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Music Review: Nirvana – Bleach ( 20th Anniversary Edition)

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"Good evening.  This is off our first record.  Most people don't own it."

And with that acerbic mumble, Nirvana began their performance on MTV's Unplugged, an event that would become a cultural watershed moment.

The first record Kurt Cobain was referring to was called Bleach, released on Seattle-based SubPop records.  Cobain was right.  Most people didn't own it when it was first released and they couldn't be faulted.  Nirvana was a local band making inroads through the underground.  Locals, like I was at the time, knew of them.  College kids and those plugged in to what was going on above, below, and outside the mainstream knew of them.  In the interest of self-disclosure, I knew Nirvana by name but I didn't own Bleach before Nevermind.  

For most of us, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was our first exposure to a band who became a movement.  Some kids were fans of the movement and the moment.  Some were fans of the band and the music and those are the ones who later discovered Bleach, helping it to sell over one million copies.   It was recorded with producer Jack Endino in two sessions.  The recording budget for the album was less than $1,000 and it sounded like it, but in a good way.  

Twenty years later, SubPop is re-releasing Bleach.  It has been remastered and expanded to include a complete 1990 performance by the band in Portland, Oregon prior to drummer Dave Grohl joining the band.  

Remastering Bleach is akin to putting lipstick on a pig.  That's not a denigration of the music but let's face it:  you can only remaster what was captured in the first place.  This was a lo-fi recording.  The band didn't have enough money to agonize over microphone placement and multiple takes, and it's not clear they would have even if they'd had the option.  Cobain famously changed his mind about his music and its sound many times after a record was released Bleach captured… something.  It captured part of what Nirvana was.  There are achievements and warts.  It captured them where they started.  Some of the brilliance in evidence on their debut would be more fully realized and they'd overcome some of their shortcoming while some of those wonders were casualties of their progression.  

The live set from the Pine Street Theatre in Portland isn't a classic, but it beats the hell out of a majority of the bootlegs that flooded the market during the band's heyday and shortly after the death of Cobain.  What makes this show interesting is that of the bootlegs that did surface, most of them were from the Nevermind and In Utero tours.  This captures the band in their earlier days and it's amazing how compelling they already were.  Nirvana mastered mayhem, energy, and passion early in their development.  They grew in confidence and improved as musicians and Cobain grew as a songwriter, but a lot of what was great about Nirvana was available to those who knew to look for them.

Bleach is a worthy snapshot of the band, documenting where they began.  Most people still don't own it.  If you are one of them, this 20th anniversary edition is the one for you.

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About Josh Hathaway

  • Patrick Limple

    Bleach is a great album and this article sumarizes it pretty well. It reminds me a a small band from Appleton, WI called Pudge. If you like what’s on Bleach you’ll love them.

  • http://www.riddledphantasms.com R.P.M.

    He’s dead. I heard Nirvana b/c a friend named Gray who gave me rides home from HS at times had cooler music like Nirvana and Pearl Jam back when tapes were still used and played.

    Anyone have a tape player then or now? I did but that is b/c my car was old or when other people’s car’s were old and Joshua Tree and Beasite Boys were still on tape for me.

  • Josh Hathaway

    I didn’t realize great music had an expiration date. Best I chuck my Nirvana and get some what… Breaking Benjamin? Lady Gaga? Think I’ll pass.

  • http://www.EurocriticsMagazine.com Christopher Rose

    Actually, even great music DOES have an expiration date.

    Not many people nowadays listen to whatever cavemen got off on thousands of years ago for example.

    When was the last time you listened to some music made before either the first or second world wars? Or even older?

  • Josh Hathaway

    You mean like Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Little Walter, Chuck Berry, Otis Rush, BB King? All the time, Chris. Great music doesn’t have an expiration great. It doesn’t lose its greatness just because it gets old. The year it was recorded or the years since it was recorded doesn’t change the quality of what was made.

  • zingzing

    sometimes, it’s the age of the music that actually makes it great (or at least important). say, john cage’s “williams mix.” it’s unexceptional in the light of everything that has come after–the technique is incredibly rough, the momentum of the piece is non-existent, there is no thematic unity (other than the obvious)–but it’s the fact that it was so early along in the evolution of that type of music that makes it exceptional. (that’s forgetting the random chance employed in making it… but that’s something about cage that often annoys me, even if it is highly important.)

