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Nirvana – MTV Unplugged in New York (1994)

August 1, 2013


For the month of August, I’ll be celebrating the “live” album.  “Live” in Chris Farley “quotes” as some records (after studio overdubs & corrections) may be more live than others.  Welcome to “live” in August!

[Album 218/1001]

Without any further preamble, the songs:Nirvana_mtv_unplugged_in_new_york

1. About a Girl – Many a beginner guitarist developed calluses learning this song.  As the verses sailed smoothly between Em & G, confidence skyrocketed.  The tough transition to the barred C#m was the true test of guitar proficiency!  Good tune, superior to the electric original.

2. Come as You Are – sounds a bit thin in this recording.  Desperately missing the ‘no I don’t have a gun’ vocal overlap after the solo.

3. Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam – Krist Noveselic is José Carreras.  In the great Seinfeld episode, The Doll, poor Carreras was consistently referred to as “the other guy.”  The Three Tenors: Pavarotti, Domingo, and…the other guy.  Few will forget Kurt Cobain, most will remember Dave Grohl went on to form Foo Fighters, and then there’s…the other guy, Krist.  It’s a shame as his basslines were integral to the songs and he even picked up the accordion on this one.  Krist Noveselic.  Undeserving of ‘the other guy’ forgettable moniker.

4. The Man Who Sold the World – On a future ‘Top 5 Covers’ list, this will likely make the cut.  Love the cello, the “that was a David Bowie song,” and the unintentional feedback in the second chorus, preserving the album’s integrity as a fabulously flawed live record.

5. Pennyroyal Tea – As bare bones as it gets – Kurt on vocals and guitar.  Interesting version, I still prefer the spectacular In Utero recording.

6. Dumb – Comparable to its original, another of the band’s finest moments.

7. Polly – I forgot about the abrupt “Polly said,” before the last verse.  I like it.

8. On a Plain – Would have made a good single, had the rest of Nevermind not been overflowing with anthems!

9. Something in the Way – Much like Dumb & Polly, not terribly dissimilar to its studio original.

10, 11, 12. Plateau, Oh Me, Lake of Fire – Curt & Cris Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets appear on stage for their three tunes.  Special guest Curt’s guitar playing is first rate and Kurt’s vocals are hauntingly frail.

13. All Apologies – I raved about Dave Grohl’s performance when I reviewed In Utero.  The penultimate track of this record would have been a solid/appropriate closer as well…

14. Where Did You Sleep Last Night – …though it’s tough to point to any other song as the emotional climax.

Admittedly, I went off Nirvana, for the better part of a decade.  I perceived the sudden emergence of Nirvana fans after Cobain’s death as tantamount to ‘bandwagon hopping,’ and for a 13-year old music fan, is there a greater sin?!  Funny how when those age digits are reversed (as they are now), it couldn’t matter less.  But at the time, oh dear…and then it wasn’t until You Know You’re Right was finally released that I revisited the catalogue.  And clearly, I’m glad I did.

Vastly superior groups have existed, unquestionably.  However, even if you weren’t a Nirvana fan, if you were a young die-hard music fan at the time of Unplugged‘s release, this was a formative experience and will forever be a significant recording.

From → 1990s

  1. I was never much of a fan although there was something about them that I found pretty compelling. I remember watching this on TV for the first time with a crushing, crushing hangover. As a result, even the mere mention of this performance makes me a bit queasy. It was definitely one of the superior MTV Unplugged performances though, despite my vomity reaction to it.

    • There are certain drinks that are no longer appealing after such a night, luckily for me (so far) the association hasn’t also transferred to concert footage!
      Like them or not, you’re right, there was something compelling about the band along with several ‘where were you when’ moments. I remember seeing the Teen Spirit video for the first time on Much Music’s “Best of ’92 Coca Cola Countdown,” it was something else. I’m guessing others probably know exactly where they were in April ’94 when they heard about Kurt Cobain.

      • I remember seeing the Teen Spirit video before it was even a hit and being fascinated by it. It was like “who are these guys”?! Even though I didn’t like the tune much I knew it would be a big deal.

        I think they might be the only band that I associate so closely with being hungover. Although I also watched a whole series of Family Guy while heavily hungover once… and that put me off that too!

      • I guess the lesson is to watch something already unappealing (like reality television) when hungover so as not to ruin other, better programming!

      • Yep, I won’t make that mistake again!

