I’m pausing to take in the breadth of what’s just happened. “(Sound City) Sappy”, one of those holy grail songs fans have wondered about for years and likely the last real rarity from the Nevermind sessions out. Unheard material from four Nirvana studio sessions in 1990, 1991 and 1993 out. Home demos from 1990 out. The complete Easter 1986 Fecal Matter tape out…
Discovering that the remaining studio pieces by ‘Nirvana’ are curios but not substantially different from known renditions is unsurprising. The Nevermind material had been heavily worked up and practiced before hitting the studio. The big surprises have been the two versions of the underexposed “Old Age”, plus “Sappy.” I’d be curious to hear if Nevermind songs currently unseen prior to 1991 went through in-studio changes too. The In Utero album consisted of a lot of very old and well-worked material, a bunch of material worked up over several months, then some semi-ad-libbed newer ideas kicked out in Rio. It surprised me, frankly, that the “Heart Shaped Box” instrumental should be among the most intriguing which potentially shows it was still a ‘young’ song in many ways, one that was still evolving in small ways. I’d love to hear more of the evolution of “Serve the Servants” because as far as can be told it’s one of the strongest late-era Cobain compositions.
Filling in the gaps on Fecal Matter gave me a far greater appreciation of it as a complete work. There’s so much going on! Cobain, in 1986, had pent-up ideas flying in all directions it seems. Being with Dale Crover definitely helped him let loose the inner freak. Hearing the clean riffs at the end aided my appreciation of what he’s playing. Hearing improved/tweaked versions of what I’ve already heard is neat but fundamentally altered material of this nature is far more revelatory and enjoyable.
Which brings me to the home demos. Some of this matches what we heard earlier this year on the “Montage of Heck” film…Great! This stuff is quality. I’ve been dampening my expectations of what a mass of Cobain home demo material might truly mean in terms of quality and interest but this is glorious stuff. There’s are a variety of vocal and instrumental approaches which vary significantly from official releases. The presence of background noises and sound effects as intentional additions to songs elevate this beyond being just a clot of acoustic meandering. The sound quality is exceptionally good compared to what might be expected, there’s real clarity to his voice and playing. There are unseen lyrics and rarely seen songs here which keeps the interest level high…It’s totally whetted my appetite for whatever emerges from Universal in November (oh yeah, forgot, it’s been confirmed that the Cobain release will be in November.)
A further point, these leftovers help make the case for Cobain as a true artist. They’re not revealing a guy just hammering out identikit songs to churn onto albums. What they show is a guy who would have an idea and genuinely play with all its elements to see if a different vocal inflection or delivery might create something fresh, who wanted to hear the sounds in his head in different ways before selecting what the definitive statement would be. That depth of intuitive and intelligent work is, I feel, underappreciated in discussion of Cobain.
Song by song thoughts?
“Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” Completely different lyrics it seems! The riff is instantly recognisable and unchanged from what you’ll already know.
“Opinion” Though brief at only 13 seconds, this is a far fuller-voiced and brighter rendition than the solitary radio take – the home demo treatment actually improving fidelity for once. There are nuances in Cobain’s delivery – note the stresses he adds within the word ‘congratulations’ – plus he seems to speed up quite quickly which might be an error but it gives the song more force. “Opinion” is interesting because it’s one of the final known and seemingly fully formed Cobain compositions from 1990-1992 that doesn’t end up being released during his life time. I love the song, it’s really easy to sing. The background sound of a storm sounds artificially inserted rather than a suggestion that he was recording during an actual event.
“Pennyroyal Tea” is a full 2.34 rendition featuring the glorious line “I receive crazy moneyyyyyy…” as part of the second chorus – sheesh, a truly bad Cobain line? That’s kinda rare! The guy is usually so lyrically sharp when it comes to make lines sound intelligent, purposeful and intended. The vocal delivery in a lower octave isn’t necessarily superior to what he chooses to do at Pachyderm or on MTV Unplugged, but it’s a legitimate artistic deviation that creates a pleasantly somnolent vibe. It appears to feature someone else on rudimentary drumming, it may be Dave Grohl’s voice early on. What sounds like a click track seems more likely to be an improvised drum stick of some kind. Cobain uses his breathing to create the ‘finale’ to the track.
