Archive for the ‘Unreleased n’ Posthumous Nirvana’ Category

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?

Sheesh, did someone blow the doors clean off the Universal/Nirvana vault?

For those who want a new ‘holy grail’ to hope for, remember that Fecal Matter rehearsed with Greg Hokanson on drums before this tape of Cobain and Dale Crover was made, then there was a project with Mike Dillard and Buzz Osborne. There’s no known recording of any of this. Plus, there’s Cobain’s 1982 solo recordings to keep wishing for too. Ah, does it ever end? Thank God Cobain was a good self-archivist and kept all this material! It’s remarkable in a way, that someone with such insecure living arrangements, self-esteem and life prospects held onto all of this no matter what. It gives me the impression that music really was an anchor, a safe harbor, something to cling to – he didn’t dispose of tapes or chuck away the fruits of his creativity, he treasured them.

So, again, this’ll be hard to keep the door on, even when its pulled down from YouTube you’ll find it. A full hour tape. Makes me wonder, if they filled this cassette, did they start in on another tape? Is there more? Nah, unlikely, the final section is a repeated instrumental then stray leftovers. Thanks to DB for sorting me with this, hugely appreciated.

Most of the key named songs you’ll have heard. Around that though…

‘Unknown #1’ is a real ripper, one of the fastest most hardcore Cobain songs I think. Hammered through. Then that surviving line about “my asylum”, the chorus vocal melody survives to become part of “If You Must” in the Nirvana era. Nice effects in the outro.

‘Unknown #2’ has a nice drive, entirely new to me, excellent! Love how much Cobain experiments with his voice on this early tape, he goes in so many directions. Here he sounds alternately sick and snotty – real teen high pitch on that “I’m a punk rocker!” line. The words ‘anti-solo’ don’t cover what he does with his guitar here but it’s a really effective finish to a song, instead of it flailing back into another verse or fading out or any trad. trick the guitar goes haywire then the bass follows and the song falls apart. Great!

‘Unknown #3′ another joke voice song. There’s a doubled vocal at one point which sounded more like Dale added on. Those little touches are kinda impressive – there’s real thought going on about how to put together sounds for emphasis and impact, they’re not just splattering songs onto cassette rough n’ ready. “No you’re not mine” becomes the outro refrain. Cobain loves coughing sounds, choking, it’s like my nephew blowing raspberries through his entire christening the other day – a certain glee in making the throat do odd things.

‘Unknown #4’ yeah, again, Cobain sounds like he’s going to puke in this first verse. I remember hearing how Chris Cornell’s early work with Soundgarden was always like listening to an air raid siren because he’d not yet learned to moderate and carefully deploy his wail. That’s true of Cobain here, he’s aiming for those high notes, screams and screeches over and again. This track repeats elements of “Love my Family” and other lines or motifs I know from existing sources of Fecal Matter. Notable how ‘metal’ the bass work on these songs is, back before grunge brought hard rock back into repute, just after ‘da yoof’ were getting sick of straight punk. This is a very long song, potentially more of an improvisation which would explain why it seems to loop in elements of other tracks – it’s roughly ten minutes long with a long slow ‘doomy’ section.

‘Unknown #5’ kicks off with something kinda new wavey – guitar even sounds like an early keyboard, then vocals like an early rendition of “Beans” (it’s not but Cobain’s thing for helium voices apparently kept him happy for quite a few years.) Then the dynamic kicks in, like a hugely slowed down “Big Cheese” riff. The time changes are pretty great, the song rips up to full hardcore stomp after a minute or so. “I’m not a Russian, not a spy…Somebody said, should have been dead…Accusation…”

I’ll never get tired of “Spank Thru”, it’s a great early Nirvana song and, viewing the material they had available to them in early 1988 I can understand why they decided to get it out there on Sub Pop 200. I used to think it was a showcase for the ‘Nevermind’ era dynamic of songs, loud-soft etc. I was wrong. The guitar intro is wicked, always was.

‘Blather’s Log’ is a great story-telling song in the Cobain fashion, more stray images than a full narrative. There’s a court scene being laid out here, various aspects of the tale weaving in and out and all done in this forced croak. I’ve heard this before but still an impressive early work. Cobain really hasn’t found his voice yet, sure, from the start of the Nirvana era he has a lot of control over his voice, he can do a lot with it, but it’s always recognisably Cobain. On these early songs he’s working it in all kinds of directions, a lot of which don’t have any later markers in his calendar. The amount of work the guy put into finding his place in music, his desired identity, ‘himself’, it’s underappreciated. He’s not just been writing songs he’s been speaking in tongues – that must be hard, adopting a voice appropriate to a song or a mood or a vibe.

‘Class of 86’ heads down that same road, he impersonates made-up classmates, comes close to spoken word, snarls the chorus, screams “clone!” It’s a welter of different voices, far more than a two and a half minute pop song would usually incorporate. Some stray noise on the outro I hadn’t noticed including a background sound that runs straight into the start of ‘Unknown #6’, did they just take a breather than carry straight on into the next song?

