Saturday, March 3, 2012

Song #144 of 9999 - Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana

Song #144 of 9999

Title: Smells Like Teen Spirit
Artist: Nirvana
Year: 1991
Album: Nevermind
(Posting from a train so no embedding feature. Also, apparently studio recordings of Nirvana are not allowed on YouTube, so you get this live version.)

Sigh. I had written this whole elaborate diatribe positing that maybe producer Butch Vig and mixer David Wallace were responsible for Kurt Cobain's death because they made a record that was so polished that the world couldn't help but eat it up like so much chocolate mousse and Cobain couldn't handle the success, but then Google's auto-save function let me down and I lost everything. (conclusion: it was Cobain's own fault for listening to too much R.E.M. and Pixies and writing songs that were just too damn catchy to amount to Bleach 2.)

Then I started talking about what I learned from Cobain and that's where I will begin now in this truncated version. What Cobain showed me was how to create harmonic interest by combining non-committal chords (essentially open 5ths with no 3rds to indicate major or minor) with vocal melodies that are benign on their own but dissonant when sung over the chords. For example, during he verses in "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Cobain sings behind the beat and sustains notes that become major 7ths and 9ths against the chord progression. During the pre-chorus, he takes this idea a step further by emphasizing the note G, which forms a 9th, a 6th, a major 7th, and an augmented 4th--all dissonant in this context--with the chords beneath. The chorus vocal follows the chord progression more closely, but still offers dissonance in the form of 9-8 suspensions throughout. Obviously, there's a lot of other stuff going in this track to make it appealing, most notably the extreme dynamic contrast between verse and chorus that would become a hallmark of the band's sound, but these harmonic tendencies account for the uniqueness of melody and harmony that sets Cobain's songs apart from the rest of the grunge movement.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Frankie, Isn't it Andy Wallace who mixed "Nevermind"? I read/heard somewhere that Kurt chose Andy because he'd mixed a recent Slayer album, and he wanted that fat crunchy sound.