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UNPLUGGED IN NEW YORK

UNPLUGGED

Bathed in golden light, Kurt Cobain quietly sits, surrounded by billows of lilies and flickering candles. "What are they tuning a harp?" he cracks in mock irritation to no one in particular when there's a prolonged wait between songs. If it sounds like heaven with an edge, it was, or the closest one could get to it on an MTV soundstage, where Nirvana played an all-acoustic set last fall. What would become one of the band's last U.S. performances can now be heard on a new album, MTV Unplugged in New York. And if that title seems a bit, well, obvious, it'll have to do.

The record itself, however, does far more than just do. Nirvana's performance is stirring and occasionally brilliant, electricity be damned. Next to it, Cobain's early and violent death seems outrageous, even unthinkable. But these were the extremes by which he lived.

1-About A Girl | 2-Come As You Are | 3-Jesus Doesn't Want Me For A Sunbeam | 4-The Man Who Sold The World | 5-Pennyroyal Tea | 6-Dumb | 7-Polly | 8-On A Plain | 9-Something In The Way | 10-Plateau | 11-Oh Me | 12-Lake Of Fire | 13-All Apologies | 14-Where Did You Sleep Last Night

Without the wild blasts ordinarily produced by Cobain, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic to fire Nirvana's sound, Cobain's love-buzz vocals are the focus. Despite his ambivalence about Nevermind's commercial veneer, Cobain felt free enough to manipulate his scrub-brush yelp to a plaintive, seductive pop vibrato. You can hear it on this disc's opening track, the Beatlesque "About a Girl," and on the next cut, "Come As You Are." On that track, Cobain wrings his words from despair, his taffy-with-gravel voice so sweetly biting along with Grohl's soft harmonies that famous lines like "I swear that I don't have a gun" can fill a listener with angry confusion. But the braided guitars of Cobain and Pat Smear bring the song up and over that feeling.

There are spare and gorgeous spots everywhere: when Grohl's voice wraps chillingly around Cobain's on the disturbingly lovely "Polly"; the wounded "Something in the Way"; Lori Goldston's cello welling up in mournful counterpoint, like Cobain's alter ego, on the last word of the lyric "I think I'm dumb/Maybe just happy." The band is never better than it is on "All Apologies": subtle, passionate, intuiting exactly what is needed from each of them to make their union whole, nurturing the intensity at their center.

Most impressively, the band recedes for Cobain to sing a piercing "Pennyroyal Tea." This most personal litany of distress and search for remedy "Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld/So I can sigh eternally/I'm so tired, and I can't sleep/I'm anemic royalty" is only strengthened as an acoustic number, its punning horrors mixing potently as Cobain slurs and swoons, picks at his strings and trails off.

This 14-song folkfest features one song from Nirvana's first album, Bleach, four from Nevermind, three from In Utero and six covers not a bad sampler and an unusual mix, displaying taste and reach and a versatility the band had newly achieved and was reveling in. A rendition of "Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam" traditional Christian folk by way of the Vaselines is dominated by bassist Novoselic's Presbyterian (read churchy and dour) accordion. If this anti-redemption song is the first sign of Nirvana's spirit of adventure in choosing covers, the next one's a revelation: "The Man Who Sold the World," the snarly sci-fi fable circa 1970 by David Bowie, whose art-metal warp most certainly presaged Cobain (who, in turn, might eventually have torqued Bowie-style gender play a notch further).

Cobain later brings on Meat Puppets Curt and Cris Kirkwood, who accompany him as he sings a round of their pretty stoner tunes: "Plateau," "Oh Me" and the apocalyptic "Lake of Fire." Even as one might wish for three Nirvana songs instead, it's fun to hear Cobain try out personas in his contemporaries' work. The Kirkwoods' presence dramatizes Cobain's continual urge to create that ultimate contradiction: a community of outcasts.

Cobain turns himself inside out on the last track, "In the Pines" (here titled "Where Did You Sleep Last Night"), Leadbelly's stark tale of desperate jealousy and murder: "My girl, my girl, don't lie to me/Tell me, where did you sleep last night?" By the last verse the lyrics devolve into a lacerating shriek "Pines/Pines/Sun/Shine" until, gasping, he pulls the last few words from his gut: "I'll shiver the whole night through."

It's all here on Nirvana's Unplugged the bile, the black-sheepishness. And all around, the aching beauty of this self-doubting, jocular smart aleck with the honeycombed voice. If it's true that new audiences are finding Nirvana's music since Cobain's death, this recording will serve as an ironic introduction. It represents some of Nirvana's best as well as suggesting, in its acoustic nature, ways the band could have developed and grown. It was a direction that Cobain himself indicated he would have liked to go: another way that might have been, might have been, a way out.

RELATED LINKS
Unplugged in New York album


                                        

                                        

                                        

                                        

                                        

                                        

                                        

                                                                        


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