“Sappy” this is clearly from Montage of Heck, the atmospheric repetition of the guitar line over something approaching a John Carpenter-eerie selection of sound effects. Maybe someday we’ll hear more of Cobain’s experimental urges which were extensive and are still underappreciated even with the Montage of Heck collage and Fecal Matter now on display.
“Verse Chorus Verse” is a full three and a half minute rendition with a combination of known and unknown lines – it’s intriguing seeing them evolve actually. “See the…In his hands…Keep the sunbeam in his room…Keep it in him…Seeds…What it means…” This has always been an intriguing song because extant versions on the early Outcesticide bootlegs were noisy enough to leave the lyrics in doubt. This continues that picture of a song undergoing a lot of changes. The structure seems solid if not exactly the most inspired and wild approach, it’s like this is one of the songs where Cobain was getting used to making peace with the simplest of pop song methodologies, it truly earns its name.
“Been a Son” this, is the copy from Montage of Heck where he stops to answer the phone to someone apparently asking after Tracy. Intriguingly, this is the most altered the lyrics have ever been but that core “she said” refrain is already there even with a song sounding this frayed. I love hearing him lay out the bass part – I was aware Cobain did come up with ideas for the other instruments on his songs, actually played thoughts to his bandmates for them to run with, but it’s uncommon to hear him do it on a recording. I think this is the only time I’ve heard Cobain laying down an intended bass part.
“Breed”, another 15 second scrap from Montage of Heck, with the same breathiness as the “Been a Son” take above which gives the distinct impression these two songs at least are recorded at the same time and place. The absence of any substantial shift in sound is curious, makes one imagine he simply sat and filled a tape with one idea after another…I wonder if there was more, a fuller rendition of gasped Cobain homework. It’s like even on acoustic he’s finding a way, by manipulating his voice, to indicate where he’d be screamed in a full rock electric rendition of this song and “Been a Son”, that it isn’t just an odd vocal choice, it’s almost a ‘note to self’ about what he intends to do with those lines or parts.
Oh! Forgot again… A new demo of “Very Ape” with totally sketchy lyrics! Nirvana are so tight instrumentally they make this stuff sound like it’s exactly as it’s meant to be. Cobain is indistinctly murmuring in places of verses and there’s no vocal at all on the choruses. “There’s a ____ (God / Girl?) I dare to _____, there’s a ____ (God / Girl?) I dare to know…”
So, summarising this week, we’ve heard:
Acoustic demos of Been a Son, Breed, Frances Farmer, Opinion, Pennyroyal Tea, Verse Chorus Verse plus a Sappy electric demo
Studio demos of Very Ape, Heart Shaped Box, Lithium, Milk It, Old Age (x2), Gallons, Onwards into Countless Battles, Polly, Sappy, Scentless Apprentice, Seasons in the Sun, Tourette’s, Verse Chorus Verse, I Hate Myself and I Want to Die, Here She Comes Now plus I’ve heard tell there are renditions of Come as You Are and MV floating around
Then, from Fecal Matter, Sound of Dentage, Bambi Slaughter, Laminated Effect, Anorexorcist, Spank Thru, Blathers Log, Class of ’86, Downer, Instramental, the riffs, plus unknown songs 1 to 5.
Jeez…Even if the brevity of today’s acoustic leaks indicated that this week’s source is drying up it’s still been one hell of a week. The huge presence of lesser known Nirvana/Cobain songs is really welcome. Noticeable that there were no utterly unknown acoustic demos – more in the can still to be detected? Or not much from 1990-1992 that Cobain didn’t use around Nevermind or have to press into service to cover his paucity of writing after fame hit?