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    When was the last time you listened to some music made before either the first or second world wars? Or even older?

    just a couple of days ago. a whole pile of Enrico Caruso 78’s.

    music may have an expiration date for you, but that’s you.

  • http://www.EurocriticsMagazine.com Christopher Rose

    I was expecting you to come up with a response like this, Mark.

    The fact that one person listened to some music by one artist in no way invalidates my point.

    Personally, I like ancient madrigals but not many other folk do.

    It has nothing to do with it being a personal thing of mine; music, just like everything else, evolves and grows. People, not so much…

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    You still drive a car? I have a hovercraft, but when it came from the factory it could only play phonograph cylinders.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Chris: even great music DOES have an expiration date […] When was the last time you listened to some music made before either the first or second world wars? Or even older?

    Well, there’s Handel, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Scott Joplin, Kurt Weill, Louis Armstrong and about a million others – all still listened to and enjoyed decades or centuries after their deaths.

    And I would contend that the reason people still listen to it is that it is great music.

    And that it is, in fact, not-great music which has an expiry date.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    btw, caveman music was terrible. they had no melody

  • Josh Hathaway

    The staggering amount of great literature and great music that have been passed down through the centuries and are still enjoyed, appreciated, studied, and learned from disproves your point 1,000 times over. Objectively and subjectively, the idea great music has an expiration date is borderline retarded. Music’s evolution — a discussion for another time — doesn’t invalidate what came before it and not just because it probably borrowed from it. Rock musicians of today still go back to the blues, country, and folk sources from whence it came. Classical music is studied the same way. Literature, the visual arts, same thing. These works are appreciated on their own merits and flattered by the way they inspire those that come after. Their age isn’t what makes them great nor can their age deprive them of their greatness. There’s not a single logical, defensible argument to the contrary. Great music having an expiration date explicitly because of its age is irrefutably wrong.

  • http://jetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Jet Gardner

    I’ve yet to find a Bach fugue that didn’t inspire creativity with its precision

  • http://www.EurocriticsMagazine.com Christopher Rose

    Josh, they are all post WW1 and even naming a handful doesn’t invalidate the point.

    Doc, name the rest of the million others…

    And then tell me the last time you listened to Handel? Boring!

    Whether any of you lot like it or not, in general terms music is a product of its time and gradually loses its artistic power. Even if it does take a while…

  • 11

    Cavemen never played their best songs. Pissed me off, too. Call me old fashioned, but if you take hammer and chisel to a stone tablet to request ‘Incident Down By The Tar Pit,’ they damn-well better play it.

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    Cavemen never played their best songs

    that’s because they were too busy bowling.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    The Cro-Magnon hated requests of covers. May have contributed to demise of Neanderthal.

    btw, Chris, you haven’t even made your original point. Provide an example of great music that is no longer listened to today. You are arguing that old, great music isn’t popular with the masses, which is something entirely different.

  • zingzing

    i don’t think he’s talking about popularity that much… i generally disagree with chris’ point, but have to note that some older music does lose its some of its artistic vitality, in that it doesn’t have the influence or ability to surprise it may once have had. but there are a great many exceptions to this. and that’s what keeps great music great, no matter how old it is.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Doc, name the rest of the million others…

    Oh, for cripes’ sake, Chris, you’re starting to sound like Kevin Roeten. Just walk into your local reference library and peruse their musical history encyclopedia.

    And then tell me the last time you listened to Handel? Boring!

    That’s your own value judgment, Chris, not an impartial validation that he’s past his sell-by date. I can’t remember the last time I listened to Handel, but I do enjoy Mozart, Mendelssohn, Grieg and Sibelius (among others) quite regularly.

    I repeat my assertion that the longevity of a piece of music’s appeal is the yardstick of its greatness. For instance, I may think that David Gray’s new album is great (it is, give it a listen!), but if no-one’s playing it or remembers him in 100 years, then objectively it probably wasn’t. Good, yes, but not great.

    Conversely, if a piece of music that you or I might not think is much cop stands the test of time, then we might have to concede that perhaps it has more merit than we thought.

    I can, however, guarantee you that large chunks of Elvis Presley’s and the Beatles’ catalogues will still be listened to, played, sung and re-recorded a century from now.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    * if a piece of music that you or I might not think is much cop stands the test of time…

    The enduring appeal of Gilbert and Sullivan, for example, bemuses many people!

