Nirvana In Utero
Nirvana Unplugged in New York
hese three albums, all more than a decade and a half old, collect some of the most unsettling and acerbic music recorded in the late 20th century. The sentiments that inspired them -- anger, alienation, anguish -- are not the sort that give listeners a warm, fuzzy feeling, and the act that ended Nirvana has been a permanent downer for the musical subcategory the band dragged into the mainstream. Yet, Nirvana's final three albums affirm the power of distorted guitars, a whip-crack beat, wily hooks and provocative lyrics.
Butch Vig's gleaming production for Nevermind overshadowed a framework of blistering punk rock and highlighted Kurt Cobain's tuneful songwriting and muscular guitar playing. In Utero draws out the melodies, the songs becoming less tightly wrought, more expansive and more ambitious. Unfortunately, it's impossible to see this album through anything other than a lens distorted by the mega-seller that preceded it and Kurt Cobain's suicide, the lyrics of "Dumb" and "All Apologies" taking on added weight and meaning.
Recorded live for an episode of MTV Unplugged, Unplugged in New York crystallizes the artfulness of Nirvana's songwriting and musicianship. Replacing the electrified snarl with sharply defined acoustic guitar helped strip away the songs' studio-crafted facade, displaying their melodic underpinnings. The covers -- from David Bowie, Leadbelly, and the Meat Puppets -- were especially well chosen. Some have considered Kurt Cobain's deadpan affect during this concert a sign of his mounting inner turmoil. I see it as an indication of a musician's commitment to his performance and art. He was completely in the moment, and this music is proof of that.
Original Recordings Group is well known for its 45rpm remastered LPs from the Verve and Impulse! catalogs, but the label actually has two divisions: one for audiophile-oriented jazz and classical releases, and one for contemporary pop, rock and alternative music. These three LPs are from the latter, so they don't have the thick, oversized gatefold sleeves of the double-LP jazz releases -- or their $60 list price. Each recording was remastered from the original tapes by Bernie Grundman, and each 180-gram LP was pressed at RTI in California instead of Pallas in Germany, which is where the jazz releases originate. The vinyl -- colored blue, red or a creamy yellow -- is of high quality, and the pressings are very quiet.
The sound is creamy and quiet as well, lacking the gritty hardness of the CDs but not their hushed backgrounds. Actually, Unplugged in New York has demonstration-quality sound on CD, and it's more liquid here. Compared to the Universal International pressing of Nevermind from a couple of years ago, the Original Recordings Group LP sounds fuller and airier. The drums have just as much snap and the guitars just as much growl, but the spotless production doesn't dominate the more natural sonic presentation.
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