‘Downer’, another great survivor from Easter 1986 through to January 1988. I’m not sure I ever got Cobain’s Black Flag comparison for this one. But I love the whistling solo. Cobain moved so fast through musical styles in the mid-to-late Eighties. There’s these hardcore/metal/punk hybrid tunes, then the new wavey oddness he’s reaching by the Jan ’88 sessions, then the grunge vibe mid-to-late ’88 which comes out on “Bleach” (which couldn’t sound more like a Sub Pop album if it tried), then the pop-punk vibe that barely lasts longer than the time it takes to hammer out Been a Son – Stain – Even in His Youth – Token Easter Song, the acoustic work in the background, then the big switches in 1990-1991. Cobain had a real gift for incorporating other influences into his work, for learning quick, for moving between styles. Some bands might take years of work just to create another album sounding just like what they’ve done before. This guy has left us with recordings from ’86, ’88, late ’88-early ’89, late ’89, early ’90, early-mid ’91 each with a different air.

‘Instramental’ is marked as a version of ‘Unknown #3’, again, there’s quite a few differences. It’s like comparing “Sifting” from “Bleach” to the instrumental version from the summer of 1988 – general vibes, riffs, reworked in substantially different ways. It doesn’t seem too defined, just playing around with ideas until they fall apart.

After that the tape features “Turnaround” by Devo – ye gods! Cobain’s love of early influences, his fidelity when it comes to his favourites. The idea that we get a tape here of that song then four years later he pulls that track out for BBC Radio and two years beyond that we get it on “Incesticide.” The guy knew what he liked…

You get near three minutes of “Turnaround” before the tape returns to Cobain working over riffs. This is actually a lot better than you’d imagine, hearing the riffs in isolation gives an opportunity to appreciate some of his guitar work without the rather muddy bass and cardboard drums clogging the sound (heck, without Cobain’s still thin voice over the top.) You’ll recognise most of these riffs from elsewhere on the tape. I swear that’s the “Big Cheese” riff coming in again!

I can see why, if this is the tape that Krist heard back in ’86, why it would make him want to team up with Cobain. There are so many ideas going on. That’s my biggest impression, often a single song goes in so many directions, sure, there may be a core riff, or a vestigial verse/chorus structure but usually there are off-kilter bridges, breaks, outros, intros, deviations going on. He’s not starting with something utterly basic, he appears to be past that already. I recall talk of how people found it surprising that Cobain could write something as sophisticated as “Spank Thru” so early in his career but it makes so much more sense in the context of these other early efforts where there’s a visible chomping at the bit, a desire to try different things. So much variety crammed into a single tape, it’s intriguing in a way that the progress from here to Nirvana was about paring back, simplifying, reducing the pebbledashing of ideas onto tape.

Gods it’ll be nice to hear a properly polished up (as best as possible) release some day. I’m sure Universal will get to it sometime. Why’s it coming out now? Intriguing…Is this someone linked to ‘Montage of Heck’ or to the release apparently coming later this year. If so, wow, could be we hear that official version sooner rather than later.

Going through what I’ve seen so far, just wanted to continue…

“Heart Shaped Box” An interesting instrumental take indeed, while the introduction/verse sounds more spindly and repetitious than the final take, the chorus – by contrast – sounds more muscular with the bass further forward, the guitar pushed that little further. In terms of differences, at 1.35 in there’s a slight tweak (or mistake) but the real interest is from 2 minutes in where the guitar (what I’d call the “heyyyy…Waiiiitttt…” notes) are really slammed. The entire solo is different, not as kicking or as well-poised as the final, but an interesting deviation. From 3.30 it sounds like Cobain is humming the vocal melody in the background.

“Here She Comes Now” from Smart Studios starts with a nice flubb and ‘whoops’ from Cobain. I’ve always loved the rich guitar tone on this cover even if it isn’t the most original cover version ever. The bass mix doesn’t have quite the grandeur of Krist’s work on the With the Lights Out version (that intro note he strikes and the post-verse re-starts…Lush.) I thought it might be a different vocal take but re-listening to 3.00 to 3.40, nah, it’s the same take as With the Lights Out. I had similar thoughts on the guitar, also unfounded as far as I can tell.  The last few seconds are taken up seemingly by an attempt to go right back to the intro and to begin again – cut off abruptly.

“Lithium”, an alternative take with the intro taken beautifully, really perky start but wow, Cobain sounds breathless. He can’t do the choruses so he just hummms then – it’s like listening to a kazoo or a paper-comb rendition of the choruses. I quite like the mumbled verses, they sound even more numbed and narcotic than the final resigned rendition. It’s a shame because instrumentally the choruses really rumble – bit of a contrast to Cobain sounding like he’s going through puberty. This is the funniest thing to listen to – all those genuflecting tedious articles plagiarizing each other with talk of his powerful voice then hearing this take. Amusing.

“Milk It”, you’ve heard this one before but the mix is extremely clean, a very live sound which adds something. As with “Scentless Apprentice” from Rio, hearing Cobain use sounds and stray words to sketch a lyrical form is always intriguing, seeing that he has the flow in place, the rise-and-fall, the emphases are often there first. Also the way he doesn’t just follow the guitar line in the way, for example, Ozzy Osbourne used to on Black Sabbath stuff.

