Tag Archives: Dave Grohl

61st Favorite: Songs for the Deaf, by Queens of the Stone Age

Share

Songs for the Deaf. Queens of the Stone Age.
2002, Interscope. Producer: Josh Homme, Adam Kasper, Eric Valentine.
Purchased 2003.

songs deaf album

61nutshellIN A NUTSHELL: Aggressive, pounding rock and mellow, moody offerings plus everything in between are found on this excellent album. The musicianship is top-notch, featuring Nirvana/Foo Fighter Dave Grohl on drums and Josh Homme’s terrifically distinctive guitar work. Drums, guitar, melody, diversity – my list’s usual suspects – are once again featured here.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Brains are funny.funnybrain They’re not “funny Ha Ha,” but they’re more “funny weird” [i.e. Not funny at all]. The brain is the most important organ in the body, beating out the heart and lungs on the basis of the fact that while there is something called a “Heart and Lung Machine,” that takes over for the heart and lung when needed, there isn’t a comparable Brain Machine. (I said “Comparable,” so this sweet device, retailing for $25, doesn’t count.) When the brain stops working, that’s the end.

sherlockThe brain stands alone atop the hierarchy of organs in higher organisms because it is the one organ that is so complex, that functions so mysteriously, that nobody knows for sure what all it does, how it does what it does, or, especially, what its potential could be.

Consider for a moment how well we understand other organs. The heart, for example, has a straightforward purpose and a manner of operation, and both can be summed up pretty easily. Purpose: get blood through the body. Manner of Operation: contract and release in rhythmic pattern. The same can be said for the lungs, even heartlungsthough it’s more complex: Purpose: bring oxygen into the body and put it into the blood. Manner of Operation: diaphragm movement causes suction, oxygen moves in and gets to bloodstream through tiny capillaries.

Those organs were pretty simple, I did them from memory. How about if I pick an organ I don’t know much about, google around a little bit and try to summarize it. Pancreas. Purpose: produce and release enzymes to help digest foods. pancreasOkay, that was easy enough. Manner of Operation: uh, okay. This gets just a little bit more complex. Well, a lot more complex. But basically, some chemicals are released in the gut in response to what we’ve eaten, and those chemicals tell the pancreas to squirt some pancreatic juice into the intestines. So, it’s pretty complex, but it’s not hard to understand. And all vertebrates have a pancreas, and they all do pretty much the same thing, so it’s a pretty routine function.

Okay, now let’s think about how the brain works. Guess what!! You already are, just from reading that first sentence! musclebrainIn fact, you were probably thinking about brains and how they work since you first saw that goofy brain with Groucho nose and glasses, above. Your brain is like that – doing shit you’re not even aware of all the time, even while you sleep. Your brain does so much stuff that we still don’t know what all it does. In fact, it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that you are your brain.

If that’s the case, then when we go through our two-step “Purpose” and “Manner of Operation” process to describe organ function, it’s complicated right off the bat. Purpose: well, how about EVERYTHING. Manner of Operation: let’s try something here. Imagine a large painting of an orange hanging in a museum, orangethe only painting on this particular wall, and that as you stand there looking at it, the color starts to ooze outward until the shape of the fruit is no longer recognizable. You calculate that the fruit had taken up about 60% of the canvas before it disappeared into what is now simply an orange-colored canvas. That orange color continues to spread off the canvas and soon takes up an entire wall, and when it takes up the entire wall, the wall begins to vibrate and then hum. As you back up a few steps, that hum turns into a woman’s voice singing The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun,” but the voice is out of tune, and as the wall sings, it dislodges itself from the surrounding building and begins a slow, soundless, controlled collapse. And as it collapses you watch it retract into an actual orange which plops onto the floor in the middle of the museum where the wall used to be. You walk over to it and pick it up and sniff it, and it smells like an orange, and you peel and eat it and it tastes delicious. And now imagine yourself doing that again when you’re 90.

brainwhatOkay, how the #*$%@!! did your brain just do that?! Visualize the impossible? Conjure an orange smell? Hear a song – out of tune?! Your brain did that without breaking a sweat! Hearts pump, lungs inflate, pancreases respond to chemical levels … But what did your brain just do? Are there elves living within your ears that get a message from a surly witch living in one of those folds in your brain, and do the elves pass pictures behind your eyes, and smells behind your nose, and songs inside your head? That sounds as plausible to me as any other explanation!

