Served By The Servants, But Still Uncompromising In Places
kabalabonga | 05/29/2010
(4 out of 5 stars)
"No one who listened to "In Utero" when it was first released could deny that Kurt Cobain had entirely abandoned the quiescent/aggressive dynamic that partially informed his songwriting, but the general consensus was that he had attempted to make a significant effort to distance himself from the blueprint that admitted influence Black Francis of the Pixies had first laid down. Suggestive itself by its very title as a process of gestation, "In Utero" was Cobain's effort at forming a musical identity that matched the DIY ethic that he felt he had abandoned after the success of "Nevermind", Nirvana's sophomore release. Steve Albini, Cobain's pick to record the CD, was chosen as the midwife based on both his credentials as both an elder statesman of the post-punk movement and his uncompromising approach to recording, capturing a raw, angular, and often aggressively-paced sound that bleeds the "moist", expansive quality right out of the master tape, especially with regard to the recording of drum and guitar.
"Serve the Servants", the opening track, opens with the a dry sound of heavy distortion and of course IS nothing but raw, angular, and aggressive. Albini doesn't produce; he records, and even the abrasive quality he helped the band to capture can't erase the underlying melody of this track or others he recorded. "Scentless Apprentice"'s cyclical riff sounds as if were being churned from a beltsander rather than a guitar; "Frances Farmer Will have Her Revenge on Seattle", the most conventionally recorded song that can be definitively attributed to Albini's stint on "In Utero", is still surly and abrasive in presentation; "Milk It" and "Very Ape" contain an immediacy and urgency that Butch Vig would never have elected to coax onto a recording, with "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" and "Tourette's" both utterly uncompromising, ear-assaulting songs that, consciously or not, stand in solidarity with perspectives on the state of "modern rock" that Albini had shared frequently in the past.
Steve Albini's recognizable mixing (or at least the ones I feel sufficiently able to identify as sounding most like what could be "typical Albini recording", if a universal type could actually be said to exist)seem to be limited to the songs above. Cobain was internally and externally pressured into bringing two producers on board to "clean up" the rest of "In Utero", in order to make it at least a moderately radio-friendly release; Bob Ludwig ratcheted up the bass sound, and Scott Litt, REM's producer, famously gave makeovers to "Heart-Shaped Box" and "All Apologies". I'm pretty sure the uncharacteristically melodic "Pennyroyal Tea" remained untouched from Albini's recording , but I believe "Dumb" was also sanitized.
Nevertheless this is, in many places, an intense listening experience. After buying a copy in September of '93 I played it incessantly for months, although I have to admit that I tended to focus on the tracks adhering most closely to Albini's recording values. I found myself having to replace that worn-out copy last year. It's finally somewhat tragic to me that Cobain perceived himself to be a sell-out, as "Bleach", their first release, took the heavy distortion from hard rock, jettisoned the masturbatory guitar solos and replaced the odes of self-triumph with pithy, observational lyrics that sounded relevant, hungry, and alive, integrating it with the sometimes frenetic pace of a late '80's post-punk rhythm section, or the down-shifting, deliberative momentum patented by the Melvins, blending into something that was more than "REM with a fuzzbox".