Nirvana Cover Songs are Stupid and Contagious

grungy death 2

Punk Goes Grunge really doesn’t sound all too inspiring. In a world and music scene in which Punk Goes… is a franchise, hearing breakdowns accompany Katy Perry tracks or ’90s throwbacks is nothing new.  In fact, it’s almost expected since making a solid pop cover track can help make or break a band when it comes to getting signed to a label. That being said, what happens when punk (or what’s in actuality post-hardcore, metalcore, and pop punk) try to cover grunge or metal songs?

Typically you get one of two things: either a sound so similar that you find yourself questioning why anyone covered the track in the first place or a sound so entirely different and jarring that the integrity of the initial song is completely lost.

We got our first real taste of this problem with Punk Goes ’90s Vol. 2The Color Morale made a cringe-worthy, over produced cover of the Foo Fighter‘s staple “Everlong,” Ice Nine Kills showcased an amplified  pop rock version of Green Day‘s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” and Motionless In White rendered an exact copy of Rammstein‘s “Du Hast.”  A good cover is a song that takes the base of a track and holds the nature of that song true but also adds the flair of the band covering it to make it their own.  Industrial metalcore bands like Motionless In White shouldn’t be releasing covers of industrial metal bands like Rammstein simply because there is nothing much they can do to add to that track.  Other bands, like the Foo Fighters and Green Day are such iconic faces in modern music that they simply shouldn’t be altered.  The same is to be said of Nirvana.  Absolutely no one should be covering Nirvana tracks right now, regardless of the current resurgence of Cobain’s popularity.

My anger towards this situation appeared after hearing the latest compilation of Nirvana tribute songs, Robotic Empire‘s Whatever Nevermind, in which the label collected bands such as Torche, La Dispute, Circa Survive and Touché Amoré to render classic and even not-so-classic Nirvana songs as their own.  Along with the release of this album on Record Store Day, the grand April holiday also saw the release of Comeback Kid‘s cover of “Territorial Pissings.”

Nirvana, as with Green Day and the Foo Fighters, are still incredibly relevant.  They haven’t quite fallen into The Beatles iconic fame and legendary status as people are still trying to uncover exactly who Cobain was and what Nirvana actually meant for music.  The tale of Paul McCartney and John Lennon has been uncovered, publicized and revered in a way in which releasing an entire film of cover songs like Across the Universe is both acceptable and lauded. Conversely, we’re still in a state in which we don’t quite understand most of Nirvana.  Hell, there’s still a debate on why or even if Cobain killed himself, and unless you’re Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl, Butch Vig, Steve Albini or Courtney Love you probably have  no grasp on how or why he wrote and recorded music the way he did.  Being unable to interpret that significant fact of such an iconic voice and figure should lead people to have enough respect to not actually go and remodel one of Cobain’s tracks.

Grunge is the voice of indie.  Grunge is an informal outlet of punk.  Grunge is the signature rock sound of the early ’90s.  But grunge is also exceptionally dead.  There’s no way an indie/punk/post-hardcore/rock band can come in today and revive grunge.  Alice In Chains couldn’t even find success doing it when Layne Staley died.  And believe me, they tried.   If a forerunner in the grunge movement couldn’t keep it alive, there’s no way any of these more marginal bands are going to be able to.

Whatever Nevermind

Let’s talk about “Polly.”

“Polly” is one hell of a fucked up song.  For those of you who don’t know, “Polly” is about a real life rapist who held a girl captive and whose first-person perspective Cobain felt absolutely compelled to write about.  That’s fucking weird. Bands like La Dispute, who I have nothing but respect for, should not be covering that track. Not only do they do very little to change up how the song initially sounded, but they lose a lot of the eerie concepts placed behind that song because they didn’t write it.  Those twisted thoughts were not in their heads to make that track genuine or forthcoming.  It’s a cover that offers nothing to the music scene and doesn’t challenge the listener in the way that Cobain’s original version did. They probably would have had better luck covering “Rape Me,” but I guess in today’s world you can’t cover a track with that title in the same way that Slayer is no longer permitted to cover Minor Threat‘s “Guilty of Being White.”

Then there are bands who cover truly iconic Nirvana songs.  First off, it should go without saying that if it smells like the only Nirvana song you know, it shouldn’t be covered. But people still do.  “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is so well known and so iconic, that when you hear an alternative version of it, most people are inclined to cringe since they are banking on hearing those blaring soft to loud contradictions within the verse/chorus song structure and the complete inability to determine whether Cobain is saying “hello” or “how low.”  Covers typically force the coverer to pick one phrasing and pursue that translation, thus making it a decided interpretation of song we still don’t fucking understand.

Are all covers bad? No.  Circa Survive’s “Drain You” is listenable, but simply because they added very little to the track.  But with every just vaguely different track comes a track so butchered that it’s upsetting to hear.  Kylesa‘s cover of “Come As You Are,” for example, is another moment in time in which someone believes you can make that song an indie slow jam and get away with it.  You can’t.  It makes a classic song feel tired and drained. In the end you are left with the feeling that people are trying way too hard. Cobain wrote these tracks with definitive thoughts in mind. Over-thinking a track that’s already had an intention placed behind it is unnecessary and loses the effect the track initially held.

So then, are these covers ever acceptable? In my opinion, no.  Do some bands do it better than others? Yes.  In comparison to White Reaper‘s cover of “Territorial Pissings,” Comeback Kid does it much, much better.  When listening to the two side by side, White Reaper gives the illusion that they are trying to cover a Nirvana song in a well-planned, strategic manner.  Comeback Kid, however, just sound like they decided to jam out to a Nirvana track. It’s genuine fandom rather than a fabrication of a song someone bigger and more important wrote. The same can be said of Every Time I Die‘s live cover of “Tourette’s.”  ETID didn’t release the track in recorded form, and therefore hold the same genuine appreciation for Nirvana by showcasing it live and in a fashion that makes a song off of In Utero sound like a track from Bleach while still having that real old school ETID feel. But not one of these tracks are better than the originals.

No Nirvana cover will ever be accepted until Nirvana fades from mainstream relevancy.  Once Cobain becomes Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney and the world is ready for new interpretations on the grunge world, then covers can be acceptable.  But the ’90s are way too close to the now and the vocal strains inside of Nirvana’s haunting tracks are still as eerie and hard hitting now as they were twenty years ago. Let the band ride the legacy they created, and if you have to cover it, do so genuinely. Do so live. Do so in the moment without the over-thinking and strange musical additions and interpretations that help lose the messages Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl created.  And for fuck’s sake, if you absolutely have to do Punk Goes Grunge, someone hit up a Bleach song.  Maybe I’ll shut up if Josh Scogin does a cover of “Negative Creep”; maybe then I’d believe that these covers can actually happen. Until then, leave it to Kurt or keep it to live performance. The world isn’t ready for over-produced interpretations of tracks we still don’t understand.  Lose yourself in the music, don’t think so much, and in time, Nirvana will be appropriate to re-examine through cover songs.

Check out the album stream for Whatever Nevermind via Noisey right here.

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