Humans have known about the brain for a long time, and for most of that time people – besides me – have understood oliverthat elves weren’t involved in the brain’s function. It’s hard for a simpleton like me to understand, but the fact is that the brain does everything it does through chemicals and electrons and energy, just like every other organ, and scientists are learning more about the brain every day. To better understand brain function, research is often carried out on people whose brains do things out of the ordinary, often due to injury or illness. Like the woman who developed extreme empathy after brain surgery; or the woman who has no fear; or the person who sees beards on everyone. (If you’re interested in reading about weird stuff like this, I suggest the Oliver Sacks book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.)

brainmusicThis makes me wonder: has anyone ever studied someone with a brain that associates music with every memory of their entire life? Sure, it’s not as debilitating as Aboulomania or as strange as Foreign Accent Syndrome, but it could indicate some sort of brain malfunction, couldn’t it?

Consider the following Case Study. Subject: A forty-nine year old whitemauimap American male, with a history of good health, married, father to two teen-aged children. Symptomatic Episode: In late 2002, subject was thirty-five years old and had been married for six years to a woman, J., and had one four-year old son. J’s family included relatives living in Maui, one of the Hawaiian Islands, and frequently mentioned as one of the most beautiful places in the entire world. The grandmother of J., after a long and fulfilling life, fell ill and died. Because the grandmother spent winters in Maui with her grown children, the family planned a ceremony to be held on the island to commemorate her long life and spread some of her ashes.
mauipic

The Subject flew with his wife and child to Maui in December, 2002, for a week of billeting with relatives, honoring the family matriarch, and general island vacation fun. Subject and his immediate family attended several relatives’ gatherings, including trips to the beach, an excursion to Mount Haleakala, a whale watch, a Christmas/Hannukah gift exchange, and several rousing games of Sardines with the many children in attendance. Subject and his immediate family also spent several hours together exploring the island, driving to Hana, and generally experiencing the natural splendor that is Maui.

Subject and son in Maui. Subject appears to be in a location, and with people (including his wife, the photographer), that will make this trip among the most memorable experiences in his life.

Brain Affliction: As described above, the subject spent a week in Maui, one of the most beautiful places on Earth, with his closest loved-ones and extended family celebrating the life of an important person recently passed, and experiencing once-in-a-lifetime events with them. However, when asked to reflect on this time, the strongest persistent memory of this trip continues to be (as stated in the Subject’s words) “That trip was the first time I heard the song “No One Knows,” by Queens of The Stone Age.”

Discussion: The Subject’s brain appears to be otherwise normal, although certain functions that were tested did land on the extreme end of the scale. For example, appreciation for both old Three Stooges short films and Bugs Bunny episodes (including all of the associated Warner Brothers cartoons) was extremely high so as to be noteworthy. doctorSubject is also extraordinarily handsome, which doesn’t factor into this research but really must be noted. The subject’s constant internal (mental) and external (verbal) references to rock music and, to a lesser extent, music such as jazz, show tunes, Tin Pan Alley and only the most well-known classical pieces, does not appear to interfere with his life. He has consistently been employed in professional occupations, has established meaningful, caring and reciprocated relationships with others, and generally moves through his life experiencing joy and happiness. While his focus on music is strange to others, bordering on alarming, it does not appear to have hindered him. Others may not understand why a song by a rock band would appear to sit atop a hierarchy of memories of time spent with family on a so-called “Paradise on Earth,” but for the unafflicted masses the best way of processing this information is to just listen to that goddamn song and tell me it’s not un-fucking-believable.

qotsa1

I’d say the researcher above is stretching things a bit – I wouldn’t necessarily say that hearing “No One Knows” sits “atop a hierarchy of memories” from Maui. But it is true that I clearly remember lying on the couch of the guest apartment we stayed in, relaxing in between once-in-a-lifetime events by watching MTV, when the following song showed up.

