Nirvana and “The Grunge Years” Versus “Revolution Come and Gone” – Sub Pop Compilations

Departed this realm about five weeks ago to go get moving on various other activities so rather a lengthy absence from the blog this past month. I can’t for the life of me remember whether I shared this piece – “No Seattle” was chosen as the album of the month for Seattle’s City Arts magazine. Pleasing once again to see different songs plucked from the release – this time Chemistry Set’s “Fields” and Hitting Birth’s “Same 18” – as highlights. Ah, diversity…Such a pleasure.

Anyways, where was I? Well, one fortuitous discovery this past month was a copy of 1991’s Sub Pop compilation “The Grunge Years” and a further compilation from 1992 called “Revolution Come and Gone” – a neat twosome bookending pre/post Nirvana explosion. Nirvana’s career was almost as neatly sub-divided by compilations – their appearance on “Sub Pop 200” in 1988 saw their second release escape into the world, while “The Grunge Years” was the second-to-last Sub Pop release of the band’s active lifespan (the reissue of Bleach being the final piece.)

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Listening to the two compilations intrigued me; take a look at the bands listed – the number of past alumni is so extensive that it does give an impression of a label living on its laurels. With “The Grunge Years” it’s understandable. The ‘grunge’ phase was still a piece of the past – a strange phrase coined and applied in 1989 so the release, while never explicitly saying so, seems to be a harking back, a review, a retrospective. “Revolution Come and Gone” intrigues me because it shares that same ‘looking back’ air in the title – it could be a reference to grunge being dead and gone, or it could be a reference specifically to Nirvana viewed in the rear-view. “The Grunge Years” had  pegged ‘Dive’ onto the release which capitalised neatly on Nirvana’s past patronage and it emphasizes how ‘of a piece’ Dive was to the existing output of Sub Pop – lot of gnarly punk rock moves, lashings of distortion, a very visible product of Nirvana circa mid-1989 rather than Nirvana late-1990 let alone 1991. Picture1

My issue with Sub Pop is that it’s humor relied so much on disposability, glibness, sarcasm – all very enjoyable – but that means I’m not sure Sub Pop ever managed to translate its releases into more respectful retrospective glances. “The Grunge Years” is a good example. The front cover plays the same ol’ joke  that the label had played right back in the notes of Sub Pop 100 in 1986; Sub Pop as globe-spanning corporate conglomerate – heck, the two characters made me think immediately of the film Wall Street. The inlay, again, combines jokes and jadedness in an appealing slalom-ride through whatever is on the mind of Jonathan Poneman that day. The problem is it leaves me shrugging and thinking “why’s this release here at all? Is it really just ‘more grunge’ for the masses?” Product…?

I guess so. As a starting point for appreciating the music that doesn’t bode well. Luckily the music is pretty good! Eleven of the thirteen songs are solid representatives of the North West explosion – with Babes in Toyland and L7 wedged in. It’s, in many ways, Sub Pop 200 Mk.2 – another rendition of the local scene review and that ‘centredness’ has a strong appeal. I’m also enjoying hearing that expanded female presence given the boys club vibe of Sub Pop 200 which made way only for the token presence of Girl Trouble’s Bon von Wheelie. The linkages between K Records and Sub Pop are on display on the release when often Olympia/Seattle was presented as a competition. In reality, Bruce Pavitt was a long-time friend of Calvin Johnson of K and the two labels had teamed up to get Girl Trouble’s first album out – “The Grunge Years”‘ inclusion of Beat Happening doesn’t seem an anomaly, it looks more a reminder of dues paid.

While the packaging and absence of context is even worse on “Revolution Come and Gone”, the music by contrast is a lot more energetic. The variety of bands has expanded – there’s even room for Earth on here – and the scope is now widening up to encompass even more non-North West representatives. While “The Grunge Years” hammers a single sound home, this 1992 compilation sees the label reaching forward to new hopes like Codeine, tagging on burgeoning names like Hole who were creating quite a stir in the underground by 1992 (as well as marriage related publicity and gossip courtesy of the Cobain couple), reaching back to long time stalwarts like Mark Lanegan and Mudhoney, without forgetting newbies like Truly (incidentally, apparently Robert Roth of Truly was a further candidate for second guitarist in Nirvana circa 1989-1990 – the unsettled nature of the Nirvana line-up in those two years seems ever clearer as time goes on.) The result is a more diverse and energetic set.

The pleasure of both, of course, is that between them it’s a fairly comprehensive overview of the key bands of the ‘grunge’ whatever-it-was or that used to get quoted in lazy review thereof. Tad? Check! Nirvana? Check! Screaming Trees? Check! Mudhoney? Check! The Walkabouts? Check! Earth? Check! Beat Happening? Check! Love Battery? Check! the Dwarves? Check! The Fluid, Afghan Whigs, Dickless…Then an assortment of fellow-NW travellers and friends. It’s a shame that Sub Pop has never pulled back from the attitude long enough to create a comprehensive and dignified review of it’s own back catalogue because a respectful look at what it pumped out in it’s crucial years, one that doesn’t smirk all the time, is long overdue.


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