Calling Coyotes by Cross-Country Communication in all Counties

Saturday, July 22, 2006

MTV Unplugged in New York (Nirvana)

Voice of Generation X: Just like fuckin' high school ain't it?
NF: I was in 4th grade, dickhead.*

This had been sitting in my music collection unlistened for years. (It was an **legal c*py from a cousin.) I actually have never heard any of the songs on this album from any other source, except for "Come As You Are," which I heard performed by Caetano Veloso, who is a famous Brazilian musician. So, I have no clue how totally mind-blowing or anti-establishment the non-acoustic version of these songs might be. I'm not interesting in finding out either. But that is a personal preference, not a statement on this album.

This paragraph is the last time in this review I will mention the band by name. The album has a meta-layer given that Cobain killed himself 5 months later, however historical significance only counts for anything if people care about it, and eventually one tires of historical significance and is left with just the music. So what do I think of Nirvana? Nirvana was a band of talented but morbid, morose, depressed, and drug-addicted musicians. Their message should have been far too depressive and (self)-loathing to resonate, so I don't know what that says about "Generation X." They didn't add anything to music except combining self-loathing and anti-social attitudes with punk. However, in MTV Unplugged they demonstrate that they were somewhat talented, versatile, and had tastes in music that were surprisingly diverse, which counts for something. I think Nirvana deserved to be more than a footnote in the history of popular music, but did not and does not deserve the fame they do have. The Pixies had a style that was much more original, most similar to garage-rock post-modern power-pop (but not really similar), and they never became a huge success like Nirvana at their peak. If you look at today's music scene, Guster deserves to be a major phenomenon much more than Nirvana did in their time. (I am serious about this. Ganging Up on the Sun is a significant achievement in today's popular music.) That's all I'm going to say about Nirvana. For the rest of the review I'm going to pretend this is some demo tape by an obscure alt-rock band from today.

So, to the actual review. What does this album sound like? Well, it is acoustic, so the sound is relatively easy to understand. It isn't heavy, but some of the songs, especially the closer, have a heavy air of menace. This isn't grunge, if grunge means LOUD angry rock music, but it is alternative, if alternative means deliberately far from what "normal people" consider "normal music." The entire album is either depressed, angry, or cynical, with two exceptions. But those are the background emotions. There are self-loathing songs, songs about rendering judgement on others, about hating other people, songs about the absurdity of life, and many songs about oh how fucked up am I. Basically, these songs are potentially depression-inducing, but they are depression-inducing in unique ways. I must also give them plaudits (an actual word?) for 4 excellent covers out of 7.

Because this is an acoustic album, the instrumentation is quite important. As you would expect, its base is an acoustic guitar, acoustic bass guitar, and quietly played drums. However, there is interesting use of other instruments. A very bright accordion is used on one song, as is an electric guitar. Cello is even used in a few songs to provide thick bass notes. I must say that the acoustic bass guitar player uses a lot of neat riffs, sometimes carrying the entire melody. Listen to the neat intermeshing of cello and bass guitar on "Dumb," which gives a song which otherwise is only memorable for the Black Francis-esque line, "I think I'm dumb, maybe just happy," a dark piercing vibe that is hard to forget. The guitar player, Kurt I think his name is, plays with a memorable intensity on songs such as "Pennyroyal Tea," also the only performance on here that makes sense for it to be acoustic, as it is arranged as solo acoustic guitar and singing. (The acoustic bass guitar has the unique distinction of being designed from it's electric counterpart, and the electric guitar was invented to allow playing over loud drums and amplified vocals. Now, if they had originally played these songs in a country style it would make sense for them to be done in an acoustic version.) The drums are notable only for keeping time and not overshadowing the rest of the instruments, which is all you want in an acoustic performance like this.

I'm going to get the discussion of what I don't like about this album so I can spend the rest of the review saying what I do like about it. I don't like "Polly," a song that the band made for no obvious reason other than to pretend that they are assholes. And they are monumental assholes for making that song. If I was rating this album on a scale, I'd be forced to lower it a point just for that song. Fortunately, CD players have a skip button. (Good thing it never came out on 8-track;)

Another problem is that two of the songs are well put-together but just not very interesting in this form ("Come As You Are" and "Lake of Fire"), and three of the songs have nothing to hold your interest but their groove ("Dumb," "Something in the Way," and "Oh, Me," in decreasing order of how interesting their groove is. "Dumb" and "Something in the Way" each have only one interesting audible lyric, and "Oh, Me" has none.) That's a total of six songs that are not really all that interesting, and the album is only fourteen songs long.

Actually, "Dumb" has a really interesting groove that is a blend of irony, apathy, and (self-)loathing. I like it as a groove, but not so much as a song. In other words, I could hum it, but I don't know all the lyrics and the song doesn't make me want to know them. But I dig that bass guitar-cello interplay. And the chorus: "Think I'm dumb, maybe just happy..."

And "Come As You Are" is just an average alternative song when played like this, and "Lake of Fire" is begging for a Willie Nelson cover. So even some of the uninteresting songs aren't bad. Not good, but not bad. Sort of like background music. Anyone who is now yelling at their monitor is ordered to re-read the start of this post.

The album starts off with a bang, with the biting cynicism and bare emotions of "About a Girl." The song has an entertaining melody to go along with it's love-hate relation to its subject. Then it's off to the vicious "background music" of "Come as You Are," which is followed by two great covers.

