MTV Unplugged in New York-Nirvana

MTV Unplugged in New York

Nirvana

1994

DGC

On November 18, 1993, magic happened before the eyes of the nineties MTV generation when Nirvana recorded a version of the network’s popular segment, “Unplugged.”  The acoustic concert, seemingly ironic for a band known for their distorted grunge/alternative type music, was set in Sony Music Studios in New York City.  The concert aired on MTV the following month.  Since the show had been such a hit with viewers, producers teamed up to produce the evenings events into an album.  This album has been quite a hit with listeners for so many reasons.  Perhaps the greatest reason for this album’s success lies within the fact that the listener doesn’t need the visual of the MTV show to grasp the beauty of this performance.  And yes, the setting was beautiful-there were candles and flowers and low light settings because Kurt Cobain wanted it to appear as a funeral.  However, the visual is unneccessary for this album.  The album proves to hold its own and does not fail to satisfy.  This, kids, is musical genius at its best.

The album begins with “About a Girl,” off the band’s debut album, Bleach (1989).  The first song on every well put together album should always set the mood for the rest of the disc.  This performance does just that.  Although every song performed is not from the same album or even written by the band, (some were covered by The Meat Puppets, The Vaselines, and Lead Belly) this album is tied together beautifully.  The rules for MTV’s Unplugged is that the performance must be “unplugged,” acoustic instruments only.  By converting their grunge tunes into acoustic works, a whirlwind of change comes over Nirvana, the listener, your stereo; the sounds created are so captivating. And this song is the beginning of your acoustic journey.

The album progresses to “Come as You Are,” from the band’s 1991 album, Nevermind. The tempo of this song is slightly slowed, as it is now an acoustic version.  The strumming however, is heavy.  This version features more guitarists allowing the song to take on a more melodic feel.  Each piece of the song works together to bring it together and make the melodies work.

Next is “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam,” a Vaselines cover.  This is the first song on the album to feature an accordion played by Krist Novoselic.  The cover was done gracefully and the tempo was slowed down a bit from the original however the strumming patterns were kept the same. I find it impressive that Kurt Cobain used his celebrity to give recognition to bands who may have been unheard of in the mainstream.  For those who never read more into the sensitive man that Kurt Cobain really was, this cover was quite unexpected.

The next song on the album, “The Man Who Sold the World,” is a cover originally by David Bowie.  The song features an acoustic electric guitar for the riffs and solos.  The bass walk-down featured in this song is very distinct and impressive on Krist Novoselic’s part.  Kurt Cobain can actually be heard making a mistake on the guitar solo in the song, as well. This is something I’m sure most listeners do not notice.  To me it gives the album a raw and authentic character; much like Nirvana.

The song that follows, “Pennyroyal Tea,” from Nirvana’s 1993 album, In Utero, features Kurt Cobain solo.  By performing a song with such strong personal lyrics about how he felt about his life, this version of the song is much more intimate than the In Utero version.  At the end of the song, a band mate tells Kurt he did a good job, he laughs and says, “Shut up,” because he was shy on stage.

The album moves right into “Dumb,” which was also from In Utero. The goal of the band was to stray from the popular hits they had put out.  However, acoustically, “Dumb,” just works.  It is clear that drummer, Dave Grohl is not hitting the drums as hard as he normally would have.  He was given drum brushes and such equipment used by classical percussionists to keep him from hitting them too hard.  Also featured in this song is a violin-or instrument in the same family, which definitely brings this song into a new direction.

The next song is “Polly.” Overall, this song was performed well. However, MTV/network television can be to blame for the altering of lyrics to fit the standards of what can be said on television.  Cue  the seven things you cannot say on TV….

The album moves into “On a Plain,” from the album Nevermind. The tones and tempo of the song are very precise and the vocals appear to get louder towards the end of the song.   This song has a catching flow; acoustically this song is sensational.

In a change of moods, the album progresses into “Something in the Way,” also from Nevermind. This instruments in this song, as they are in the original, are tuned down to a deeper tone.  Again appearing in this song is a violin of some sort.  Although the skeletal structure of the song remained the same, moderate alterations such as the violin, replicate the song in an entirely new fashion.  At the end of the song the band can be heard mocking the demands of rich rock stars-adding light to the emotionally deep performance.

The next three songs are covers of  Meat Puppets’ songs. What could anger MTV execs more than hearing Nirvana wouldn’t be playing hits like “Teen Spirit?” Well, hearing that Nirvana would be accompanied by underground guests who weren’t Eddie Vedder.  Brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets were brought on stage to play guitar with Nirvana for the three songs.  “Plateau” was the first of the them. Part of the reason this song is so captivating is its authenticity.  Kurt purposely chose cover songs that were challenging for him vocally.  This is evident in this song.  To the naked ear, it may sound like rubbish.  To someone who appreciates music, this is magic.

The emotional, “Oh Me,” soon follows “Plateau.”  The song runs so smoothly; and it seems that Kurt was able to attack the vocals.  The drums on this song are faint, where the strumming of the guitars at times can be rather powerful.  This song is emotionally enthralling.

The song that follows is “Lake of Fire.”  The strain in Kurt’s voice really allows the listener to understand how hard he tried to recreate this song.  The lyrical content of this song is different from anything in the mainstream-for the band was not a mainstream band to say the least.  This cover gives the audience/listener a new perspective of the presentation of music.

The last of Nirvana’s orignal works (not quite the end of the album!), “All Apologies,” from the album In Utero, follows.  Not to be biased, but this is the most beautiful song on the entire album.  Kurt pours his heart into this song.  Not only was the setting of the show made to look like a funeral just months before Cobain’s death, the choice of this song is alluding perhaps to how Kurt felt about his own life and death.  His pain can be felt in this song more than the others.  “In the sun/in the sun I feel as one/In the sun/In the sun/I’m married/Burried…”

The last song on the album is a cover of the Lead Belly song “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Leadbelly was an African-American folk singer in the mid 1930s to late 1940s.  This is yet another song that was a hurdle to leap for Kurt vocally.  Towards the end of the song Kurt puts his own twist on things and belts out the lyrics with everything he has.  If you were to watch the performance you can see that Kurt is actually shaking while singing this.  However, as the visual is not needed the sheer sound of his voice is ultimately enough to send chills up your spine. There was no better way to end this concert.  If the band was looking for a way to leave their audience in awe, this was the way to do it.

The key element to this Unplugged album is vulnerability.  Nirvana was known for their heavy distortion and grunge sound; this acoustic performance brought them out of their element to try something new.  Unlike most bands, they did not just do a run-through of their hits, they strayed from the norm and carried out raw versions of some of their own songs along with songs from bands who were not in the contemporary mainstream music scene.  The intimacy of the performance, the difference in setting, the difference in song choice, the challenging vocals and music, and being broadcasted in front of millions while doing so created the vulnerability that Nirvana needed to successfully create such a stunning piece of work.  Going against the grain big-shot MTV execs and playing what he wanted instead of playing hits off the charts showed that this performance meant more to Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and Dave Grohl than the lime-light; it was about playing music together as a band for others to listen to, to pay respects to bands who were not asked by MTV to perform, and to put on a performance that would be the juncture of their careers.

If you haven’t heard this album yet, go check it out. You will be blown away.

 

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