Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Nirvana: Bleach (reissue)

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Bleach remains Nirvana's most inconsistent and least appreciated album, a tiny and wobbly baby step for a band whose legacy and permanent pop culture presence are both assured (as long as Kurt Cobain's likeness continues to be used for grotesque commercial purposes, at least). Certainly, Bleach is flawed like no other Nirvana release, with both circumstances and Cobain himself contributing to the record's unwanted bastard child status. Two different drummers (neither of them named Dave Grohl) were utilized during the recording sessions, while Cobain was consistently dismissive of the final product, attributing its sludgy sound to label pressures for the band to conform to a specific rock style and frequently discounting the lyrics as little more than hastily thrown-together words that he didn't particularly agonize over. If Cobain never exactly disowned the record, his attitude toward it was ambivalent at best. His self-deprecating introduction to "About a Girl" during the band's 1994 MTV Unplugged performance - besides making the track seem far more obscure than it actually was - nevertheless contained an element of truth: in the wake of Nevermind blowing up, scorching the musical landscape in its wake, Nirvana's awkward and occasionally clumsy debut album would always be overshadowed by the behemoth that was Nevermind.

Though Bleach is still an uneven and fumbling album 20 years after its initial release, Sub Pop's superb reissue suggests a re-examination of the record is in order. Although time hasn't transformed this debut into a lost gem, it hasn't hopelessly dated these songs either, and several tracks are (almost) as good as anything that would later surface on Nevermind and In Utero. First the obvious: the thick-and-plodding instrumentation, bloated big-rock riffing, barely-competent pre-Dave Grohl drumming and affected vocals that doom certain songs show all the markings of a band struggling to find a unique voice. Bleach's second half, from "Swap Meet" through album closer "Downer," continues to feel monotonously repetitive and aimless. Still, there are traces of brilliance here, and with the benefit of hindsight, several songs - "About a Girl," "Negative Creep," "Blew" and "School" - clearly point towards the mostly mainstream-ready sound (let's be honest) the band would achieve on its next two studio releases. If this reissue doesn't exactly wash the stink off the album as a whole, it does at least make the case that its best songs offset these duds.

More revelatory and satisfying is the February 9, 1990 live show that immediately follows. A soundboard recording from Portland's Pine Street Theatre, the sound quality is flawless, easily surpassing previous versions of this show that have circulated on bootleg, revealing a vocalist and bassist who have both outgrown the sonic confines and stylistic constraints of its budget-conscious debut album. Though six of the 11 songs come from Bleach, they differ significantly from their album counterparts; gone are the metallic, muddy arrangements, Krist Novoselic's oppressive bass and Cobain's exaggerated vocals, replaced instead with the first hints of the more focused and direct live sound the band would effectively employ until its demise. Though the band hadn't yet hit upon its classic lineup - the much-maligned Chad Channing is still on drums - the duo's progress, at least in this live setting, is striking. Most noticeably, Cobain's guitar is less grimy than it was on Bleach, and his scorched vocals surpass the tortured and sometimes clownish singing style of that debut album.

Though this show likely won't ever enter the Nirvana pantheon as among the group's best (Reading 1992, Halloween and New Year's Eve 1991) or most infamous (Rome 1994), there is still plenty to like throughout this brief 40-minute, feedback-laden set, in particular Cobain's sing-screaming on "School," "Blew," "Spank Thru" and "Dive," as well as the aggressive cover versions of "Love Buzz" and "Molly's Lips." It's a glimpse into a mostly unknown band playing toward the bottom of the bill, before the massive commercial success of Nevermind briefly made them The Single Most Important Band in the History of Recorded Sound. Skeptics who still can't get past Bleach's shortcomings will find little to gripe about with this show; trimmed of that album's fat, it's simply a blistering rock show and essential listening for any Nirvana fan.

The reissue is rounded out with a booklet of previously-unreleased band photos that should tickle the buying bone of fans who expect such reissues to do more than just thoughtlessly repackage the original release. Coupled with a clearly audible remastering job from Bleach producer Jack Endino, the original album and Portland show offer a fairly complete picture of Nirvana circa 1990. Although this reissue likely won't change the popular consensus of Bleach as the band's least consistent work, it does show how quickly Cobain and Novoselic had moved past that album's limitations, especially in a live setting. The band isn't yet the mighty beast that would be unleashed in 1991, but this reissue offers a compelling snapshot of a band whose creativity, ambition and, for better or worse, mainstream success would soon reshape the 1990s musical landscape.

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