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With the Lights Out

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With the Lights Out

Play the video of Shocking Blue’s “Love Buzz,” Nirvana-style, on your computer screen or DVD player and you’ll get an idea of just how radical this Aberdeen, Washington band was. Shot at the home of the mother of bassist Krist Novoselic, the video, like eight other such rehearsal documents shot in 1988, is crude, intractable and powerful. The material is unformed and metalloid, far from the unique pop that would make the band’s name memorable just three years later. You can tell the band was in its infancy, just fooling around. But you can also tell it was already playing for keeps.

Conceptualized in 1985 by Kurt Cobain and originally named Fecal Matter, Nirvana came together in 1988 with Cobain and Novoselic; it went through several drummers before Dave Grohl joined in 1990. Named after a phrase from “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the song and video that put Nirvana and alternative rock on the commercial map in 1991, this three-CD, one-DVD box is raw, unfiltered Nirvana featuring frontman Cobain, Novoselic and, primarily, Grohl, who joined Nirvana from the Washington, D.C. group Scream. Other drummers drifted in and out of the band in its first four years, but with Grohl, Nirvana found its groove.

Nirvana music was fragile and ferocious, pretty and powerful, pop and metal, Beatles and Slayer. It derived from grunge and was contemporary with industrial and techno; other bands that made their mark at the time, but in a different field, included Ministry (fitfully active today) and Nine Inch Nails (missing in action for about three years).

When you play these CDs – largely demos, with many outtakes and live tracks; 68 of the 81 are previously unreleased – you realize Nirvana played in capital letters. The groove was mighty and singular: based on repetition and contrast, melancholy and melody, it’s undeniable and beautiful and raw, adjectives applicable to virtually all the material on this box. Even though With the Lights Out will appeal most to Nirvana completists, it’s an object lesson in contemporary pop rock. Its power guarantees it won’t date, though the alternative rock it ushered in and so quickly legitimized seems almost quaint today. The only other band to arise from the Seattle grunge scene that produced Nirvana, Screaming Trees and Mother Love Bone that may still be relevant today is Pearl Jam, and it’s not as melodic. No matter how hard Nirvana rocked, it was always attractive, always sucked you in.

Originally set to be issued in 2001 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the release of the seminal album Nevermind, this box was delayed by litigation between Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, and surviving Nirvana members Novoselic and Grohl. Two years ago, the dispute was settled, allowing Seattle writer (and Nirvana fan) Gillian Gaar to continue putting this package together. It’s a labor of love and a remarkable document of the evolution of a band.

I’ve been playing the CDs in my car, which has a terrific stereo system that’s largely impervious to distortion, and I don’t dare turn the volume too far up, suggesting Nirvana toned it down considerably for its four studio albums. Even the DVD is loud; its 20 tracks span the 1988 home rehearsals in Aberdeen and a 1993 concert in Brazil, when Nirvana played the sugary, wistful Rod McKuen-Jacques Brel “Seasons in the Sun” – and, naturally, held the sugar. The box focuses on original material, but there are covers: three tunes by Leadbelly (proving Cobain could sing low and bluesy), a sharp take on the Vaselines’ “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam”), and raunchy, fun versions of Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” “Heartbreaker” and, affirming that even Nirvana could go overboard in repetition, the perpetually mind-numbing “Moby Dick.”

Nirvana was celebrated for laying Beatles-based tunefulness over metallic rhythms, but it confined its pop to its melodicism. Tunes like “Heart Shaped Box,” “Pennyroyal Tea,” “Aneurysm” and “Sliver” pulse with lyricism, curdled though it may be; “Rape Me,” one of Cobain’s sweetest and most hummable songs, turns in on itself lyrically. It’s basically a ghoulish courtesy call on an introspective, troubled man named Kurt Cobain, like “Aneurysm” and the prophetically titled “I Hate Myself and I Want To Die,” a B side from 1993.

Perhaps the most startling segue in this box is the two versions of “Rape Me” that launch Disk 3. The first is Cobain solo acoustic, all harshly guitars and pliant, soft vocals; it’s a template performance. The second is the full band – and then some. You hear Kurt and Courtney’s daughter, Frances, crying at the outset; her wails fade into the background as the song ratchets up. Why she was there is anybody’s guess; the 60-page booklet that accompanies the box doesn’t explain.

In metal, Nirvana went easily as far out as Zep; one of the best rock blocks here is tracks six through 10 on Disc 2: “Pay To Play,” one of the strongest cuts, leads inexorably to a long, crackling rehearsal demo of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” one of three versions. Cobain could croon, but he could howl, too. Backed by Novoselic’s non-stop bass, driven by Grohl’s embracing drumming, Cobain seemed equally implacable and magnetic; even though the videos lack production values, they’re charismatic, and they capture the way the band came across. Another way to tune into Nirvana’s apprehension of hard rock is the 1993 rehearsal demo of “Scentless Apprentice,” an amazing tune that would end up on “In Utero,” the band’s last studio album. One of the reasons it’s so amazing is that it’s about the Cobain-Love child, a “scentless apprentice” who has her whole life to look forward to and make sense of.

Cobain’s lyrics can be startling: in songs like “Heart Shaped Box,” “Rape Me” and “About a Girl,” he tuned into the kind of intimacies and paradoxes we don’t share – or even acknowledge — easily. How he came to express them – and how they overwhelmed him, driving him to suicide in April 1994 – makes more sense in light of this box. With the Lights Out explains how Cobain found, and then relinquished, his voice and why it continues to speak so strongly.

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About cwolff

  • Shawn

    (Sorry, the character in the book HAS his own sense of smell, but lacks a smell of his own)

  • Shawn

    Pretty good review, dispite some minor errors… “Scentless Apprentice” had nothing to do with Francis Bean (the “Cobain-Love child” you speak of); it was about the book “Perfume” written by Patrick Suskind, a story about a perfume maker without a sense of smell who takes to killing virgins for their scent. A minor point, I know. Anyway, if you’re reading this, and haven’t bought the boxed set and know something about Nirvana, get off your ass and GET IT! If you’ve never heard of Nirvana or really don’t know much about this great band, this isn’t the place to start.

  • Thanks for such a great and detailed review, and really summing up what Nirvana still means to popular music today.

    The only thing I would add in is the influence of indie, new wave, and alternative rock music to Nirvana’s repertoire. Bands like The Knack, REM, Meat Puppets, a bunch of obscure bands most people haven’t heard of (like The Vaselines) and especially The Pixies helped shape thier sound and add complexity and depth to thier pop-metal cauldron.

    I can’t wait to get my hands on this box set.

    Eric Berlin
    Dumpster Bust: Miracles from Mind Trash

  • Carlo, you were first. You bought back how i feel about the music

    This did make it up on Advance.net on Dec. 1. I’ve merely neglected to tell you. Sorry.

    Congratulations and thank you for the review.

    — Temple