Electrician Gary Smith went to Kurt Cobain’s house to install a security system on April 8, 1994. When he couldn’t get into the house, he circled around, looking for an entrance. He noticed blood one the floor, and found what turned out to be the dead body of Kurt Cobain. After a vigil and memorial service, Kurt’s body was cremated and his ashes were scattered in the Wishkah River, where they floated out toward the sea. Courtney Love is probably regretting that decision now. Though she has sold most of his intellectual property (his journals, new releases of music- that she receives 75% of the royalties from), his body is one of the few things that she hasn’t sold. After a long legal battle, the band released a self-titled greatest hits CD in 2002. When Courtney Love attempted to block the release, Dave Grohl leaked MP3 files onto the internet. As a result, the song “You Know You’re Right" was released, and casual fans got to hear the first new Nirvana in almost a decade. Recently, monetary interests have trumped artistic interests when Nirvana releases are considered. Unfortunately, With the Lights Out is part of this trend.
As an avid Nirvana fan, I am no stranger to bootleg recordings (something that Kurt and Krist often maligned in their live concerts- and example of this can be heard on “tourette’s" off of From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah). Because of this, I have a certain knowledge of Nirvana that extends beyond most listeners, and am able to provide an informed perspective on the quality of recordings contained within. I will NOT be evaluating this album song by song. Most everyone is already familiar with Nirvana’s material. That said, most of the demos and outtakes of previously released songs suck, to be frank and candid about it. I will evaluate previously unreleased songs and describe them, but mostly I will evaluate this boxed set as a representation of Nirvana’s musical aesthetic.
Before they became famous rockers, Nirvana started out as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath wannabes. Disc 1 does an excellent job of capturing this. Starting with a fun cover of Heartbreaker at a party, Disc 1 showcases a less polished Nirvana. At the time it must have seemed stranger for them to endorse mainstream rock, but it makes perfect sense retrospectively. Some of the band’s influences are more obvious than others, and some are barely noticeable. The band is in a sort of fledgling stage, and this is apparent in everything from instrumentation to vocals to song structure. Out of all the Nirvana albums, this period resembles Incesticide
the most, seeing as most songs off of it were taken from this time period.
“Anorexorcist" starts off with a somewhat heavy metal riff and then goes into a Led Zeppelin style breakdown. Kurt’s screaming is almost unintelligible (as always), but his voice is hardly recognizable compared to his signature style that he would later develop. Although these songs are not as easy listening as most Nirvana, they still rock hard.
Kurt misses some notes in “Heartbreaker," but busts out the solo, at least partially. Yes, he actually shreds! There was a time when Kurt was a fan of the guitar wank, back when he was taking LSD instead of heroin.
“Mrs. Butterworth" is an AWESOME song. It starts out sounding amazingly like Black Flag during the verse, but the chorus is distinctly Nirvana. Unfortunately, the recording is VERY lo-fi, and it’s difficult to fully appreciate. The best part of the song is the drum and bass breakdown where Kurt rants about how he’s going to open a flea market and sell trash at it for about a minute. It’s good for laughs, if nothing else.
“If You Must" is recorded in much better quality. It’s largely bass driven, and has a dissonant guitar line. It sounds a lot like some of the songs off of Incesticide, which were mostly written during the same period. It is rather bizarre and disjointed. “Help Me I’m Hungry" also showcases the bass-driven style from “Incesticide."
“Pen Cap Chew" has boring metal-like guitar and drums during the verse, while Kurt hums a low, kind of haunting melody. He then switches to some annoying whining. The song fades out after a chorus with a chord progression that vaguely reminds one of the Smashing Pumpkins.
“Raunchola" is a lot like other early Nirvana songs on this CD. It has a weird, thumping, off-key bassline. Kurt plays a kind of raunchy (go figure) chord progression before turning on the distortion and playing a metal-like riff.
“Beans" is an acoustic track that is actually really slow, but was dubbed in high speed. Kurt sounds like Alvin the Chipmunk.
“Don’t Want it All" sounds like a lower fidelity Tool song.
“Clean Up Before She Comes" is a quiet song with dubbed vocals and off key singing. The acoustic songs are low quality, and have already been released. They’re a waste of space on this disc. “Blandest," however, is better than some stuff on Bleach. I wish Nirvana had decided to put it on that album.
