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.


Nevermind 20th Anniversary (2-disc Edition) – Nirvana

220px-NirvanaNevermindalbumcoverRelease Year: 2011

Rating: 7/10

When Nevermind, Nirvana’s groundbreaking album, turned 20 in 2011, the world could not stop talking about it. Fans and music lovers reminisced on their first time hearing the record and how it got them into the band. Even the members of the band talked about that magical time before fame took them and shook things up. To celebrate the landmark album, it was reissued in several different formats boasting b-sides and unreleased material. Unlike the excellent In Utero re-release, there isn’t much here for fans that hasn’t been heard before.

The first disc contains the full album and b-sides. The record itself is amazing, why wouldn’t it be, but the b-sides are nothing new. Tracks like “Curmudgeon” and “D-7” are gems, but they were previously released on the With the Lights Out box set. This doesn’t change the fact that the songs are good, it just means this is stuff we’ve heard before. The live tracks of “Been a Son,” “School,” and “Drain You” all come from their 1991 show in Seattle at the Paramount. These versions aren’t drastically different from the studio takes, but the band sounds passionate, on fire, aggressive, and full of energy. They’re nice inclusions, but don’t make the first disc anymore exciting.

Things don’t get better on the second disc, which is filled with several different demos. What fans will be most interested in are the Smart Studio Sessions, which includes Chad Channing on drums. The best track from these outtakes is “In Bloom,” which is the same version found in their first music video for Sub-Pop. It’s pretty much the same song we know and love now, but the drums aren’t as heavy hitting as the version Grohl plays on. Still, it gives you an idea of what the album might sound like if Channing stuck around.

The Boombox Rehearsals are really rough takes on tracks like “Lounge Act,” “Come As You Are,” “Verse Chorus Verse,” and “On a Plain.” These versions are good to hear at least once to see how the band had all the songs prepared before they started recording. All the tracks sound very similar to the final versions with the exception of some lyrical changes. The most satisfying demo is “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which has the familiar music, but completely different lyrics. It’s just interesting to hear how the famous song came to be.

There’s nothing really special about the BBC Session tracks aside from the band sounds great, but the one that stands out is “Something in the Way.” There was a demo version of this song, which included some light banter from the guys during the beginning, but it was still the song we all know now. The BBC live version takes it from something soft and quiet to heavy, hard, and aggressive. This version is intense and gives it a darker feel. It’s great to hear how they change things up and has to be the best track on the entire collection. Even better, it has not been previously released on their other collections. It’s one of the few things that will catch your attention on this collection.

Overall, the album gets 7/10. This would be great for any new Nirvana fans, but if you’re an avid collector of theirs chances are you’ve heard a lot of this material before. The demos are interesting to hear, but after a while you grow bored with them. Maybe things are better on the super deluxe version, but since it includes a lot of the same material it doesn’t seem like it. Still, it’s a nice addition to any Nirvana collection.

Musical Rant: 20 Years Gone, 20 Years of Exploitation

Cobain tribute

This year marks 20 years since Kurt Cobain’s death. Every year there’s usually one publication doing something special to commemorate the date, but since a significant amount of time has passed, many websites, magazines, and authors have their tributes planned. While it’s always nice to see people who appreciate Cobain and his contribution to music, all the photos, books, interviews, and dedications can get down right overwhelming. After clicking on numerous links and seeing yet another book on Nirvana coming out in April, you begin to see most of it is a way for companies to make money off of loyal fans by rehashing the same information.

I am a music collector and I love Nirvana books. There used to be a time when a new one was announced I would get excited and put in my pre-order. But last year I noticed books were coming out on the band when nothing was going on. No big developments, no anniversaries, just random authors putting out books on the band. After a while I got annoyed and began to ignore most books on the subject. Don’t get me wrong, I want them for my collection, but I don’t plan on paying full price. Why do I mention this? The same thing is happening now. Of course, this is not a new development. Several books were published the same year he died talking about the band and Cobain. While they are nice collector’s items, they really have nothing new to say on the situation like many of the books now.

By the end of last year, I saw that there were at least two new Nirvana books planned for 2014. As it got closer to Cobain’s death anniversary, more and more books were steadily released. The worst ones were authors re-releasing their previous books on Cobain with a new introduction (see Heavier than Heaven). The one case that really pissed me off was a book I found title Kurt Cobain: The Nirvana Years. It looked really promising, but as I flipped through the pages I swore I’d seen it before. I got home and figured it out: it was the same book I had only under the title Nirvana: The Day to Day Illustrated Journals. It was even by the same author Carrie Borzillo. Even worse there was no mention anywhere that this “new” book of hers was already issued years earlier. It may not be her intention, but it felt dishonest, like she’s trying to pawn off a “new” book on eager Nirvana fans.

