Monday, January 7, 2008

No. 311: MTV Unplugged in New York

Band: Nirvana
Album: MTV Unplugged in New York
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: Released more than six months after the Kurt Cobain's death, Nirvana's date with the "Unplugged" audience was recorded nearly a year before. The album's 14 tracks contain six cover songs and feature such non-single tracks as "Dumb," "Polly" and "Something in the Way." If nothing, it showed the Nirvana wasn't all Pixies ripoffs and big drums.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: I imagine this could be ranked higher, as it essentially sucked the "Unplugged" franchise (thankfully, by the way). No one was going to beat Nirvana on this sort of stage.
Best song: Is there a best song? Aren't they all perfect or near-perfect? Personally, I love Nirvana's version of "Oh, Me" as much as or more than the original versions from the Meat Puppets. This version of "About A Girl" is better than the original.
Worst song: The worst thing you can say about any of these songs is that they sound perfectly like the great album versions. "Something in the Way" and "Polly" both fit this description.
Is it awesome?: Yes, absolutely.

Thinking about this album makes me tremendously sad, not just for the untimely passing of Kurt Donald Cobain (I wore black to my junior high for four days after his death), but for what could have been for the band. Nirvana wasn't in the middle of recording like Jeff Buckley was at the time of his death.

We'll never know what Nirvana might have been. Would the band have been able to produce a somber effort like this set? Would the band have been able to branch out and work more Meat Puppets- and Bowie-esque songs into their next album?

That's the sadness of the record? What could the band might have done? Is this a shape of things to come?


But, really, this is why Nirvana was the best of the era's bands. Nirvana was able to be more sensitive and anguished than even Pearl Jam, the era's standard-bearers. The band showed it could genre hop with the closing number being an old blue standard while the third track on the record was an accordion-driven Vaselines cover.

Cobain, as he is with all things Nirvana, is the star. His anguished howl is dotted with vulnerability that is nearly impossible to find in a singer's voice. To compare Cobain to more conventional singers like Chris Cornell or Glenn Danzig is foolish; Cobain was, like Ozzy Osbourne, born to do a certain thing. Like a battered child, Cobain has a story to tell in looks, cries and those puppy dog eyes.

The album has been called "a message from beyond the grave" and an "accidental testament." I can't say that either is incorrect. Unplugging a punk band is something, but punk rock doesn't translate when a band's songwriting isn't up to the task of unplugging.

Nirvana, of course, is the band that wanted, if only for a moment, to be R.E.M. Cobain's need to illuminate his influences made it such that he brought the Kirkwood brothers on stage for the set's three Meat Puppets songs, layering the simple guitar parts to make the ramshackle songs complete. The re-arrangement of the Vaselines' "Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam" is inventive and cool, while the safe reproduction of David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold The World" is tidy and far superior to Bowie's original. And, of course, the story of infidelity that closes out the album sounds perfect in Cobain's hands.


Of course, the Nirvana songs are perfect for the format. "Come As You Are," "All Apologies," and "On A Plain" would sound great on toy instruments, while "Dumb" translates well to acoustic guitars. "Polly" and "Something In The Way" are basically acoustic songs in the first place.

"About a Girl" was the album's only single, but it is about a thousand times superior to the version from "Bleach." The album version is a little abrasive and, while great, wonderfully catchy. But, the acoustic version soften up the distraught love songs and takes the guitar production aspect out of the song's R.E.M. jangle. All that's left is pure pop -- the song allegedly was written after Cobain spent an afternoon listening to "Meet the Beatles!" -- and Cobain's voice. The edge in his vocals, coupled with that perfect solo make "About A Girl" one of Nirvana's classic tracks.

Moreover, the set shows Nirvana's talent without any of the traps of their famous producers. Stripped of Albini or Vig, Nirvana still shines.


kellydwyer said...

I still remember yelling at a friend of mine who de-tuned my guitar to play "All Apologies" that morning. Five hours later, we find out that the left-handed, orphan-makin' redneck from the gloomy state had offed himself. I think I wore white that whole week.

"Luv ya, Frances! Have fun with Courtney Love as your Mom! Love,


Bloo-dy hell what a noise.

R.J. said...

Well, that made me laugh. Good work, KD.