Smells like box set: Nirvana rocks on

I picked up “With the Lights Out” at a sterile suburban retail chain, the kind of place where the youths of Aberdeen, Washington would go to buy their Sammy Hagar and KISS LPs, the rural locale where the Nirvana saga began. And yet the band’s long-awaited box set, which has magically appeared after seven years of legal maneuvering, is not the type of slick corporate marketing ploy that normally lines the shelves of the aptly-named “entertainment” department of such stores. The four disc set, with three CDs and one DVD, is a surprisingly candid biographical document that sheds light on the band’s personnel changes and stylistic evolution from 1987 to 1994.

The set, which complies demos, solo tracks, b-sides, outtakes and remixes, is by no means for the Nirvana dilettante. While many of the 68 so-called previously unreleased recordings have been available for some time on bootlegs, their quality on “Lights” are much improved. Better yet, there are over a dozen tracks in the set that even the most dedicated of fans haven’t heard before.

Perhaps the worst that can be said about the set is that some of the material, especially Cobain’s home demos, are of such poor quality that they are barely listenable.

Given Cobain’s penchant for covering songs by obscure indie favorites like the Vaselines, it is surprising that “With the Lights Out” begins with a second-rate cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker.” The track, recorded live at the band’s first show, is plagued by bassist Krist Novoselic’s inebriated vocal stylings. To be fair, the recording is symbolic of the derivative punk-metal sludge that band first played, before evolving to a more melodic, original, dynamic and focused sound.

This growth is primarily charted on the first disc. Even amid the raunchy, sub-metallic tracks (“Mrs. Butterworth,” “Pen Cap Chew”), which cop the local grunge sound typified by Soundgarden and the Melvins, Cobain’s songwriting is filled with memorable wordplay, hooks and melodies.

By the end of the first CD, circa 1989, Cobain’s interest in pure pop, and his focus on crafting memorable vocals rather than guitar riffs, begins to manifest itself. The biggest surprise on the disc, maybe the most exciting song of the set, is “Ain’t it a Shame,” a slightly punked-up Leadbelly tune that features Cobain heartily singing in a highly convincing country drawl.

In contrast to the excitement of listening to the new songs of the first disc, the second is bogged down by poorly recorded demos of songs on “Nevermind,” the band’s 1991 breakthrough, which have already been played to death. But the disc contains two highly anticipated unheard gems from the “Nevermind” sessions, “Old Age” and “Verse Chorus Verse,” two wonderfully jangly pop songs.

By the third disc, the band stylistically returns to the pummeling noise of “Bleach,” their 1989 debut. But the band’s sound has a decidedly iconoclastic, non-metal feel. The disc is packed with demos of well-known tracks from “In Utero,” their third and final studio album, on which they arguably perfected their vision. The most anticipated track, the REM-influenced, “Do Re Mi,” was written a few weeks before Cobain’s death. Sadly, there’s little else on the box set that suggests the band’s future direction. In stark contrast to the shiny pop of “Do Re Mi,” the disc’s final track is an austere, brittle and sincere version of “All Apologies.”

The box set highlights some of the band’s connections to other indie-rock icons like REM, K Records founder Calvin Johnson, and the iconic Dale Crover of the Melvins. If anyone involved in the project comes across as an outsider, it is Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, who penned a portion of the liner notes, reminiscing on his own bewilderment with Cobain’s eclectic musical background and tastes.

The set’s fourth disc is a grainy collection of concert footage and rough home movies from the band’s early days. It places significant weight on the band’s formative years, centering on rehearsal clips from 1988. Like most of the DVD, the rehearsal scenes are both tedious and intriguing.

There is little view of the band’s life as superstars, except for a poignant clip from a secret show in 1992 at Seattle’s Crocodile Cafe. The self-deprecating Cobain quips, “Thanks for coming and helping us pretend that we’re still alternative underground pub stars,” before launching into “Talk to Me”, an upbeat Pixies-sounding song that was never recorded in studio.

“With the Lights Out” will not be the last Nirvana/Cobain release, but it will likely be the last set with anything of interest to the general public. The remarkably comprehensive set has plenty of great material and much musical variety, ranging from folk-blues to surf-pop to full-throttle metal. But the best way to enjoy “With the Lights Out” is to skim through the 81 tracks, then burn your own best-of-the-box mix, before the record companies do the same.

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