Friday, February 7, 2014

Nirvana - Sheep

Nirvana – Sheep
(soniclovenoize reconstruction)

Side A:
1.  Dive
2.  Lithium
3.  Imodium
4.  Sliver
5.  Been A Son
6.  Polly

Side B:
7.  In Bloom
8.  Stain
9.  Pay To Play
10.  Sappy
11.  Here She Comes Now

This was a blog-follower request from last year.  It was a project that was very close to my heart and I thought it would be a fun reconstruction to partake in.  This is a reconstruction of the unreleased 1990 Nirvana album Sheep, which is essentially the precursor to what would eventually be released as Nevermind in 1991.  It is designed to emulate what Nirvana’s second album would have sounded like in 1990 as an indie release, rather than the major-label blockbuster that Nevermind actually became.  While all this material can easily be found on modern remasters (notably the 20 Anniversary edition of Nevermind), alternate sources were utilized to avoid the highly compressed and brickwalled masters from that release. 

By 1990, Nirvana had relentlessly toured in support of their debut album, Bleach.  Their reputation for a staggering live show as well as songs that seemed to speak to their audience had garnished the band attention inasmuch as that many hailed it as a modern, Seattle-based equivalent of Beatlemania.  Enlightened with a slew of new songs that were more pop-influenced than the stereotype grunge found on their debut album, the trio began recording with producer Butch Vig in April at his own recording studio in Madison, WI.  The sessions were fruitful, with eight songs completed for a tentative album for Sub-Pop, in which Kurt Cobain desired to be dubbed Sheep, allegedly a reference to the target-audience of the album itself.  The band was at first pleased with the results and 2/3rds of their sophomore album was in the can for a release date later that year.  Nirvana intended to book a follow-up session with Vig at Smart Studios to finish the album….  or so they thought.  Two important events prevented the Sheep album from happening, which allowed it to become Nevermind instead.

The first event was the band’s discontent with drummer Chad Channing and his dismissal from Nirvana.  The truth was that the core of the band—founders Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic—had simply settled for Channing in 1988 after being unable to find a drummer that lived up to their first choice: Dale Crover of The Melvins.  Crover was a powerful hitter who had assisted Nirvana to record their first studio demo which secured their contract with Sub-Pop Records.  Chad was a much lighter hitter and seemed to embody the “hippy aesthetic”, which was contrary to Kurt and Krist’s “punk aesthetic”.  Cobain himself was a competent drummer and often complained that Chad was not performing up to Cobain’s specifications.  This often resulted in on-stage hostility, in which Cobain would vent his frustration at the drummer by literally plummeting himself at Chad at the conclusion of their sets, crashing the drumkit to bits.  Of course this became a fan-favorite stage-antic, and the tradition carried on for the remainder of the band’s career, even without Chad; but the truth was that it originated with Kurt’s “drummer frustrations”.  After the Smart Sessions, Chad was fired from Nirvana and the hunt for a new drummer resumed.  The band eventually stumbled upon prodigical Dave Grohl—the best alternative to Dale Crover—and the rest was history.  But with an infinitely more powerful drummer on-hand, the eight songs recorded earlier in the year would clearly be unusable for Nirvana’s second album.  It needed to be re-recorded.

The second factor of Sheep’s death was Nirvana’s dissatisfaction with Sub-Pop Records.  Despite a European tour as well as local-celebrity status, the label did not seem to quite meet Nirvana's expectations, as Sub-Pop could not meet the market demands for the album.  Fan-feedback was consistent: fans simply could not find their album in the stores.  What was Sub-Pop even doing?  Revenues from one album generally went on to fund the label’s next project; was there really room for Nirvana?  Was it right that Cobain and Grohl, now roommates, would live in squalor while Sub-Pop reaped their benefits?  Nirvana’s only hope to progress was to sign to a major label.  Hence the Smart Sessions recordings—funded by Sub-Pop for a tentative album—were relegated to a demo used to shop for a major label deal.   The sophomore Nirvana album would have to be re-recorded for a bigger label with a bigger budget, with their better drummer behind his kit.  Fate would prove to be on Nirvana’s side, as that is exactly what happened: Nirvana eventually signed to Geffin/DGC Records, who paid the bill to rerecord the Smart material plus more (notably the newly-written “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come As You are”) at a million dollar studio. 

This reconstruction attempts to erase both these factors: what if Nirvana were content with both Chad Channing as a drummer and Sub-Pop as a label, and Sheep would have been their second album proper?  How would we reconstruct that album?  Luckily for us, Cobain left an abundance of clues as to what the album's design and tracklist was to be, thanks to many sketches and tentative tracklists which were published in his Journals; unluckily for us, they are all drastically different, including songs that were never recorded with Chad Channing.  While all centering around the material recorded at Smart Studios—which creates the meat of this reconstruction—they are all in different orders with other random songs from this era mixed in. 

On page 89 of Kurt Cobain’s Journals, we have a tentative Sheep tracklist of: Imodium / Lithium / Dive / Polly / Sappy / Token Eastern Song / Verse Chorus Verse / In Bloom / Pay To Play / Dumb / Been A Son.  On page 116, we have a tracklist of: In Bloom / Imodium / Pay To Play / Territorial Pissings / Lithium / Sliver / Verse Chorus Verse / Sappy / Polly / Something In The Way.  And finally on 123 we have: In Bloom / Lithium / Polly / Territorial Pissings / Imodium / Pay To Play / Sliver / Been A Son / Sappy / Verse Chorus Verse / Something In The Way.  Clearly, Cobain could not make up his mind.  I have created test sequences of all three, and they all sound poor with no flow.  To make matters worse, we should remind ourselves that the final tracklist of the classic Nevermind album—an album with notably excellent cohesion and flow—was compiled completely arbitrarily, on the spot, by Kurt Cobain.  Apparently, he was face-to-face with a record exec who demanded a final tracklist in order to release the album, only for Kurt to hesitantly rattle off the track order off the top of his head!  The truth is that if they had asked Cobain a day later or sooner and had he been in a different mood, the running order of Nevermind could have been very different! 

