Kurt Cobain’s Contribution’s to Mark Lanegan’s “The Winding Sheet”

Back in the town of Boston, Lincolnshire (there’s a village called New York nearby – it’s where the pilgrim fathers came from for those with an interest in early American history. As an incidental my dad used to live in Washington, Tyne and Wear, up near Newcastle – also now the name of a town in the U.S.) there used to be a second-hand record shop who’s name now completely escapes me. For a time I got quite into grabbing vinyl there, dusty fingers and the smell of aging card sleeves. This was when I was seventeen or so – best acquisition was definitely Babes in Toyland “Fontanelle”, still SUCH a good album, cohesive without being repetitive, aggression heightened by the gentler touches. At some point I snatched up a copy of Mark Lanegan’s “The Winding Sheet” and just as rapidly discarded it given, at the time, my tastes were pushing further and further into the territory of Swans, Throbbing Gristle, Sonic Youth at their most caustic and had little space for Lanegan’s sparser and more country-influenced take on rock. If I wanted indie sounds then the U.K. was at the height of it’s Brit-pop spell and I could have just stuck with that but it wasn’t the direction I was heading so on with Babes in Toyland and “The Winding Sheet” was forgotten.

A while back I decided it was time to take another look at the album – lucky chance had brought a copy into the Music & Video Exchange at Notting Hill Gate (my favourite music shop in London) and I stood for a while pondering whether it was worth another shot some fifteen years down the line. It was. I had wrongfully dismissed it in my youthful excesses of volume and destruction.

Cobain’s initial contribution (recorded at a 1990 session) was to provide some backing vocals to the fifth track Down in the Dark. The background vocal approach of the next song, Wild Flowers, is extremely similar to that on Down in the Dark – a higher pitched accent or echo of the main guitar or vocal line. It makes clear that Lanegan wasn’t inviting collaboration; he was stating what he needed from those he brought in to deliver. While an experienced musician at this point with four full albums under his belt with Screaming Trees, this was still Lanegan’s first solo effort and it’s understandable there’s a simplicity to the record – it’s easier to strip down, make it easy, than to build something elaborate. The album mixes basic electric/acoustic indie rock songs similar to the lo-fi efforts bands like Sebadoh were coming out with. The relatively curtailed period of time in which the album was created may explain the similarity of approach taken on a number of tracks – the first session was December 10, 1989 and the last was concluded on January 1, 1990 meaning three weeks from beginning to end. Cobain’s contributions, like his work on Melvins’ Spread Eagle Beagle, could belong to anyone at all – whatever it may add to the song it presents little of note to Cobain’s oeuvre – it’s a good song with or without Cobain. How could it be otherwise when all he chips in are emphasises to the words “you will”?

The rendition of Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, however, is a far more intriguing work from a Nirvana perspective. It commences with Krist’s bass front n’ centre, then spills howling overdriven guitar all over the place. It has similarities to the BBC session version of Something in the Way where acoustic niceties are replaced with aggressive (and hugely effective) noise. I love it. The bass and drums carry the tune while the guitar ad-libs around the phrases of the original song. Often it’s simply a whine of feedback but such excellent deployment – Sonic Youth had a ‘standard template’ whereby the bass and one guitar would actually play a song while the second guitar would add noise effects and stunts as a drenched backdrop to a track.

Cobain harks back to the work on Bleach where his guitar work often came in with an initial spike of feedback prior to any attempt at playing. He was already moving away from that approach – perhaps it had more to do with Endino’s production choices and later producers simply erased the initial kick altogether? – but here it’s an effectively deployed choice rather than a default, it builds then the other instruments crash down altogether with Lanegan’s vocals kicking into the first verse. It’s also one of the first times that Cobain really cut loose on a record, he’d been very controlled and focused on defined song form throughout Bleach whereas this is closer to Big Long Now, or to The Priest They Called Him, or to a couple of Cobain’s home or live experiments. The guy was an expert manipulator of feedback and knew how to layer distortion onto a track. It’s a truly great moment on the record – the presence of Cobain and Novoselic is at the core of the song’s identity not just a guest presence; Pickerel’s pounding has been so well mic’ed that every beat shakes the room in this controlled plod.

This version really counts as the source for Cobain’s later rendition on MTV Unplugged, far more than the original Leadbelly song – the vocal delivery with the yearning note at the end of many lines has a greater similarity to Lanegan’s voicing. Wonderfully, of course, it’s nice to contrast Leadbelly’s vocal tone against Lanegan’s decision to rumble the song in his finest bassy voice – by three minutes in when he snarls “the whole night through” it’s become a real rock vocal – and then, again, judge it against Cobain’s crisp and cracked fragility at MTV Unplugged where Lanegan’s growl becomes Cobain’s hound-dog mourning on “whole night through.” The difference between finger-picking and plectrum playing is visible for sure – it contributes to the simplicity of the sound on Cobain’s rendering for MTV – but the version on “The Winding Sheet” is a whole other animal.

This is a nice clip actually…Give it a shot.


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