I love everything about this song. I love the four introductory guitar notes at the beginning, and I love the riff that carries grohl joshthe introduction and the harmonics at 0:13 that signal the beginning of the verse, and the little run at 0:56 that signals the beginning of the chorus. I love singer/guitarist Josh Homme’s singing, and the whispered voice that doubles the vocals periodically throughout the song. I particularly love the drumming by Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, who joined the band for this album and tour then left to continue leading his main band, Foo Fighters. I am particularly blown away by his fills during the choruses – for example, from 1:10 – 1:30, and again from 2:35 – 2:58. I love the background vocals beginning at 1:40. I love Nick Oliveri’s direct and pulsing bass throughout. I love the raucous instrumental break, from 2:59 – 3:14, and how it leads into a bass guitar interlude for 5 seconds, giving way to a very unique, Middle Eastern-sounding guitar solo from Homme atop furious Grohl drumming for 15 seconds, and then back to Oliveri’s bass pulse at 3:38, and a final verse at 3:47 to a confident final four notes. Homme’s lyrics are about bassistworshiping someone from afar, but don’t seem too creepy. It is one of my favorite rock songs of all time. I’m sure that there are parts of the Maui vacation that I can remember in just as great detail.

I went out and bought the CD immediately after returning from our trip. Songs For The Deaf is sort of a concept album, put together to mimic the experience of changing the radio dial on a long drive through the desert. The first song, “You Think I Ain’t Worth A Dollar, But I Feel Like A Millionaire,” begins with a car starting and radio commercials blaring. Between songs, DJs from a variety of phony radios stations (including “KRDL,” “KLONE,” and “Banning College Radio”) introduce the next cut. At first listen, I was disappointed by the rest of the songs. I didn’t play it much. But sometime in the mid-2000s I began pulling it out of my CD case more frequently, listening to it a lot in the lab I worked in at the time. The songs are strange but sound cool. There’s a diversity of styles, and all the musicians are talented. Plus it’s a loud rock record, with aggression and power, and records like that – while not always appropriate in every situation – sound particularly awesome when the time is right.

I think the next song that really connected with me was the album’s second single, “Go With The Flow.”

This is a driving, straight-ahead rocker with none of the subtlety or instrumental interplay found on “No One Knows.” But it does have a terrific melody, and a great solo guitar throughout – played by guest artist Brendon McNichol. (Drums are provided by Gene Trautmann, not Grohl on this song.) The lyrics seem to be about the end of a relationship, and Homme’s quiet yet intense voice handles them perfectly.

The band goes back and forth between simple, driving songs and more complex, almost orchestral-sounding pieces – such as “A Song For The Dead.”

This one starts with a cool introduction, including nasty-good fills from Grohl. It sounds like it’s going to be all hellbent fury, josh 1but after a minute the song becomes slow and groove-heavy, featuring excellent guitar fills every two measures from Homme. Josh Homme, the leader of Queens of the Stone Age (aka QOTSA), is a multi-instrumentalist and an interesting guy. He’s also the creative force behind the band Eagles of Death Metal, sadly famous for being onstage during a terrorist attack in Paris in late 2015 (although Homme wasn’t onstage, as he typically doesn’t tour with that band). He’s got a guitar style all his own that he claims is partly due to his training as a Polka guitarist for the first several years of his josh 2tutelage on the instrument. He’s strongly featured on this one, and he’s free to play because he gave up vocal duties to Mark Lanegan, a sometime member of QOTSA who is mostly famous for his Seattle grunge roots with the band The Screaming Trees. It’s a song about driving your car to forget your problems, and like most of the songs on the album, it sounds great loud while you’re going really fast! Homme’s guitar solo from 2:55 to 3:38 is weird and sounds like no one else.

