By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
"Hey, we’re major-label corporate-rock sellouts," said Cobain introducing an early performance of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," neatly inverting the Sub Pop slogan: "We’re not selling out, we’re buying in."
With the Lights Out, a massive new collection of Nirvana rehearsal tapes, demos, B-sides and radio performances, may not add much to the artistic legacy of the band, and there probably isn’t a new song in the five-odd hours of music and video destined to take its place in the pantheon alongside "Polly" and "Heart Shaped Box." You may have preferred to ignore the fact that Nirvana once recorded a song called "Moist Vagina," or that they once felt obliged to contribute a dutiful version of "Here She Comes Now" to a Velvet Underground tribute record. A faithful performance of "Heartbreaker" from the very first Nirvana show reveals that Cobain absorbed his Led Zeppelin in a Redd Kross–literal rather than Replacements-ironic sort of way. ("Communication Breakdown" and "Whole Lotta Love" would be the standard baby-punk-band covers.)
What the collection does do, though, is slap the life back into the band, the flayed grooves, the botched transitions, the sweat and semen and marijuana smoke that show Cobain as a guy in a pretty good band rather than a blond god peering down from Parnassus, a singer who had a problem hitting high notes, a guitarist who made the best of the few real chords he knew. Even if you have never read a biography of the band, you can tell that Krist Novoselic’s repetitive bass lines drove the band in its beginning, tight and punchy and rhythmically secure enough to sustain the songs through a series of incompetent drummers and Cobain’s ADD approach to the riff. (On Bleach, the previous document of the period, producer Jack Endino’s signature oversaturated studio sound effectively erased the separation between the instrumental tracks.) The songs began to pivot around vocal melodies instead of riffs a year or two later — a tuneless acoustic version of "Polly" from 1988 is featured here — and Dave Grohl’s proto-melodic tom-tom lines began to eclipse the prominence of the bass shortly after he joined the band in 1990.
At first the sound doesn’t gel: When "Smells Like Teen Spirit" makes its first appearance a few songs into disc 2, in the form of a rough rehearsal tape recorded in 1991, it sounds as if Novoselic is floundering, Grohl’s overplaying is obtrusive, and Cobain sings incredibly out of tune on the verses, although on the famous chorus he has already found his roar. (In a review of a live show at about that time, I compared the song unfavorably to a Monkees tune.)
A few minutes farther into the album, Vig’s mix of "Teen Spirit," done a year later, chimes like a Phil Spector anthem, layers upon layers of ringing guitars, drum lines popping like the Grambling marching band at halftime, the bass threatening, scowling, lurking intimidatingly low. Cobain’s rasp almost fragments into chords, like Sonny Rollins overblowing a saxophone, like a Tuvan chanter — like a skinny, sweater-wearing kid unaware of anything of the world beyond his own throat. It’s a devastating five minutes of music. And although one might personally prefer the familiar, Andy Wallace–mixed Nevermindversion, where the vocals are distanced a little, the drum modulated, the guitar distortion tweaked into a gorgeous, seamless flannel blanket of sound, the original mix is incredibly powerful, music still glowing with all of Cobain’s stink. It’s Nirvana as if Nevermind never happened, the Nirvana of that rough and glorious tape, and in its way, probably the more revealing document than all the posthumous biographies put together.
Nirvana | With the Lights Out (Geffen)