The stuff Kurt did with Mark Lanegan isn’t that great, and I wonder why the people making the boxed set wanted to include it. Oh yeah, they also included lots of crappy “solo acoustic" recordings.
“Token Eastern Song" is intentionally written in an eastern mode because critics noted that the band played in eastern modes a lot (like in Love Buzz). It starts off with some of the better drum and bass of earlier Nirvana songs, but has a boring and pointless chorus. Oh well.
Disc 2 chronicles the period before and during the band’s ascent to popularity. “Opinion" is presented here as an acoustic song, though there is an electric version. It resembles “Verse Chorus Verse" in a few ways, but I find Kurt’s voice to be rather annoying. You will probably notice that his singing changed a lot as he developed his songs. The surer he became of his lyrics and vocal style for a particular song, the more recognizable it became as part of the band’s work. If you don’t like normal Nirvana singing, you’ll likely be more disappointed.
“Pay to Play" is essentially an earlier version of “Stay Away." The cover of “Here She Comes Now" is pretty cool as well.
I like the demo of “Drain You" because the song has a solo. It’s really sloppy and Kurt’s singing is awful, but it’s a version of a song that is actually DIFFERENT than the final cut. It’s rather disappointing that they had to crowd disc 2 with various mixes and remixes of songs that we’ve heard 1,000 times anyway. That said, “Old Age" is a cool song, and “Curmudgeon" and “Oh The Guilt" are awesome b-sides. Unfortunately though, most of the stuff on disc 2 is regurgitated versions of previously released songs. Except for the aforementioned songs and “Endless Nameless," disc 2 is rather boring. And that’s not really saying that much for some of the songs either. Nirvana played “Endless Nameless" better live than they did on that particular occasion in the studio. It’s sort of an improv song.
Skip the first song on this disc. It’s not like you can really understand Kurt anyway, but that’s the point. The quality of the recording and singing is absolutely dismal. The demo of “Rape Me" is almost exactly like the CD version, but it has slightly different lyrics and sounds of a baby crying. The “Heart-Shaped Box" demo is good, but it only really solicits yawns, because there is a very similar version on In Utero already.
I know that the version of “I Hate Myself and Want to Die" on this CD is supposedly from the Beavis and Butthead Experience CD, but I strongly doubt that. I’ve heard the song from the CD, and the one here is much lower quality.
The “Milk It" demo is cool because you can hear the band talking about how they’re going to play it. “Moist Vagina" is an all right b-side.
“Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip" is kind of amusing, and it’s one of the songs on this CD that merited inclusion.
“Other Improv" was also recorded at the Rio Sessions, but it sounds really odd, and not in a good way. Kurt’s guitar is really clunky, and his vocals are kind of grating. “Marigold" is a nice little poppy song, and “Sappy" is amazing, but the acoustic songs aren’t really anything to write home about.
“Do Re Mi" is a nice song, but the recording quality is, as with a fair portion of this boxed set, mediocre. I have heard that it’s the best song on the boxed set, but I wouldn't go that far. There's a lot of other good material. In any case, it's the last good song on the CD. The version of "You Know You're Right" is mediocre. Perhaps someone thought it would be cool to end disc 3 with "All Apologies," the last studio song on most releases of In Utreo. In this case, it was a rather bad idea.
Disc 4 (DVD)
This is actually a pretty cool DVD. The first 9 songs are a little sketchy because of the low tape quality and such, but they’re still kind of cool to watch. It’s not the same Nirvana crap that’s thrown at you time and time again like “Smells Like Teen Spirit" or “Rape Me." The DVD also features songs from a couple of cool shows. First, “School" is from the September 22,1990 show at the International Motorsports Garage in Seattle. This was a particularly hectic show, and you can see people stage diving all over the place and running around. It’s also kind of amusing to see the Sub Pop people trying to keep them off the stage.
The video of “Smells Like Teen Spirit" is the first live performance of the song. It’s somewhat different than the recorded version, and the audience goes crazy.
“Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam" is from one of Nirvana’s best shows ever, a Halloween 1991 gig in Seattle. The band filmed the entire concert, so one might wonder why they didn’t release that with this set. After all, the video quality would be much higher on that than on what wound up on the DVD. Oh well.
