Tag Archives: Kurt Cobain

Could Another Album Capture the World’s Imagination Like Nirvana’s “Nevermind”?

(Note: I was going to use the original album cover, but I read somewhere that Facebook banned it.)

 

Spin recently put an issue solely devoted to the 20th Anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind. There were numerous tributes by musicians and artist who talked about how the album influenced their lives.

I was nine when the album was released, so I was too young to realize its significance at the time. I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from my older brother when he returned home from college and I thought it was one of the greatest things I had ever heard. The guitars screamed from the speakers and yet there was a catchiness to it that couldn’t be denied. Even though I had no idea what the lyrics were, but I knew the song was special.

But its true impact was lost on me. I had no idea that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” ignited a revolution, and broke punk rock in the mainstream.  In the following months, Pearl Jam was the band that seemed to be everywhere.  I read the issue of Time Magazine with Eddie Vedder on the front while waiting for my mother in the doctor’s office.

In the years since, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Nevermind. On a purely musical level, I find it to be over-rated. Yes, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a great song and anthem, but the album seems to be cluttered way too many half-baked songs.  The ones that do work for me – “Drain You” and “Lounge Act”  – only seem good in comparison to the lackluster ones and are drowned out by the greatness of “Teen Spirit”.

That being said, I can’t deny Nevermind’s significance. Everybody had a copy of that album and got caught up in its energy. Even rap-stars such as Chuck D and Lil Wayne had professed their love for Nevermind. It really did get the world excited, proving that music can be a force for change and a form of catharsis for an alienated generation.

Millions of identified with Cobain because he seemed like a nobody who achieve greatness. In the late 70s and 80s rock had become too flashy and the lyrics became unidentifiable to many. Bon Jovi may have had massive success, but the big-hair and excessive left many feeling cheated. This was rock and roll to have a good time to, but if you were looking for something more, hair-bands weren’t going to offer it.

Cobain looked and acted like the guy next door. His hair was a mess; he wore Chuck Taylors, and dyed his hair different colors. And like Bob Dylan, he proved to a mass audience that you don’t have to be a technically good singer to make people get inside the songs.  On the outside, Cobain was everybody.

20 years later, and Nevermind might the last album that became a rallying cry and had an impact outside of the musical landscape. No album since then has the same influence across the board.

Could a new Nevermind capture the current world’s imagination? Spin suggests that the reason for Nevermind’s success had to do with the anger of the youth, and the conservative swing of Reagan-era America. If that were all it took (and a damn good band and a couple of great songs), surely this new musical revolution would have already happened. The world seems in a worse place than it has in years, and people are pissed at the economy, the war, and many other things.  As the country gears up for another election, it seems more divide than ever. Just look at the recent Debt Crisis talks. Our leaders  -the ones who are supposed to be in charge can’t agree on anything.

So much has changed in the last twenty years that is sometimes hard to comprehend how far we’ve come. The Internet barely existed in 1991, and CDs still sold well. The combination of the Internet’s presence and the lack of CD sales would make it extremely hard for an album to galvanize a generation the way Nevermind did.

People looked to Kurt Cobain because he expressed sentiments that they didn’t know they felt. As the Internet gave birth to blogs, suddenly everyone who didn’t have a voice was able to post their thoughts instantly. Who needs someone to express your thoughts for you, if you can show the world exactly what is on your mind?

As digital albums climb, and sales of CDs decline, the sentimental value also drowns. It’s harder to be attached to something – emotionally or physically – if there’s only a file. Numerous articles have stated that more people listen to music than ever before. But we’re not sitting listening absorbing it. IPods might be convenient, but music has become something to put on in the background whether it’s while running or riding a subway. Putting on a whole record and taking in the artistry of a song has become something for music obsessives and teenage “freaks”.

The emotional attachment to a song might become a thing of the past.

There have been some artists and artists since Nevermind that have achieved a legendary status beyond the music. Yet they’ve never managed to leap into the cultural stratosphere. Radiohead’s Kid A, while love by hard-core and critics, is too cold and atmospheric.  Kanye West is too polarizing and controversial, despite having a string of brilliant albums. Lady Gaga comes close as a voice for the LGBT community, but it’s still hard for some to take a pop artist seriously.

