September 2018

Nirvana's final studio album, In Utero, was released 25 years ago this week. We asked members of the Pittsburgh music community to pay tribute to the songs that inspired them.


Serve The Servants
Ernie Francestine (The Buckle Downs)

Nirvana was such a shock to my system as a kid. They were my favorite band and after “Nevermind”, I couldn’t wait for “In Utero”. I went to my local mall and picked up the CD on the first day it was released. Once I hit play, and “Serve The Servants” steadily revved up to its groove, I was totally enraptured in the melodic content of the rock n roll that was hitting my brain. I often say Kurt Cobain’s blessing and curse is that he couldn't write a bad melody if he tried and this song is a perfect example of that. It’s a mixture of things that shouldn't work, but come together to form a signature sound that no one has been able to come close to since. Nirvana taught me that music can be as deep as you want it to be and it can still appeal to a lot of people. “In Utero” is a perfect example of that. 


Scentless Apprentice
Andrew Belsick (LoFi Delphi)

Like most 30-something’s in 2018, I discovered Nirvana via Smells Like Teen Spirit on alternative rock radio in the early/mid 90’s.  I had never heard anything like that before and immediately dug in.  Once I wore out my Nevermind cassette, my first-ever CD purchase was In Utero.

I’m not sure how it happened, but I somehow accidentally skipped the first track and wound up with Scentless Apprentice as my introduction to In Utero.  From that point on, this disc held the top spot of my favorite Nirvana album and one of my all-time favorites.  Dave Grohl’s drumming absolutely punches you in the gut out of the gate and doesn’t let up for the duration of the song.  The raising guitar riff kicks in like nails on a chalkboard (in a good way).  The pre-chorus builds in such a way that it’s teetering out of control, and then just spins out once the chorus vocals hit.

I didn’t know anything about recording or production technique at the time, but I knew I gravitated toward the raw/unfiltered approach of In Utero over the slick production value of Nevermind.  I’m not sure that I understood the genius of the album at the time either, but it was absolutely a gateway drug away from mainstream radio to an entire new world of music. 

 


Heart-Shaped Box
Chris Fafalios (Punchline)

If "Smells Like Teen Spirit" kicked down the door into our angsty 90s hearts, it was "Heart-Shaped Box" that completely burned down the house. It’s amazing that Nirvana had such huge commercial success with lyrics like “I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black”, the complete antithesis to  the other chart-topping songs at the time (such as Mariah Carey’s “Dreamlover”). Could this song be a hit in 2018? I doubt it. It was a perfectly-timed anthem for people who were tired of the fake and boring music that they were spoon-fed throughout their lives. The huge cultural impact of this song was apparent in everything from Wayne’s World sketches to Beavis and Butthead, and Anton Corbijn’s award-winning music video gave us some of the most iconic Kurt Cobain visuals. The song is both beautiful and ugly, which is the dichotomy that really defines Nirvana’s unique songwriting approach. It’s totally fitting that this is the last song that Nirvana ever played, as all of us who were influenced by them will forever be indebted to their priceless advice! Okay, that was dumb, but here’s a cool sidenote: I won my In Utero compact disc at a game at Kennywood. 


Rape Me
Morgan Erina

I don't even know where to start with why this song is important to me, the many reasons are trying to sort themselves out in my head. The first one that comes to the forefront, is the simple fact that Kurt Cobain made people listen to a topic that was and still is uncomfortable. He talked about it, in a melodic gritty beautiful way, which is hard to do with such an ugly disgusting act. An act that happened to me, I took comfort in his delivery, his voice soothed the anger inside of me. I learned how to play it, though my cover is more of a depressed angry whisper, like a ghost with an revengeful agenda, and I enjoy making the audience uncomfortable because they should be with this.  It's an anthem for generations and generations, for hundreds of women and men who had to go through this pain from another. It's taking the word and the rage and giving it back to the world and saying "screw you, you will listen to me and you will not hurt me anymore." 


Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle
Bethany Conley (Balloon Ride Fantasy)

The unassuming Jaws-like intro of "Frances Farmer..." quickly unleashes into a full-on sonic assault. As characteristic in many Nirvana songs, its musically jarring weight is balanced by its unexpected melodic riffs, general pop structure and repetition. The catchiest part of the song “I miss the comfort in being sad” begs to be considered. Sarcastic lyrics like “It’s so soothing to know that you’ll sue me” are teeming with Cobain’s clever passive aggression. The song grew out of his disgust for the people and society who mistreated the outspoken mid-1900s Hollywood film actress Frances Farmer, a Seattle native who struggled with depression and substance abuse.  Nirvana’s iconic frontman cared deeply about the plight of women and was incensed by the hypocrisy of society, as with what happened to Farmer, the victim of a condemnatory public and the systemic horrors of 1940s psychiatric treatment. Cobain empathized with Farmer’s experience, fueled by his own turn on the receiving end of invasive media scrutiny.  Indulging a satisfying retribution, Cobain wailed, “She’ll come back as fire to burn all the liars / leave a blanket of ash on the ground” and avenged Farmer in a powerful piece of art that still endures.  


Dumb
Don Strange (Strange Monsters)

I was in college when In Utero came out. It’s an understatement to say it was one of the most anticipated albums of the year, because it was the anticipated album of that year. “Dumb” captured the 90s Nirvana vibe in a different way. The song was self-deprecating yet indulgently misanthropic. Much like the album closer, “All Apologies”, it said, You just really want to be thing you hate and you know it. That was the message in this mellow, almost poppy, tune from an otherwise loud and aggressive band. It was about catching yourself laughing at the same joke as some vacuous frat boys on your way to the commons or the computer lab. It was about being bored and not wanting to study while hating on those kids playing hacky-sack in the quad. It was about watching the girl you’re into fawn all over some musclehead outside the library. But ultimately, I think “Dumb” was as light-hearted as Kurt Cobain got. The tortured animosity and derision heard earlier on the album fell away. "Dumb" had a certain maturity to it, in its temperament, in its placidity; a quality that perhaps we would have seen more of in the future.


Pennyroyal Tea
Josh Verbanets (Meeting Of Important People)

I was in Elementary school when ‘In Utero’ was released, the era where indoor shopping malls had record stores in each corner, and you couldn’t escape those giant cardboard anatomical angels. My memory is that my parents were a little hesitant about some of the lyrics and subjects on In Utero (from what they had heard from other parents??)… So, I probably first knew ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ from the Kurt-solo Unplugged version, a nice clunky performance that he famously announces he will most likely ‘screw up.’

On the album, ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ is one of the more simple, straightforward, and poppy songs that In Utero offers, the perfect loud-quiet-loud mix of pretty and demented.  The rumor at the time was that the song’s lyrics included a recipe for a home-made abortion potion, and I think this was given credence in Kurt’s Journals published a decade later, mentioned in his own liner note drafts.  Dark view of reality or bored/ imaginative teenage voice trying to shock the listener??  Sounds like a little bit of both, in the same way that the overall album balances equal numbers of ‘noise’ songs with pop singalongs so beautifully.


Tourette's
Cindy Howes (WYEP)

There are a few complex things happening in this 92-second fit of a rock song. Cobain’s vocals scream nonsense words in a strained voice heard on other Nirvana songs like “Hairspray Queen” and “Negative Creep.” Barely understandable, there are actually lyrics to the song. Lines like “May day, every day, my day/Could've had a heart attack, my heart” repeat over and over. The only audible line is Cobain saying the phrase “Moderate Rock” at the start of the track, apparently taking a jab at the modern rock radio format that had turned the band into superstars just years earlier. “Tourette’s” showcases the Nirvana that deeply resonated with frustrated adolescents and scared the crap out of their parents. While Kurt did not have the neuropsychiatric disorder himself, his delivery and the frantic pace of the drums, bass and guitars create a certain anxious energy.


 

According to TMZ, Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller has been found dead at age 26 in his California home of an apparent drug overdose.

Miller was born Malcolm McCormick and began his rap career while a student at Taylor Allderdice High School. His first album Blue Slide Park (with a name inspired by a Frick Park playground and its distinctive slide) debut at #1 on the album charts and was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America.

Miller had just released his fifth album, Swimming, last month, and performed a Tiny Desk concert for NPR in conjunction with its release.

Fellow Pittsburgh native Wiz Khalifa tweeted condolences to Miller's family, and other musicians and fans also took to Twitter to pay tribute and express their grief.