“Seasons in the Sun” starts with Cobain saying “go Krist!” again, just bits previously edited out. Proper stereo sound too. I’ve always enjoyed this rendition, it’s a song that could be so cheesy (let’s be honest, it IS!) but Cobain’s delivery, the band seemingly having fun with it…It works. Nothing else to add really. Same take, fuller sound.

“Verse Chorus Verse” sounds like the same edition as featured on “With the Lights Out”, maybe a different vocal take – I’m not sure if I’m hearing different features at 1.30 to 1.40, similarly his voice seems to rise less on the choruses than on that other edition. I think the WTLO version is superior vocal-wise and there’s nothing really different instrumentally.

“Polly” …An alternative mix of Polly? Sheesh, a different mix of a song that barely seemed to have much mixing involved in the first place? I’d be lying if I said I heard anything. Just nice to have a reason to listen this intently…Usual unedited ending as is common on most of these pieces.

“Onwards into Countless Battles” Heh! New versions of rarities are always fun. A song that ends up on an album or official release is usually a closed door – it’s the artist’s choice of what the track SHOULD be. Alternative versions of unreleased/rare songs are still possibilities and potentials in the making – they’re undecided and there’s no way of privileging one over another. The mix is really clean, a good source, sounds great for a throwaway joke! Even the funky voices tweeting in the background and the “take it back” line are in place so it’s definitely not an alternative rendition.

“Old Age” (mix 1) a very full sounding tone instrumentally, let down by a second guitar that doesn’t seem to have been totally worked out yet, it drops out at seemingly random points in the first thirty seconds, returns to punctuate the song at around 00.50 and 01.10 for no apparent reason, it’s like someone is tuning up in the background. Otherwise the rhythm track seems complete, the main guitar line is in place, the band switch seamlessly through each part so they’re very familiar with it. Around 2.45 the second guitar comes in with what could be a neat counter-melody but, again, it’s not been properly worked out so drops away, changes direction, a practice or test-run. Vocally, there are lines in place but this is an awful lot of moaning and muttering.

“Old Age” (mix 2) has a cleaner introduction, mix 1 sees guitars in both left and right of the stereo chiming in, this just has guitar on the left and it sounds purer – there’s no interruption from the second guitar that muddied mix 1. The vocals on the With the Lights Out version are different to these two mixes – the whole rendition on WTLO is more definite especially on first verse (even if the WTLO version is still sketchy at points, check around two minutes in where he’s straining for effect and saying nowt – wish the bloody bloke would just pronounce “old age” properly in the choruses because the groan doesn’t do it for me). I’m not catching significant differences in the bass/drums, the chiming notes on the guitar seem more to the foreground which is welcomed. A tell tale regarding the vocal track is at 2.30 Cobain chokes on a word in both these new mixes – it’s the same vocal track.

“I Hate Myself and I Want to Die” Ouch! Loud enough to make my ears hurt. Love the noise. You’ve heard this demo version already but it seems to have a bigger kick here. The mix does make a difference, the jagged sounds all stand out in more detail. Interesting considering Cobain creating this first minute of noise, then going back and overdubbing a second guitar of even more noise to make it uber-nasty. The guy knew how to pull sound out of a guitar. Different vocal take? Or maybe just greater clarity. Again, words not fully in place, fun to hear him improvisation – Cobain would have made a good scat-singer.

I’m going to have to come back to “Sappy” again…But, maybe it’s weariness, I’ve been listening to this song since I found the Pachyderm rendition on a bootleg back in 1995, it’s probably still my favourite posthumous Nirvana track with the exception of “You Know You’re Right” and this isn’t sufficiently different or lively to replace my love of the deep deviations visible on the existing versions. It does sound more like more akin to “Nevermind” than the others, but it still sounds like a warm up rather than something where the band are pushing for a good take. Still (Sound City) Sappy, the last known jewel in the Nirvana vault (as opposed to the Cobain home tapes)…Fascinating! A good day!

These’ll all end up on an official release someday and I’ll certainly buy it. Why wouldn’t I? I actually DO want to buy official releases from bands, to support artists and indicate an appreciation of their work, I’m cool that a percentage goes to record labels to pay for the support services required to get music recorded, produced and out there… So whether I’ve heard these illicitly or not I’ll buy when Universal feel it’s time. Tiring sometimes that it can be so hard to get the studio works of a band all in one place but it’d deaden the excitement if I was hearing three takes of “Old Age” one after the other. I’d rather wait, anticipate, savor not knowing and not just being able to grab stuff.

Well gosh…I’m not sure there’s much I’d like to add except to thank my friend Diego C for bringing this to my attention and to the tireless denizens of LiveNirvana for the existing depth of their thoughts and analysis on this one.