  2. Great write-up. I wasn’t much of a Nirvana fan during their brief heyday (I was just short of 28 when Cobain died, and the alternative/grunge years didn’t have a huge impact on me), and I’ll gladly admit that it took the MTV Unplugged broadcast to make me realize that there were some solid songs beneath the bluster. Now I think about half of the music on their few albums is fantastic and the rest is mediocre. I have friends who would strongly disagree, but I stand by that opinion. Nirvana may have had more cultural impact and were more “important,” but I prefer listening to Foo Fighters. I felt even more strongly about that after blogging about their catalog last year. Perhaps a Nirvana re-evaluation is something I should consider.

    Looking forward to this live album series. Should be fun.

  3. Thanks Rich – I went to a Jian Ghomeshi book talk last year and he suggested 17 was the magic age. Whatever you listened to at age 17, that’s the music you’ll forever consider as the all time best or at least the benchmark that all new music is compared to. I’d have to agree!

    I’d certainly enjoy reading a Nirvana re-evaluation – I think this is by far their most cohesive release. And as you mentioned, hard to believe NIrvana’s career only spanned a few years and Foo Fighters are coming up on 2 decades!

  4. Jian is a smart guy. That is very true.

    I personally am not the Nirvana fan of the house. That would be Mrs. LeBrain, who is a massive fan. We argue all the time about Nirvana vs. Foo Fighters. 🙂

    • I would likely take the side of Mrs. LeBrain – but admittedly, my knowledge of the foo fighters albums from 2000-onwards is sorely lacking. For music videos, Foos hands down!

      • Big Me still cracks me up! And I loved Everlong too.

        I think the most recent Foo Fighters album, Wasting Light, is stunning, and on a par with Colour and the Shape. I also love that Dave inserted a slice of master tape into every CD copy for a limited time.

      • The multiple characters in Learn to Fly were also impressive! He’s got to be the most likeable guy in the business today, that slice of master tape giveaway is a nice touch.

      • I forgot Learn to Fly! It seems Taylor dresses in drag in more than one video!

  5. Ian Anderson once referred to Kurt Cobain as “that chap who died who did something with a cello on MTV”. 🙂

    • That’s funny Phillip! At least he knew that he was dead, unlike those kids that just invited Nirvana to record a video for their school graduation…

    • that’s priceless Phillip, of all the ways I’ve heard Cobain described, that is my new favourite!
      And Mike, oh dear, I know they were born in ’95 if they’re graduating this year – but you’d think someone in the class might have done a bit more thorough research!

  6. Nirvana was never one of my favorite groups. I was a teen when they first hit the scene and the people who liked them were stoners and there was no way I was a stoner.. right? I mean God forbid I listen to good music. So as I got older and didn’t have a stupid image to keep I listened to them more. I still don’t love them but I loved MTV Unplugged. I miss it. I used to buy the albums from MTV Unplugged. The Mariah Carey one… The time when there was a variety of R&B singers… Just amazing. Nirvana was good on Unplugged too.

  7. I definitely remember Mariah’s unplugged performance of I’ll be there, impressive vocal range! The Eric Clapton show was another standout for me.

    • I’m sure this comes as no surprise, but my favourite Unplugged was Kiss 🙂 Rod Stewart and Alice In Chains being my runners-up.

      • All good choices – I might give the nod to Alice in Chains, with The Enter Sandman teaser being a tiebreaker!

  8. I was a fan of Nirvana from Smells Like Teen Spirit — subsequently going backwards and liking Bleach as well — but this was the performance/album that made then “special” to me vice just another band I liked. The rawness of the performance and the Meat Puppets covers (with MPs included!!), and Man Who Sold the World I still find very moving (if that’s the right word). Great write up.

    • My thanks – one of my big beliefs is that the truly great songs sound great with very little effects/overdubs. There are several tunes here that definitely fit that criteria.

  9. Jim permalink

    Thanks for this! Yea, great album. Survives the hype.
    One of the parts that endlessly gets me is when they have the Meat Puppets on stage and Cobain proceeds to play these incredibly strong covers. Lake of fire was always a great song, but Nirvana’s treatment of it is chilling.
    From what I understand, MTV wanted Nirvana to either play some hits or else get some more famous guests
    Glad they stuck with the Meat Puppets and glad they are going strong, making great music today. I think some of that is due to Nirvana.

    • Chilling is the perfect term for it.
      That sounds like a very Nirvana thing to do (a friend recently sent me the link of them miming Smells Like Teen Spirit on Top of The Pops – I’ve had Kurt sounding like Morrissey in my head ever since!)
      I certainly have Nirvana to thank for the Meat Puppets introduction – and well said about the strength of the covers!

  10. Jim permalink

    Oh, and comparing Krist to Jose Carreras is a brilliant touch. I’m gonna have to quote you on that for years now.

    • Thanks, Jim! I loved that Seinfeld episode – I find I now look for ‘that guy’ in groups, the one who makes vital contributions but is constantly overlooked!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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