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November 4, 2005

Nevermind buying insightful but unspectacular Nirvana retrospective

“Underground” does not even begin to describe the tracks on Nirvana’s latest release, Sliver: The Best of the Box. Neither does “gritty,” but those are the two words that I am going to start with.

The CD is a collection of demos, live recordings, and rare acoustic performances. Underground, indeed: Three of the 22 tracks are previously unreleased. Also, some of the demos are labeled as “home” demos and other songs as “boom-box” versions. I think the names are pretty self-explanatory.

This is where gritty comes in. On the first track, a 1985 demo of “Spank Thru,” lead singer Kurt Cobain strains his voice a little over a minute into the song and begins to cough. Later, on the band demo of “Rape Me,” a baby (presumably Frances Bean Cobain) cries throughout the song. As interesting as it is to hear such raw recordings, these are not exactly the kind of songs I would want to listen to if I felt like hearing some Nirvana.

As the album goes on, while there are strings of songs that are painful to listen to in such poor sound quality, there are also some lesser-known songs that highlight the album. I enjoyed “Floyd the Barber,” for the two-and-a-half minutes of quintessential screaming Kurt Cobain. “Clean Up Before She Comes,” is a good follow-up, for its tranquility and wit: “Something in her eyes/ Must be the smoke from my lungs.” Most surprising is “Ain’t It a Shame,” a fast-paced, slightly countrified ditty where Cobain does not even sound like himself (that is, until he starts screaming). Though the song is only two minutes long, Cobain is unexpectedly funny, as he goes from country singer at the state fair to screaming grunge singer.

But the real highlights of this album, I’m embarrassed to admit, are the singles. “Lithium,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Come As You Are,” and “Rape Me (Home Demo)” are all shockingly different from the versions one is used to hearing. But the fact that these songs became singles (in their future incarnations) adds to their appeal—not in the “I-can-sing-along-to-every-lyric” way, but that hearing the demos is like being present for the songs’ inceptions. “All Apologies,” though not a drastic change from the previously released versions of the song, is another highlight, as it ends Sliver on a subdued, acoustic note.

Now this is the part where I either alienate hardcore fans (assuming they are reading this) or validate any fan that has listened to Sliver as open-mindedly as possible: The CD is not worth buying. There, I said it. I wish I didn’t have to, but after listening to it in its entirety once—and going back to a few songs for a second or third listen—I just do not think that it is something one would want to hear more than a couple times.

Don’t get me wrong; I think that every Nirvana fan should hear this CD for its artistic value and raw insight into Nirvana and Kurt Cobain at some of their most vulnerable moments. But thinking someone should hear a CD and thinking someone should buy it are two different things. So check it out from a library or borrow it from someone—but if you fork over $18 out of curiosity, you may be disappointed the second or third time you try to listen to it. And if I have made you that curious, all apologies.