Two more sonic slices of heaven for you to revisit; or discover, if you live in a cave!
An admittedly mid-nineties grunge edition…
Nirvana – MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)
Recorded at Sony Studios in New York City in November 1993, a mere five months before Kurt would be found dead in his Washington home, this thing was a national event. For younger readers, try to envision a time before the internet, when MTV still ruled the world (and believe it or not, played music). Then, imagine the world’s biggest rock band agreeing to perform just as their third LP, In Utero, had them atop the musical stratosphere. To be fair, this is not truly an unplugged affair: electric guitar and cello are ubiquitous throughout the evening. This only goes to show just how big Kurt and company were – they were literally writing their own rules.
Kurt’s strained and raw vocals left no shield to hide the pain and discontent his lyrics already should have made clear. In hindsight, some consider this night a foreshadowing of the tragedy to come, but this concert had serious gravity to it even before the news of his death (no, you will not see me type the S-word to describe it). Many people didn’t hear this recording until after Kurt’s death as it was not officially released until a year later. His guitar paying, while never masterful or overly impressive, held up well in this setting, with help from lovely backup strumming from Pat Smear, a man who would later find fame with Dave Grohl in Foo Fighters.
Quick side note, while Dave Grohl is mentioned: his turtleneck sweater here just kills me. The man is the most badass drummer in rock and he is wearing this cute long-sleeve sweater as he softly plays his kit. Just fantastic, and a tribute to the goofy genius of the man.
“Good evening… This is off our first record, most people don’t know it”. So Kurt starts off the night as he introduces Bleach’s “About A Girl”, the lead track to what goes on to be one of the finest live recordings I have ever heard, and easily the second best of the long-running MTV Unplugged series (more on the greatest one on another episode, dear reader). Next up, the crowd audibly reacts (although instructed to keep it down for the recording’s sake) to the first notes of “Come As You Are”, which plays off remarkably well in this hushed environment.
While the band’s songs come off well, it is the musicianship and creative selection of the six (six!) covers that really steal the show on this album. The first of the covers comes next. “This was written by The Vasolines… well, it’s a rendition of an old Christian song, but we do it The Vasolines way”. As Kurt starts in on “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For A Sunbeam”, singing “don’t expect me to die for thee”, it does indeed feel like a religious experience, mostly due to the show-stopper that is Mr. Novoselic’s accordion work.
The band’s out-of-nowhere cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” is probably the second-most played track from this show in the decades since – and for good reason. Kurt takes a good song and makes it truly great, and his delivery is simultaneously that flippantly cool Cobain style and haunting as holy hell. Oh, and that electric guitar riff is brilliant, although so far from being “unplugged” that it’s laughable.
If there is a low point to the album, it is found here as we hear three Nirvana songs that are fine but certainly don’t move the needle: “Pennyroyal Tea”, “Dumb”, and “Polly”. The cello work on the middle track is absolutely beautiful and goes well with Kurt’s vocals that find his voice occasionally cracking or straying off-key, but these songs just don’t hold up when compared to the first few songs or the amazing second half of the album.
The brutal narcissistic honesty of “On A Plain” leads into the four minutes of unabashed anguish that is “Something in the Way”. When Kurt sings of living under a bridge and living off of grass and captured rainfall in his trademark pained delivery, that shit hits hard. This is the greatest Nirvana original performance of the evening, bar none.
When the Kirkwood brothers join the band for the performance of not one or two but three covers of their Meat Puppets material, things get especially tasty. While not exactly a household name, Meat Puppets had been making their own version of bizarre desert/grunge rock for a decade and Kurt was a big, big fan. These songs totally steal the show, and it all starts with the simple yet enthralling guitar riff of “Plateau” instantly sucking the crowd in. When Kurt wails “who needs action when you got words” it sounds as poignant as anything Dylan has to say. Quite a feat, indeed. “Oh Me” follows, with its super slow tempo and lovely guitar solos.
It sends chills up my spine every time I hear Dave’s four pounding drum beats that start off the most recognizable song from the album, “Lake of Fire”. The genius and incredible talent of Mr. Cobain smacks you in the face here, as Kurt gives everything he has to these lyrics, asking “where do bad folks go when they die? They don’t go to Heaven where the angels fly…”. If this doesn’t move you, well, you may need to check your pulse. After an extended standing ovation as the Kirkwood brothers depart, two tracks remain: a nice rendition of “All Apologies” and the ridiculous cover of Huddie Ledbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”.
This finale is dubbed ridiculous because there is nothing I appreciate more than a musical artist committing 110% to someone else’s work. Take Hendrix’s imagination of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, Johnny Cash’s show-stopping adaptation of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt”, or Jack White’s astounding passion on his cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” – these all have a common denominator: the artist takes the song and gives it every damn thing they have, and in turn makes it their own. Kurt does just that here, taking a half-century old track from his “favorite performer” and playing it with as much brutal pain and honesty as anyone could. If not for the other brilliant performances found on this record, this song alone would make this recording a classic. Sadly, this would be the final substantial recording this great band would release- but it definitely qualifies as a classic.
Key Tracks: “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, “Lake Of Fire”, “The Man Who Sold the World”
Spotify album link: https://open.spotify.com/album/1To7kv722A8SpZF789MZy7?si=gTtNRiw8SLagDLZespJ7Xw
Pearl Jam – Vitalogy (1994)
Seattle’s other heavy hitters (and yes, Soundgarden and Alice In Chains, we see you too) released their third LP just weeks after Nirvana’s unplugged swansong was released. Say what you will about Pearl Jam’s late-90’s folkier and more thoughtful Neil Young inspired output, this album rocks. While Ten gets most of the notoriety and acclaim, this is the finest front-to-back set of songs they’ve released – and that is high praise for a band that I still consider to be America’s finest rock band today.
The first three tracks start the festivities off with a bang. Matt Cameron’s steady yet frantic drumming is coupled with legendary guitar riffs from Stone and Mike on “Last Exit”, “Spin the Black Circle”, and “Not For You”. Here we have Pearl Jam at their finest, showing off their unique ability to make rock and roll that can start a mosh pit and also make your Mom smile. There has never been a finer homage to vinyl records than “Spin…”, which features the classic line “pull it out, paper sleeve, all my joy, only you deserve conceit… I’d rather you, rather you than her”.
Things get a little funkier on “Tremor Christ”, which paints a vivid picture of an injured and lovesick castaway over yet another genius guitar riff that reminds me of distorted power chord reggae- with Mr. Cameron again steering the song along. His drumbeat and rat-tat-tat playing here carry the day. Always remember, the smallest oceans do still get big, big waves…
“Once divided, nothing left to subtract; some words once spoken, can’t be taken back”. So starts the mellow but heavy ballad “Nothingman”. There is not an ounce of insincerity when Ed tells of a man who “caught a bolt of lightning, and cursed the day he let it go”. That metaphor of woman as lightning bolt would be revisited on the band’s aptly titled tenth LP Lightning Bolt.
The next two tracks are the closest to filler as is found here. “Whipping” kicks some serious ass although it does feel more like a demo than a fully fleshed out song. Yet, it rocks as much as anything else on the album, and features some solid wordplay from Mr. Vedder, including “don’t need a helmet, I got a hard hard head; don’t need a raincoat I’m already wet… don’t need a hand, there’s always arms attached”.
The instantly recognizable arpeggio of “Corduroy” is next, and by the time the drums come crashing in, it is obvious that this track is a classic. This is one of the band’s favorites to perform live, and it is not hard to hear why. When the band gets to come back in after the brief restraint found at around the three-minute mark, it allows for a sweet release during a performance. Also, if this isn’t a truly Vedder lyric, I don’t know what is: “All the things that others want for me, can’t buy what I want because it’s free”.
The quirky genius of “Bugs” is next, with some goofy accordion and lyrical rambling that belie an interesting and clever anecdote of a man confronted with an insect invasion. Should he kill them, befriend them, eat them (raw or well done?), trick them (he doesn’t think they’re dumb), or simply join them? Looks like that’s the one. Sounds of a whip cracking kick off the raucous shout-along stylings of “Satan’s Bed”, which finds Ed asserting that he has never slept there.
Based on crowd reactions during their live shows, “Better Man” has got to be the most mainstream song of Pearl Jam’s canon. As much as this makes me want to hate on it (that’s just who I am, people), I simply can’t. This is an absolutely beautifully written song from both a lyrical and musical standpoint, and will stand the test of time. This is poignant and visceral songwriting; and subject matter that many people can relate to. Feeling torn between unrelenting unhappiness and the uncertainty of what else could be out there – or even worse, the certainty that nothing better is out there. Yearning, regret, anger, and sadness are all found here over music that rocks just enough but holds onto a vulnerability and makes for one hell of a live performance.
After another track that feels like an interlude or glorified demo, “Aya Davanita”, we get to my favorite song from the record: “Immortality”. This has that pure sad-Pearl Jam sound, and yet more of that vivid and sharp songwriting: vessels stabbed, whiskers in the sink, victims in demand for public show. The guitar work that beings at the 2:15 is incredible, as is the verse that follows. If you are not familiar with this song, drop what you are doing, put it on, and turn it all the way up. Feel free to stop the record here, as “Stupidmop” closing out this classic recording has never made any sense to me. Why tarnish a beautiful album with seven minutes of strange spoken word nonsense over noise? Even with this one bizarre blunder, this album is one of my favorites and definitely worth repeated listens.
Key Tracks: “Immortality”, “Tremor Christ”, “Better Man”
Spotify album link: https://open.spotify.com/album/5pd9B3KQWKshHw4lnsSLNy?si=z5h3TqvfSnWJAYlkwYTraQ