Thursday, April 9, 2009

9. Radiohead vs. Nirvana vs. Nirvana

vs. vs.
"Palo Alto"
by Radiohead
from Airbag/How Am I Driving?
  "Heart-Shaped Box"
by Nirvana
from In Utero
by Nirvana
from Incesticide

"Palo Alto" (7 plays at, unranked): I think the listening public has largely come around to my view that The Bends is superior to OK Computer. A big part of why my opinion came out that way is the quality of the b-sides found on the Airbag EP, of which this tune is the last and best. It neatly encapsulates what made the band's 90s output so great, both musically and lyrically -- the little guitar and noise flourishes, the big crunchy chorus, the desolate and soulless future. For me, this was essentially Radiohead's high-water mark. I couldn't say yet whether it's their best song -- "Just" will provide stiff competition if it comes to that -- but it may well be.

"Heart-Shaped Box" (7 plays, unranked): Like so many Nirvana songs, it's hard for me to hear this one for just the song and not for the memory ripples it kicks off. I remember the late summer of 1993, just as I was starting college, being all about this song and its superb video. Those first few times hearing, it was face-smacking: This dry sound, this raucous mess was how they were going to follow up the bright shimmer of Nevermind. It was so much more visceral and narrow; it didn't trade in melody the same way "Teen Spirit" and the other previous singles had. Throughout the promotion and discussion of the album -- and I recall the review in Rolling Stone hitting this pretty hard -- was the awareness of a line being drawn through the band's audience, with this song on one side and about 80% of Nevermind owners on the other. Sales-wise, it didn't quite to that, but this thing that was excised from Kurt Cobain as a middle finger to the grunge industry was revelatory for me both as music and as cultural commentary. I don't think it's a coincidence that I later wound up enjoying artists like Marilyn Manson as media provocateurs as much as musicians.

"Sliver" (4 plays, unranked): The randomizer put these two Nirvana songs together in this round, and I guess it's appropriate that they be from such different eras. And how odd is that this band can be said to have eras at all, let alone these distinct ones three years apart? The sort of play-acted innocence of this song (and the use of Frances Bean Cobain as a prop in the video) is typical of a lot of the band's early recordings ("School," for instance), but this one has such great pop energy that you can't help but be taken by it. Of all the songs that I'll never get to see performed live, this one might be the most disappointing. It's such a perfect two-minute bounce for a small club full of kids looking to dance off a buzz.

VERDICT: I vary from match-up to match-up on how to weigh my historical feelings about older songs, and this time I think my history puts "Heart-Shaped Box" over "Palo Alto" by a nose.

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