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January 18, 2005
Since the PR companies were servicing sampler CDs for publicity, I went to my local chain music store on my lunch break to pick up the full Nirvana box set the day it came out. I wasn't up for doing the midnight thing the night before, and I hadn't downloaded anything, and I felt sort of lame coming in at 11 o'clock wearing a tie to pick this thing up. The girl at the register had seriously the most complicated hair I had ever seen, this big hairsprayed foof that must be a big pain in the ass in the morning. If you don't go to a show in a while, you can forget that these people exist. I was somehow comforted by the fact that the three very dear adolescent friends of mine populating the cover of With the Lights Out were sarcastically sporting suits and ties, undoubtedly culled from some shoot where the photographer thought he'd be clever and spoof the band's unprecedented rise into pop culture. This chick was like, sixteen or something.

This has happened before. Your parents have some career-spanning Zeppelin or Hendrix box set that very much reveals their age. Nirvana was without a doubt my first musical love. When the all-inclusive rarities and outtakes boxed set comes out 10-15 years after you first loved the band, you know you're fucking old. And apparently, the record labels know too. The packaging is rinky dink with its metallic cover, but the worst part is the cover of the otherwise sweet booklet, which features a collage of gratuitous Nirvana headlines from their active days. Kurt was an artist and was known to make a lot of found art collages, but I'm fairly certain he didn't ever do that with newspaper headlines of his band. This type of thing would definitely give my little nymphette friend behind the counter the wrong idea about what this band was all about.

One of those fun questions to sit on is what Kurt Cobain would have done past 1994 if he had made a choice between Courtney Love and heroin, not the lethal combination of the two. Pick any
one of the past ten years out of a hat and think about how Kurt may have responded to that year's best albums. Or, think about if Kurt had lived, and it was Eddie Vedder who died after vs., or Billy Corgan who died after Siamese Dream (or Stephen Malkmus after Crooked Rain, you know what I'm saying). The thing about the scope of Nirvana today is that they have touched just about everything from Puddle of Mudd to Animal Collective. How many other bands do the fans of those two bands mutually respect? Most likely just one.

I'm not sure what exactly the rest of the world's expectations were for this box. The press I've read seems to complain about the varying audio quality in addition to shoddy song selection. It's important to remember that Kurt Cobain wasn't this dude who crafted soundscapes and there's like six different mixes of "On A Plain" out there, one with Spector strings, one with a nasty 808, et cetera. There is no dearth of In Utero also-rans to be had in this box because such things do not exist. The ridiculously covered booklet includes lists of songs for every recording session Nirvana ever went into, and the track listing of the box picks up enough variance across the band's existence to satisfy even the most devout fan.

The fear amongst the biggest Nirvana fans leading up to this release was that the box would simply end up being a collection of stuff already available on the Outcesticide bootleg series. This is completely not the case, although the most previously-available stuff lies on the first disc, which documents the Bleach era. The band's early dirge metal isn't really the greatest, and tracks like "If You Must" and "Pen Cap Chew" have been out there all along. There are a couple of gems on the first disc, like the acoustic "Clean Up Before She Comes," and the three-song set of Leadbelly covers by Kurt and Screaming Trees' crooner Mark Lanegan (the powers that be have inexplicably left out the fourth song that was recorded then, four years before it was made famous on MTV, "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?"). The longstanding Nirvana nerd mystery of the song "Token Eastern Song" is revealed to be another Bleach-ish, old Nirvana tune.

The second disc ushers in the Nevermind era with a couple of solo acoustic tunes performed on Calvin Johnson's radio show; the criminally underheard "Opinion" and an early version of "Lithium". The version of "Sliver" heard after that set establishes a precedent that runs through the second and third discs of this set: the solo acoustic demo of crappy quality. I don't really understand why people are having a problem with these. These are some of my favorite songs, and I consider myself privileged to be able to hear embryonic versions of tunes I fell in love with over a decade ago. Sure, you can make the argument that these are sketches of Kurt's, never meant to be released. But c'mon, Courtney Love is involved with this. It's fine, don't sweat it, he won't mind.

The recordings of "Drain You" and "Aneurysm" serve as a sort of bridge between normal, decent audio quality and the very obviously boom box-sourced "Smells Like Teen Spirit" which follows. No matter what the sound quality, I'm digging a rehearsal tape of a song that tops any VH1 influential songs list. The end of the Nevermind era disc is topped off with compilation tracks, B-sides, and tribute album fare, all of which has been previously available, but never in the same place.

The post-fame In Utero era disc is most interesting in that Kurt's demo process did not change at all with more resources. If anything, the solo demos sound even more brokeass, and combined with his lack of rhythm at times, these songs sound quite desperate and personal. "Serve The Servants," "Pennyroyal Tea," and even "Very Ape" are all solo acoustic, to varying levels of quality and cohesiveness. The full band rehearsal demo of "Scentless Apprentice" is interesting because at the beginning of the nearly ten-minute track, you don't hear much of the second song from In Utero, but the riff gels, and you can hear the song coalesce. It's sweet, if you like Nirvana. The brilliantly off-the-cuff "Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip," which originally served as the seven and a half minute bonus track on the European version of In Utero, is a bit of a centerpiece on this third disc and explores the same anti-bitch lyrical territory of
"You Know You're Right," which was released only two years ago ("She's only been five months late, even though we haven't had sex for a way/ She's only five weeks late, but I haven't had a date in forever").

The best nuggets of the boxed set are the last songs Kurt recorded, a couple months before his death. The first is an acoustic version of "You Know You're Right," and the other is the previously unheard "Do Re Mi," which definitely suggests his budding friendship with Michael Stipe and, you know, makes ya wonder what could have been.

As the fourth disc of this set, the DVD is very sweet with nearly half the material being culled from a 1988 video of them practicing at Krist's mom's house while some dudes from the neighborhood are chillaxing with beer I don't think they make anymore. And Kurt faces a wall the entire time, which is great because I used to do that too! The rest is live odds and ends, including a song from their surprise set opening for Mudhoney at the Crocodile Cafe in Seattle, their last small club show, in late 1992.

The DVD concludes with the 70s hit "Seasons in the Sun" with Kurt on drums, Krist on guitar, and Dave on bass. This is accompanied by a nice, 20/20-esque montage of footage, which sort of comes off as a joke, but isn't really. It's this type of inherent lameness, like the packaging, that you know Kurt would not be down with. And no, Kurt would probably not be down with these acoustic demos getting out to my ears, or those journals being published a few years back. But you know what? When you blow your head off and Courtney Love is the person left in charge of everything, what are you gonna do? There's a lot of great stuff in here, whether it was meant to be heard or not. It's alright, you're old, it's no big deal, Nirvana still rules.

--
Jeremy Keller
A staff writer for LAS, Jeremy Keller uses his uncanny ability to intellectualize sports for the greater good of mankind.

See other articles by Jeremy Keller.

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