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The Major Lift

By Erik Hage

If Kurt Cobain hadn’t committed suicide in 1994, he’d now be 42 years old—an idea that is not hard to fathom, for in life and art Cobain never seemed to resonate the bloom of youth so much as the accumulated pain of seasoned adulthood. And I wish I could say that I was ahead of the curve with Nirvana and purchased Bleach when it originally came out in 1989, but like most of the world I first encountered Nirvana through the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video on MTV in 1991, and it’s a moment that has stuck with me. (I recall walking through the student lounge in NYU’s Brittany Hall and being stopped dead in my tracks by the song on the big-screen TV.)

To have this kind of raw, challenging, sometimes abrasive music come out from under the cover of “alternative” niches and dive into the pulsing waters of the mainstream meant a whole paradigm shift; thus, Nirvana became the band who not only delivered the death blow to hair metal and helped spur on grunge, but who reconfigured ideas of “alternative” music in general. No longer the domain of college radio, boutique MTV shows in the after hours, or hip record stores, Nirvana became a viable commercial entity. (Surely zeitgeist-mates Pearl Jam had their own estimable influence; the constipated howls of Nickelback, Creed, and countless other “today’s rock”-format bands attest to that.)

Bleach, cut on the cheap for less than a thousand dollars for Sub Pop, came before all that. But the album retroactively benefited from Nevermind, eventually achieving platinum status. Personally, I don’t think that Nirvana ever made a career-defining album and worked in an ultimately limited idiom (had Kurt lived, though, one suspects that he would have found new artistic purchase—and not lapsed into godawful concept albums like Green Day did). This 20th-anniversary deluxe edition of Bleach shows an album that holds up well, however, with this pre-Dave Grohl incarnation of Nirvana already displaying the paradoxical blend of melodic deftness and abrasive torrents that would make Nirvana an entire musical movement. Nevertheless, the best track on the album, “About a Girl,” proves what Kurt Cobain had told us all along about himself: He’s also a master appropriator. Much has been made of his absorption of the Pixies, Melvins, and Mudhoney, but “About a Girl” is a straight-up rip-off of the Smithereens’ “Blood and Roses.” Bassist Krist Novoselic even mentioned in a 2002 Rolling Stone interview how, pre-Bleach, the band “had one tape we listened to in the van. . . . On one side was the Smithereens. And on the other side was this heavy-metal band, Celtic Frost.” (This fact seemed to be lost on a recent RS reviewer, who saw in the song “abraded Lennon-McCartney chord changes”—hmm, could that be because the Smithereens were Beatle-philes? I can’t do all of the heavy lifting.)

I suppose the key question is whether Bleach would remain little more than a curiosity if it weren’t for the outsized success that the band would later enjoy. I’m not sure, but Bleach remains a great listen. If Pearl Jam had ever recorded a track half as sharp and powerful as “School,” I would have 10 times more respect for their music. Elsewhere, however, Nirvana seem all scorch and edge with no meter—such as in “Scoff” and “Negative Creep” (the latter a rough prototype of intention for In Utero’s dazzling, torching, and more controlled “Radio Unit Friendly Shifter”). And as much as I am wary of concert recordings tacked onto reissues, the Portland, Ore., show from Feb. 9, 1990 (my 21st birthday, for what that’s worth) shows what a strong live unit the band were long before Nevermind. Frankly, having knocked out the Bleach LP in a five-hour studio session, they would have to have been.

Jet-setting progeny Julian Casablancas emerged as a whole different brand of “alternative” frontman with the Strokes early in the millennium, but breaks out on his new solo album, Phrazes for the Young, with a whole different approach. Synthesizers and beats rule the day on this effort, an intention that shouldn’t be dismissed out-of-hand for a man whose voice is typically couched in off-kilter, charming guitar-pop. But this album never gels. The synth noodlings of “Glass” come off more Genesis than forward-thinking; “11th Dimension” seems standard dance-club fare; “Ludlow St.” is a strange country music/electropop amalgam; and the potential breakout song, the strident and tuneful “Out of the Blue,” never approaches the kind of hook that the Strokes could summon at will. Elsewhere, the disco pop of “Left & Right in the Dark” confirms my creeping suspicion that Casablancas is bound to become the Bryan Ferry of the contemporary era.

But I suppose the strangest personal development this month is that I am spending a lot of time listening to the soundtrack from that new vampire . . . thing. The Twilight Saga: New Moon is a great soundtrack to a movie I have no intentions to see (based on a book series that I will never read). Death Cab for Cutie continue their multiyear run of alarmingly good songs with the turgid but pretty “Meet Me on the Equinox,” while the Killers vamp their way through the new-romantic goth of “A White Demon Love Song.” Grizzly Bear don’t fare as well with “Slow Life,” because of the band’s typical focus on atmospherics over songcraft. But, like Death Cab for Cutie, Sea Wolf inject some energy into the largely doomy and downbeat affair with “Violet Hour.” (Here is a band who continue to remind me of Echo and the Bunnymen, in all of the right ways.) There are also standout tracks by Thom Yorke, Bon Iver, Muse, and Editors. Here’s one that really snuck up on me; a trashy mass-media phenomena has spawned what is quite simply a great collection of songs from the hearty corps of the alt elite.

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