Sliver: Best of the Box


    The unexamined life isn’t worth living, but the hyper-analyzed life is equally as unfulfilling and probably more dangerous. At least the zombies have their video games; guys such as Kurt Cobain inevitably turn to psilocybins and mescalines before derailing on heroin to dull the voices. Those statements may at best be socially dubious and at worst may rationalize the behavior of the irresponsible. But I didn’t create the culture I grew up in and therefore don’t feel the need to apologize for liking my rock stars getting strung out before dying young. Which is why we’re here reviewing a twenty-two-track Nirvana compilation culled from the recently released three-disc box set, With the Lights Out, instead of a Kurt Cobain/Leonard Cohen collaboration.


    Sliver is bold enough not to be for the uninitiated, something that will be made quickly clear in the rough and early nature of the first two tracks (and most of the album, in fact). Cobain coughs his way through “Spank Thru” (a 1985 home demo with Dale Crover of the Melvins and one of three previously unreleased tracks here) and, as was discussed in Cobain’s biography Heavier than Heaven, the album’s crudest recording is a version of Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbraker” at a house party that was Nirvana’s first-ever performance.


    It’s the previously unreleased tracks from the box set that are the most intriguing. “Mrs. Butterworth” is a juvenile stream of frustration along the lines of the Suicidal Tendencies “Institutionalized.” Nirvana’s haunting cover of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” was a highlight of Unplugged in New York, and here Leadbelly’s “Ain’t It a Shame” is thrashed into a punk version of “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain.” The desperate “Do Re Mi” is a chilling bedroom recording featuring Cobain over his acoustic, and “Old Age” is a Nevermind outtake that probably would not have fit on that album but would have made a nice closer to a Nirvana album that never was made. No matter, the guitar riff showed up on the opening track of Hole’s Live Through This a short while later.


    Thematically Cobain has always had an obsession with childhood imagery, and that’s well represented here. “Clean up Before She Comes” is a home demo that features waterfall vocals on the back end (“I must be getting older, I’m starting to eat my vegetables”) and the rudimentary beginnings of what would become Nirvana’s patented structure of spoken-word verse against full-throttle chorus. The elusive “Sappy” references grade-school specimen jars in the laundry room, and “Sliver” is one of Nirvana’s catchiest and a straight-up encounter of being dropped off with the grandparents: “I had to eat my dinner there, mashed potatoes and stuff like that/ I couldn’t chew my meat too good.”


    The live or demo quality adds new life to tracks that have spent the last decade having the energy sucked out of them on the radio. The raw graininess of “About a Girl” (with new lyrics) and “Come as You Are” adds a dimension that wasn’t there on either of their studio- or live-album appearances. And even “Smells Like Teen Spirit” gets cranked up for a 1991 pre-Nevermind rehearsal. A baby crying and a dull tambourine tossed into an electric studio recording of “Rape Me” (there’s also an acoustic home demo recording of the track) shows that like the Beatles, Nirvana knew that mood lay in the sonic fringes. A depressing home demo of “All Apologies” closes out the album, and this time it feels more like a burial than it ever did when Cobain howled to close out Unplugged in New York.


    After Layne Staley faded away rather than burned out, his Alice in Chains buddies released a trinity of post-mortem junk. A live album, a greatest-hits comp and a best-of-the-box album that all featured little more than Alice in Chain’s radio hits. So although the outtakes, demos and live tracks off Nirvana’s Incesticide compilation make for an altogether easier listen, retrospectives in general wouldn’t be suffering so much if they were as passionately constructed as this.  



    Nirvana Fan site:

    ‘Sliver’ Web site (with audio samples):

    Various videos:–Nirvana


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