Magazines have joined the bandwagon too. Issues dedicated to one artists can be wonderful things, but often pricey. There are currently three magazines all about Cobain out on stands now, that I know of. They all have nice pictures and such, but what’s disappointing about them is they’re rehashing the same information most fans already know or in the case of the Rolling Stone special, have already read before. Some of these publications are at least kind enough to have someone write new retrospectives on the band and Cobain, but a lot of them are using interviews and articles from their old magazines. This wouldn’t be a huge problem if they didn’t already release books with these same interviews. There’s nothing wrong with republishing a great interview with said artists, but when you only have that and no other new perspectives on the band, it’s pretty shitty to expect people to pay $13 for it, especially since most of it is easy to find online.

Cobain isn’t the only dead celebrity to be exploited for money, but I personally hate all these books, magazines, and poorly drawn comics that are continually being release that offer no new information whatsoever. I could understand if they were being written by people close to the band or even the band members themselves, but most of the they are not. This is why books with a different angle on the band are so interesting. Books like Experiencing Nirvana: Grunge in Europe 1989, which chronicles their first European tour or even Love and Death, though controversial is still interesting because it’s looking at Cobain in a different light. I know we can’t stop people from publishing books with the same information just to make money, but fans should know which books are worth their time. So I give to you essential books every Nirvana fan should pick up:
Heavier than Heaven by Charles R Cross: The definitive biography on Kurt Cobain. Be wary of the report on his supposed last days. And be warned Courtney Love did help with this book.

Cobain Unseen by Charles R Cross: The information he provides isn’t all that new, but the never before seen photos are fantastic and there are even replicas of their tickets and posters to pull out and place anywhere.

Come As You Are by Michael Azerrad: The only official biography on the band by the band. This was released when they were still active and does give some great insightful information. But be warned that Cobain was concealing his drug use at the time, so not all the information will be accurate.

The Rough Guide to Nirvana by Gillian G Gaar: This is great for anyone just getting into the band or for long time fans. It gives a great background on the band’s history and also provides cool guides to great Nirvana related books, movies, and tribute albums.

Everybody Loves Our Town by Mark Yarm: So this isn’t exclusively about Nirvana, but it is an oral history about the Seattle scene as told by people who were a part of it. Of course Cobain and Nirvana comes up a lot and it’s interesting to get the different opinions and outlooks about him from the different musicians.

That being said, let’s remember Cobain and Nirvana for the wonderful and beautiful music he left behind. Though his life ended tragically try not to focus on those details. Remember him through music not by gruesome photos posted by the Seattle police. Whatever happened 20 years ago happened and sadly there’s nothing we can do to change it. But it may put a smile on Kurt’s face, wherever he is, to know someone is rocking to Nirvana out and rediscovering what the band means to them.

Live and Loud- Nirvana

nirvana live and loudRelease Year: 2013

Rating: 9/10

As many fans have already know, this year marks the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s final studio album In Utero. Not only did the band re-release the album to commemorate the event, they also released the uncut version of the infamous Live and Loud concert. It’s not as memorable as their unplugged performance, but for some reason this show is their grittiest, rawest, and most violent one yet. With a killer setlist and the guys giving one of their best performances, this is a show every Nirvana fan has to see.

As I mentioned before, the setlist is great mainly because it features so many songs from In Utero. It seemed that the guys didn’t get to perform these tracks a lot especially for television appearances, so it’s great to hear many of them live. The often overlooked “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” opens the show and if you never noticed the song before, this version will quickly make you a fan. Since it’s the first song of the night it finally has a chance to be front and center, rather than being buried and forgotten like it is on the record. It’s on this track that you can really hear how gravelly and rough Kurt’s vocals are. There are moments during the show where you see him almost straining to get the notes out. This is what makes his voice one of the most recognizable even today.

There are the classic Nirvana songs found on the DVD, such as “Drain You” and “Breed” and as always they sound great, but there are a few songs here that standout from the others. One of them is “Serve the Servants.” Aside from sounding amazing there’s nothing notable about the performance, but there’s a slight lyric change during the second verse: “I tried hard to have a sister, but instead I had a dad.” I don’t know why but this really sticks out in my mind. It just sounds really good and puts a different spin on the well known song. Another great performance is “Scentless Apprentice.” This has always been a really brutal song and Nirvana really brings that vibe alive here. It’s intense, loud, and filled with Kurt’s angst ridden howls. But what really makes the concert a must have are the previously unaired tracks.

