As you may know, Nirvana’s third and final album In Utero turns 20 years old this week. Doesn’t that make you feel ANCIENT? I feel old and I was only eight when it came out. My little cousin feels old and she wasn’t even born yet! Old old old old old.
Considering how much hype Nirvana received during their seven years as an active band and in the subsequent 19 years since Kurt Cobain’s tragic death, it’s easy to get caught up in mindless contrarianism and lose sight of the fact that they were, in fact, one special fucking band, and In Utero was arguably their best album. Boistered by the naturalistic production of Steve Albini, In Utero teased out Nirvana’s ever dueling (or maybe just coexisting) threads of squalling sludge and poppy melody to create a snapshot of the band’s artistic ascendance.
This is the majority opinion, so it’s not surprising that In Utero has received no shortage of tributes from amateurs and professionals alike. From The Flaming Lips to Lana Del Rey, many have tried, and a few have even succeeded, at peforming the album’s songs. This being MTV, we’ve also got some never-before-seen footage of the band rehearsing “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter” and “Very Ape” at Seattle’s Pier 73 in preparation for the televised concert Nirvana: Live and Loud, which premiered on MTV on new year’s eve of 1993, so maybe start with those and go from there. Kurt even plays the drums in one of them. Exciting!
1. Mckenna99, “Serve The Servants”
How would Kurt feel if he knew kids from all over the world were covering his songs on a thing called “You-Tube”? Pretty weird, I bet. But this being the YouTube age, it would be arrogant not to include at least one random nobody on here, so here she is. Beyond being a concession to the times we live in, this acoustic version of “Serve The Servants” is soulful and lovely, and if you click on Mckenna’s page, you’ll find a number of other decent ’90s alt-rock covers. Maybe the kids are all right.
2. Flipper, “Scentless Apprentice”
Kurt always did love Flipper, winning the San Francisco sludge punkers at least a few new fans by wearing his homemade Flipper shirt on “SNL” in 1992. In 2000, the band returned his love with a tooth-gnashing version of “Scentless Apprentice” for the album Smells Like Bleach: A Punk Tribute To Nirvana. The screams at the end are winningly bloodcurdling.
3. Lana Del Rey, “Heart Shaped Box”
I would be remiss in my duty if I did not include Lana Del Rey’s version of this song, which caused quite a bit of buzz last year when it prompted Courtney Love to remind Lana exactly twat she should be thinking about when she sang it. But because this cover is a bit weak, I’m also including the one played by Deer Tick when they covered all of In Utero as “Deervana” in Brooklyn last weekend. It’s sort of creepy how spot on they got it.
4. Richard Cheese, “Rape Me”
Despite this song’s popularity, it’s been covered relatively little. Guess there’s something about screaming “RAPE ME!” at the top of your lungs that gives some people pause. Fortunately, Richard Cheese was and remains up to the task, delivering a jaunty version of the feminist (and/or anti-press) anthem as part of his “jazzy lounge singer performs incongruous songs” schtick. Put your hands together for Richard Cheese!
There’s also a cover by hilariously named nu metal band Vampires Everywhere!, but I won’t subject you to it.
5. Scott Weiland, “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle”
Say what you will about Stone Temple Pilots, and you’ll probably be right; they were at least partly responsible for the torrent of grunge-appropriating cock rock that flooded “alternative” radio in the mid-to-late-nineties. But Scott Weiland (recently replaced in STP by Chester Bennington of Linkin Park?!) is predictably good at covering Nirvana, as he did on his 2011 rock and roll greats covers album. To avoid seeing Scott doing a halfhearted Axl Rose shimmy while dressed like a member of Everclear, temporarily turn off your monitor.
6. Jay Reatard, “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle”
Another talented guy who died way too soon, Memphis garage rocker Jay Reatard recorded this sweet, fuzzy take as part of an In Utero tribute late in 2009. It would be one of the last songs he recorded before his untimely death in January of 2010.
7. Mason Mabin, “Dumb”
Is it, or is it not, totally fucking frightening how close to the original recording three 13-year-olds can sound using Garageband in their parents’ basement?
8. Little Roy, “Very Ape”
The anxious, claustrophobic feeling of the original might be the polar opposite of the chilled-out reggae vibes on display here. But if the mark of a good cover is change, then this one wins first place. Gold star for you, Jamaican reggae artist Little Roy.
9. Electric Pigs, “Milk It”
If you, like me, have never wondered what “Milk It” would sound like covered by an industrial-tinged grindcore band, this is not the song for you. But if you have, by all means go nuts.
10. Hole, “Pennyroyal Tea”
Hole began covering this song on the tour they embarked on in 1994 shortly after Kurt Cobain’s suicide. It’s clear even from this poor quality footage that Kurt’s widow was exorcising some demons by playing it. Ever the truth-teller, Courtney changed the “cherry flavored antacids” line to a list of drugs she was potentially using to numb the pain. I’d like to take this opportunity to say a big “fuck you” to anyone chiming in with “but she had him murdered!” Get out of my sight. Go. You’re kicked out of this blog post.
11. The Flaming Lips, “Pennyroyal Tea”
Wayne Coyne’s choice words on Nevermind might give you the impression that The Flaming Lips weren’t down with Nirvana, but they were actually one of the first bands to cover them way back in 1990. They continued this tradition in 1998 with a gleefully off-key redition of “Pennyroyal Tea” recorded live in studio at JBTV. With Coyne’s intense, grungy yelling, there may have been a bit of gentle satire at play…or maybe they were just being weird for weirdness’ sake.
12. The Harlequins, “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”
The title was of course meant to be ironic, but that hasn’t stopped legions of punks from learning to punish their instruments on this song. Here, Ohio indie rockers The Harlequins perform their take at a thing called Cincy Punk Fest IX.
13. Domstang, “Tourette’s”
Another frighteningly spot-on cover from a YouTube rando, this time in the form of a one-man band who recorded every part himself. Props for tackling a slightly lesser-known track. Does the world really need another “Smells Like Teen Spirit” cover? Oh wait, he did that one too. Can’t win ’em all.
14. Herbie Hancock, “All Apologies”
Jazz legend Herbie Hancock uses the original composition as a template for a much more fanciful riffing on this track off his 1998 cover album The New Standard.
15. Ben Gibbard, “All Apologies”
You might say the Death Cab For Cutie and Postal Service frontman/former husband to Zooey Deschanel is a pussy in comparison to Kurt Cobain, and I’d tell you to GTFO with your macho bullshit. In this bootleg, Gibbard captures your attention with a toned-down but recognizable piano version, delivering the words in his trademark nasal nerd voice. It’s especially adorable when he gets exercised and pounds the piano bench. Good job, Ben Gibbard! Way to take Nirvana back from the jocks.