September 4, 2012

Review: Bob Mould / Sugar

As the 90's waned, the clumsy term "alternative rock" became essentially meaningless as the music scene it supposedly described continued to evolve and break apart. Artists and fans that were there for the heyday in the late 80's through to the early-to-mid 90's were becoming restless as that period's commercial energy ebbed and began to age out of the demographic. Sure, there was always and always will be an underground, but this particular period saw the mainstreaming of a particular thread of the underground (at least in the U.S. - many of the bigger alternative bands of this time were much more popular in the UK and Europe than they were here). So, by the late 90's, "alternative" might have meant Squirrel Nut Zippers to some people, but it meant Limp Bizkit to others and rarely the twain did meet. Can it be any coincidence that Bizkit's debut, the Zippers' breakthrough, and Bob Mould's The Last Dog and Pony Show all came out within a year of each other?

Mould spent the first decade of this century in a wilderness. He may have found that wilderness beautiful and stimulating to explore, but many of his longtime fans were not willing to follow him there. We'd worried we lost him to the club beats and Auto-Tune that he immersed himself in after declaring he was tired of the rock band life and was ending that period of his career with 1998's The Last Dog and Pony Show

And damn, you know what? He'd earned it. After just shy of a decade of Hüsker Dü and another decade of Sugar and a series of mostly good-to-great solo albums, if Mould just wanted make techno albums, then so be it. I'd rather he be creating what he wanted to create rather than forcing out what he thinks people want to hear. I may not like them, but them's the breaks. And, while it's overstating it to say the he made techno albums, he certainly poured on the electronica with little restraint. A few of those albums from the 2000's have songs that are approximately rock and roll, but there's a heckuva lot of that Auto-Tune and other synth flourishes making that pill bitter to swallow. One example: 2005's Body of Song opens with the rocker "Circles," a song that wouldn't have sounded that out of place on Black Sheets of Rain or some such. It's followed directly, however, by a song called "(Shine Your) Light Love Hope," which wouldn't have sounded that out of place on a latter day Cher album.

He'd been there before. When he followed the dissolution of Hüsker Dü - so firm in their punk legend status - with the Richard Thompson-influenced acoustic-heavy Workbook in 1989, plenty of fans howled then too. But certainly not all. There was certainly precedent for it on Hüskers albums, most obviously with songs like "Hardly Getting Over It." But nothing like that prepared us for the synth-soaked Modulate and the albums that followed.

As the Aughts wore on, there were teases. Both District Line (2008) and Life and Times (2009) were promoted as Mould's return to rock - the latter's artwork recalling Workbook, interestingly. Indeed there are some nuggets in there, but they didn't feel quite right. The loud guitars were there, and yeah, Fugazi's Brendan Canty played the drums, but the club music influence still weighed heavy, and that damn Auto-Tune still sticks in my craw. Would we ever again see that take no prisoners Bob Mould we all fell in love with? And in fear of?

Taking the cues from the lyrics and video to the lead single "The Descent," this new lightning bolt of an album, Silver Age (Merge), is driven by a back-to-basics ethos. It's a risky business for a reviewer to assert an artist's level of inspiration, so driven that will always be by our projections as listeners, but damn if it doesn't seem like Mould has returned to a very comfortable place indeed. So direct and effective are these dozen songs, that it makes all of the music of his previous dozen years seem all the more labored. Why did he work so hard to come up with all of that when he could've just done this?

The opening grind and throbbing bass line of opener "Star Machine" inspires immediate hope and a growing grin that will have you embarrassingly giddy when drummer Jon Wurster (who's been touring with Mould for the last few years) starts bashing those splashy hi-hats in the chorus. The following title track? Face-melting. The single? Perfect. And so it continues with an energized Mould and his raging guitars, Wurster and his bashing drums, and Jason Narducy's pulsing bass all the way through until the ferocious "Keep Believing" gives way to the album closing epic "First Time Joy." The latter of which appearing to have a teensy touch of that Auto-Tune I appear to be obsessed with, along with a slightly cheesy synth trumpet sound, but here it works. I'm on board. Let's please do this again next year.

Someone on Twitter said that Silver Age is the Majesty Shredding of 2012. That person is correct. Your move, Pixies.

Mould has said that Silver Age was driven in part by his revisiting the music he made with Sugar, his early 90's band, and it certainly sounds that way. Sugar's tenure was brief and perfect; and their pair of albums, EP, and noteworthy B-sides, the first of which was released in 1992, were so perfect, so in my wheelhouse at that moment, that they've been forever encoded in my DNA. It never occurred to me that they could go out of print, and Merge has saved us again by reissuing the catalog this year. Like many artists of his stature coming out of a band of Hüsker Dü's stature, Mould wanted Sugar to be a band. Bassist David Barbe and drummer Malcolm Travis were veterans in their own right and worthy of that task. But like with, say, Wings, some shadows loom too large.

 In '92, Bob Mould was only 5 years out of Hüsker Dü, but a pair of solo albums - a clean break with Workbook and a reclamation via Black Sheets of Rain - had pretty successfully re-framed and re-focused his career on his own terms. Sugar, as the name makes clear, was theoretically all about being a pop vehicle for Mould. There's plenty to make that case, for sure: it doesn't get much catchier than "Changes" or "Helpless." In retrospect, though, there's plenty of overlap. Make no mistake -  Black Sheets... was a seriously heavy record. A downer for some, but with an intensity rarely captured well. Howls of alienation abound, but songs like "It's Too Late," "Out of Your Life," and "Disappointed" pointed clearly in Copper Blue's direction. That debut changed the focus for sure - a lighter, brighter production and an emphasis on hooks shone some sunlight into the Mould's recently dark corner.

Then again, maybe not. A couple of tracks on that debut hinted that the heaviness was still there. Opener "The Act We Act," was one, for starters, but it was especially what was left off that made it clear that maybe not much had changed. The follow-up EP Beaster was made up of Copper Blue outtakes and painted a very different picture. The record's blood-soaked cover, religious themes, and core trio - "Tilted," "Judas Cradle," and "JC Auto" feel like an intense dive deep into Mould's psychosis. It felt almost regressive at the time it was released, but a welcome regression for many who connected with that angst.

Sugar's finale, File Under: Easy Listening, re-established and re-affirmed the band's pop mission and bettered it. It has a clearer, harder sound and a double-tracked vocal sound snuggled inside it all. There's no real evolution here but, with songs as good as these, they clearly hadn't dried up the well yet. As the pop hits go, "Your Favorite Thing" and "Gee Angel" pump up the hooks with a driving, insistent beat, and "Believe What You're Saying" is a breezy gem. Not a clunker in the bunch, save maybe Barbe's "Company Book" - it's a decent enough song, but it feels a bit leaden here among such hyperactivity.

All three of these records benefit greatly from the new mastering. It's a fine line between "bright" and "harsh," and they all leaned towards the latter. The edge has been ever so slightly refined and FU:EL in particular feels a lot more open. Listen often and listen loud, but don't forget to start with Silver Age.

-Michael Piantigini

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1 comment:

DigMeOut said...

Listen to a podcast review of Copper Blue by Sugar on Dig Me Out at digmeoutpodcast.com, a weekly podcast dedicated to revisiting lost, forgotten, overlooked and under-appreciated rock of the 1990s.