Basic summary, over the weekend a number of unreleased demos – alternative takes and/or mixes from a number of sessions across 1991 to 1993 leaked. They consist of:

Smart Studios (April 1990)

Polly (alt. mix)

Here She Comes Now (alt. mix)

Sound City (May-June 1991)

Sappy (unreleased)

Old Age (alt. mix v1)

Old Age (alt. mix v2)

Verse Chorus Verse (alt. mix)

BMG Ariola, Rio de Janeiro (January 1993)

Scentless Apprentice (alt. mix)

I Hate Myself and I Want to Die (alt. mix)

Milk It (alt mix)

Onwards into Countless Battles (alt. mix)

Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip (alt. mix)

Seasons in the Sun (alt. mix)

Pachyderm (February 1993)

Heart-Shaped Box (instrumental)

Tourette’s (alt. mix) – thanks Raffaele!

I won’t post links simply because the YouTube links seem to being pulled down at a rate of knots so basically just hunt around, you’ll find them pretty easily. They seem to have been posted as audio files on Zomb Torrents first and, like anything in e-format, they’ve flowed from there.

So, personally, I had a rough weekend. A major bout of food poisoning had me inspecting my brother’s bathroom floors and facilities in more detail than I’d ever wish, I’m weak today, sleepy, a touch brain-dead…And this cheered me no end.

Any notes, not much, if you’re a Nirvana fan then you know these songs by now, you’ll notice inflections and alterations that revive and refresh old memories – its how outtakes work really, something known so well you’re not really listening suddenly tweaked in some small way to wake you briefly from autopilot. Why would anyone listen in this detail to something they’ve been listening to twenty plus years? But listening to a slightly new version? Ah, that’s different.

Sad though it is to reduce thoughts to impressions I just thought I’d listen through and note elements – naturally my ears aren’t the be-all-end-all, musicians among you will note more than I do. Just things I enjoyed…

“Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol…” A touch of extra noise in the first couple seconds, from 2.45 there’s another guitar track given more prominence returning to lend weight from about 4.45, cymbal work more prominent from 5.30 onward, 6.30 onward the bass is really up in the mix. Annnnd a nice extra minute and twenty of indulgent guitar improv from Cobain.

“Tourette’s” Double-tracked or additional vocals joining in on the “heys!” They do actually add something I’d have to say…

“I Hate Myself and I Want to Die” A few stray sounds noted compared to the With the Lights Out edition but otherwise nothing much to see here. A general lightness and freshness to it. Cobain goes crazy at 3 minutes in, neat. Gives a deeper impression of his spontaneity on this track, either that or his ability to make pre-planning sound wild.

“Sappy” Well was it ever going to be more than a light diversion? It’s nice to hear the roar of the 1990 version stripped back but it definitely lacks a certain spark, there’s a sketchiness to it (and to Cobain’s vocal) that is either appealing or a bit ‘meh’. It’s fine though, such a likable song is impossible to ruin and it’s fun watching Cobain haul through another quite significant variation on this song that he could never get just right. I wish there were as many versions of this out there as there have been ‘Been a Son’.

“Scentless Apprentice” Gains a few stray opening sounds and amp noise at the end edited out of subsequent release but heck, I’ve always enjoyed Cobain’s lyrical approach to this one!

Go forth, enjoy the rest as you will.

I admit I am. I’m long past any kinda rationality when it comes to the leftovers of Nirvana, I’ll listen to anything out of sheer curiosity even if it doesn’t necessarily sustain lengthy re-listening. So, I confess I’ve been listening repeatedly to illicit YouTube dubs of soundtrack material from Montage of Heck. What to make of it?

There are a few different ‘spliced’ editions of the previously unheard material up there now. Now, to be fair, I enjoy listening to it, very much so. But trying to be cold-eyed about it, what are we faced with amid this ten minutes of material?

OK, ignore the ‘band rehearsal’ shreds, they’re just chatter basically. That’s followed by what the text below the video states has been referred to as the ‘Cry Baby Jenkins’ riff – I confess to being ignorant of the reasons why this brief electric clatter and band joke links to the ‘Cry Baby Jenkins’ tale found in the earlier YouTube link here but perhaps that’ll become clear elsewhere. Again, it’s kind of a nothing, it’s very visible he’s just made it up on the spot without a thought.

Then we’re on into vestigial renditions of future Nirvana songs which, though welcomed, from a completist perspective aren’t exactly stunning reinventions. Really what we’re looking at is half formed, very early attempts which are interesting from the perspective of seeing how Cobain would work around riffs and ideas and gradually flesh them out and fill them in.

Then we get into an intriguing element for those of us who thirst for Cobain/Nirvana leftovers – a run of unknown tracks lasting 2 minutes and 5 seconds. The four pieces featured don’t offer too much food for thought I’d have to say. The first two pieces are barely 15 seconds between them, the acoustic riff is nondescript and the vocal is barely more than playtime. The ‘Change Me’ electric shred is neatly metal-tinted, chunky, but there’s nothing there beyond one line of lyrics repeated over in a gasping, short of breath screech. There’d have to be a lot more to the song to make it more than an example of Cobain roaming widely over musical territory when experimenting at home (a bit like ‘Black and White Blues’ or whatever that jazzy finger-picked effort is called these days…)

Then we’re onto the most meaty of the new material seen so far, the 36 second long ‘rainfall song’ (it’s what I call it, maybe I should become a bootlegger and make up song titles as a hobby.) I love the use of the field recording – i’m going on trust that it was Cobain working with field sound and playing over the top. It’s a wonderful combination, atmospheric, moody, neat. The guitar riff tumbles down in a steady cycle – there’s something like a chain rattling at one point…It works well for a song with no words, with little beyond an overall tone and style holding it together. It’s a great example of Cobain’s ability to focus on creating an emotional colour first, then any technical structure or actual words second. It’s why his music is so affecting, he had the emotion down first then everything else after.