So we know that the core of our reconstruction would be all eight songs recorded during the Smart Session in April 1990, which include: “Dive”, “Imodium”, “Here She Comes Now”, “In Bloom”, “Lithium”, “Pay To Play”, “Polly” and “Sappy”.  Would all eight of these songs actually have found their way onto Sheep?  Most likely not; for one, “Here She Comes Now” was specifically recorded for a Velvet Underground tribute album, never meant for album inclusion.  But because we are, for these purposes, only limiting ourselves to pre-Dave Grohl recordings, we are forced to use the entirety of the Smart Sessions on our Sheep reconstruction.  This is not entirely implausible as we have the precedent set with the cover of Shocking Blue’s “Love Buzz” on Nirvana’s debut Bleach.  Who’s to say they wouldn’t have included a cover on Sheep as well? 

Since eight songs are not enough for an album, we’ll need more.  “Sliver” was featured on two of the three tentative tracklists so we can use it, although it features Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters, temporarily filling-in Chad’s shoes.  “Been A Son” was also featured on two of the three tentative tracklists so we will use the recording found on the Blew EP, dating from September 1989, produced by Steve Fisk.  Although “Token Eastern Song” was also recorded during the Fisk Sessions and is featured on one of the three tracklists, the song honestly sounds as if it was born in a junkyard; instead we will use the superior track “Stain”, recorded during the same Fisk Sessions and released along with “Been A Son.”  Noting that “Dumb”, “Verses Chorus Verse”, “Territorial Pissings” and “Something In The Way” were all never recorded with Chad Channing and thus excluded, we are left with an 11-song set that features one cover tune, all amounting to a minute or two shy of 40 minutes—just like Bleach!  This is all too perfect for its supposed kindred kin Sheep

The actual track order of these 11 songs is not based on Cobain’s erratic and indecisive suggestions, but my own instincts and preference.  The album begins much like Bleach, with a groovy bass riff that drives a grungy rocker: “Dive”.  This is the original master taken from the 1990 Sub-Pop CD single pressing.  Following is the Smart Sessions version of “Lithium”; although better mastering can be found on bootlegs, the modern remix found on the Nevermind 20th Anniversary is unfortunately superior in soundquality, and is used here.  Next is the 1990 live standard “Imodium”, this less-brickwalled master taken from the rare Nightly Nirvana promo CD.  Next is the original studio version of “Been A Son”, taken from the first CD pressing of the Blew EP, with the album's side A closing with “Polly”, taken from the Nevermind 20th Anniversary box set.  Side B begins with “In Bloom”, sourced from an audio rip of the Sub-Pop video, found on the With The Lights Out DVD, the best source to avoid the brickwalled mastering found on the Nevermind 20th Anniversary box.  The original mastering of “Stain” from the CD pressing of Blew is next, followed by “Pay To Play” from the DGC Rarities compilation album.  The Nevermind 20th Anniversary remix of “Sappy” is unfortunately clearer than the best bootleg sources, so the brickwall mastering will have to be tolerated.  But the album is luckily concluded with the superior original mix of “Here She Comes Now” from the Heaven and Hell compilation, as well as a surprise after a minute of silence... 

How does Sheep compare with Nevermind?  Percussion-wise, it’s obviously weaker; Dave Grohl is one of the best drummers of our time, and the comparatively wimpy Chad Channing is no match for him.  Just compare “Pay To Play” here to Nevermind’s “Stay Away” to see exactly what Grohl added to Nirvana.  But on the other hand, the production of Sheep is much less slick, if that is your gripe with Nevermind, and even though Sheep features more pop-song structures and emphasizes Cobain’s excellent sense of melody, it is still very “punk" sounding and comparable to Bleach’s aesthetic.  We can’t say if Sheep is better or worse than Nevermind, but obviously the slicker production and intense drumming surely helped propel Nirvana into super-stardom, and things would have panned out quite differently for Nirvana had Sheep been released instead.  Without any super-stardom repercussions for Cobain to resent and ultimately attempt to "solve", this ‘album that never was’ opens our imaginations to a ‘life that never was’…  So in this sense, maybe Sheep was the album that should have been all along?

Sources used:
Nirvana - Blew EP (original CD master, Sub-Pop1989)
Nirvana - Sliver single (original CD master, Sub-Pop 1990)
Nirvana - Sliver single (original vinyl rip, Sub-Pop 1990)
Nirvana - Nevermind (20th Anniversary CD box set, Geffin 2011)
Nirvana - Nightly Nirvana (promo CD, Geffin 2004)
Nirvana  - With The Lights Out (DVD audio rip, Geffin 2004)
Various artists- DGC Rarities vol 1 (CD, DGC 1994)
Various artists - Heaven and Hell (CD, Communion 1990)

flac --> wav --> editing in Audacity & Goldwave --> flac encoding via TLH lv8
*md5, artwork and tracknotes included