It’s impossible to overestimate the impact of “Nevermind.” However, it’s easy to forget that there was a Nirvana album before it. That would be the band’s 1989 debut, “Bleach,” which is now re-imagined, re-mastered and re-packaged by Sub Pop as a deluxe edition, an important gesture that should help add some depth to the often two-dimensional version of the band and Kurt Cobain that exists in pop culture.
The reissue, out Nov. 3 as a 2-record set including an archival live disc, reminds us that while Nirvana is held up as an institution that led the charge against glam metal, it was first and foremost an excellent hard rock band. On “Love Buzz,” Cobain churns out metallic, Mid-Eastern riffs. On “Paper Cuts,” his monotone singing is very comparable to Alice In Chains, another band lumped in with the grunge movement that had more in common with Black Sabbath than Black Flag.
While Nirvana would eventually dabble in art rock on “In Utero” and famously strip down its sound for MTV’s acoustic “Unplugged” show, the trio found on “Bleach” — Cobain, Chris (before he would revert to his given name Krist) Novoselic and drummer Chad Channing (before Dave Grohl would replace him) — is all about bludgeoning riff rock with a punk rock soul and a heavy metal heart. Witness the arena-rock drum fills and rumbling bass on “Mr. Moustache.”
An attribute that made Nirvana unique and interesting was its dynamism, the ability to go from loud to soft and back, but that ability is yet to be realized on “Bleach.” It’s full-tilt headbanging from start to finish.
The previously unreleased live disc from a Feb. 9, 1990 show in Portland, Ore., which features a fast “About a Girl,” a poppy cover of The Vaselines’ “Molly’s Lips” and much of the “Bleach” material, is delightfully raw and offers a glimpse at the international stardom that awaited Nirvana, whether or not the band welcomed it.
It’s more romantic to think of Nirvana as a paragon of punk values and to remember that Cobain and Novoselic previously had a group called Fecal Matter, but the fact that they also played in a Creedence Clearwater Revival cover band and that Cobain cited Aerosmith as an influence is equally important. That unpretentious pure rock flavor was, and still is, in full bloom on “Bleach.”
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