Vinyl Review: Nirvana
Nearly 15 years removed from its original release, Nirvana still seems like a pointless record. With bands like Yes, Deep Purple or Aerosmith, greatest hits compilations can be vital. Their discographies are so vast (and of radically varying quality) the repackaged budget collection can be key into helping new fans, who might be otherwise overwhelmed and not know where to begin, discover the band.
But Nirvana only released three studio albums, one compilation of singles, and an an Unplugged live album during their short time together. All of these are not just great, but widely regarded as some of the most important music of its era. There’s no “bad” jumping on point for Nirvana, and kids today who are discovering the group for the first time are probably seeking out all the band’s actual albums and not this needless collection of “hits.”
To be fair though, and considering the fact that Nirvana exists solely as the result of a lawsuit between the group’s surviving members and Kurt’s widow Courntey, it does a pretty decent job of setting out what it wants to accomplish – which is paint an accurate picture of the group’s more radio-friendly side (hence the exclusion of “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” no doubt).
When the album first came out in 2002, much ado was made of the then-unreleased track “You Know You’re Right,” to date the last studio recording to come out from the group. It’s a powerful track, and one of the best singles the group ever released. If buying this album was the only way one could hear the song, it would be a worthwhile purchase just to do so.
But Nirvana does have a pair other rarities as well. At the time of its release, it was the first place where anyone could legally hear the Scott Litt single remix of “Pennyroyal Tea” which was pulled and shelved in the wake of Kurt’s death. The mix isn’t that different, it punches up the drums and vocals a bit, but it’s a nice inclusion regardless and it makes sense as the album is largely singles collection. Nirvana also includes the original version of “Been A Son” which before was only previously available on the Blew EP. Nice choice too, as it is way better than the version that made its way to Incesticide.
Nirvana is as good as it could possibly be. But that’s still not saying much.
But here we are, with a new vinyl re-issue. And here I am, sitting in an apartment with three versions of Bleach, six of Nevermind, four of Incesticide and a whopping seven different pressings of In Utero, so of course I bought it like an idiot.
There are actually two different versions of this new release, a standard single LP affair and a “deluxe” 2LP edition. Both versions share the same music, but the 2LP version is pressed at 45 RPM. Vinyl pressed at the faster speed tends to sound better, but I’m willing to bet that most people aren’t actually able to tell the difference, this will probably make somebody out there happy though, so good for them.
The price gap between the two is actually pretty steep, but I still elected to get the 2LP version because, well, read that previous paragraph about the number of Nirvana records I own (but even I didn’t double-dip here, I’m not that nuts). Anyway, the records sound fine. I wasn’t really blown away by them, but they’re relatively quiet, seem to be mastered well and didn’t feature any major defects or errors as far as I could tell. If you need a Nirvana record to spin at a party, you could do worse.
The packaging is slightly different between the versions, with the basic title treatment getting a bland white typeface on the standard edition versus a metallic print on the deluxe edition. Some nice large photos make up the inner gatefold, while David Fricke’s linear notes are included as an insert. Nothing remarkable here, but nothing to complain about either.
What does make this release interesting, however, is the download code that comes with it. While the single LP edition comes with your standard MP3 download, the deluxe version comes with “HD” (96 kHz/24-bit WAVs, for those who know what that means) downloads. Now, the return on investment between “high-definition” audio and CD quality audio are nominal, at best. Audiophile platitudes aside, I still have yet to meet anyone who can reliably tell the difference between the two in a double-blind test.
I could care less about better than CD quality audio, but I was interested to see if the HD download code would incorporate any new masters. As you may know (and as I have written about extensively) the Nirvana backlog has a spotty history when it comes to remasters. Bleach was compressed a bit, while Nevermind was slaughtered so poorly that it remains one of the few victims of the “Loudness Wars” that even my friends who know nothing about audio quality can tell it sounds worse. Conversely, In Utero was given a stellar remastering and even Incesticide was treated well on a few audiophile-targeted limited edition repressings.
So how does Nirvana stack up?
Well, it’s weird.
As captioned, the top waveform is a capture of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from the WAV file that came as a digital download with this latest release. Below it is the waveform taken from the iTunes edition, followed by the 20th anniversary remaster and finally the original version from the first CD pressing.
Yeah, so it’s still too compressed. Shit. But it does sound a little different than the 20th anniversary edition. Better? Not really. But different! So that’s something I guess.
What about non-Nevermind tracks? Here’s “Heart-Shaped Box.”
The HD audio version is different than the version you find on iTunes, but they don’t really sound all that different, and the version on the 20th Anniversary edition of In Utero still reigns supreme as the best master available.
As an utterly redundant release, Nirvana could have been salvaged an audiophile product, and it should’ve been considering how much they’re marketing it as such. But as it stands, it’s just another in a long line of embarrassing and insulting re-issues that further sully and insult one of the most important bands of my generation. A shame.
Next year marks the 20th anniversary of From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah. I’m hoping they’ll use the opportunity to give that underrated live compilation its proper due with an expanded re-issue. And withstand that apparently unrelenting pressure major labels have to take properly mastered albums and tear them through a fucking meat grinder.
I’m not holding out any hope though.