SPIN magazine recently released a free compilation album of covers for every track on Nirvana's Nevermind album to commemorate the 20th anniversary of its release. This compilation is a celebration of the legacy Nirvana created and the effect they had on popular music. The day it was released on their facebook page, I was giddy, couldn't download it quick enough. Since I was a pre-teen in the early 90's, I've always been a huge Nirvana fan. Like many other's my age, I wore my Incesticide t-shirt until eventually it evaporated in the wash.
Lot of the chatter I've been hearing have been mixed. There are those who are so rigged, the very idea of anyone doing a cover of any Nirvana song is unforgivable. I personally don't have that pretentious stick driven as far up my ass. After all, this is Nirvana we're talking about; the brainchild of Kurt Cobain. He had a great love for music, all music. He also loved covers, so I believe from the bottom of my heart he would have felt honored by this compilation.
I've listened to this album from start to end several times over the past few days. I feel it's not a perfect compilation but SPIN has done a pretty damn good job; for starters, you won't find Miley Cyrus' cover of 'Smells like Teen Spirit' on this disk.
Inspirational Bands get Involved.
I was pleased to see the Meat Puppets and The Vaselines on this album. Kurt had a large admiration for both of these bands and even covered some of their songs on the MTV Unplugged session. Them covering a couple tracks is completely natural and in the best taste.
The Meat Puppets started off the album with their take of Smells Like Teen Spirit. They gave the song bit of a folk feel, using acoustic guitars, bongos and classic brush-style drums while maintaining the original tempo. They then applied a somewhat harmonic layer of electric guitar to fill in the gaps, using the same electric style for the solo, for example. Kirkwood used the a slurring vocal styling that lended from Cobain gave the original spirit of the song while collectively applying a pure, old-school Meat Puppets vibe.
The Vaselines did a rendition of Lithium, using a slightly slower and smother tempo. Rhythm instrumentals consist mainly of bass guitar and accordion which transitioned to include a mellow acoustic guitar, organ and what sounds like to be a cello supporting the bass part in the chorus. Frances McKee performed lead vocals with background harmonic chanting which was quite mesmerizing. If you have a sleepy-time playlist in your iTunes, this Lithium cover will put you out quick.
An Unconventional Take
SPIN made some strange selections on a few of these covers; Come as You Are, covered by the Midnight Juggernauts has to be the perfect example of this. I talked to a few people who loved this cover, but I still have the question of how an electronica version of any Nirvana song is a good idea. Not that I'm saying it wasn't well done, it's just one hell of a reach for me. I mean, doing a cover of Come As You Are, all while trying to put your own flavor into it can't be an easy thing to do but I'm pretty sure there has to be better covers out there.
Polly covered by Amanda Palmer is another unusual take. It starts off with bells and atmospheric background noises. Half way through the first chorus it starts to build with thicker atmospheric sounds and, after the chorus, a banjo comes in plunking rhythm. The bass solo, much like in the original, cuts to a solace tone and then kicking back into the same build up that continues all the way to the end of the song. I rather like this song but there's something about it that's bugging me.
Lounge Act covered by Jessica Lea Mayfield is simply annoying. One of my pet peeves is nasal, whining vocals and this track is ripe with nose. When I listened to this CD for the first time I was at work and from across the building, a friend looked into my cubical and asked, "what the hell are you listening too?!" He's very knowledgeable about pop-culture, especially music made over the past 25 years or so, so he knew what song he was hearing but was taken back by the horrible vocals. So yeah, an amazingly uninspiring cover.
The very next cover however, Stay Away done by Charles Bradley & The Menahan Street Band, more than makes up for Mayfield's Lounge Act. It also is a huge leap, gamble taken by SPIN but in my opinion it's the best cover on the CD. Charles Bradley did a soul/R&B version of Stay Away. It's very dynamic, very soulful with a little funk/fuzz mixed in. You can tell a lot of consideration for the spirit of Nirvana was taken. How Bradley replaces Cobain's signature screams with James Brown style of scream: Brilliant! I never would have thought about Stay Away as a soul/R&B song but wow, talk about a home run!
Without Punk There Wouldn't be Nirvana
SPIN would have completely missed the point if they didn't include a few punk covers, so they did exactly that. I can tell they didn't want to make the punk inspiration obvious -much like Kurt Cobain when he created Nevermind.
The first example was Breed covered by Titus Andronicus. In all reality, if anyone else than a punk band did this song it would have been a rock-n-roll sin. They didn't take it too far but still stepped up to the plate and kicked some serious ass. This cover is perfect, right down to the exclaimed "dua!" at the end.
Oh, and of course Territorial Pissings had to be done in the punk style. Surfer Blood is a shoegaze/noise pop/indie band yet they seem perfectly comfortable doing punk. I give this cover the same acclaim as Titus Andronicus' Breed cover.
Even Indie Hipsters Love Nirvana
Speaking of indie rock bands, a few showed up on this album. I don't have much regard for indie rock because to me it's nothing more than recycled grunge with a little bit of contemporary hipster mixed in. That, however, doesn't necessarily make for a bad cover. Take On A Plain by Telekinesis for example. The guitar has an amazing classic grunge sound, like he was playing an old beat up Gospel Mosrite that's been smashed and repaired several times. That amazing sound mixed with the typical indie/hipster lyrics makes for an interesting cover.
Something In The Way done by JEFF The Brotherhood isn't any different. The verse is done using a cheap, slightly out of tune acoustic guitar (just like on the original) and the chorus breaks into a moderately aggressive grunge style with an electric guitar. The electric guitar, much like On A Plain, has that old-school grunge sound deeply bathed in fuzz and a touch of chorus. And if I'm not mistaking, it even sounds like he was playing a Jagmaster; those things, especially the older one's, have such a unique sound.
Oh yeah, and I love the cover of In Bloom done by Butch Walker & The Black Widows. It was done in more of a mid-2000's indie than the grunge/indie the other examples have been. It's a really high-fidelity, cheerful, and goodie-packed piece of ear candy. I'm not exactly a fan of Butch Walker but he really demonstrated his chops with this song.
Foxy Shazam may not "technically" be "Indie" but their style is in line with that genre. There are elements of what I call "neo-ska" and "emo-punk" that I really don't generally care for but in their cover of Drain You, damn, what a beautiful fit! Just like Butch Walker, this is real ear candy.
Now, Endless Nameless done by EMA
Well, I give them an 'A' for effort. I never heard of this band but I love their sound. The only problem I have with this cover is, well, this is effing Endless Nameless! If you're not willing to smash your equipment, don't freakin' do this song! This cover had the potential to be as epic as Charles Bradley's Stay Away. Rather than smashing their equipment like Nirvana did in the original recording (and on top of that, every live performance of this song) they simply go limp like finding out their girlfriend is actually their long-lost sister. Very sad and almost offensive.