It’s probably safe to assume that most people heard Nirvana’s debut, Bleach, after already experiencing the massive, culture-shifting Nevermind. Though the albums clearly emerged from the same minds, the differences are pretty jarring: Famously recorded for $600, Bleach sounds like what it was—a scrappy, snarly, dirty record made by a band still coming into its sound. That’s no slight: Had Nirvana split after Bleach, Sub Pop would probably still be making a big deal out of the record’s 20th anniversary. Sure, it’s valuable as a blueprint for music that would change everything (for a while, anyway), but also as a repository for the perfect synthesis of grunge’s anger and Kurt Cobain’s pop sensibility. Songs like “Scoff” and “About A Girl” are as important to Nirvana’s story as “Stay Away” or “Tourette’s.” And for those not psyched about paying for it again: This deluxe reissue includes a fat book filled with old photos (and a photocopy of the band’s original recording contract) as well as a complete recording of a spirited live 1990 show that naturally focuses on the Bleach era.
What a difference two years make. Between 1990 and 1992, Nirvana graduated from tiny clubs to a headlining slot at the massive Reading Festival, and from a bunch of dirtbag rockers to a gang already weary of worldwide fame. That doesn’t stop the Live At Reading release—available as a CD, DVD, or combo pack—from greatness, though. Cobain, ever the sarcastic bastard, was wheeled onto the stage in wheelchair, wearing a wig and a hospital gown—a reference to press rumors of his ill health, and perhaps to the fact that he became a father less than two weeks before this show. Still, Cobain was ready to tease himself and give a massive performance: It’s easy to forget what a likeable tangle his vocal cords delivered, but when he’s on here, especially on “Aneurysm,” he’s unmatched. (When he’s a bit off, later in the show, his pain is palpable.) But it’s a monster of a concert film in any case, with a band at the height of its powers—and not yet totally sick of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” (They do give it a cheeky intro, introducing it with the similar chords from Boston’s “More Than A Feeling.”) Beyond the show itself, there’s little to be found here, though watch past the credits as Cobain is approached by a dad and his cancer-stricken kid: It’s a quick, rare glimpse into the world in which Cobain never got comfortable living.