  • zingzing

    makes you wonder how much truly great music has been completely lost to time, whether through its initial unpopularity or just through chance.

  • zingzing

    i like gilbert and sullivan… not so much for the music, although that has its moments, but for the stories. they’re silly.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    makes you wonder how much truly great music has been completely lost to time

    Audience and distribution is obviously a huge factor. I mean for all we know, Neanderthal music rocked. Unfortunately they didn’t have a musical notation system or access to recording studios and so their music died with them. (Plus, the Cro-Magnons had the musical appreciation of a whelk.)

    This is why almost no music from earlier than the late Middle Ages survives to us.

  • zingzing

    actually, there’s some early forms of chant (which were mostly improvised on top of very basic structures) dating back to around 850 ce that survive. and the earliest renderable song dates from about 2000 bce. old stuff indeed.

  • http://www.EurocriticsMagazine.com Christopher Rose

    Josh, I don’t think there is a “staggering amount of great literature and great music that have been passed down through the centuries”. The rest of your argument just seems a self serving rejection of my view but you don’t really make a case for yours. I didn’t say that music has an expiry date because of its age, I was rejecting your point that what you consider great music will always be so.

    El B, my point is that all culture is a part of its times and doesn’t have any eternal values, which just seems so obvious I fail to understand why anyone would dispute it. Sure, some culture has a greater life expectancy than others, which can be for all kinds of reasons, not necessarily its artistic achievement. I’m not arguing the point you mentioned.

    zing, there may be some exceptions now, but that is partly cos people have a lot of cultural inertia. I’ve no idea what was considered good music x thousand years ago and it probably won’t be too many more years before the number of people listening to Nirvana or Muddy Waters will have dwindled away from the comparatively low numbers that listen to them now.

    One of the musical projects I’d like to put together is to make some of the tons of underground classics of the last part of the 20th Century more popular.

    Doc, I don’t know that an impartial validation of a cultural perception can be made, nor entirely sure it would be a good thing if it could.

    I’m also not sure that the longevity of a music’s appeal is a yardstick of greatness, it might be a yardstick of lowest common denominator for example.

    If you think any of the schmaltzy faux emotional dreck by David Gray is great, you need a holiday. I prescribe three weeks in Asia.

    Personally I think Captain Beefheart is one of the greatest American artists of the 20th Century but the number of people who would agree with me is probably quite small.

    I don’t see any plausible reason at all why the music of Presley or The Beatles will necessarily be attracting that much interest in a 100 years from now. Outside of the USA, Presley hardly means anything at all these days anyway and The Beatles made some pretty tunes but take away the context of the social change and context surrounding the two of them and there’s not really a whole lot left. They both made some great songs and an awful lot of dreck too.

  • http://jetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Jet Gardner

    Dear God, Mr. Rose went into extra paragraphs!

  • zingzing

    chris: “One of the musical projects I’d like to put together is to make some of the tons of underground classics of the last part of the 20th Century more popular.”

    i nominate disco inferno. the band. one of the greats, but i’m the only person i know who knows this. and i know a lot of music nazis. i’ve done my part. but it pays no dividends. d.i. go pop and technicolour are two of the best albums of the 90s. i sigh. it must be the name. they’re ungoogleable. ungooglable? ungooglitious.

    “Personally I think Captain Beefheart is one of the greatest American artists of the 20th Century but the number of people who would agree with me is probably quite small.”

    you have one vote.

    “The Beatles made some pretty tunes but take away the context of the social change and context surrounding the two of them and there’s not really a whole lot left.”

    you burn in hell.

  • http://jetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Jet Gardner

    “All the leaves are brown,
    and the sky is gray,
    I’ve been for a walk,
    On a winter’s day….

  • zingzing

    jet, you should watch “chunking express.” there’s a long bit of it that kind of centers around that song. tony leung plays the male lead (and he is awesome.) (and the female lead is gorgeous.) after that, watch “happy together.” both are by wong kar-wai.

    “happy together” is really great. the first scene (gay luvvins) gets rid of all the homophobes. beyond that beauty, there’s lots of other beauty in it as well.

  • zingzing

    ahem. “chunGking express.”

  • Wickerman

    Surprising lack of discussion of Nirvana in a lot of the comments…I thought that’s what this article was about…