Justin Smith
staff writer
January 12, 2006
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Rock Music Reviews
Sliver: The Best of the Box

Last year’s three-disc box set With the Lights Out was something like Krist Novoselic & Dave Grohl walking up to you, dumping a box of tapes at your feet, and saying “Here, you take these.” It was a bloated but occasionally interesting 61-track affair composed of bootlegs, rare b-sides & unreleased demos that showed us Kurt Cobain’s evolution from sniveling Washington punk to disturbed man-child that just wanted us to leave him alone. For the Nirvana completist willing to trade sound quality for kitsch factor & a fuller picture of Cobain’s songwriting capability, it’s well worth the $40.

Now comes Sliver: The Best of the Box, which purportedly culls the best 19 tracks from the box set and adds three unreleased tracks. Whether or not it manages to cherry pick the best tracks is a matter of contention (how could they leave off the band’s loving reconstruction of The Velvet Underground’s “Here She Comes Now”?), but having not heard the entire box set I can’t in good conscience make a judgment. What I’ll do here is evaluate Sliver independently of the box set it was constructed from.

The disc opens with the unreleased “Spank Thru,” a track Cobain recorded in his aunt’s living room in 1985 as part of a demo under the moniker Fecal Matter. Fans have been clamoring for the release of the Fecal Matter demo for years, and at last we have this track. The song shows a heavy Velvet Underground influence with sprinklings of The Melvins and is remarkably fully formed. The 18-year-old Cobain begins the tune by imitating Lou Reed, but in the first chorus the famous throat-shredding caterwaul emerges; eight years before In Utero we have a song that would sit comfortably next to “Tourette’s” and “Rape Me.” It’s an absolute revelation and will no doubt leave fans rioting for more of the Fecal Matter demo.

Curiosities on the disc include a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” from the band’s first show and a surprisingly fun and lighthearted rave-up of bluesman Leadbelly’s “Ain’t It A Shame To Go Fishing On A Sunday” recorded under the name The Jury. The problem with “Heartbreaker” is one that plagues much of the disc: poor audio quality and lower-quality performance. On the Zep cover Kurt’s vocals are barely audible and frequently off the proper notes. Again, it must be kept in mind that we’re trading fidelity for the “They covered Zeppelin??” factor. I'll admit that it is pretty funny to hear Kurt shout "I don't know how to play this song!" just before they begin the tune, and his take on Jimmy Page's solo is good satirizing fun.

Most of the album is occupied with giving us embryonic versions of Nirvana classics, and though they’re interesting studies in the evolution of Cobain’s songs, they too frequently suffer from low quality recording & performance (do we really need two uninteresting demos of “Rape Me”?). There are a few exceptions to this rule, though. I’d argue that the solo acoustic version of “All Apologies” that predictably closes the collection blows the In Utero & Unplugged versions completely out of the water, and a demo of “Heart-Shaped Box” recorded while it was still titled “Heart-Shaped Coffin” is fascinating.

There are two more tunes worth mentioning. In 2003, when Courtney Love put out the "best of" collection Nirvana with the previously unreleased track “You Know You’re Right,” the world saw a suffering man at the end of his rope that was sick of fame and pleading with us to give him peace. It was beyond chilling. Here we get an acoustic version rumored to have been recorded just weeks before his suicide; it makes the studio cut seem cheery by comparison. It’s ten times as difficult to listen to, but it absolutely crystallizes Cobain’s brilliance. Do you have a friend that doubt’s Kurt’s genius? Play them this song.

As part of the trio of acoustic home demos that close the disc we have “Do Re Mi,” rumored to be the last thing Kurt ever put on tape. A simple tune that sounds more like Elliot Smith or Wilco than Nirvana, we may here have evidence of a new direction in his songwriting just before the end. New direction or not, the song is heartbreaking in its promise of what might have been.

If you’re just a casual fan of Nirvana you may not want to bother with this disc, but if you’re interested in Cobain as a songwriter or if you’re looking to supplement your Nirvana albums with a grab bag of rarities without breaking the bank then this is a must-purchase.

Release date: November 1, 2005
Label: Geffen
Rating: 8.2 / 10