photographs. Everything is pieced together so carefully it allows fans to get insight into Cobain’s mind and creative process. Journal entries are juxtaposed with drawings and photographs. Video footage is paired with songs and interviews from Kurt. Morgen took hours and hours of footage, grabbed the most compelling, and somehow made it make sense.

For years, people have stated how Kurt was a disturbed individual, but considering the way he died, it’s kind of difficult to find truth in a claim like that. After his death, everyone began looking for clues and messages in his lyrics, interviews, and demeanor and it’s easy to make those connections. But when so many people say the same thing over and over, it’s hard to believe. Is this the truth or part of the myth? But after watching this film, it’s clear that Cobain had a difficult life after fame. Some of his artwork after the explosion of Nevermind is terrifying. His art goes from weird, yet colorful to crude, violent drawings. Some show him as sick, depressed individual. This is paired with paranoid ramblings about people coming after him and losing his family. His ex-girlfriend, Tracy Marander, even admitted he had violent dreams of him dying when they were together. These sections really unlock a door to Kurt’s mind and it’s not pretty. It’s well known that Kurt didn’t take fame lightly, but it wasn’t clear just how frightened it made him. But it wasn’t just the fame, we get a better idea of how he felt about heroin as well. There are several journal entries and soundbites that hint Cobain was very ashamed of his addiction, but found he was unable to stop it.

Though there are some dark moments in the film, it does have its share of funny, lighthearted moments, particularly ones involving Kurt and Courtney. Love gets a bad rap with Nirvana fans for several different reasons, but here she actually came off as likable. No matter what happened with them later on down the road, there was a point in time when the two were very much in love. Hell, there are moments when they are down right adorable together. This intimate footage shows the pair as a loving couple and doting parents, which so many books, articles, and movies fail to do.

What’s admirable about the film is the way his death was handled. Courtney Love talks about the Rome overdose, leading the documentary to end with a performance of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” After that, a small title card comes up stating when he died. Nothing else. And it’s perfect. We all know about the aftermath, reaction, and consequences of his death. There’s no need to go into any further than that. Ending the film this way also moves away from this myth of Kurt Cobain.

Montage of Heck is a loving process that took eight years to complete. And it was worth the wait. Morgen took the time and effort to allow Cobain to tell his own story through his art. He spoke with those who loved him and were closest to him to get an honest look the man the music is still fawning over 21 years later. It’s a haunting, slightly disturbing, and beautiful look into the world of Kurt Cobain that so few got to witness.