Friday, May 22, 2020
Happy Nirvana discovery: the 2013 Steve Albini remix of In Utero
During the two months of our COVID-19 shudown, I have done very little record shopping. One trip to Neptoon, one trip to Audiopile. Otherwise the only vinyl I come across is when my wife and I are at a local mall that features a London Drugs.
I have gotten to know the vinyl at that London Drugs quite well. I've been tempted by a few items, disappointed to see that certain others are not available. Occasionally I am pleasantly surprised: like, I wasn't expecting to find a double-45rpm version of Nirvana's In Utero the other day (and for a few bucks cheaper than the lowest price on Amazon, which as of this writing is $42.79). If I had seen it on the shelves before, I failed to notice that it was, in fact, a 2013 20th Anniversary remix, helmed by the man who originally recorded it (Steve Albini) at the request of the band. Albini had been somewhat famously dissatisfied with studio meddling with the original album, and though this is another thing altogether, it was very interesting to me to hear how he might reconstruct this album now...
I have a complex history with Nirvana. I had already defined myself as a punk for ten years by the time anyone cared what Kurt Cobain thought about anything, and didn't need Kurt to introduce me to the Meat Puppets or Flipper or Daniel Johnston (though I was pleased that he got all three more recognition). As a Pacific Northwest music fan, I was all down with Seattle independent music before Nevermind, had been listening to the Young Fresh Fellows and the U-Men and other bands, and once it got started, I was a member of the Sub/Pop singles club, getting exclusive 7" singles from the label by subscription. Best yet, I could see shows sometimes, since I was hanging with some people who would actually drive into the city for gigs at places like the Cruel Elephant, and there was an expansion, I think around this time, of bus service to Maple Ridge, so I was going to see tons of shows by heavier bands of the time, some of whom got tagged "grunge," and others who could have been. In the late 80's and early 90's, mostly at the Cruel Elephant, I got to see Tankhog, the Melvins, Helmet, TAD, Love Battery, Supersuckers, the Dwarves, Facepuller, the Volcano Suns, and, one night at the Commodore, Nirvana and Mudhoney. But I was left uncomfortable at that show: Kurt seemed self-destructive and negative and stoned, and I didn't really enjoy the vibe I got off him; while everyone else was wowed, I came away saying that Mudhoney was the superior band.
I wasn't wild about Nevermind, either. It had just come out a few days before the show, and I was trying to get to know it. I had liked Bleach a lot - and I had Hole's "Retard Girl" and Pretty On the Inside, and liked them even more - but Nevermind sounded quite different and wrong: not necessarily poppier, but flat, lifeless, polished until it began to lose feature. Some of the songs were okay, and being the loyal type, I wanted to like it, but even before it became this huge hit album, before I saw the show, I had mixed feelings about it. It was like the Replacements' Don't Tell a Soul for me, or X's Ain't Love Grand, or Husker Du's Candy Apple Grey. "I would like to be able to enjoy this album, but..."
Then something happened. It's hard to explain. Somehow - maybe because of the company I was keeping, or the acid I was dropping, or the inner turmoil I felt as a young man not sure what he would become, I kind of left rock'n'roll behind, and spent most of the rest of the 1990's listening to free jazz, noise, and experimental music. There was a point where I stopped following a ton of bands I'd been devoted to, because I was too busy checking out John Zorn or Fred Frith or Don Cherry or the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Numerous bands I had followed closely before suddenly dropped off my radar, and I stopped buying their records. I stopped following the Original Sins in 1992, when Move came out; I wouldn't own it until decades later. Having bought every album and one or two singles by the band previous, I had no interest in Tad's Inhaler (1993), either. I had enjoyed Sonic Youth's 1992 album Dirty just fine - and still like it more than a lot of the people who describe it as some sort of grunge sell-out - and had everything I could get by them otherwise, but after Dirty, I skipped their next two albums, and still barely know them. I also dropped Dinosaur Jr. after 1993's Where You Been, and Soundgarden after 1991's Badmotorfinger. And I think now part of what was happening to me was that after 1991 and Nevermind, when "underground" rock music suddenly became above-ground, it stopped being fun for me. Maybe I needed something obscure - needed to be a member of a more exclusive club, to prop up my shaky identity and give me self-definition... but it didn't help that some of those commercial cash-grab records by bands emboldened to reach for the brass ring really kind of sucked, like, say, Soul Asylum's Grave Dancer's Union. I had loved everything they did up to that point, even as they grew more commercial, then suddenly a) they have a hit single and b) they have an album that totally blows. Coincidence? I really didn't like the changes to Soundgarden's approach, either, by the time "Black Hole Sun" put them on the charts...
