Monday, April 21, 2008

4/21/08 Grunge Influences - Whither Nirvana?

For all the oceans of mythologizing ink devoted to Nirvana and their influence, a little distance – Nevermind is 17 years old now – pegs their influence as stranger and more far-reaching than the standard “musical touchstone” type influence. They were both more influential and less than they were perceived at the time.

The dominant critical meme in the immediate post-grunge climate was that Nirvana’s success had, in one fell swoop, wiped the kind high-style, low-content ‘80s metal off of the map, along with prefab pop and glossy synth/dance music. Supposedly, the watershed moment was Nevermind supplanting Thriller at the top of the charts; the Moment that marked the changing of the musical zeitgeist.

Well, sort of. Prefab pop laid dormant for a while as grunge music suffered from the usual cycles of diminishing returns (A-Listers like Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Pearl Jam, and Stone Temple Pilots giving way to B-Listers like Dishwalla, Collective Soul, and Live and then to C-Listers like Matchbox 20 and Third Eye Blind), but came roaring back with a vengeance when Jive records unleashed the Backstreet Boys, NSync, and Britney on the world.

Plus, oh yeah, hip hop simply blew rock out of the popular reckoning. Not a lot of critics saw that coming. You want influential? Try Biggie. Way more of an impact on the last 15 years of popular music than Kurt Cobain, and his lyrics are a lot better written. Doesn’t scream as well, though. All the disposable top of the charts lowest-common denominator stuff that Nirvana was supposed to sweep away in some kind of musical tidal wave? Say hello to Sisqo. Have you heard? He likes thongs.

Nonetheless, even if in retrospect the radio heyday of grunge looks like the last dying light of the supernova that is/was rock’s stranglehold on popular music (which doesn’t mean that rock itself is over and done – just that it is now another in a series of viable genres, with another genre holding chart primacy over it), the question of Nirvana’s actual musical influence is an interesting one.

One immediately curious thing about Nirvana’s success is that so few bands sound like actual musical descendants of the band. And, rest assured, this is not because their sound is so unique and out there and impossible to replicate. Sure, a lot of bands had success with the quietLOUDquiet formula (Better Than Ezra – "Good", Radiohead – "Creep", Stone Temple Pilots – "Big Empty", etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.), but it can be argued (and often is) that Nirvana just took that from the Pixies. “Gouge Away” and “Gigantic” are the obvious touchstones, both for the melodic nature of the bass lines and because they carry a lot less of the Santiago guitar madness that sonically distinguishes the Pixies from Nirvana – I challenge anyone to find surf rock influences anywhere in the Nirvana discography, whereas it’s all over the place for the Pixies).

Nirvana’s sonic template is the musical template of “the personal is political” – raw, extreme pain communicated in universal terms, alternatingly bludgeoning and off-putting (“Milk It”, “Stay Away”) or bruised and inviting in the manner of bird with a broken wing (“Lithium”, “All Apologies”). Foregrounded always is Cobain’s pain; sometimes specified, often not, and, by virtue of his gift for melodic phrasing and genuinely powerful vocal abilities, inviting rather than alienating. Even at its most abrasive, Nirvana’s music has a warm, tactile quality lacking in the dentists-drill vibrations found in the Pixies most abrasive concotions.

This empathy-inviting pain is communicated in simple, catchy melodies wedded to simple, punk-inspired piledriving instrumental sections, often pared down to 4 chords or so. Basically, the extreme end of power pop is the result (and why that term has been appropriated for the limp stylings of Todd Rundgren types is a mystery for another day) – tuneful melodies girded by titanic, galvanizing, and simple chord progressions/melodic bass work. On top of that, layer the sarcastic sense of humor behind lines like “It’s ok to eat fish because they don’t have any feelings” and to title a song “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”. And scream a lot, especially at the climax of the song (see Daltrey, Roger – "Won’t Get Fooled Again")

Nobody followed this template. Instead, everybody tried to copy Pearl Jam, whose music was also labeled grunge, but whose musical template was way, way different: mushy, complex interlocking guitar parts, chunky Neil Young-style chord progressions, a lot of acoustic/electric interplay. Longer songs, with more complex instrumental parts. Vocally, the incomparable Eddie Vedder, who I have come around on but once believed to be the worst vocalist in the entire universe. Like I said, I’ve come around, but Eddie influenced way more rock vocalists than Kurt did, namely in the following ways: heartfelt singing, without the sneer. Lyrics that reach for the mystical. Deep mumbling, with a whole lot of vowels. A distinct lack of irony. And, weirdly, ballads that are much, much more tuneful than the rockers (just compare the melodies of something like “Better Man” to something like “Why Go?” it’s not even a contest).

So, while Nirvana got all of the copy; admittedly, most probably because of the suicide, Pearl Jam had the influence. Nobody banged out albums of tuneful, sarcastic, 4 chord sledgehammer expressions of anger. Or, I should say, no one did that reached the top of the charts. Everybody released songs that sounded like Pearl Jam (Staind – "It’s Been Awhile", Seven Mary Three – whatever that song is, even Hootie and the Blowfish sounded like watered down Pearl Jam half the time – listen to "Let Her Cry" and tell me that couldn’t be a PJ song. The bands that achieved success in the post-grunge, pre-Backstreet radio days did so with songs that sound like Pearl Jam rips. It wasn’t until “Get Free” from the Vines came out that I realized it, because that was the first song I heard on the radio that sounded like a Nirvana rip-off.

The only band that sounded like they were actually influenced by Nirvana to me was Local H, a band that I hold dear to this very day. Only where Kurt’s pain was inviting, Scott Lucas’s was alienating in a way that Kurt just never could pull off, mostly because of that whole wounded baby bird thing.

Lucas, the songwriter/guitarist/semi-bassist/driving force behind the band, has a regular-guy practicality in lyrics and persona that lend the aggresive drive of Local H's music a bitter bite that Nirvana often deployed. Listening to the open, ringing phrasing of a song like PJ's "Daughter" or "Evenflow", what's notable is the claustrophic economy of the song. Where Eddie Vedder often writes in generalities, painting a feeling with images that's not always clear, and where Cobain often just strings together phrases for maximum frisson/impact, Lucas keeps his lyrics sharply trained on the objects of his wrath; which run the gamut from 1)himself to 2)other people.

"One more thing/before we go/stepped over everyone I know" goes the climax to "Fritz's Corner", a 3 line cocktail of triumph, rage, alienation, and guilt wedded to a supercharged pick scrape into that familiar 4 chord bludgeon. Sure, Nirvana did it first. But who else even attempted it?

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