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New box set is Nirvana for Cobain fans

After toying with such names as Designer Drugs, Imcompotent Fools, and Fecal Matter, Kurt Cobain finally decided to call his band Nirvana. As he explained to a friend, ''It means attainment of perfection."

Rather than a just an exhaustive compilation of Nirvana's best known songs, the box set ''With the Lights Out," in stores today, charts Cobain's quest for musical perfection, a path that would propel this seminal band from underground obscurity to a reluctant reign, in the early 1990s, as the biggest rock band in the world.

Long-delayed by legal wrangling between Kurt Cobain's widow, Courtney Love, and his surviving bandmates, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl, this four-disc set -- three CDs and a DVD -- is stunning in its breadth. Even though some of the band's best-known songs, including ''Come as You Are" and ''On a Plain," aren't included, they're hardly missed. With 68 of this set's 81 tracks previously unreleased, there's a wealth of fascinating material, from a bizarre 90-second noodling called ''Beans" to nascent versions of such songs as ''About a Girl," ''Sliver," and ''Drain You."

This isn't a collection for Nirvana novices. For those unfamiliar with the band, its 1991 breakthrough ''Nevermind" or the self-titled best-of collection, released in 2002, are more logical starting points. What this set offers is an exhilarating, you-are-there intimacy that sheds light on the band's progressing musicianship and Cobain's maturation as a challenging, introspective, and ferocious songwriter.

Of course, as disc 1 begins, it's hard to imagine this is the band that would someday create such classics as ''Polly" and ''All Apologies." The earliest recording here is also Nirvana's first public performance in 1987 -- so early, in fact, the band didn't even have a name. Recorded at a house party in Raymond, Wash., it features Cobain, Novoselic, and then-drummer Aaron Burckhard playing a ragged cover of Led Zeppelin's ''Heartbreaker." (Until Grohl joined the band in 1990, Cobain and Novoselic went through drummers faster than Spinal Tap.)

From its inception, Nirvana was devoted to playing ''heavy rock with punk overtones," as Cobain is quoted as saying in the liner notes, and songs such as ''Anorexorcist" -- Cobain loved playing with words -- and ''Pen Cap Chew" are all blistering bombast.

Cobain's attention to songwriting and melody begins to emerge on the undated home demo ''Clean Up Before She Comes" and a 1988 version of ''Polly," his harrowing ballad about a rape told from the viewpoint of the perpetrator. Performed acoustically, it's close to the rendition that appeared three years later on ''Nevermind." A faster, electrified 1989 version is also included here, and though it's well-done, it's also apparent why Cobain preferred the former version.

Certainly, Cobain wasn't always serious. The unintelligible ''Beans," a home demo with tweaked tape speeds, sounds like the Teletubbies on tranquilizers. ''Mrs. Butterworth" is a sludgy metal blast, but its aggression is undercut with Cobain saying wacky things like ''I'm going to put my Mrs. Butterworth syrup jars on the shelf next to all the commemorative fast-food chain glasses and cups I've accumulated over the last 62 years."

Other than Cobain, the songwriter whose work appears most here is Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly. During Nirvana's ''MTV Unplugged" performance in 1993, Cobain did a wrenching version of ''Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" and called the late great folk-blues singer his ''favorite performer." Four of his songs are here, including three -- ''They Hung Him on a Cross," ''Grey Goose," and ''Ain't It a Shame," -- recorded during a 1989 studio session with Novoselic, singer Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees, and Trees drummer Mark Pickerel. Calling themselves the Jury, the group was intended as a side project, but it never evolved into a proper album.

That's too bad, because there's a real vitality here, with a sound unlike Nirvana's. Cobain lowers his voice and convincingly uses a country inflection to sing ''They Hung Him on a Cross," and later on dives into the rockabilly-tinged ''Ain't It a Shame."

By disc 2, the songs are more familiar, but no less daring in their early incarnations. ''Lithium" is a song about a kid left with his grandfather while his parents enjoy a night out, but here the starkness of Cobain's voice and guitar reaches into the singer's own issues of abandonment and his fractured family life. On a 1991 rehearsal demo for ''Smells Like Teen Spirit," Cobain is still sorting out the lyrics (even more indecipherable here), but the song's odd but steely combination of punk rage and Grohl's disco-swing drumming was already in place.

What's also discernible as the songs roll on is Cobain's increasing confidence as a singer. In early recordings, his screaming could be taken as a shield to keep the world at a distance. But on tracks such as ''Dumb," ''Old Age," and ''Pennyroyal Tea," he finds the delicate beauty in his rough-hewn vocals, and it's a reminder that for all his punk leanings, he also possessed a sure ear for pop melodies.

Should anyone continue to doubt Cobain's pop sensibilities, consider one clip from the hourlong DVD. Recorded in 1993, it features Cobain on drums, Novoselic on guitar, and Grohl on bass performing ''Seasons in the Sun," the treacly Jacques Brel and Rod McKuen composition, which became a 1970s hit for Terry Jacks. Although the performance comes off as a lark and Cobain messes with the lyrics, it's obvious he likes the song, especially the line, ''But the stars we could reach were just starfish on the beach." Of course, when he sings, ''Goodbye, Papa, it's hard to die," it's shattering.

Still, for much of ''With the Lights Out," one can almost forget Nirvana's tragic end. (Even an early version of ''Milk It" included here doesn't yet have the chilling line ''Look on the bright side is suicide.") There's so much youthful exuberance here, whether it's a cover of the Velvet Underground's ''Here She Comes Now" or various versions of the band's own ''Rape Me," including one with Cobain's infant daughter Frances crying in the background.

Listening to these songs, probably the last we'll hear from Nirvana, there's some comfort that perhaps Cobain found in his music that attainment of perfection he so desperately needed in the rest of his brutally interrupted life. 

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