All of this makes the success of Nevermind even more perplexing. There’s no doubt that it came out at the right time and right place. But no one was betting on it to change the world when it came out, least of all Nirvana. Change like that can’t be predicted, and maybe the next musical revolution will happen when an artist isn’t even trying. Or maybe it already has occurred and no one has noticed.

As Cobain would say, “Oh well. Whatever. Nevermind.”

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In Defense of R.E.M.’s “Monster”

 

As I mentioned yesterday, Popmatters wrote a piece on “10 Albums That Supposedly Suck But Don’t”.  I was surprised to see that R.E.M.’s Monster made it to number two on that list. I had no idea that the album was considered to be that bad. That being said,  the loud and noisy Monster probably came as a shock to fans who discovered the band a few years earlier with their acoustic-based Out of Time and Automatic for the People. 

A bit of history and perspective, then. R.E.M. had spent most of the 1980s building up an impressive body of work – the run of albums from Murmur to Document is among the best in rock and roll. They came along at time when rock and roll seemed stagnant, and all but invented alternative rock on the college radio circuit. Peter Buck’s ringing guitar chords sounded were influenced by The Byrds, but Michael Stipe’s vocal delivery and lyrics were refreshing as they were confusing. They were more fragments than a cohesive thought. On the first few albums, his vocals were virtually impossible to understand. Every single album from the 80s sounded completely different. Their debut, Murmur was murky and understated. 1985’s Fables of the Reconstruction was an exploration of the myths of the old South. Document turned up the volume a bit but still retained their core qualities. 1998’s Green was their version of Led Zeppelin III – rockers counter-balanced by acoustic ballads.

With Out of Time and Automatic for the People, R.E.M. achieved global super-star status, but no one could accuse them on selling out. In the hey-day of grunge, the band went the exact opposite route – soft and introspective. The band was proving that you could achieve a high level of success, while still maintaing critical acclaim. So it seems inevitable, that Monster would receive a back-lash. Though I have to ask because I was 13 at the time of its release, what is so poorly received then?

Certainly, Monster is the strangest of all the R.E.M. albums cut with original drummer Bill Berry. Its full of distortion, feedback, cackles and hisses, echoed vocals, and Prince-style falsettos. It’s also the first album where Michael Stipe  focuses on sex, a subject he seemed to avoid for a long time. Monster is the band’s attempt to try something different after delivering two subdued albums in a row.

The main problem with this is that even though R.E.M. could occasionally rock, they’re not rockers. They’re a bit of our of their element and songs such as the noise-laden “Circus Envy” and the electronic-vocal enhanced “King of Comedy” have not aged well. Michael Stipe’s falsetto on “Tongue” while laughable upon release, sounds embarrassing now.  When Stipe name-checks Iggy Pop on “I Took Your Name” it sounds hollow.

Yet, the album has plenty of merits. (Unfortunately, the awful cover isn’t one of them.) “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”, perhaps the album’s best known song – shows they could match rock with melody. Peter Buck offers one of his best riffs, pushing the song along with a menace and crunch. Mike Mills and Michael Stipe give a fantastic vocal interplay, which has always been one of R.E.M’s secret weapons. Elsewhere, “Bang an Blame” has a unique echo guitar riff which blasts out of the speaker only to fade into the background before coming back again. The highlight of the album is the guitar-only fury of “Let Me In”, an ode to Stipe’s friend Kurt Cobain. It’s one of the best R.E.M. ballads only with the amps turned up to 12.

Some of the criticism of Monster might be just. I’m not so sure the sell-out label applies, especially if you listen to the album as a whole. While not as brutal as Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy (which came out the same year) Monster may seem like it was written as an attempt to get rid of the some of the casual fans. Although if this is the case, it’s odd considering that they launched a massive world tour to promote the album.

Still, Monster is not an unlistenable album and in the history of R.E.M. its not one of their worst detours into weirdness.

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This Week’s Theme: Nostalgic Songs of 1994

 

(Note: This post should have come before “Everything Zen” – I thought I had published it and it wasn’t until I put up the post on “Everything Zen” that I realized my mistake.)

1994 is the first year where I really remember listening to the radio, and picking up on current musical trends.  I was 12 going on 13, discovering myself through the radio.  Kurt Cobain may have just killed himself that summer, but that fall the sounds of Weezer, Bush, Green Day, and Live were finding their way to my ears.