Just as with Unplugged, this concert was previously aired on MTV where it was cut for broadcast purposes. Now fans can enjoy the show in its entirety and there are amazing songs that were cut out the first time around. One of these is the electric version of “The Man Who Sold the World.” The guys had already wowed viewers by playing this song acoustically, but here they transform it from a somber tune to an unapologetic rock song. Plus, they bring back cellist Lori Goldstein for several songs during the evening. Another great unaired track is the closer “Endless, Nameless.”

This song was part of the original broadcast, but it was shortened at the time. This has got to be the best version of the hidden tune. It begins with a cool bass jam that results in Krist pounding his bass on stage like he wants to kill it. The way this version starts out slow and menacing before exploding in a mass of noise and screaming, makes it one of the most brutal and violent performances of the song. And in Nirvana fashion the show ends with all their instruments being destroyed. As the credits run the camera pans over the grisly sight of snapped guitar necks, neglected bass bodies, and spilled water as if mapping out a crime scene.

There are also small moments during the concert that make it memorable and fun, such as the random times when Kurt walks up to the microphone and smiles. It’s the most adorable thing and shows that he wasn’t always the depressed rock star he’s often made out to be. Also, there is some behind the scenes footage that’s small but enjoyable, such as seeing Kurt getting prepared for the next track and Krist exchanging some cynical banter with the crowd. It may not be much, but it’s like a small bonus for fans whether or not they’ve seen they show before. But the DVD features more extras once the concert is over.

Everyone loves DVDs for the bonus features, which is something concert films always lack. Nirvana fixes that by including some extra performances from the In Utero era. It even features rehearsal footage from the Live and Loud show. Though the sound isn’t that great on the footage, it’s still great to watch mainly because it shows the band playing “Very Ape,” which suggests that it was in their setlist at one time. The performances from French TV show Nulle Part Ailleurs are also notable because all the members sport matching formal attire similar to The Kinks. It’s here where you’ll also find a gut wrenching version of “Drain You.” This song stands out from the others here because there’s a point where Kurt drops his guitar, walks away from the microphone, only to return with the most bone chilling scream. He then does the rest of the song with just the mic in hand making him seem like a true frontman.

Overall, the DVD gets 9/10. It may not be the best Nirvana live DVD you can get, but it’s pretty high on the list. This concert features a number of songs from their third that didn’t seem to get much television exposure, plus you get the entire concert, which features previously unaired tracks like “All Apologies,” “Sliver,” and “Come As You Are.” As a bonus, there are also several other television performances from the era along with the normal and director’s cut of the “Heart Shaped Box” music video. The disc is a great way to remind people why the album and the band themselves are so amazing.

In Utero: 20th Anniversary Edition- Nirvana

Release Year: 2013

Rating: 9/10

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s final studio album In Utero. Just like with the 2011 reissue of Nevermind, this album gets the same treatment with various formats ranging from cheap and reasonable to it’s expensive but I want it (I opted for the latter). While each edition has something extra for the fans it’s the super deluxe edition that gives you the most and makes it worth your money. With four discs, a beautiful full color book, a two sided poster, and a wicked display box it’s definitely the best reissue of the year and somehow it outdoes the Nevermind box set.

One thing I really love about this edition is the packaging. Everything is encased in a heavy slip cover to keep the booklet and discs safe and it only took the smallest thing to blow my mind: a magnet. Yes, the slip cover is slightly magnetic and on the front is a magnet of the In Utero angel. It’s a little detail like this that wasn’t mentioned at all that makes the box set even better. Another thing that makes this edition worth it is the book that’s included.

It features previously unseen photos of the guys in the studio and outtakes from photo shoots for the album both in color and black and white. The book opens with a four page letter Steve Albini sent to the band when they asked him to produce the record. You can also find Kurt’s handwritten lyrics for songs like “Milk It” and “Pennyroyal Tea.” On the last pages there’s a closeup shot of the collage Kurt made for the album. This is where all four discs are held. They’re spread out over the collage, which is cool, but it would’ve been better if they put all four discs together because they outline the angel on the cover. Either way it’s a great book that any Nirvana collector would want to get their hands on.