Next up is the longest piece here and exhibits Cobain’s tendency to moan sounds when he hasn’t yet worked out the words, it’s not unpleasant, there’s a drift to it that’s quite appealing, a relaxed sway. But let’s be under no illusions, it’s another piece where it’s unclear if he’s even awake, it’s like he’s on automatic just trailing this pattern over and over while thinking of something else. It’s hard not to want these interludes and curios in some form because they are interesting, diverting, distracting…But there’s a distinct lack of anything substantial anywhere in this track or in the preceding two minutes. The later piece marked ‘Come on Death’ in the credits has a similar absence of anything marking it out as noteworthy. There’s a useful reiteration of Cobain’s desire to play with sound and with sound effects which is already well-known to anyone playing around in the bootleg field…That’s it.

So, there’s one cover song too, the much commented on rendition of “And I Love Her.” There’s not much to add really. It isn’t the best guitar work from Cobain, there’s nothing here bar sophomoric practice strumming, no fresh touches, nothing to mark out a superstar versus anyone else in their bedroom. The vocal too, quavering notes, a gravel-throated aspect, no real difference in tone or anything heroic. It’s ‘nice’ but that’s it. A fairly dead work.

The best of what’s here is the segued versions of Sappy with the acoustic and electric neatly cutting from one to t’other. The acoustic vocal benefits from the additional echo, the added sounds in the background, the ‘sea monkeys’ muttering at the start – it’s these additional touches and inflections around a known riff that make it intriguing. The electric meanwhile sounds so menacing – was there anything that couldn’t be done with this song? It’s so adaptable! And he clearly worked so hard on it given the number of extant studio versions and home versions already in existence and now an additional two versions with neat differences that make a genuine difference in the feel created. I think this song is amazing. Sappy is the great survivor of the Nirvana era, the song he tries over and over again, devotes more time to than any other on tape…

So, if this is all that was deemed worth inclusion in the soundtrack that kinda worries me, was there really so little that was worth trailing in the film? And leaving such a long gap between the film and the actual soundtrack release seems silly on the part of Universal though I can understand they’re digging for the Christmas nostalgia market. Building all that buzz then letting it drop away again… As ever, I live in hope of surprises and being proven wrong and discovering my own error and that there’s a full set of intriguing demos just around the corner. Fingers crossed!

Times change.

Sure, some artists will always have a place in musical histories – but that’s not the same as giving them a vibrant posthumous life. This is a simple consequence of life; musical tastes change as generations succeed one another. The greatest shifts in music in the past half century were the handover of the baton from classical to jazz, from jazz to rock, from rock to hip hop/R n’ B/urban (I’ve long since lost track of what to call it.) Sat in a darkened cinema that seats perhaps fifty people, seeing there were still seats for “Montage of Heck” free – it certainly reminded me that Nirvana weren’t as big a force in the U.K. as they were in the U.S. and that Cobain’s enduring appeal isn’t as total as it might seem among fan circles.

Nirvana circles are constantly caught between a number of kneejerk reactions that can be read in the comments sections beneath most articles online; firstly, “can’t we stop exploiting the guy? Isn’t this done? Can’t he rest in peace? Do they have to keep pumping out new material when only the three albums plus Incesticide are essential?” The second, “why aren’t they releasing X known archive recording? Where is the official release of Y? Can’t the record label get it together and put Z out after all these years?” It’s a feast or famine narrative; one part of the audience has had enough, one part wants more. Someone somewhere has to arbitrate between these two audience segments and ensure the conversation keeps going if a legacy is to be supported.

Before that, there’s a basic legal decision to be made. Many fans get caught up in the acquisitive urge – the idea that a creative individual’s works ‘belong’ to the audience rather than to the family, friends and loved ones of that individual. It’s usually couched in the language of freedom (the same way conservatives couch the withdrawal of government support for the needy as a way of giving those people freedom) when I’d have to say the idea of stripping an individual of any rights to define the inheritance they leave to others, or of stripping those others of any right to benefit, seems unjustifiable. The individual’s will is always the first step same as for a house or any other property. Next the family claim wherever rights aren’t owned by third parties (record companies, publishing companies, management companies, etc. all of whom have paid an artist – and had their payment accepted – for a particular component of the rights over the works under discussion) There’s nothing to stop fan communities bidding for such rights and purchasing them of course but in the meantime the rights are defined by these agreements. Those stakeholders need to decide what they wish to do – do they even want the work involved in managing a legacy when posthumous rights are such amorphous and difficult legal constructs?

