After 20 years, it seems almost pointless to talk about Nevermind. Simply put, Nirvana’s second album is one of the most revered, discussed, and written-about rock records ever released. To say that its influence is massive is itself a massive understatement. Nirvana cleared the way for underground musicians to find legitimate mainstream success. At the same time, many people in the know (including Nirvana themselves) would see Nevermind as a sell-out record. Nirvana mostly abandoned the pseudo-sludge-hardcore-metal roots of their debut Bleach and released a pop album with slick, mainstream production. They seemed to think that creative control had been wrestled from their hands and were not happy with the finished product. However, for better or for worse, Nevermind became a classic and is still spun to death on the radio – only nowadays, it’s considered classic rock.
The massive legacy of this record is epitomized by the subject of this review, SPIN’s Newermind, a 20th Anniversary tribute album to Nevermind. I have in my hands right now a tribute to an entire album, not just a selection of songs on a different record. SPIN compiled an excellent, diverse cast of musicians to re-imagine these classic songs. The variety of sounds represented by the record is striking; it’s never boring. The compilation also strikes a neat balance between faithful versions and far-afield renditions. The record begins with a musical enigma – the Meat Puppets. The mix is designed to focus the listener on frontman Curt Kirkwood’s vocals for the unbelieveably famous “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, which have a strange, whimpering, warbling quality. This song is notoriously difficult to cover. Alternate versions of the song either sound too close to the original to be notable or contrived, heartless, and messy. This version, however, manages to rise above because it’s faithful to the structure and mood of the original while varying the instrumentation. The rhythms are played by acoustic guitars and the bass has a honky-tonk country feel. However, Kirkwood’s vocals are what really shine here and hold the track together. The Meat Puppets were a huge inspiration for Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain – it’s only fitting that they tackle this behemoth of a song.
Also of note on the record is the Midnight Juggernauts version of “Come As You Are.” It’s very far-removed from the original track – sparse electronic beats and a simple synth line make the cover completely unrecognizable until the vocals chime in, and even then, the voice is heavily treated with some robot/echo effects that make it tough to hear the cover as what it actually is. This is one of the most creative tracks off of the compilation – for better or worse, Midnight Juggernauts made this track their own. The sound of this song overall might feel familiar to Radiohead fans – it almost sounds like a rip-off of “Idioteque” from their classic album Kid A.
The Vaselines, another favorite band of Cobain’s, contribute their cover of “Lithium” to the record. Personally, if I had to pick a favorite track from Nevermind, it would be this one. I mention this because I feel like this cover missed the mark of the original. It’s a sparse track with very little instrumentation – a very prominent bassline, some light organ, and a powerful lead female voice with some background spoken-word vocals. I just can’t wrap my head around this version – “Lithium” itself is such a ballsy, emotional song, and I feel like that energy is sacrificed here in favor of some silly twee-pop tropes. Maybe as just another song outside of this album it would work, but as a cover, I’m disappointed. However, Amanda Palmer’s cover of “Polly” takes a similar approach to The Vaselines’ offering, but it feels more ‘right,’ whatever that means. “Polly” itself is a very sparse, dark song, and the minimal instrumentation work very nicely here. The quiet banjo plucks replace the flat acoustic power chords of the original and the soft bell embellishments provide a powerful counterpoint to the heavy, tense lyrics. Palmer’s whispery vocals swirl and meld with the bassline, especially in the final verse, and the etheral backing vocals over the outro make the song interesting, memorable, and surely one of the highlights of the compilation.
Foxy Shazam never disappoint, and their version of “Drain You” is just as entartaining as their live show. It begins with an ironic sample of applause and Eric Sean Nally’s quiet, Freddie Mercury inspired croon before the track tears into a classic Foxy groove. Nally nails the vocals here; his distinctive, throaty voice sounds excellent over the playful verses that reek of the band fun. and the faux-hardcore assaults of the choruses. The trumpets provide a strong contrast to the harshness of Nally’s screams near the end of the cover. I like this song a lot because it sticks out like a sort thumb on the compilation: most of the songs are fairly minimal and ‘artsy,’ while Foxy Shazam’s contribution is a lot of fun. The aural assault was sorely needed on this record.
The version of “Stay Away” by Charles Bradley and the Menahan Street Band is a massive enigma. Bradley, as a soul/funk singer, could hardly be further removed musically from Nirvana, so it goes without saying that he makes the song his own. Moreso than any other song on this record, I would love to hear Cobain and Nirvana’s reaction to it. My guess is that it’s so weird and strange in comparison to the original that Kurt would have no choice but to dig it. “Something In The Way,” the album closer, is done here by indie rock/sludge metal darlings JEFF The Brotherhood. SPIN could have been lazy and assigned this song to an indie pop band – it would have come out sounding like the cover of “Lithium.” Instead, JTB dirty the song up. The choruses are heavy, grungy, and fuzzy, with tons of distorted bass. The verses, in contrast, are as quiet as possible and sound just like the original. That sharp contrast is interesting, as it captures the soft/loud dynamic that typifies grunge music (especially Nirvana themselves).
This record could easily have been a throwaway – a lame tribute album released by a magazine to advertise themselves. While that might in reality be the point (let’s be honest, it probably is), there is some legitimately good stuff on the album. That being said, several of the songs – “Breed” and “Territorial Pissings”, by Titus Andronicus and Surfer Blood, respectively – are so close to the originals that they’re not notable. A few of the songs are fluffy and sound almost like filler. I wonder what Kurt Cobain would have thought of this record. On one hand, it would probably drive him nuts that a mainstream magazine released a compilation based on his work. But on the other hand, two of the contributing bands – Meat Puppets and The Vaselines – were huge inspirations for him. I like to think that Cobain would have seen that as an honor. He would probably have had fun rocking out to Foxy Shazam’s rendition of “Drain You.” Regardless of what the man himself would have thought, this is a cool record, and certainly worth checking out for any Nirvana fan.
If you’d like to hear this record for yourself, you’re in luck, because SPIN is offering the album as a free download on their website. Peace.