The first, "Jesus Doesn't Want me For a Sunbeam," is one of the two openly optimistic songs on this album. I think it is my second-favorite song on the album. The first four bars in which the accordion chords start are pure magic. The accordion drives this song, and it sounds more angelic than a harp. A whole album of music like this would be one of the most beautiful and hopeful albums ever made. The content of the song is interesting too. The Vaselines, who wrote it, turned a Christian song into a spirit-lifting religion-rejecting anthem. Which seems like a great idea to me.

Following this song, there is the confusing, and confused, "The Man Who Sold The World." Intentionally or not, they cover the David Bowie song with almost the same instrument set as were on "Space Oddity," right down to, electric guitar, played by that Kurt guy. Who also gives a downright odd vocal performance. Combined with the sparse eerie use of the electric guitar, this song sticks in the crevices of my brain.

I suspect that Kurt played the electric guitar because the recorders were nice enough to record the comments in between the songs, in which Kurt promises "I will screw this up." But he doesn't and says afterwards, "I didn't screw it up did I...okay, but here's another one I can screw up," and then discusses with the rest of the band before going into a solo version of "Pennyroyal Tea." The comments in between songs are amusing, and the humbleness of the band made it a lot easier for me personally to stomach the album at first.

I want to note two more songs before I get into discussing what is my favorite song on the album. "Plateau," a Meat Puppets song, reminds me of David Byrne's songwriting. This is from "Plateau":

Many a hand has scaled the grand old face of the plateau.
Some belong to strangers and some to folks you know.
Holy ghosts and talk show hosts are planted in the sand,
to beautify the foothills and shake the many hands.

And from Talking Heads' "Cities":

There are a lot of rich people in Birmingham.
A lot of ghosts in a lot of houses.
Look over there! A dry ice factory.
A good place to get some thinking done.

Innnnn-teresting. Also, Any song with the lines, "There's nothing on the top but a bucket and a mop
and an illustrated book about birds," gets my seal of approval. Man, I'd scale the Tibetan Plateau for a great illustrated book about birds.

A quick note on the song before the last one on the album. "All Apologies" is a rambling mumbled half-mantra with a sparse guitar line, and is the most content song on this album song on the album. It is a nice contrast to the final song of the album. But the lyrics? They are sort of depressed and morbid, but when you sing "in the sun" over and over in a an energetic voice then shouting with all emotion, "married, buried," followed by yelling "Yeah yeah yeah yeah," you will sound at least a little happy. Not even David Byrne could sing that sarcastically.

That brings us to the grand finale of this review and the album. "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" A folk song popularized by Leadbelly, this is a fantastically dark and gripping rendition. In case you haven't heard it before, the song is likely, but not definitely, about a man in an affair with a married woman, asking where she slept last night, just after her husband's "head was found in a driver's wheel," and she tells him "in the pines, where the sun don't ever shine." What is not entirely clear is which of them killed her husband, and for me this ambiguity makes the song creepier. No one less than Allen Ginsberg has praised this performance: "Great vocal control and subtlety, it's almost as good as Leadbelly's."

The song is gripping from the start, with a series of acoustic guitar chords synchronized with the bass guitar, which evokes the classic sound of old country-western. About vocal control and subtlety, everyone who has heard this knows about the screamed last verse, but I've noticed that he subtly changes the way he sings three times in the song. He starts singing like a traditional country-folk musician, and then an element of contempt and anger slips into his voice in the first half of the second chorus/verse. An instrumental break starts halfway through the second verse, in which the cello, which was just below the surface, really begins to assert itself, with dark bass harmonies that I couldn't identify the source of until I realized that they had a cellist with them. Without the cello this song would still be good but it wouldn't be incredible.

After the instrumental break, Kurt sings the second half of the second chorus in a vulnerable and soft tone, as the rest of the band plays as softly as possible, which really makes you unprepared for the apocalyptic final verse, in which the entire band turns it up a notch. Some people may dismiss Kurt's singing as just being shouting, and say anybody can shout, but what Kurt does is shout and keep his voice from cracking or varying in pitch and tone. Try to scream like he does and control your voice in the same way and see how easy it is. All-around, the song is a very impressive vocal performance by Kurt with great backing from his band. The best track of the album, and in my opinion one of the best live song performances recorded in the '90s.

So, final thoughts: First of all, this album is not grunge, whether you think that's a good thing or bad thing. Call it acoustic alternative if you will. The album is very dark in parts, and gloomy in general. That can easily put off people. For me, I suppose that makes it less likely for me to listen to it often than other albums of similar quality. Also, the material here is very uneven, with a few great songs, some good ones, some average ones, and an offensive song. Because of the limitations to the instrumentation, the average ones get boring really fast because it is hard to make the music more interesting, so part of my downgrading of this album from being a great album is beyond the control of the musicians. However, I will say this album is a good one on the strength of the better songs, but it is not for everyone.

If you are a fan of bands such as the Talking Heads and the Pixies, as I am, the odds that you'll like this go up significantly. I'm not entirely sure what actual fans of Nirvana think of this album, or if there is even a consensus, but even if they prefer the originals, they should at least recognize the versatility of Kurt and the range of the band's interests in music. It goes without saying that anyone who claims to be a fan of Cobain but hasn't heard "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" is missing a lot.

Going outside of my promise not to discuss the context of the album, I've read that Nirvana was considering making an entire album in this style before Cobain's suicide. In that way, it is especially terrible that he killed himself, because an album actually designed for this style may have avoided all the problems I mentioned previously, and could have really been a great album. Regardless, MTV Unplugged shows that the member's of Nirvana were developing serious artistic ideas and were willing to evolve their music. A band like that would have been welcome in the decade since.

So you may wonder, Tally Hall gets 7 paragraphs, and this gets 20? Well, my feelings towards this album are...complex.