Many personal wills and inheritances are disputed or leave various parties dissatisfied – imagine how much more complicated this is when the inheritance under discussion consists of business rights, commercial shares, ongoing financial relationships rather than simply a house and its contents. The aftermath of the Sex Pistols, of the Beatles, of Elvis, of Hendrix – all were beset by years of legal wrangling before a cleaner approach could emerge without a fudge of arguments, writs and protests swamping the positive celebration of someone’s work. The resolution of this overhang of business seems to be crucial – in the case of Nirvana it caused a cessation of releases from the time of “From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah” in 1996 until the greatest hits and “You Know You’re Right” in 2002. The legal bedrock needs to be solid before a legacy can begin to address what fans want.

At this point – if a memory isn’t to fade – new material, new content, new information is needed and it needs to spark several reactions; newcomers who haven’t experienced the artist need to be provoked into being curious enough to learn about them or hear them; people who grew bored of them need to want to pick them up again; those who remain devoted need the least work really but still need to feel simultaneously interested and like there’s more to come. Flooding a market with product lessens the impact, creates over-familiarity, achieves little additional benefit for all the extra cost and effort involved – it’s a waste. It’s also inhuman, it takes no account of the fact that hearing a new live recording every couple years might remind one of what one loved about a band but hearing 100 live takes of the same song all at once just provokes disinterest. Releases must be managed to ensure warmth of feeling persists, that continued fandom is rewarded regularly, that interest is staggered to catch new age groups, that boredom and over-saturation doesn’t set in.

Legitimacy is also crucial. Elvis Presley’s reputation suffered mightily during his lifetime from cheap budget releases and an over-proliferation of repetitive live recordings. It took time after his death to pause, restore respectability to the catalogue and the perceived ownership and to proceed from there. The legacy of Jimi Hendrix had a similar challenge; while the first few Hendrix archive releases were appreciated the decisions being made by the mid-Seventies to overdub and re-make tracks meant the authenticity of the resulting recordings was increasingly in doubt. Again, it took a substantial reset – the acquisition of rights to his music by Hendrix’s family, the setting up of Experience Hendrix – before the credibility of the catalogue returned. Interference with recordings isn’t such a challenge in the case of some musical sources; Michael Jackson’s catalogue is a fair example – his vocal is deemed the crucial requirement so updating the backing tracks, updating the collaborators, tweaking the sound is all deemed (within reason) acceptable.

Over-saturation is always an issue. Tupac Shakur’s vast archive of studio vocal tracks left rich pickings for his record label (Death Row) and the business his mother set-up to manage his affairs. The deluge that followed over the decade after his death, unfortunately, exhausted much good will; two disc compilations ever two years were so lengthy they were tiring to listen to and exposed a lack of differentiation or development that might have been less obvious with slimmer releases; the choices made musically often seemed to the detriment of Tupac’s impact; side-bar releases (a live record, two volumes of remixes, various unofficial compilations of early material, the movie soundtrack, reissues) created a jumble in which it was hard to feel any new release was notable or special. All this material failed to quell the call from some quarters for ‘the original tapes’ to be released, or the sense that there was yet more to come – the fanatics still wanted more long after most people had stopped looking. By the time the Tupac campaign shriveled down to one disc releases (the Eminem-helmed release, the soundtrack, one final Tupac disc overloaded with collaborations) it seemed to be a response to dwindling material of quality rather than a decision based on paying attention to audiences.

Joy Division went down a similar – though slightly different path starting at an earlier stage. A well curated leftovers release, “Still”, hit right back in 1981 – a fine record at a peak of interest in the band. While that would seem to be a best practice (look at Nirvana’s “MTV Unplugged in New York” to see this in action) the subsequent development of the band’s legacy fell short. This was based on regular issues of ‘half heard’ compilations with the odd bonus thrown in – then a truly excellent box-set (Heart and Soul) which unfortunately made subsequent archive efforts look threadbare. At least the live shows were worthy of interest but sound quality issues are a heavy factor given Joy Division never made it to vast acclaim (and vast live recording budgets) during their lifetime as a band. It’s been a disjointed process. That issue of a lack of material impacted the Notorious BIG’s posthumous records – ultimately the guy didn’t record enough music to sustain a legacy though both his main albums are remarkable. The “Born Again” release required padding out with collaborations to make anything of the slim pickings of his vocals – “Duets” was even worse – the “Greatest Hits” was fair enough then the film soundtrack added next to nothing. Each made money, none really burnished credentials. Maybe hip hop just moves too fast for a legacy to ever last long – that’s a different question however.

Every back catalogue ends up dealing with the question of eking out a dwindling supply of material. Often this results in claims of exploitation of fans who end up paying in order to get hold of one, two tracks. The thirtieth anniversary “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” reissues kept it simple; deluxe containing a good quality live show, super-deluxe containing some (fairly well known) demos plus the supposedly long-lost and recently rediscovered studio version of “Belsen Was a Gas” with Johnny Rotten on vocals, plus various other ephemera. After thirty years such limited means seems acceptable. At some point there has to be a projection of how long an artist’s critical cachet will last and therefore how to stagger releases. Being able to release new live recordings and demo dribbles forever might be possible but once there’s a bare handful bothering to listen there’s no point. This question would seem to emerge sooner rather than later in most cases; how long was it worth holding back Tupac’s music? How long is it worth holding back Kurt Cobain’s music?