The first disc is where you’ll find the remastered album. I’ve already raved about why this is Nirvana’s best work before, but it’s great to finally have the album with remastered sound. Also found on this disc are the b-sides and unreleased tracks from this era. “Gallons of Alcohol Flowing Through the Strip” was a hidden track on the international release of the record and while “Endless, Nameless” is the more memorable hidden song, this one isn’t bad, it’s just weird. It has a hypnotizing guitar riff as if it’s trying to put you in a trance. The whole thing from the music even to the vocals sounds disjointed and untuned, but not in a bad way. Things get really odd with the lyrics. The first verse seems to be describing a tossed out pregnancy test, but then the whole thing unravels from there: “You’re personally responsible for …/The entire strip … to be washed away …/Cleansed … as if gallons of, um, rubbing alcohol/Flowed through the strip and were set on fire.” It’s not really clear what’s going on here, but by the end you won’t care.

The rest of the songs on this disc are new remixes of b-sides “Sappy” and “Moist Vagina” along with Dave Grohl’s “Marigold.” The two stand out tracks here are the long talked about Steve Albini mixes of “Heart Shaped Box” and “All Apologies.” The differences in the tracks are subtle, but interesting to hear nonetheless. With “Heart Shaped Box” the guitar is front and center with the rest of the instruments buried in the mix. Also, there seem to be no harmonies on this version and the vocal take is more raw and unpolished. The biggest sonic difference comes during the guitar solo. Here it has a more disjointed, jangly sound to it. The differences aren’t that noticeable on “All Apologies.” Again, there appear to be no vocal harmonies and there are additional ambient guitar noises at the end. It may not be much, but it’s great to listen to these versions after hearing about them for so many years.

Unfortunately, the second disc of the set isn’t as strong as the first. Most of it is a 2013 mix of the album and unless you’re a hardcore audiophile, you won’t notice the difference between the two. You’re listening to the same album, but with little details added in like more background vocals or guitar feedback shirking through. What I didn’t like is when little things were taken out of songs. On “Dumb” the strings that play during the chorus are missing until the end and the ending on “Heart Shaped Box” is clean , missing the dwindling feedback. It’s not a major issue, but when people have been listening to these songs for 20 years, they get used to every little sound in the songs. When you take that out it’s like you’re messing with perfection.

But the demos on the second disc make up for the unnecessary 2013 mixes. Most of them are instrumentals of songs like “Very Ape,” “All Apologies,” and “Frances Framer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle.” “Scentless Apprentice” actually has vocals and it’s great to hear because during the chorus Kurt howls, which is how he would perform the song live at times. Also, the “Marigold” demo is interesting to hear because Dave calls someone a “bastard” at the beginning and thanks to the calming acoustic guitar it sounds like something he would do later with Foo Fighters. But the song that gets fans excited for this disc is the previously unreleased track “Forgotten Jam.” The title pretty much explains what the song is. It’s nothing but the guys jamming out together. Due to the heaviness of the track, it actually sounds like something from their debut album. Still, it makes you wish there were lyrics to go along with the track because it sounds like it would make a great song. What would’ve made the disc as a whole better is if they would’ve put all the b-sides and demos together.

The third and fourth disc is the audio and live show of the infamous Live and Loud concert. Just as with Unplugged, this is one of Nirvana’s most notable shows mainly because they do a number of tracks from their third album. I wouldn’t call this the greatest live album or DVD you could get, but it’s certainly up there. You can hear and feel all their energy and anguish in every track. This release is also interesting because it showcases Nirvana as a four piece. Unless you have really good hearing, you can’t really tell there are four people on playing instead of three. If anything it just expands their sound a bit. Some of the more notable tracks here are “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter,” an overlooked song from the record, an electric version of “Man Who Sold the World,” which is almost as good as the acoustic, and the classic “Endless, Nameless.”

This version of the hidden track is great for a few different reasons. First, it starts off with this cool jam that Krist kicks off with Dave and Kurt slowly joining in. It really shows how talented of a bass player he is, which some people seem to forget. The jam is really slow and drudging before they actually launch into the song. When Kurt finally starts to sing instead of his classic yells and screams, he says the lyrics quietly and calmly, but that goes out the window when he lets loose a spine chilling scream at the beginning of the next verse. The middle gets weird because everything is disjointed and slows down tremendously. There’s even one point where there’s nothing but silence. Then everything explodes in sound and violence. There’s even guitar playing where it sounds like someone is screaming for help. It’s a great way to end an energetic performance.

Overall, the boxset gets 9/10. If you have the money then it’s worth spending the money on this version. Not only do you get four discs, but you get cool little extras like the book, the double sided poster, and the angel magnet. Though there isn’t a lot of material that fans haven’t heard before, it’s still a great item for an Nirvana collector. The demos may not be something to listen to on a daily basis and the second disc is more like filler for the release, but with over 70 tracks there’s enough here to keep any fan entertained.