In any event, be it heartbreak at commercial sellouts, the desire to impress artier friends, some weird punk need to rebel against popular tastes and/or "success," or because my mind was going wild with neurotransmitters, by late 1993, I was listening to free jazz and avant-rock almost exclusively. Grunge seemed like greasy kidstuff. I had matured, was eager to leave my past self behind, like I could somehow climb out of the pit of my suburban youth by listening to more sophisticated music...
...so I never even bothered with In Utero back then. I figured it couldn't possibly be good. I had already had problems with Nevermind, which had been recorded before anyone had figured out that the band could actually succeed; so now that they were on the corporate radar, now that people with money were hoping to make more money off their music and Kurt and Courtney had sizeable drug habits to support... how could the album not suck? I was annoyed that bands like Soul Asylum and Soundgarden had watered down their sound; why wouldn't I feel the same about Nirvana? I just didn't care. I heard the singles on MuchMusic and didn't really dig them - "All Apologies" had interesting lyrics but sounded like pop fluff. Then a few years later, I read an interview with Steve Albini in Tape Op bitching about the way Geffen had fiddled with his original vision for the album, and it confirmed my bias and kept me away. When I finally did hear In Utero on CD a few years ago - at the urging of the Georgia Straight's Mike Usinger - I was surprised that, even in the toned-down studio presentation, it was still obviously a pretty raw and difficult and surprisingly ambitious album. Still:
a) I didn't the way it sounded very much, maybe in part because I expected not to, having read Albini griping about it at some length
b) I was more interested in hearing the original Albini mixes and masters. (There's a very complex history which you can read people argue about here, as to what the exact differences between the original 1993 tapes, the officially released version, and the 2013 revisitation.)
Now, the 2013 In Utero mix is not the same as Albini's original version - which I still have not heard - but it IS Albini's vision for the album 20 years on, when he's being given the respect and creative control he deserves. And having grabbed it on a whim at London Drugs, I am kind of stunned at how rich it is. You can get a song-by-song comparison with the 1993 release here, or you could try yourself, say if you want to compare (to pick a non-hit fave) the new Albini version of "Radio-Friendly Unit Shifter" with the original (also an Albini mix, apparently, but remastered from his original vision, if I understand this correctly, by people at Geffen). I vastly prefer the 2013 version, and notice more things, from being able to clearly understand what Kurt mutters at the beginning ("What's your name?") to how there seems to be a different spatial construction and a lot more detail when you get to the noisy solo (say around 3:30-3:45; compare, in particular, the high-pitched chirps on the guitar, which are tinny, anemic, and barely noticeable on the 1993 mix, while you can hear them as part of a struck chord on the 2013, much fuller and more satisfying. That might boil down to "more body," as the author of that previously linked comparison notes, but there's also sonic detail added or re-added not present in the 1993 mix. In some cases, I gather - on other songs on the album - there are even whole different solos!).
What I'm realizing is that I had, back in 1993, ignored Kurt Cobain's masterpiece; that, contrary to my intuitions, Nirvana had faced down studio expectations and massive fan attention and all the pressures that come with hype to come up with an album that is at times as raw as Bleach, but which pushes the songwriting vastly further than one sees on Nevermind. It's a great album, and the 2013 Steve Albini mix, I think, is going to become my definitive version of it. Looking forward to listening to nothing else, and very happy to know that Kurt managed something this fantastic even as the end was approaching.
So thanks, London Drugs!