With The Lights Out
It's been a decade since unwilling spokes-star for a generation Kurt Cobain expressed his angst with such violent finality. And only three years longer since his four chords and Dave Grohl's crashing drum-fill so succinctly introduced the Nirvana dynamic to pretty much everybody via the first five seconds of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." It seems like a lot longer, probably because we're talking about popular music, where everything can change within the three-minute length of a song. It doesn't help, however, that FM radio is still littered with bands that appropriated the more obvious, hooky elements of Nirvana's sonic signature while completely ignoring its complex personality and antisocial joy; every new Socialburn or Puddle of Mudd illustrates just how far "alternative rock" has been driven away from the self-conscious misgivings of its early '90s breakthrough.
Maybe that's why With The Lights Out is such a rough-hewn, gnarly and determinedly single-less package. These three CDs and one DVD are steeped in noise: feedback, tape hiss, audience rumble, creaky recorder components. And the tunes these noises alternately obscure and enhance are not, by and large, rough versions of the sort of Beatles-gone-New-Wave gems that mainstream music fans associate with Nevermind. They're raw-nerved blasts, whispers and sketches by a really good punk-metal band that taped a lot more of its early rehearsals than it did later ones. And they're compiled into a box set that, despite featuring three versions of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," does its damnedest to imply that Nirvana never became an arena-rock phenomenon that had its poppier songs played on the radio every 45 minutes for five years straight. With The Lights Out plays to the obsessives, the completists, the ones who still have the band's primal 1989 debut Bleach in their CD changers and know it was them, and not the masses, for whom Nirvana was intended. And that's fine, but it presents a major drawback beyond the obvious fact that young professionals and soccer Moms eager to relive their Lollapalooza youths are going to hate it.
The drawback is filler, and With The Lights Out has more than its fair share. Sure, 51 of the 61 mostly chronologically ordered audio tracks (a rough mix of "Teen Spirit" and a solo version of "All Apologies" are pulled out of date in a blatant attempt to add more emotional impact to the ends of CDs Two and Three) are previously unreleased. But many of the home and rehearsal recordings — a handful are mislabeled "solo acoustic," when it's obviously an electric guitar Cobain is playing — are just barely listenable. There are also some tracks comprised of incomplete sections of song, and a few already well-exposed signature Nirvana tunes ("Polly," "Sappy/Verse Chorus Verse," "Teen Spirit," the mediocre-at-best "Rape Me") are represented by multiple versions, all of which are vastly inferior to previously available takes. Nobody needs all of it, and it adds up to an endurance test of a listen. When you cater to the devotees, what you end up with is a document for study rather than a vehicle for enjoyment; even knowledgeable listeners would've been better served with less deep-digging, and a few more B-sides and album tracks.
But the whole thing's not just a dense, cred-shoring exercise. Highlights abound: The early sludge of "Anorexorcist." The creepily harmonious "Clean Up Before She Comes." The lonely Leadbelly covers. The hilariously unsettling tape-speed manipulation of "Beans." The flawless stop-and-go crunch of "Oh, The Guilt." The visceral, well-recorded demo for "Aneurysm." The lengthy practice-jam on an embryonic "Scentless Apprentice." The lovely B-side "Marigold." The list goes on, and the DVD, while bereft of both actual videos and behind-the-scenes footage of any consequence, is mandatory; too-long early practice session aside, you get some truly kinetic live performances, and get to watch the band go from sloppy club-rock act with potential, to confident killer live attraction within the black seconds between "School" and "Love Buzz."
As an ardent Nirvana fan, I think everybody on the planet should own With The Lights Out. As a guy who likes good end-to-end albums, however, I find the box set too heavy on questionable inclusions. The answer, then, is simple — go get it, but leave the full-on immersion for the days surrounding April 5, and burn yourself a favored one-CD mix for better times. 1/2
Grand Theft Auto San Andreas Official Soundtrack Box Set
Rockstar Games/Interscope Records
Most videogame soundtracks suck; they're packed with nu-metal remixes and watered-down skate-punk rehash. This does not suck, however, because it isn't so much a cross-promotional tool as an attempt to re-create the sound of a certain time and place. Urban Southern California during the early '90s, to be exact — the sprawling backdrop for the latest installment in Rockstar Games' controversial Grand Theft Auto series.
What we've got here is eight full-length CDs, with each representing a radio station (or two) available for listen by the game's player. And in the course of reflecting what was on the airwaves in such an eclectic location at such a fruitful time for music, Rockstar and Interscope Records have put together one of the biggest, best, and most diverse collections of familiar and semi-familiar singles — from all over the stylistic map — ever assembled. Funk, rare groove, R&B/urban, dub/reggae, classic rock, alt-rock and country all get a station; hip-hop gets two, one for the old school and one for the new. It adds up to 85 tunes, and while most are instantly familiar and resonant (Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock's "It Takes Two," Willie Nelson's "Crazy," James Brown's "The Payback," Helmet's "Unsung," Heart's "Barracuda," Bell Biv Devoe's "Poison," etc.), there's surely plenty of stuff for the listener to explore in genres outside his or her favorites. And because of the radio-station format, the set can dig back into the past even as it re-creates the cutting edge of the day.
It's a hugely ambitious endeavor. But, despite the generic, cheesy between-song DJ banter and the fact that all of the songs are extremely obvious choices — Jane's Addition's somewhat sub-par "Been Caught Stealing," for example, rather than something better and more obscure — this set succeeds hugely. 1/2