Lanegan also provides lead vocals on the unusual but very cool “Hangin’ Tree.”

I’ve said it several times before, but I always love songs in unusual time signatures, and this one is set to a brisk 5/4 beat. Grohl’s drums are fantastic, as is – once again – Homme’s guitar. But what I love most are Lanegan’s vocals, giving the sparse lyrics a sinister feel that is augmented by the spooky backing vocalizations. The song breaks into 4/4 for the guitar solo at 2:15, then falls right back to the 5/4 groove.

Many of the songs are unusual, but a few are straight-ahead rock songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on a typical rock record – although even these are QOTSA-fied. For example, “Another Love Song,” sung by bassist Oliveri, would sound right at home on most any 60s pop album. Kind of.

You can almost see the Laugh-In go-go dancers dance while oliverithe song plays. Almost. As with most songs on the album, it features cool backing vocals and a great guitar solo. And the bridge, from 1:55 – 2:23, is cool. Oliveri handles the break-up lyrics with ease. He also sings another “normal-sounding” song “I’m Gonna Leave You,” another break up song with a nifty-yet-simple bass line and a great break and guitar solo around 1:54.

The album has 14 songs, and there isn’t really a loser in the bunch. qotsa headsThere’s the arena-rock-style stomper, “Do It Again,” with it’s chant-along “Hey!” The return to the slow-groove of “God Is In The Radio,” another Lanegan-sung song that frees up Homme to range freely on guitar. The noisey-yet-mellow “Sky Is Fallin’” is a finely crafted song with cool harmonies and more great Grohl drumming. The band, and Homme in particular, goes a bit Middle Eastern in “A Song For The Deaf.” As I wrote earlier, I wasn’t a fan of the album when I first bought it, but it really grew on me. One song in particular that I found myself loving, much to my surprise, is the aggressive machine-gun beast that is “First It Giveth.”

josh bassistI like the harmony and backing vocals of the song, and once again, Grohl’s drumming stands out. The video shows a band on the verge of careening out of control, which accurately reflects the song. By the end, the guitars almost sound out of tune. It’s a song that Homme has said is about the effect of drugs on creativity and music.

The final song may be the most interesting of all. “Mosquito Song” opens with a folky acoustic guitar riff that almost sounds lifted from an early 70s Traffic or Led Zeppelin song. The lyrics seem to explain that we are all just a feast for the insects of the world, and the softly distorted voice of Homme sounds perfectly creepy singing them. As the song builds, an accordion joins him, then a piano and violin, then horns and tympani and military drums. It’s a great song, and a mellow way to end the record after so much aggression, power and noise.

Okay, so look – Songs For The Deaf is NOT the most memorable part of my trip to Maui. I swear! I look at pictures from that trip and I’m right back on that island paradise: snorkeling with little fish (that tried to eat my chest hair!), drinking fresh coconut juice at a roadside stand at the insistence of my kid (who took one sip and refused to drink any more!), seeing double and triple rainbows almost everywhere we looked! And also sharing memories of a wonderful woman in her favorite spot on the island: her garden. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and I’m so happy I was able to go. But my brain is what it is – and my brain can’t help but remember that song that I heard … I don’t know how, or why, brains do what they do. And maybe mine is malfunctioning. But I don’t want to be cured. I’m happy that mine can remember Maui AND associate it with great music.
qotsa2

Track Listing:
“You Think I Ain’t Worth A Dollar, But I Feel Like A Millionaire”
“No One Knows”
“First It Giveth”
“A Song For The Dead”
“The Sky Is Fallin”
“Six Shooter”
“Hangin’ Tree”
“Go With The Flow”
“Gonna Leave You”
“Do It Again”
“God Is In The Radio”
“Another Love Song”
“A Song For The Deaf”
“Mosquito Song”

Share

64th Favorite: Nevermind, by Nirvana

Share

Nevermind. Nirvana.
1991, DGC. Producer: Butch Vig.
Purchased ca. 1991.

