Well, I never thought I’d be writing a review that begins, “Kurt Cobain and his band, Nirvana,” but there you go. These things happen.
Kurt Cobain and his band, Nirvana were never known for complex songs or rich dynamics – their formula of quiet 4 and 5 note melodies rotating with loud passages of distortion and shouting created a comforting pattern that made them famous. Cobain once said that he really wanted to play in a Pixies cover band and Nirvana did pose as the crossover point for Seattle’s grunge scene onto the Billboard charts of radio pop. So it will come as a bit of a surprise to hear that hidden beneath those simple, pop-rocks tunes lie some complicated musical relationships. It took artists completely removed from Seattle, completely devoid of guitars and totally devoted to dynamics to pick out the gem-like qualities of their songs.
Enter Aranis, a quintet from Belgium; players of strings, piano, accordion, flute and double bass. Smells Like Aranis tears those songs apart and reconstructs them as little works of art; sometimes pretty, sometimes weird, always intriguing.
They open with “Polly,” parodying the simplistic dynamics of the song as they first attack and then strip down the chord progression of the opening line and the sing-song melody of the chorus. But each repeat adds another layer of dissonance and rhythm, finally finding the core of the song and then letting it go.
They continue on through the band’s recordings with a big dose of songs from Nevermind – “Something In The Way,” “Lithium,” “Lounge Act,” and of course, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which gets their most playful reinvention. They do strange and jangly version of the earlier “About a Girl.” From the final studio album, they present a sweet and simple version of “Heart-Shaped Box.” and a jazzy and often subtle “Heart-Shaped Box.”
Perhaps the most dramatic track is not a Nirvana song at all, but David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” that Cobain and the band played as part of an unplugged MTV session in 1993. Aranis gives a strong nod both to the composer and to Astor Piazzolla, who is an obvious influence on the quintet.
The Piazzolla influence is also present to varying degrees in the other non-Nirvana tracks, composed by bassist Joris Vanvinckenroye (aka BASta!). While there is a tangential link to the Nirvana idea, these really stand as strong transitional works, leading you from one part of the Nirvana legend to the next, offering a glimpse of the more complex depths that Aranis can explore.
It would be easy to over look these four pieces, titled “SLA” 1, 3, 4 and 5, in favor of the pop familiarity of the other songs, but don’t. They are an essential part of the journey and will lead you down the rabbit hole to find the rest of the Aranis oeuvre, a place you will find curiouser and curiouser.