In the case of the Beatles’ Anthology reissues there was at least a good portfolio of practices, warm-ups and early takes to refer to which satisfied fans. The challenge here, however, was that their legacy had been swamped in legal action for so long that there’d be next to no attempt to develop it properly – it all came too late at the tale end of too many re-parceled sets of known songs. Expectations had reached extreme levels meaning Anthology couldn’t fail to underwhelm even with the ‘reunion’ songs included – waiting for decades to discover scratch efforts, having to parse warmed over rock n’ roll or edited together takes of whatever…Whereas a gradual release of material over the years might have kept interest alive without wounding anticipation, what happened was too much all at once everything was over and done with between November 1995 and October 1996. It was a failure of scheduling that put too much attention on why leftovers stay leftovers when a gentler approach could have pleased many people.

Without careful bundling, quality and substance become crucial. The remastered Led Zeppelin issues were a triumph of modernity – a facelift on old friends. The extras included, however, were of limited interest and limited divergence from the known songs. Issuing songs with only one verse from Michael Jackson while foregrounding his name as if it’s still his record rather than a stitched up compilation ends up an embarrassing failure of honest and fair description which, again, wears down good will (and therefore potential buyers.)

Where does this leave us with the Nirvana legacy? Well, in my ‘umble opinion, the last decade has actually been a really effective performance and there is credit due to the various parties involved. Perhaps that’s a controversial perspective but let me explain further…

The MTV Unplugged album was a huge success – it’s outsold “In Utero” and has done much to mellow perceptions of Kurt Cobain, to open doors to his music that Nirvana’s noisier aesthetic hadn’t necessarily permitted. The rapid-fire timing made absolute sense. The next steps – issuing the last work Cobain had been really committed to (Live! Tonight! Sold Out!) in 1995 as well as the singles box in some countries kept interest alive and plugged a hole given Nirvana hadn’t issued a live record or a visual recording at that point. While From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah was unsatisfying to many fanatics who were already gorging on live bootlegs it did provide a rapid-fire retort to the softer image of Unplugged and did no harm. The pause for the next few years could have been a challenge except it meant Nirvana’s reappearance occurred as a new generation discovered the band (take a look at the performance of most great artists and note most have a wilderness phase then rediscovery based less on quality of fresh output and more on new audiences after the generation that needed to react against it’s predecessors has moved on).

The Greatest Hits had the ‘golden ticket’ in the form of You Know You’re Right – there had to be a greatest hits at some point, it was a sensible reentry point (or starting point for some bands) and there wasn’t much debate on the choices made. It did what it said on the tin. The box-set struck a decent middleground – known b-sides, a slew of true unknowns, home demos, different versions, the DVD element. While fans gripe about the sound quality on some choices, that better versions existed elsewhere, it was still an extensive and pretty comprehensive entry. After this point Nirvana fans have had something to look forward on what is normally a two year cycle with DVDs and live recordings filling the hole until the anniversary releases came out.

The doubling up of album anniversaries and DVD releases has prevented over-saturation because the visual and the audio components are such separate entities. Time has been left in the schedule for people to yearn for something fresh each time. I think Montage of Heck’s release in 2015, two years after the In Utero anniversary campaign fills an appropriate hole and – again – adopts a multi-channel approach which prevents it clogging fans up or confusing them regarding what to choose. It also provides a narrative that gives legitimacy to the issue of Cobain’s more shredded and non-commercial pieces – I think it’s a clever move that will help deflect criticisms of its ropey nature. It’ll be appreciated as part of an attempt to show Cobain in a flawed and naturalistic light rather than as simply “the next archive release.”

The anniversary releases were, again, comprehensive mashups of the live and studio material that remains related to “Nevermind” and “In Utero” – it’s a shame there wasn’t a deeper look at the “Bleach” era but that release was relatively low-key by comparison to its successors and was no embarrassment. There’s been good logic behind each release, the exclusions and repetitions were kept to a minimum, it’s clear why the combinations of material used were put there. While some have queried the mixing efforts, or the absence of one or t’other song, those are minor complaints when judged against the wholesale rewriting of history that happened to someone like Hendrix, or the massively unsatisfied desires of Beatles fans or Led Zeppelin fans, or the threadbare results of the BIG effort. It’s been respectful, regular, neither gluttonous feast nor bone-thin famine.

The only missteps really have been “Sliver” in 2005 – a fairly pointless rehash of the box-set which really was open to accusations of cash-grab given the tagging on of extras only a year after the majority of the release had already been seen – plus the “Icon” greatest hits set that no one can figure out why it’s out there. That’s not bad for a twenty year old legacy that’s put so much material into the public space.

Is there more? Why yes. That’s the crucial element – there’s got to be more to keep things going, to keep the excitement. So sure, I’d like to hear Fecal Matter, Sound City Sappy, whatever someday…But I’ll wait. So far I’m pretty confident it’ll come because so far there’s always been something in the pipeline. It’s smart commerce and smart management and compared to the treatment of many artist’s work posthumously I have few complaints.