nevermind album

nutshell64IN A NUTSHELL: Super-catchy melodies and incomprehensible lyrics sung in screams and whispers and everything in between, backed by loud guitars, and a heavy-yet-melodic rhythm section. Today this record sounds rather tame, but when it was released it sounded like it had the power to change everything. And maybe, in some small way, it helped do so.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
dudesI used to be very homophobic. I’m approaching 50 years old now, and until my late college years, or thereabouts, I held “the homosexual lifestyle” in great contempt. I didn’t really think about it that much, but when the topic of being queer arose I reacted with disgust. I’ve tried to push it from my memory, but I’m sure I argued with people against the acceptability of gay school teachers, against gay marriage, and even against the notion of gay hate crimes.

I’m now 180 degrees away from homophobic, and I’m not proud martyof my past outlook. But I’m not self-flagellating over it, either. I simply offer this explanation for my previously-held views: I was born in 1967 in rural(ish) Pennsylvania. To be sure, there were people in rural PA who in the 70s and 80s were tolerant and accepting of gay people. For me to discount the views I held as a young man by claiming “It’s how everyone was!” would be dismissing a great number of people who were on-board with humanity and dignity for others for a long time, even against a tide of hateful people around them. But I was part of the large majority of the general public around me who thought being gay was ripe for humor, contempt, ridicule, pity … basically any allowance other than respect. Looking back now I can’t remember why. It feels so foreign to me.

My parents taught me to be kind and polite to everyone, regardless of how different they were from me. But I was also taught that gay teachrelationships were best left undiscussed, or if necessary, discussed with an edge of distaste. I remember watching an episode of The Bob Newhart Show as a fourth-grader with my family in which Bob’s therapy group gets a gay member, and Bob has to remind the group to treat him with respect and dignity. I distinctly remember asking my mom, “What’s ‘gay’ mean?” and her responding, with great discomfort, “It’s a man who likes other men.” She didn’t say it was evil, she didn’t call them names, and she wasn’t upset that Bob would argue that his patients should accept the man (played by Dr. Johnny Fever himself, Howard Hesseman) into their group. But she definitely made it clear it was a situation of “otherness” of which she wasn’t a fan.

As with most things in life, my outlook started to change when I gained some experience and maturity. In college I had a girlfriend who had a brother and many friends who were gay men, and I went to some of their parties and guess what? They were all just fun parties! When I joined a band and started hanging out more with musicians and artists in cities larger than my little town, I met more people who were gay, and guess what? san franThey were just like everyone else! Some were cool, some were assholes. I eventually moved to San Francisco, and the “gay culture” was more or less just another strand in the tapestry of “San Francisco culture,” a tapestry I adored. I made great friends who happened to be gay and lesbian. Additionally, family members I’d known my whole life turned out to be gay, and so more and more the distinction of sexuality became irrelevant. It was an evolution I remember well, and in addition to becoming a kinder man, I also got a pretty good stand-up comedy bit out of it!

Another part of my own changing attitude towards sexual orientation was the fact that throughout the same years, the 90s, America as a country was beginning to ellenawaken to the fact that gay and lesbian people are NORMAL PEOPLE, as many beloved Americans “came out of the closet.” And, as often happens when a friend or family member does the same, America realized their sexuality had no bearing on its opinions. Comedian Ellen DeGeneres – star of one of the hottest sit coms in America – turned out to be gay, and people thought, “Hey, she’s funny! I really like her!” Diver Greg Louganis – one of the most accomplished athletes of the 20th century – turned out to be gay, and people thought, “Hey, he’s amazing! I really admire him!” Actor Nathan Lane – hilarious star of The Birdcage and The Lion King – turned out to be gay, and people thought, “Yeah, I figured that. (And I really like him!)”

