Nirvana’s breakthrough album turns 20 this year (we can’t believe it either). Although the official commemoration won’t occur until the anticipated reissues this fall, culturally we’re already reflecting on the album’s music and impact. Much like it’s celebration of Prince’s Purple Rain two years ago, Spin magazine’s latest edition has a feature on Nevermind that includes stories behind the album and reflections from a veritable who’s who of rock on what Nevermind means to them.
Also included is a free download of Newermind, a tribute album to Nirvana’s opus. Tribute albums are always risky. Most have a few good cuts, while the majority of tracks offer up little of interest. Newermind is one of the rare tribute albums that is consistently good, and breathes new life into an album that most of us know note for note.
In paying homage to another artist, there are two paths to take: staying true to the original or stretching out and putting an entirely new spin on the track. Newermind features both approaches to mixed results. Although by-the-books renditions of “Breed” (Titus Andronicus), “Territorial Pissings” (Surfer Blood), “On a Plain” (Telekinesis), “Something in the Way” (JEFF The Brotherhood) and “Endless Nameless” (EMA) are competently executed and pleasant to listen to, they aren’t particularly compelling renditions. When you’re working with compositions that most of us have played to death over the last 20 years, it takes a little more than parroting the original to hold listener interest.
Indeed, Newermind’s most enjoyable tracks are those where the artists bring new perspective to these songs by veering away from simply recreating the originals. Most notable of these is Charles Bradley and the Menahan Street Band’s rendition of “Stay Away,” which takes an aggressive, straightforward rock number and turns it into a Stax-esque soul strut. The Midnight Juggernauts similarly transform the already haunting “Come as You Are” into an electronic trip-hop cut. Sometimes such drastic stylistic departures seem forced (as in for example, the various acoustic renditions of gangsta rap classics). Yet many of the reinterpretations on Newermind avoid this pitfall, coming through as earnest reconfigurations of a modern classic.
The inclusion of two particular groups brings the Nirvana karma full-circle. Nirvana gave the Meat Puppets the biggest popularity boost of their career by covering three of the band’s songs for MTV Unplugged in 1994. Similarly, Nirvana frequently covered The Vaselines (“Molly’s Lips,” “Son of a Gun,” “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for Sunbeam”); the newly reformed Vaselines return the favor here by taking a crack at “Lithium,” while the Meat Puppets bring their unmistakable style to Nevermind’s biggest hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Truthfully, there is only one stinker on Newermind, Foxy Shazam’s cover of “Drain You.” Here, Foxy Shazam can’t seem to come to a consensus about it’s interpretation of the song. It alternately sounds like Elton John, the Flaming Lips and Of Montreal – none of which work particularly well. It’s a shame that one of Nevermind’s most complex and enduring compositions received such lackluster treatment, but such disappointments are part and parcel of tribute albums.
Foxy Shazam aside however, Newermind avoids becoming a tribute album cliché. Despite the diversity of styles represented, the tribute generally sounds coherent, and brings new life to one of the most popular rock albums of all time.
You can download Newermind for free at Spin.com