There’s a kneejerk tendency among certain groups of Nirvana fans to cuss the name of Courtney Love. You’ve undoubtedly noticed that I don’t share that inclination. Why? Well, essentially, as someone wishing to hear more of the musical works of Kurt Cobain, as someone wishing to see more of his wider artistic efforts – Courtney Love is the keeper of the keys to the vault. I don’t feel she’s been any more or less a good custodian than Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl, Universal – nor do I feel in a position to criticise given I don’t possess, nor do I know anyone who possesses, experience of the intricate process of managing the legacy of an individual across decades.

The involvement of Courtney Love and Frances Bean Cobain in Brett Morgen’s film should be a source of encouragement for those hoping for the chance to hear more of Cobain’s work. The crucial point is to differentiate between NIRVANA’s work and COBAIN’s work. Nirvana was a group entity that interpreted and enacted Cobain’s creative will. The data on record regarding their studio sessions indicates there’s a bare handful of songs as yet unreleased, entirely other takes of songs we’ve already heard. From a very early stage in the posthumous process they were forced to dig into non-studio rehearsal tapes and boombox work without emerging with many true revelations; a jam here, an unreleased instrumental there, sketch songs lightly buttered over the top. Krist Novoselic’s past comment on the paucity of unheard Nirvana material seems accurate to me – the group released the vast majority of what it recorded. Nirvana were deeply economical when in studio; it was rare they even laid down b-side material at the same session as their album. In the early years it was simply because they couldn’t afford extensive recording sessions, the later years, meanwhile, were such a rush that there was barely time to record. While there’s undoubtedly still a pool of other mixes, other versions, slightly tweaked efforts of known songs sitting around somewhere – there’s been nothing since 2004 to dispel the notion that the cupboard is bare of any fresh You Know You’re Right moment.

The next potential source of truly unheard material would be to head toward Cobain’s juvenilia. Sure, the Fecal Matter tapes have now secured a legendary status, but then there’s still whatever earlier teenage sketches remain buried, plus anything laid down on tape prior to the commencement of the first recognisable iteration of Nirvana in late 1986. The turnover of Nirvana songs in these early years was remarkable – Cobain was prolific, the Easter 1986 recording of Fecal Matter carried over barely a song and a half to the earliest known efforts of ‘Nirvana’, then the January 1988 sessions gave way to an almost entirely different selection of songs by December 1988 when Bleach was recorded. That’s rapid work, a dozen songs at a time introduced and dispensed with. Depending on whether that apparent pace was in effect prior to Easter 1986, there’s potentially more to be seen there. Depending on how many ideas didn’t make it to Nirvana sessions maybe there’s more from 1987-1988 too. After that I doubt there’s much going sketched but unrecorded.

This is where the Courtney Love factor comes into play. While Nirvana, as a group, barely created any new music between 1992-1994, it’s unclear the extent to which Kurt Cobain did or did not continue to prepare private material. It’s also uncertain to what extent he recorded privately with Courtney. These are the primary sources from whence unfamiliar and unknown material could conceivably emerge. During the two-and-a-half years of Cobain’s fame he spent barely thirty days in the studio with Novoselic and Grohl including the abandoned April 1992 sessions, abandoned October sessions, one week playing at Pachyderm Studios for In Utero then one week mixing, only turning up for one day in January 1994…And between February 1992 and October 1993 he was barely ever on a stage…This guy was at home (or wherever he happened to be living at the time) and it’s the home recordings that could potentially indicate whether those years were ones in which he continued expressing musically, or whether he moved away from music toward video, art, family and unconsciousness. I don’t know the answer. But I do feel I expect more ‘new’ to come from Courtney than from something like the rumoured ‘Bathtub is Real’ tape recorded with Tobi Vail. While I’d be intrigued to hear what’s there I suspect no more than sketches of Nevermind-era songs.

Does that mean I’m forecasting some weighty quantity of well-drawn acoustic pieces? Some kinda Nick Drake style reassessment of Cobain’s abilities with an acoustic guitar? Nope. Let’s be fair, Cobain was disinterested in, and dismissive of, sophisticated instrumental technique – I expect the endearing and appealing sloppiness he often exhibited live (or on the existing home demos from 2004’s With the Lights Out) to be to the fore. Similarly, do I expect him to be blowing his vocal cords out when playing at home in a closet? Nope, the pieces seen so far are far more restrained – but, again, that isn’t a bad thing, just different. I’d suspect much of what exists will be unstructured, not really worked up given how much of Nirvana’s In Utero work in Rio and Pachyderm stemmed from thin ideas around which the band ad-libbed and jammed up some real quality. As stated earlier, Nirvana were economical in studio and I believe that’s reflective of Cobain’s general approach – don’t polish and re-polish a piece in private unless it’s intended to go somewhere. Given how short on songs the band were by the end of 1992/start of 1993 I’d be surprised if he had much in his back pocket that he wasn’t placing on the table for Nirvana’s full band consideration. That draws the eye to the post-In Utero era, again, it’ll be curious to hear what occurred in that final year…But there’s not much time for miracles with October-December plus February spent on tour. Let’s see shall we? Courtney has the keys…She was there.