When I look back at my younger self and his hostility, I can’t understand it at all. I suppose I found the idea of two men, or two women, expressing emotional connection through physical contact off-putting. But I wasn’t hostile toward straight couples, even though I didn’t want to see them making out (or worse). And I didn’t mind straight couples holding hands, so why would it bother me so much that two men might hold hands? Would it immediately conjure images of sexual contact between them? If so, that really says more about me than about anyone else. holding handsBut if hand-holding implies sexual contact, well, frankly, I can’t think of any couple – straight or gay – (or group, for that matter) whose sexual contact I want to think about. My parents? My family? My neighbors? Ugh. The fact is that two men holding hands doesn’t “flaunt” their sex life any more than any couple’s holding hands, and to ascribe sexual significance to it – again – says more about the person perceiving it than anyone else.

cobain screamSo, it’s true I was homophobic, and I know that I was, but even though it was me holding those ideas, I can’t get my mind to remember what it was like to be homophobic. It makes no sense, even though I know it to be true. In a similar way, I can’t get my mind to remember how crazy Nevermind sounded to me when I first heard it. I know for a fact that it sounded different from anything else I’d heard – Kurt Cobain’s screaming, the crunching guitars and pounding drums, all around catchy, hummable tunes – and I know it sounded like some final destination of rock music, one cul-de-sac of many in the neighborhood first planned by Chuck Berry and Little Richard, but I listen to it now and think, “Really? This was crazy, game-changing music?? It sounds so … pleasant!”

As with many bands I came to love, and many albums that will make this list, I first heard of Nirvana via my old punk rock roommate, Eric. I won’t rehash everything about he and I and music, but I will say that we lived and worked together for about 8 months in 1990, and in that time I gained an appreciation for the D.I.Y. mentality of punk rock. kidpunkI came to understand that “punk rock” – by the late 80s and early 90s – really just meant making music your own way. It could be noisy or melodic, weird or poppy. It could have raging, arena-rock guitar solos, or guitars that weren’t even tuned. I didn’t listen to all of Eric’s music, but I was deeply intrigued by this idea that there was an entire world of music and art that was happening all around me, that was vibrant and loved and created by folks like Eric, a world I was COMPLETELY unaware of, mainly because I was bound to commercial radio, and its insistence that if it wasn’t heard there, it wasn’t worthwhile.

In 1990, Eric was a longstanding member of the famous Sub Pop Records’ “Singles Club,” a club that sent him a different 45 record every month from one of Sub Pop’s loud, rockin’ bands. In the fall of that year he told me about a great song he’d just received in the mail by a band called Nirvana. Titled “Sliver,” it was all about what it’s like when you’re a kid and you stay at sliver diveyour grandparents’ house while your parents go out, and you fall asleep there and then wake up on the car ride home. I thought, “That’s the basis for a song? A Punk Rock Song?!? That can’t be right.” He played the song for me, and it was exactly as advertised. But it really rocked, and it was super catchy. I couldn’t get it out of my head. It ended with a funny phone call between the record label and Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic. The B side had a raucous number that at the time I couldn’t get into. But I listened to “Sliver” a lot.

Fast-forward a year, and my own band was playing all over the East Coast, trying to get some record label interest. We landed a cool spot on the CMJ New Music Marathon, and among other fun things there, I got to talk (briefly) with Vernon Reid, guitarist for Living Colour. He was just one person, out of thousands, who couldn’t stop talking about Nevermind. I loved it too, and by 1992 I was hopelessly hooked on Nevermind. Eric had moved four hours away from me, and when I drove out to visit him I played it on repeat the whole ride out and back again.

Now, to certain people – like my buddy Eric – who had been fans of underground rock and punk for many years, the band’s sound wasn’t very Earth-shaking. The guy screamed, the band played loud, big deal. Even older folks who’d been fans of, say, The MC5 met the release withnirvanaband2 a bit of a shrug. But most American music fans, particularly of my generation, were still dealing with the horror that was ’87-’91 Hair Band Rock, in which a bunch of dudes in their late 30s grew their hair out in the finest Michelle-Pfeiffer-Married-To-The-Mob style, and squeezed themselves into spandex to dance lamentable Temptations-inspired steps while they played cheesy pop songs that somehow were marketed to (and swallowed by) the public as “hard rock.” To us, Nirvana’s music was like an explosion, an upheaval; to many, it was an “I remember where I was when …” type of event. You see, when radio keeps telling you bullshit like “the latest song by Firehouse is a real rocker,” the minute you hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” your teeth fall out of your head.

