Nirvana - With the Lights Out [Box Set]
Record Label: DGC
Release Date: November 23, 2004
Box sets can be a tricky thing to assemble. Sure, you want to find plenty of rare material to please the fans who are likely to spend the money on these things, but you also need to make sure that the music itself is actually listenable and interesting. This must have been a particularly daunting task for the producers of With the Lights Out, Nirvana’s 2004 box set. After all, the band only existed for seven years, and through most of that brief time period, they couldn’t afford expensive production for their music. As a result, the set is very hit-and-miss.
This conflict of rarity versus quality is apparent immediately with the opening track, a cover of “Heartbreaker” by Led Zeppelin from Nirvana’s first show in 1987. Starting the collection off with a legendary song from such an early point in the band’s career seems like a good idea on paper, but the problem is that it’s a barely listenable one-track recording. Cobain’s growling vocals can barely be heard and don’t even come in until more than halfway through the song. By that point, the listener has more than likely become bored with what sounds like an unpolished high school band jamming on a familiar song. This is an extreme example, but many of the songs on With the Lights Out suffer from this problem: they feature borderline quality and were likely only thrown on for the sake of getting them to eager fans. This applies to many of Kurt Cobain’s solo home demos, which were probably recorded on equipment as simple as a boombox. Sure, having solo acoustic renditions of songs like “Pennyroyal Tea” and “You Know You’re Right” might seem worth the retail price to a diehard fan who has been listening to Nirvana for years, but to the more casual listener, these tracks will quickly be forgotten in favor of their more familiar, polished forms.
The other problem that plagues this set is the fact that a lot of this material is simply underwhelming. “Gallons of Rubbing Alcohol Flow Through the Strip” turns out to be merely a noise jam that mindlessly goes on for seven and a half minutes, and an alternate version of Nevermind’s hidden noise-based track “Endless, Nameless” does little to inspire. The biggest offender, though, is a nine and a half minute version of In Utero’s “Scentless Apprentice.” The track is labeled as a “rehearsal demo,” which is really just code for “unpolished.” The band takes the riff from the song and spends a ridiculous amount of time beating it to death. If there’s anyone who doesn’t quickly become bored with this demo, it will certainly at least give them a headache due to tape hiss. Earlier material on disc one shows the band experimenting with much heavier material than what they became famous for. “Anorexorcist” sounds closer to weaker material from Anthrax than a cut from Nevermind, and “Help Me I’m Hungry” and “If You Must” take atonality to an almost intolerable level.
For all the tape hiss and noise jams on the box set, there are some gems. Completely unreleased songs such as “Do Re Mi” do an amazing job of showcasing Cobain’s songwriting skills and give indications that the band likely would have had many promising years ahead of it. However, most of the material here is either too rough or too similar to the previously released versions of the songs (a version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” marked as a “Butch Vig mix” is pretty much identical to the Nevermind version) to warrant a purchase. Download a few key tracks if you must, or look for a cheap used copy, but do not spend the 50 bucks that most retailers suggest on this.