Kurt Cobain and the Earth Sessions of October 1990

Posted: July 24, 2014 in Bleach and the Sub Pop Era 1987-1990

Cobain’s contributions to Earth’s October 1990 sessions in Portland were the last chance he would have to collaborate in studio with a musician outside of Nirvana for some two years. It was the conclusion of a spell in which I feel he was, to some extent, reacting to the collaborative environment of Olympia in which temporary line-ups were common practice – the norm. The re-issue “A Bureaucratic Desire for Extra-Capsular Extraction” features both A Bureaucratic Desire for Revenge – on which Cobain contributes backing vocals – as well as the stellar Divine and Bright – on which Cobain took the lead vocals. Having left the Olympia environment I’m not sure he ever recaptured this collaborative urge; the Melvins’ sessions were not exactly top quality work from Mr. Cobain, while Eric Erlandson is blunt about the unusable nature of Cobain’s contributions to Hole sessions in 1993. It seems to have only been it environments where he was clearly leading the work – in his basement in 1994 primarily – that he was able to wring out anything more than a few background moans and harmonies. In a way it seems that Cobain’s apparent yearning to work with other musicians and in other musical contexts circa 1993-1994 was a craving to go backwards to his days in Olympia where it was fine if he hooked up with Slim Moon’s changing cast in Witchypoo, or lent prominent guitar to his on-off-girlfriend Tobi Vail’s work with The Go Team, or took direction from Dylan Carlson on these recordings, or from Mark Lanegan on The Winding Sheet.

I’m in two minds whether the sign of a good collaborator is someone who blends seamlessly into an overall vision, or someone who stands out at all times from the melee of sound. In a typical middle-of-the-road fudge perhaps the answer is that the most talented collaborator is able to merge or emerge on a recording as the moment requires? Cobain at his peak certainly had this gift; he makes the rendition of Where Did You Sleep Last Night on Lanegan’s record, he’s the driving force turning it into a squalling storm of a song, he lends the gnarly edge to the Go Team songs he contributed to, he vanishes into the blend on Lanegan’s Down in the Dark but he fits well in each situation. The Earth songs are further support for Cobain’s adaptability in this regard.

I can’t it, I’m going to start with Divine and Bright because I think it’s a simply awesome song – massive kudos to Dylan Carlson for this track. The guitar part merges drone and pop by virtue of playing a wonderfully simple swaying tune…But doing so under a swamp of distortion. It’s pop in the same way chunks of Bleach were pop once one turned down the amps, took the foot off the pedals and saw the simplicity beneath the ferocious outer coating. The song is a mantra, a relatively simple piece with barely a handful of words – “Divine and bright, divine light, stretch/stretching”. I think such simplicity is to Cobain’s benefit; he can focus on delivery rather than on remembering words. Unusually for Earth the song is a bare three minutes – Cobain’s presence is even slighter coming in for barely twenty seconds somewhere over the minute mark, then reprising the lines at around two-and-a-half minutes to leave just enough space for the song to fade out on a roar of feedback.

Cobain intones the words in a voice I can’t work out is weary and resigned at the sight of ultimate annihilation, or is awed and breathy at the sight of immaculate and gorgeous light. That inability to place the emotion attracts me, a gap to be filled by thoughts of whether the moment is beyond any feeling – an observer numbed by amazement or surrender. Cobain’s tendency to announce apparent positives (“I’m so happy,” etc.) in a voice that speaks of an utter lack of excitement makes the few words of Divine and Bright a near perfect fit for him – “an atomic explosion, of raw and terrible violence and beauty!” “Oh yeah…? So…?” His voice rises across and draws out the word “divine” then plummets to pronounce “and bright” – “stretching” is more a sound than a word – it’s comparable to something like the “hello/how low” bridge on Smells Like Teen Spirit except taking over the totality of an avant-garde rock song. It certainly is toward the pop-end of Earth’s early discography and Cobain must have been comfortable with a guitar sound that spits and purrs like his own preferred approach prior to the on-set of 1990’s mainstream experiments.

A Bureaucratic Desire for Revenge meanwhile is more regular Earth-y fare; a roaring semi-instrumental in two parts (originally to be split across two sides of a vinyl disc), genuinely fantastic stuff with the slow march of the guitars, the repeating phrases, the gradually developments and diversions – love it. Cobain’s contribution comes in amidst a sudden eruption of tribal intoning (a little like the sound of a didgeridoo) supplied by Carlson himself. Kelly Canary meanwhile howls and barks to punctuate the regularity, she prevents the song from becoming a mantra, keeps it wild. Her contribution is far more visible than Cobain’s. Here, as on Lanegan’s Down on the Dark, he’s more of an emphasis or a mirror for the main vocalist to ‘rub up against’, I have trouble distinguishing more than the odd likely sound with a Cobain throat behind it. Not an issue, the song stands as a glorious achievement, the vocal element breaks the song and provides a contrasting source of raw sound to spark the ear, the song even shows Cobain as someone who – when asked – could be the subservient partner in a song which is not something that Nirvana had much ability to display. I’m not suggesting a career as everyone’s favourite sideman or session player was going to be an option immediately but, as I said near the beginning, this release shows him as both a deft provider of a specific sound and touch on a song as well as someone who could vanish into the mix and simply contribute to the overall group sound. Worthiness on all sides.

If I wished to push that further, Cobain is credited on a third song – Ouroboros is Broken – for having helped out somehow…Again, indistinguishable but definitely not an automatic negative. In a world of ego-tripping and superstars in a spotlight I rather like seeing a man who was so uncomfortable in the spotlight indicating that he could have still contributed and shared his gifts outside of it.

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