[Vinyl Vednesday is a weekly feature about three favorite vinyl finds. It’s not meant to be a dick-measuring contest, but it usually turns out that way. This week’s installment commemorates the 16th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Given that recently unearthed Cobain demos recorded when he around nine years old are selling for seven figures, I’d say he’s still pretty relevant to music. Here are three treasured Nirvana releases on wax. As always, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with your own big finds!]
Records: Nirvana’s “Sliver” single (1990) on black, In Utero (1993) on black, and MTV Unplugged in New York (1994) on black.
Place of Purchase: “Sliver” came from Mad Platter Compact Discs in
Thoughts: Nirvana’s first album, Bleach, is pretty dissonant overall, but it reveals the occasional pop leaning, like on “About a Girl.” “Sliver,” released a year after Bleach and before Nevermind, shows Cobain’s pop sensibilities growing. It’s still grunge, but it’s catchy as heck. The hook – “Grandma take me home!” – gets a little overused near the end, but that could be attributed to Cobain’s love of Pixies and the Vaselines. “Dive,” on the flipside, is a more prototypically grunge, which in a way also hints at where Nirvana was going for Nevermind. That album is a mix of poppy sensibilities mixed with primal aggression, and “Sliver” and “Dive” both predict this evolution. Also the weird phone conversation at the end of side A is funny. Also awkward.
Like most young people, I didn’t hear Nirvana until “Smells Like Teen Spirit” blitzkrieged the airwaves. I didn’t actually buy a Nirvana album until high school, when my friend Rob sold me his copies of Nevermind and In Utero, sans cases, for $10. I still have those CDs, although I wish I could read the liner notes sometime. In Utero slowly became my favorite Nirvana album – I’ll take Steve Albini manning the soundboards over Butch Vig any day – with its abrasive, sarcastic tunes. It yielded Nirvana’s best single/video (“Heart-Shaped Box”), its most haunting songs (“Dumb,” “Pennyroyal Tea,” and “All Apologies” are all better than “Polly”), and even its punkest material (“Radio Friendly Unit Shifter,” “Tourette’s”). It’s beautifully dissonant and one-ups Nevermind’s aggression with better songcraft.
In Utero’s opposite is Unplugged in New York. It’s mostly acoustic (aside from notorious exception “The Man Who Sold the World” by David Bowie) and a lot more low key. After Cobain’s suicide, it plays out like a wake with the funeral dirges and flowers. I remember looking for clues in the video broadcast that he was going to kill himself, but I’ve more or less burned myself out on that. Cobain wrote about suicide and guns an awful lot. He also wrote a lot of songs about vaginas and/or incoherent screaming. So it goes. Nowadays, I listen to Unplugged and enjoy the so-called softer side of Nirvana. “About a Girl,” from Bleach, sounds better in this refined version. I got my first taste of the Meat Puppets, the Vaselines, and Bowie through this recording. The band is even funny in parts, cracking wise in this intimate setting in between soul-rattling performances. The songs are amazing, the settling is casual, and on certain days, this is the best Nirvana release we will likely ever see. To that end, I own the performance three times over: CD, LP, DVD.
Here's the Kurt Cobain poster I've slept under almost every night since I was 14: