Thursday, January 25, 2007

Nirvana - 'Bleach'


This is where I always lose my only-metal friends, and also the ones who don't mind a spot of Chains or 'Garden but insist that good old 'Vana Trump was utter, unmitigated trash. The point at which I actually confer KC and his Sunshineless Band's debut album the same rating as Celtic Frost's Morbid Tales and Judas Priest's Sin After Sin (looking through reviews I've already completed). 'Really?' they ask. 'Really!' I answer. 'Bye bye!' they say. 'I was shaved!' I yell after them, waving a fist.

Seriously though, I admit that I was one of those angsty teenage kid who were pulled in by the singles off Nevermind (although I'd like to specify that it was Lithium that did the deal, as if that confers some maturity and taste on me). This will skew my regard for the band a little, and there are two different angles from which I can be told that they don't even deserve to be given time in light of their historical context. Pixies/Melvins/Sonic Youth etc fans will rightly point out that Nirvana copped so much of what they did from these aforementioned bands. They're right of course, but Cobain never denied this, and his band's ability to take these decidedly left-of-centre influences and ram them through the mainstream consciousness can't be ascribed completely to 'right time, right place' coincidence. And for what it's worth, without all those overplayed singles by Nirvana it's unlikely that a lot of people of my generation would ever have gotten around to listening to Pixies and co, so their efforts weren't entirely without some utility in that respect either.

The other great argument of course is that Nirvana left nothing of worth by way of influence. This is a harder argument for me to counter, and I'm not certain I can. Nirvana were basically the apotheosis of a certain musical ethos - they managed to strip it down to a very basic and also catchy core and run with that. I don't think this is a mean achievement - it takes some sensibility and talent to do this. For comparison,.think of the way the Stones transform Robert Johnson's Love In Vain into a creature of undeniable rather than obscure beauty. The potential was there all along, but I wouldn't wager much that just anyone could have spotted that potential or realised it so well. So Nirvana were great synthesisers - but what about influence? Sadly, all I can see is negative influence. The ludicrous posing of Bush, for instance. The band, not the president. The cheap angst of most American rock bands at the turn of the century, and the final and supreme disregard for instrumental virtuosity that still shows no signs of subsiding. Yes, these are hard legacies to justify, and I won't even try.

I will try and suggest that it's pointless to do so - should I dock the Stones and Led Zep a few points becuse of Aerosmith, or diss Van Halen because of Warrant? I don't think that's fair, and I'm going to apply the same thinking here.

If you don't buy all that, fair enough. I know this is a pretty divisive band amongst my friends, and I wanted my own stance as clear as possible before beginning to actually review them. I also put in a few jokes to show you I don't revere or worship them! Please continue to be my friend!

Chee. Let's get to the album, then. This cheaply-produced small-label-released debut doesn't sound all that bad, really. Especially since I think Nevermind sounds a little too slick. The drummer isn't all that bad either, especially since I think there's nothing special about Dave Grohl beyond good production and healthy competence. The musical formula is pretty simple - rely completely on riffs, like a metal band, but make them simple and jagged like a punk band. Let a touch of melody and catchiness creep in because you can't help it - the weird left-handed kid leading the band happens to be in the process of developing a flair for those things - and play everything really loud. Throw in screechy guitar breaks that owe nothing at all to the preceding decade of escalating neo-classical virtuosity. And that's nearly what you have here, apart from one exception.

Blew pretty much epitomises this formula. The riff is like Sabbath, only with punk influences traded for blues and a tamer drummer. A peppier chorus alternates with a droning verse. The vocals follow the riff more or less exactly. Floyd The Barber is more punky, and pretty memorable too. The lyrics are a disturbing story about going for a shave and then being snared in some terrible semi-incestous covert aex orgy. Negative Creep and Scoff repeat the formula, but speed it up and throw in singalong choruses that serve as anthems for the early-90s slacker. Yea, those choruses. Silly, aren't they? At least there's nothing about albinoes. Yet. Swap Meet is a quirky story about an arts-and-crafts selling couple who seem to have a lot of darkness hidden witin their love for each other. The music is the same as everywhere else - but Cobain betrays an early flair for vocal hooks that becomes more pop-friendly in the years ahead. He does this on other songs too, but a lot of them are pointlessly extended beyond the sub-3 minute length that is an average by repeating everything too many times - Mr Moustache and Big Cheese suffer from this padding. Paper Cuts is possibly the most chilling song here, with its alternating melodic and desperate-holler vocal lines on the verse over a pretty rudimentary but ugly riff, and a chorus that sounds huge, dark and has a slightly atonal twang on some of the vocals. Was Layne Staley listening to this song?

About A Girl is the song that really sticks out, of course. As in, it's pretty much different from everything else. The guitar tone is a drier clean-electric rather than the heavy distortion heard everywhere else and the song has a simple melodicity that seems at odds with everything else, save for Cobain's typically cynical lyrical touches and the raw (self)loathing his voice conveys despite the vocal melodies. It's like The Beatles discovered heroin instead of acid, ma.

And that's it. A lot of simple, ugly, riffy songs that are kinda-punk, kinda-metal but not quite, one sign of budding songwriting talent and diversity and one weird cover that I haven't mentioned before. That's Love Buzz of course, which has a sort of Eastern vibe but is played with the same proto-metallic simple-mindedness as everything else here.

The Eiderdown-Stuffing Bottomline: In a way, this album seems as if Nirvana were consciously notching things back to Blue Cheer-ish levels of primitivity so that a new musical phase could be brought on. It drags at times, but if you are at all into what Nirvana did later on, it's worth trying out and could even be your most authentic and favoured Nirvana album, depending on how much you rate DIY integrity and punky bludgeon over songwriting evolution.


Venice Viking said...

Now you are reviewing something from my generation and that I own, even if I must count myself among the many that never heard of this album until he had played "Nevermind" a few hundred times.

In a way, the idol worshipping of Cobain and/or Nirvana has ushered in a rock history phase of listners who, in appearance to be cutting edge (and, oh, the hobby is ripe with the sort), force themselves in a corner that requires from them an anthem of banishing Nirvana as mere overrated hacks. It is my wager that the following generation will be far more forgiving and return Nirvana back into the rightful placement in the pantheon of historical bands.

If you disgree, well, by all means, load up on guns and bring your friends...

HR Venkatesh said...

mein gott! didn't we play about a girl in college? got time to zip through to graceland review. though i haven't heard that album, paul simon's Surprise is being talked about as his best since Graceland...have you heard it.

And jp man for how long have you been hiding this treasure trove from mankind?!!!

JP said...

Venk - ain't that a hoot? About A Girl, live in Christ College! We were there.

I'm going to be hearing Surprise any day now - I'm rather looking forward to checking out the Eno/imon collab, and will report back with my hastily-chewed and prematurely regurgitated views.

I've been working on this blog since earlier this month actually - sort of a soft-launch until I'd amassed enough of a baclog. Glad you like it.

Ravi said...

Ah. As a rather dedicated Nirvana-basher, I declare that it will take more than an 8-rated review of Bleach to come in the way of our glorious friendship. Now give Hole an 8 review and there will be a certain unpleasantness!
But yeah, while poking fun at Nirvana and its uh...sad legions of 'cutting edge' (sorry venice viking! Couldn't resist that dig. But yeah, self mutilation is rife among a lot of the people i know who like this band) fans is fun enough to almost count as a hobby, I do like some of their albums. I like Incestiside the most you almost forget some irritating one minute long songs like turnaround, when faced with aero-zeppelin-joke and big long now. I only contend that nirvana were quite overrated and are given rather too much credit for 'saving rock' since, as a huge fan of hair metal, I didn't believe there was any salvation in order. :p

Venice Viking said...

Yes, White Lion forever.