Yet listening to it today, it’s not shocking at all. In fact, it sounds like a nifty, catchy little pop song.

It’s a song the band has said they were nervous to release because it sounds so much like a song the Pixies would write. What has always made the song special to me is the build up from quiet to loud, the “hello, hello” part from about 0:40 to 0:59. One of the first times I heard this song was at The Melody Bar, in New Brunswick, NJ, where my band used to play quite a bit. One night after kurt upsideour set, the track played, and the dance floor became a huge mosh pit, and when that build came the entire place jumped along to the song until “With the lights out …” broke and it became utter mayhem, crowd surfing, bodies flying, and bouncers reaching into the pile and pulling out drunks. The thing was, these moshers weren’t punkers or skinheads or metal dudes … they were boring college party people, folks who two years ago were inviting each other to “pour some sugar on me.” This could be evidence that Nirvana was selling out the spirit of 80s punk DIY to impress frat boys and sorority chicks. Or it could be evidence that the music was actually touching nirvana watersome spirit within those collegians that they didn’t know they shared with the DIY kids. It’s probably a mixture of both. All I know is that I loved the sound and was blown away by the energy.

Kurt Cobain’s singing was another aspect of the band that – at the time of Nevermind‘s release – sounded brand new and exciting. The fact that you couldn’t understand the lyrics to their hit song really pissed off some people and was astutely parodied by The King, Weird Al. But beyond the fact of the incoherent words was the fact that he used his voice very effectively, and actually sang really well. On a song like “Lithium,” the juxtaposition of a sweetly sung melody in the verse with a howling “Yeah” in the chorus (that “yeah” is the only word in the chorus) sounds downright chilling.

While there certainly are some similarities between Nirvana and Pixies songs, with both singers prone to screaming fits, to me there is a noticeable difference between the screams. Pixies lead singer Black Francis sounds like he’s screaming because he’s crazy. Cobain, however, sounds like he’s screaming to keep from going crazy. There’s a certain vulnerability to Cobain’s screaming that’s absent from Black Francis’s. Or maybe he just seems vulnerable because of his penchant for coming up with childish (in a good way), sing-song melodies. For example, “In Bloom.”

The chorus features lyrics making fun of those collegiate airhead types that I witnessed forming a mosh pit at The Melody Bar, but it’s such a catchy ear-worm that even those who “know not what it means” find it a “pretty song” and like to “sing along.” It’s such a clever, multi-layered diss! kurtsingsBut what I love about the song, and what I believe is the real secret weapon to Nirvana, is the rhythm section of drummer Dave Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic. Grohl hits the drums HARD, and his fills – as heard in the intro to “In Bloom” – are as catchy as the melodies. (It should be noted, too, that Grohl provides the excellent harmony vocals throughout the album, particularly noticeable on “In Bloom.”) And Novoselic always seems to find the right counter-melody in his bass lines, keeping the songs bouncing along even when Cobain’s guitar is simply feedback and power chords.

The bass is particularly good in my favorite song on the album, “Lounge Act.”

kristThe vocal melody for this song is a bit busier than many of the others on the album, but I like it, particularly when paired with Novoselic’s bouncy, wide-ranging bass line. The lyrics are, apparently, about an ex-girlfriend, are hard to decipher, but sound cool nonetheless. And Kurt’s screaming them out in the third verse exemplifies that kind of vulnerability I hear – it sounds like he needs to scream about his friend who makes him feel that he wanted more than he could steal.