“Talk to Me" is an unreleased song that Nirvana only performed a select few times. The quality on the performance is average, but the song is pretty good, and Kurt cracks wise before they start performing.
The last track on the DVD is “Seasons in the Sun," a cover on which Kurt sings and plays drums. Dave plays the bass, and Krist plays the guitar that sounds woefully out of tune. It would have been nice to see the whole performance, but the video is interspersed with some sentimentally focused video clips of parts of Kurt’s life and Nirvana’s existence.
I haven’t really heard many boxed sets. Most of the bands I like tend to be the “Greatest Hits" CD types of bands anyway. That said, there are certain qualities that one would expect from one. First of all, it should have nice packaging. Secondly, a boxed set should provide a comprehensive perspective of the band’s career. One would like a boxed set to feature any unreleased material that is worth revealing. Finally, one would expect that the audio quality of the recordings is at least moderately good, and that it is relatively well produced. Well, that’s the case some of the time. However, there is the rest of the album…
So anyway, how does this boxed set measure up to these standards?
This boxed set looks to be worth all forty some dollars that you’d spend on it. The cover is REALLY cool, the CDS are cool, and the booklet is well done. It would be nice if there were more articles about the band, but it’s okay. The pictures are really cool, and it’s nice that it includes recording details. Okay, so having the tracklist attached to the back with rubber cement WASN’T the best idea, but still. The packaging is the best part here. Let’s savor it while we can.
Comprehensiveness of Material: 2/5
There are only 51 songs total on Nirvana’s 4 studio albums (“Downer" appears on both Bleach and Incesticide). I have seen lists of 88 songs that they have supposedly performed and recorded. That would allegedly leave 37 songs, or about 2 full CDs of TOTALLY unreleased material. Now, I’ve heard that a lot of recordings were lost in Kurt’s house (I read that in the nice little booklet actually), but still. This part could have been done better. My momma didn’t raise a fool. I know there is better stuff out there that they can put on the CD than boombox recordings of “Rape Me" and “About a Girl." Likewise, I have seen and heard my fair share of Nirvana bootlegs. They had some very electrifying performances, as well as some entertaining ones (like Hollywood Rock). I was kind of disappointed with the direction that they took. Somehow they managed to release 4 whole CDs worth of music and video, but still failed to comprehensively cover the band’s life. Why not release an extra two CDs and charge 10 dollars more or something? It isn’t really that big of a deal, and it would make the whole set much better.
Listenability is rather vague, but I’m going to say that something that is very listenable is something that you would love to listen to over and over again. Granted, a boxed set is supposed to be more of a collector’s item and a retrospective than a lush masterpiece of art. That said, the recordings could have flowed better. Having it chronologically oriented was a good idea, but this pitted songs that were at odds with each other. Perhaps they could have put all of the acoustic stuff on one CD, and done that chronologically, and put some of the demos and B-sides and such on the other CDs and oriented them chronologically as well. Well then again, Nirvana was a band where different artistic aspects were always at odds with each other. As a whole, these CDs aren’t ones that I would listen to repetitively. They’re the kind that you might take out once or twice a year for a little spin before putting them back.
The Final Rating: 3/5
Face it; if you’re a diehard Nirvana fan, you’ve probably heard half of this stuff anyway. If you aren’t, you probably won’t like it. The studio albums are usually the best representation of a band’s work anyway. As a whole, this boxed set was a disappointment. When debating over whether I should buy it, I was perusing amazon.com, and I noticed that a lot of the reviews were either 1 or 5 stars, ironically the same way most people feel about Nirvana as a whole. It’s either love or hate. Well, the truth falls somewhere between the two extremes. Some see this boxed set as a remarkable release of high quality, previously unreleased tracks. It is. Others see it as a re-release of boring, poor quality, useless recordings. The boxed set contains both. Whether or not you should get it depends on how strong your desire to hear those songs is, and how high your tolerance for mediocrity is. I wish I could either urge people to rush out and buy this in droves, or warn them that they are wasting their money. However, I am still uncertain about whether or not this is a good boxed set. All I know is that I was rather disappointed, not because of what it is, but mostly because of what it could have been.