Previously I had relied on my siblings musical tastes.  Whatever they listened to, was what I listened to and thought was good.  While I certainly prided myself on my preferences in school, I found out that no one in classes was talking about U2.  “Basket Case” was the rage, and kids sang all the words to Beck’s “Loser” on field-trips.  Coming back from a school musical, the  radio constantly played Beastie Boy’s “Sabotoge” – a song that seemed to come from outer-space on a mission to blow up the speakers and my mind.

Everything on the radio was loud and exciting.  Masturbation was sung frankly in Green Day’s “Longview”, Gavin Rossdale reflected upon his “asshole brother” in Los Angeles.  I was too young to get the joke about “Happy Days” in the video for Weezer’s “Buddy Holly”, but I laughed hysterically about Rivers Cuomo inviting someone to destroy his sweater in “Undone (The Sweater Song)”.  Even R.E.M. (my favorite band at the time) cranked up the amps with “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”, declaring “don’t fuck with me” at the end of the song.

Looking back, 1994 really was a good year in music.  It was the era in between grunge and the new-wave ska revival (which was a very strange time in music, I think.)

Even though a lot of these songs aren’t on the same caliber as a lot of other stuff I listen to now, I still enjoy them and they take me back to my 12-13 year old self.  And that’s what this week’s theme is all about.

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1994 Nostalgic Songs: “Everything Zen”

(The single says it was released in early 1995, but I distinctly remember hearing it on the Baltimore’s WHFS in the fall of 1994.)

“There’s no sex in your violence,” Gavin Rossdale whispers in the bridge of “Everything Zen”.  At 28, I have no idea what the hell that phrase is even supposed to mean and I won’t pretend to, but to my 12 year old self, it was one of the most rebellious things you could say.  Not only did he mention sex specifically by name, but also violence – it was an R-rated movie put to music!

At the time, I thought Bush was dangerous and raw.  I had no idea that their “pseudo-grunge” was taylor made for radio and aimed at kids within age-range of me.  The guitars may have been distorted, but they were polished.  Rossdale may have been able to scream like Cobain, but you never feared he would actually lose his voice in the middle of the song.

Then there’s the line about his “asshole brother”.  In 7th grade, asshole was not only a dirty term, but you reserved it for those who really pissed you off.  The asshole was the kid who pushed you into the grass during football during recess, certainly not your brother.  What could Rossdale’s brother have done to make him that mad?

Because I went to a private school my bus ride was usually somewhere between 30-45 minutes.  (I kid you not.)  The radio station that the bus driver put on was something akin to Top 40 radio.  Bon Jovi’s “Always” was a staple on that station – the pain recently came back when I heard it on a radio in a bar recently.  Ace of Base was also played a lot.  Bush, was most certainly not.  “Everything Zen” was like a secret that I had.  When the song finally did come on, one of the girls (who I probably had a crush on) asked me who it was.  I pretended not to know for some odd reason before realizing I missed my chance.  Another girl chimed in before I did, “It’s Bush!  Duuuuuuh!”

Sixteen Stone is one of those albums that could have only existed in 1994-95.  It satisfied the public’s appetite for “grunge-style” music in the wake of Kurt Cobain’s death.  For a generation of kids like me who were too young to truly feel the impact of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, Sixteen Stone captures the feeling of an era.  It’s rough, but not too rough.  Music played just close enough to edge, but with guardrails on the side.  The perfect musical training wheels.

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Revisiting Nevermind

I have a love hate relationship with Nirvana.  Sometimes (okay most of the time) I think they’re over-rated.  I find that Nevermind is too slick, and those who think (and I know you’re out there) it’s a raw record, well just listen to Raw Power and get back to me.   I’m listening to it now for the first time for in a few years and perhaps I’ve been too critical of it.  Perhaps a bit of perspective will do that.

Among my observations:

– All of the songs are good. There’s really not a bad song on it.  They’re not all great, but there’s none that are as unlistenable as I previously thought.

Drain You might Nirvana’s best song.  It’s break-down instrumental is like the punk-rock version of Whole Lotta Love.  Feedback and a noise orgy instead of Robert Plant moaning while Jimmy Page masturbates with his guitar.  Awesome.

Something in The Way is a hauntingly beautiful song.

My biggest complaint is that the instrumental at the end of Something in the Way is 10 minutes after the song ends.  This is one of the best moments of the record.  While I am one for preserving the actual album in the digital age, can we also make this track download or at least split up on Itunes?

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