“Lounge Act” is one of the few songs without Grohl’s harmony vocals. Harmony vocals have been a staple of rock music since The Everly Brothers and doo-wop groups, through the sixties and seventies, where bands like The Beatles crafted fine three-part harmony, and even Keith Richards provided grohlexcellent support of Mick. Fleetwood Mac, U2, The Clash, R.E.M. – all through the 70s and 80s, harmony vocals were important to rock music. But by the 90s “alternative revolution,” harmony vocals seemed to go the way of guitar solos – perhaps thought of as “filler” by the era’s new tastemakers – and were rarely heard. I always loved that Nirvana (as well as Green Day, it must be said) kept the old fashioned harmonies (and guitar solos, for that matter) in their songs. Two songs with harmony vocals I particularly like are “On A Plain” and “Drain You.”

“On A Plain” is another sing-along melody whose lyrics feature several couplets ranging from nearly revealing (“The finest day I ever had was when I learned to cry on demand”) to downright Steely-Dan-esque (“The black sheep got blackmailed again”). Grohl’s drumming again demands comment, particularly in the bridge (beginning at 1:34), where his rhythms carry the song.

“Drain You” is almost a companion piece to “On A Plain,” with it’s couplet-style lyrics. In both cases, the band keeps the songs heavy and crunchy despite the sweet melodies. It’s the cliched assessment of Nirvana songs, particularly those on Nevermind, but it’s true. But the band does crazy, unsweetened melodies as well, in songs like the pro-feministTerritorial Pissings,” and the pro-population-control “Breed.” “Territorial Pissings” sounded particularly crazy and a-musical to my ears when it was released. I remember skipping over it at many gatherings, as its raucous screams made conversation impossible, although Novoselic’s introductory quote of The Youngbloods was nirvana band1always pleasing.

I should mention the down-tempo songs, as well. “Come As You Are” was released as a single, and was the song that made some of my friends admit that there was more to the band than they’d previously thought. It again features Grohl’s great harmonies and “melodic” drumming. The “I swear I don’t have a gun” lyrics are obscenely ironic now, given Cobain’s fate. “Polly” is an acoustic song with lyrics describing a kidnap and assault inspired by true events. It’s a tough song to listen to, and creeps me out. “Something In The Way” describes Cobain’s life as a young homeless person, and while I like the chorus melody, I find the verses uninteresting. But overall, the song is saved by the mellow cello in the chorus. That’s the end.

orlandoJust as I was putting the finishing touches on this post, the terrible events at the gay bar The Pulse, in Orlando, FL, USA, were happening. There is still so much hatred in this world, even though so much has changed in the past 25 years: the music, the culture, the technology… But perhaps nothing has changed as much as I have. Included in the myriad feelings I have when I hear news of gay-bashing – whether mass murder or assault, or even a hurled epithet – is a small feeling of guilt that I ever shared similar views with a perpetrator of violence. Sure, I know why I was that way, and I know that my actions were never extreme in the context of my surroundings. But whether I myself would have conducted violence is beside the point: the fact that I may have helped perpetuate ideas that led to harm just makes me feel bad.

But I also believe that that these acts of violence will decrease, and maybe even cease. orlando2 I know for a fact that people can change. And as people change, the culture will change, and as culture changes maybe violence can decrease. It’s not an accident that in thinking about Nevermind I think about how my attitudes have changed. Cobain and his bandmates were huge advocates of tolerance, going so far as asking in the liner notes to their album Incesticide that homophobes NOT buy their records. This request was one small piece of information that I consumed, and reading it didn’t change my attitude overnight. But it was one more chip resting on the correct pan on some internal scales measuring Love and Understanding against Hatred, and for that reason it is important to me.

nirvana3Nevermind is an album that I listen to nowadays and think, “My goodness, how times have changed.” And despite the pain and sadness that still exists in the world, I think it’s obvious that times have changed for the better. The fact that Nevermind sounds so different to my ears today than it did in 1991 is strong evidence for it. It’s one of many things that sounds different to me now.
fmarried

Track Listing
“Smells Like Teen Spirit”
“In Bloom”
“Come As You Are”
“Breed”
“Lithium”
“Polly”
“Territorial Pissings”
“Drain You”
“Lounge Act”
“Stay Away”
“On A Plain”
“Something In The Way”
(Hidden Track: “Endless, Nameless”)

Share