8:28 PM EDT, September 18, 2011
Nirvana: “Nevermind: Super Deluxe Edition” (Geffen)
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 4)
Pearl Jam: “Pearl Jam Twenty” (Columbia)
Rating: 3 stars (out of 4)
World domination – so difficult to predict, so impossible to maintain. But 20 years ago, the improbable happened. Two era-defining albums were released by then-obscure Seattle bands that would become so successful the music industry created a marketing genre out of them: Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and Pearl Jam’s “Ten.”
Both ended up selling upward of 10 million copies. In 1990, not a single rock album had gone to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard album chart, but “Nevermind,” released in 1991, hit the top spot in early ‘92, a symbolic changing of the guard as it leaped past a Michael Jackson album. “Ten” took longer to make a mainstream impact but had more staying power; it eventually reached No. 2 later in ’92 and remained one of the top-selling albums of ’93.
In the wake of those albums’ successes, a radio format was born (“alternative rock”), a regional sound became a national buzz word (“grunge”), a touring festival built on cutting-edge music flourished (Lollapalooza), and a Hollywood movie was shot in the Seattle clubs (Cameron Crowe’s “Singles”). For a few years everybody wanted in: untamed underground bands such as the Melvins and the Jesus Lizard were signed to major-label deals and ersatz grunge bands such as Bush and Seven Mary Three scored hits. By the mid-‘90s the scene and the sound had begun to disintegrate, but the core bands remained touchstones for a generation of rock fans.
Now comes a surge of product commemorating the anniversary: “Nevermind” is being reissued in a variety of formats and configurations, including a four-CD/one-DVD “Super Deluxe Edition” (Geffen), and Pearl Jam is celebrating with “Pearl Jam Twenty” (Columbia), a documentary directed by super-fan Crowe and accompanying two-CD soundtrack heavy on rarities and live recordings spanning the quintet’s career. There’s also Mark Yarm’s exhaustive “Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge” (Crown Archetype), which recaps the Seattle story through more than 250 interviews.
Yarm’s account captures the essential tension that made the era so compelling, albeit briefly: self-aware punk rockers, underground bands and metal misfits venturing into more commercial territory, negotiating with corporations and their own consciences as they went. Grunge was in many ways the culmination of 15 years of punk and its myriad offshoots, from the Ramones and Sex Pistols through Husker Du and the Pixies. In that context, “Nevermind” more clearly than ever stands as a capstone to an era rather than the beginning of one. On Nirvana’s second album, songwriter Kurt Cobain tried to integrate his love of heavy and often nasty fringe music from the punk and post-punk worlds with the melodies of pop, new wave and commercial hard rock.
"After hard-core punk exhausted itself in 1985-86, we kind of admitted to ourselves that we liked bands like KISS, Alice Cooper and the MC5," Cobain once said in an interview with the Tribune. "It was almost taboo to say that around the punks, but my reaction was to dye my hair green and say '(expletive) you' to everyone else. We were just paying homage to the music we loved as kids."
“Nevermind” molded those impulses into immediately comprehensible songs, classic (or formulaic) “Verse Chorus Verse” constructions as Cobain himself mocked in one song title. The quiet-loud dynamics were enhanced by a band well-suited to the task: Cobain’s corrosive guitar, Krist Novoselic’s thick yet melodic bass lines, and Dave Grohl’s immense, punishing drumming. Cobain’s lyrics managed to sound both tossed off and desperate, an unstable combination of black humor, anger and resignation.
Butch Vig, an experienced producer based in Madison, Wis., helped give the songs a presentable gleam. Unlike the band’s unruly debut, “Bleach,” released on the Sub Pop label in 1989, “Nevermind” balanced the noise and melody, so as soon as MTV watchers heard the “Here we are now, entertain us!” chorus of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” they were hooked.
The “Nevermind” box presents the remastered original album with lots of mostly superfluous trimmings. The best of the bonus tracks – such as a muscular take on the Velvet Underground’s “Here She Comes Now” -- have already appeared on other compilations. The extras include selections from the first Vig demo session in 1990 with Grohl’s predecessor on drums, Chad Channing, and a handful of B-sides and other rarities. Make no mistake, the original album is stellar, but if you already own it and some of the posthumous Nirvana collections that have flooded the market in the last decade, “Super Deluxe” is an expensive indulgence more suited for completists than the casual fan.
The must-hear part of the box is a live recording of a Seattle concert in October, 1991. It captures a great band at the peak of its powers on a tour of venues far smaller than it could have filled as its popularity skyrocketed. Whether ranting at rednecks while introducing a harrowing, as-yet-unrecorded song, “Rape Me”; belching out the lovesick “Nevermind” outtake “Aneurysm”; or unveiling a tender cover of the Vaselines’ “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam,” Cobain sounds like an artist who knows it’s his moment, and he owns it. Novoselic and Grohl don’t so much back up Cobain as demand that he keep up; Grohl in particular gives the drums a major voice in the songs, his fills and accents nearly as recognizable as the melodies themselves.
Like the rest of the rock world, Pearl Jam initially was left in the dust by Nirvana and “Nevermind.” But they hit the road hard in the wake of “Ten’s” release, and “Pearl Jam 20” highlights the group's growth on stage. Eddie Vedder pushes his voice to the breaking point on live versions of “Blood,” “Alive” and "Not For You." The band is sloppier, looser than Nirvana, blowing out the songs with guitar solos. Pearl Jam’s reference points were the bombast of ‘70s arena rock as much as the ‘80s Seattle punk scene from which cofounders Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard emerged.
But as “20” makes clear, Pearl Jam grew impressively into its sudden popularity, and live takes on “Release,” “Better Man,” “Rearviewmirror” and “Nothing as It Seems” surpass the studio originals. Even more illuminating is a stripped-down demo of the latter song, with a haunting arrangement by Ament, and guitarist Mike McCready’s acoustic “Given to Fly.” When the band underplays a bit, it’s captivating. Pearl Jam was typecast as the corporate pretenders to Nirvana’s punk darlings in the Seattle hierarchy circa 1991, but they’ve not only endured but grown as a band – a case concisely made by the “Pearl Jam 20” soundtrack.
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