Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Oliver: Nirvana - Peel Session (29 December 1991)

If I had found a serviceable recording that matched my criteria for 3 November 1991, we would not have had to wait a year for Nirvana to turn up on this blog. It might also have helped had Peel played some Nirvana tracks that I liked in the meantime.  If Unsane were ubiquitous in December 1991, then Nirvana were in that position on Peel's playlists in November 1991.  However, while the fare on offer was a suite of tracks from their debut album, Bleach or 12-inch picture disc only b-sides, the record button would stay untouched.   I'm afraid I've always been that way with Nirvana.  As Stuart Maconie put it:

"I could see the sheer visceral power of Nirvana.  I could feel (Kurt) Cobain's excoriating pain and rage.  I just didn't fancy it myself.  I didn't hate myself and I didn't want to die.  I actually was quite happy staying alive.  I had a nice walking holiday in the Lake District booked for one thing..." [Maconie - p.301 Cider with Roadies, Ebury Press 2004]

The analogy is perfect.  Too often when listening to Nirvana songs, I've been mentally on one of those walking holidays.  It didn't connect with me at the time when I was the right age for it, and it still struggles to now.  But, as with death metal, sometimes you need to be face to face with the music (live) rather than looking at it though the mesh of studio technique.  It certainly seems the case here because this session, their third for Peel, is a doozy.

Peel sessions were always intended as a means by which the artists involved could, if they chose, let their music stretch out and move in new directions.  Plenty of artists went in the studio and whacked the tracks down in time to get to the pub, but others used it as an opportunity to have a little fun.  Whether it be melding all their singles into a fantastic medley; exploring their ethnic heritage or passing themselves off as an acapella group, the Peel session archives feature dozens of examples of bands taking temporary live left turns.  Having delivered an all covers set in their 1990 session, Nirvana played Peel session bingo this time around, serving up a new song, Dumb - which was recorded for their 1993 In Utero album.  I love Cobain's vocal in this recording, he sounds like a chanteuse.  Heavy lidded and with a large glass of absinthe in front of him, but one can almost hear the smile on his voice as he sings about how he will deceive himself into contentment.  There was a choice cut from the gathering juggernaut that was Nevermind; Drain You being a great example of the Nirvana sound that hit so big in 1991 featuring plenty of Cobain's Southern Boy vocals and the Seattle Overdrive guitar sound that made the UK shoegaze sound seem tepid in comparison.  The mid section duel between Kris Novoselic's rope like bass and the detonating doorbell rings of Cobain's guitar and Dave Grohl's flung from a tall building drum beats is the sound of a band taking the world with confidence and brio, instead of the hesitancy that would lead Kurt into the darkening cellar of his own tortured contradictions.

Last and best of all comes the Peel session experimentation that I spoke of. A lengthy, almost
instrumental piece of free-jazz rock called Endless, Nameless, which sounds like someone asked them to soundtrack a monster movie.  It certainly sounds like a take on John Williams's  approach of the shark theme from Jaws at the start.  But then the piece makes its way through a series of tonal shifts including an impromptu cover of The Vapors's Turning Japanese  before ending in a series of propulsive feedback manoeuvres.  It may seem like a bit of a contradiction to laud Nirvana for feedback play, having slagged Neil Young for doing the same thing but I like feedback with purpose instead of posturing.

Nirvana's Peel sessions have been gathered into a compilation called Almost Everything.  It may possibly have a claim to be their best album.

The session is cherishable for many reasons not least of which the fact that it feels like an end of innocence for Nirvana, if such a thing is possible.  It was recorded on September 3 1991, some three weeks before Nevermind was released and made them the biggest band in the world while simultaneously conferring a status on Kurt Cobain that he was hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with.  There would still be peaks in the Nirvana story over the coming years, but this session catches them before the leaves on their tree started to curl up.

Video courtesy of vibracobra23.

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