Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The 30th Best Album of the 90s: Nirvana - "In Utero" (1993)

Let's kick off the countdown of my favorite albums of the 90s with a GRR (Grumpy Recoil Record).

This is an age old phenomenon which occurs when a band from the underground suddenly makes it big and feels the need to follow up their hit album with a dark, unwelcoming one to scare off those pesky new fans.

Green Day followed up Dookie with Insomniac, Slipknot followed up their selftitled debut with Iowa, Pearl Jam followed up the anthemic Ten with the grouchy Vs. To just mention three examples.

After the success of Nevermind, Nirvana went to Minnesota to record their third album in a short two weeks with noise guru Steve Albini (The Jesus Lizard, Shellac, P.J. Harvey etc). Rumors soon spread about this new "unlistenable" and "unreleasable" album Nirvana was working on. This turned out not to be true, as although In Utero contains punk blow-outs like Very Ape, Scentless Apprentice and Milk It, it also had several pretty, soulful songs such Dumb, Pennyroyal Tea and All Apologies. None of which would have sounded out of place on Nevermind.

But sure, it's a much noisier affair than the record company expected, and for casual fans of Nevermind and its Celine Dion production (courtesy of Butch Vig) I'm sure there were parts that sounded shockingly harsh. To be honest though, if you'd heard their debut album Bleach (1989) or the oddities compilation Incesticide (1992), nothing on In Utero should come as a big surprise as the abrasive side of Nirvana had always been prevalent.

It could have been even harsher though, as before sessions began Kurt Cobain and Albini decided to go for the same kind of sound Albini had given P.J. Harvey's Rid Of Me. Apparently Cobain got cold feet when he heard the result and had Scott Litt remaster the album and completely remix the singles All Apologies and Heart-Shaped Box to increases chances of airplay. Perhaps we're not so rebellious and anti-everything after all, are we, Mr. Cobain?

For whatever reason it's those remixed singles I always skip when I listen to In Utero. Drummer Dave Grohl has said his favorite Nirvana song is Heart-Shaped Box and he must be insane. The video was amazing, the song boring and generic. Can't stand it. Same thing will All Apologies and Rape Me. Whether that's because this remixing took the edge off 'em or simply because they're horribly overplayed, I don't know.

No, for me the heart and soul of In Utero lies in the noisy, experimental tracks. Milk It for example is a complete headfuck that makes no sense, tourette's consists of a minute and a half of the simplest punk riff imaginable with random yelping on top and the Grohl-penned Scentless Apprentice strides forth like Tad Doyle on his way to the toilet after a tex mex buffet.

But the real unsung hero here is the ironically titled Radio Friendly Unit Shifter, a song that ain't gonna shift any units anytime soon. Almost hidden away towards the end of the album it's a true scorcher that is just as likely to melt face your face as it is to make you jump head-first into a wall with excitement.

Okay, one down, twenty-nine to go.

Radio Friendly Unit Shifter live in Seattle 1993:


e static said...

great picks! not gonna gush on about nirvana, but man, nostalgia being what it is, these tunes make my gut wrench in that good way. their greantess is evident in both the anthemic polished songs, and the rawness of everything else. that rawness was obvoiusly in the polish too. thanks

Craig said...

P.J. Harvey did the same thing after _Rid of Me_ with _To Bring You My Love_ in my opinion.

This will be a fun list, I sure do love a lot of 90s music.

David Snusgrop said...

You mean she made a GRR?

I dunno man, to me Rid Of Me is much more confrontational and hard to listen to.

serpico said...

Actually, that Celine Dion production on Nevermind isn't courtesy of Butch Vig. He did the actual recording but the label didn't like his mixes.

The real culprit is Andy Wallace.

Craig said...

Yeah, I guess what I really meant was To Bring You My Love made ME more grumpy after I thought so much of Rid of Me.

Rid of Me was a real shocker and high energy for most of the album.... I thought the next album purposely shed that.

You're right, what you actually meant by GRR would be in reverse here.

Looking back, my favorite tracks on that later album are "Working For The Man" and "I Think I'm A Mother" which are anything but rockers.

Buster said...

Great choices, especially Milk It.

Kurt was unhappy with the vocals, he wanted them higher in the mix. That is one of many reasons why they did a remix.

fred said...

you're crazy. this should be in the top 10. or at least higher than a
'sugar ray' record.