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Friday, December 3, 2010

Bob Mould Re-invents Hard Rock and No One Even Notices

Bob who ?  Evidently, his original band, Husker Du was already reaping praise from critics before a band mate of mine brought me to the Warehouse:Songs And Stories album tour of '87.  Their last album and tour as a band before main singer/writer (guitarist) Bob Mould went solo.

Like any guilty pleasure that turns into a legitimate fondness, I originally heard traces of things I really liked and things I really didn't like in this band Husker Du.  It turns out, most of what I didn't like was singer/writer (drummer) Grant Hart.  Not that I was jazzed by either one of their voices, but the blitzkrieg of distorted guitar didn't help me to hear the melodies that night at The Variety Arts Center in downtown Los Angeles.  To be honest, I didn't understand why they had an audience.  But, I wasn't following any post-punk outfits to even know what was going on in that realm.  (Sadly, Bob Mould's future electric guitar shows (not his acoustic ones), showcased his songs as unrecognizable crash 'n' burn mosh-pit excursions.  I figure that he thought, "You know how the record goes, so let's just burn-off some steam."  I felt bad for anyone who might have come to hear the melodies only to get mangled vocals.)

But, with the release of Bob Mould's solo outing of '89, Workbook, I started to get hooked.  Again, loving some things and cringing at others.  But, playing the album non-stop.  Maybe, because in a world of Sunset Strip Make-up Metal, it was nice to hear something honest and original.  A distinct 'voice,' the likes of which I hadn't seen in a solo singer/guitarist for a while.  And, though I would never claim that he is an artist who has something for everyone, I could definitely hear a mix of different things happening all over this record.  First off, he actually had a production well-suited for radio.  "See A Little Light" was in rotation and did get him noticed.  This and other songs featured a cello in the musical line-up years before it became trendy by all the wanna-be R.E.M. bands of the '90's.  Bands signed during the Seattle - grunge frenzy, but none of which sounded as fresh as Nirvana.  (I particularly liked The Posies, but they were a '60's throwback, not true grungers, even when they made some hard-hitting records with "Frosting On The Beater" and "Amazing Disgrace."  A band that is probably big fans of Husker Du as well.  They have a song called "Grant Hart").  Songs like "Wishing Well" and "Poison Years" were very welcome in a time of bloated pop songs.  Because, as we all know, late-'80's pop hits had none of the experimentation and adventure that the early-'80's had.  The renaissance was over...and this time for good !

The biggest revelation on this record comes at the end with a tune heavy in mood and delivery, but with a sparse, thin production to let you inside of it for the verses, then puts you further back for the bloodletting of guitar.  This tune is called "Whichever Way The Wind Blows."  Heavyweight title for a heavyweight song.  Immediately, I feel I'm hearing Zep's "When The Levee Breaks" only because it puts me in that same mentality.  A powerful drone of sound.  The albums he was yet to deliver would almost make me forget this tune, because that's how fast Bob Mould was zooming into an intelligent hard rock sound for the '90's.  I was also a big fan of "Dreaming, I Am."  A mysterious song with soft and hard touches, a great vocal and smooth parts.  Outstanding!  Meanwhile, in a different, more organic universe, comes "Compositions For The Young And Old," a lengthy story of how things used to be and our frustrations with good things gone bye-bye.

If Bob Mould had ended his career with this record, that would have been a great way to end it right there.  A great achievement.  But in 1990 he comes out with the most tuneful hard rock record I had ever heard, Black Sheets Of Rain.  With this one, he's in full rock mode and it's heaven!  The title track is a masterpiece of purpose.  Never would I bore of it!  "Stand Guard" would takes years for me to like, only because it reminded me of the meatheads who would have used a similar template to rock-out.  "It's Too Late" takes '70's pop to its beautiful core and fits it nicely on a simply produced rock record that has no frills, but all the emotion of an album that would make you sing along.  "One Good Reason," "Stop Your Crying," and "Hanging Tree" are all great heavyweights.  Then, back to hard pop for "Hear Me Calling," "Out Of Your Life," "Disappointed."  Ending the album is another song in the vein of "Whichever Way The Wind Blows," but is nowhere near as good, "Sacrifice: Let There Be Peace."  This song was put on his 'best of' collection, upsetting me to no end.

Upon hearing this record, I really had no interest in ever hearing any other hard rock bands again.  This was the ultimate.  As far as hard-hitting records by other 'smart' rockers, I was a big Rush fan by 1985 when I finally bought my first day & date release of Power Windows, so they covered my hard rock needs with enough variety for a lifetime of enjoyment.  Also, I was deep into my favorite hard rock record by my favorite '80's New Wavers ... Calm Animals by The Fixx.  And, though not lyrically important, the always compositionally deep Robert Plant and his latest, Manic Nirvana was also inspiring.  (Minus the stupid single choice.)  So, this was 1990.  A futurist year, in theory, as much as 1980 looked coming after 1979.  A dawn of a new age in great music awaited....or did it ?!  The only good thing I can say about the '90's is, if you liked the '70's, but wished they'd had more modern recording techniques and equipment to beef-up the product, well....the '90's are for you.  If you like the idea of lumberjacks gettin' all gothic on us with guitars plugged into distortion and no other effects and definitely no synths...then the '90's are for you.  I did enjoy some of the retro sounds myself, but not the lumberjack-gothic ethic.  The '80's was the end of the mind-blowing history that started with the late 50's rock 'n' roll and then morphed into the first British Invasion.  So, by 1990 I was done.  Certainly I wouldn't mind not having to collect records anymore in my life.  But, Bob Mould wasn't costing me, especially when I bought both these albums on cassettes that were industry promo copies.  So, like The Firm or Box Of Frogs in the '80's, this was a private detour that turned into a rediscovery for why straight-ahead hard rock was vital to the purpose of rock music.

So, here we are in the let's-get-into-widescreen-movies-on-Laserdisc-with-surround-sound-'90's and forget about any new music, when Mr. Mould puts together a band by the name of Sugar.  It's still Mould music, but with a second songwriter who was both poignant and powerful, David Barbe, (initially only heard on singles).  So, by this time, I'm for sure paying full dollar amount for anything with Bob's name on it!  I bought this next album without knowing anything about what was within. But, I was seriously unprepared for this musical surprise.  Copper Blue from 1992 was the greatest hard rock record I had ever heard.  So good it melted all his other works away from consciousness.  So sonically powerful and yet bright.  A crisp, clear production.  Never has distorted guitar been so majestic.  A very intelligent hard rock experience.

Well, since rock radio was trying to cash-in on grunge, they took as many new hard rock records as they could find to make a statement that they weren't oldsters playing the same old records.  Here in Los Angeles, KLOS was that station.  KLSX was talk-only, so no competition there.  But, the truly alternative station KROQ had given all the grungers a chance since Nirvana and accidentally inherited all these heavy bands that really should have been on KLOS.  So, KLOS makes the switch and brings in new fans, but ultimately alienates their old demographic and retreats.  But, not before Copper Blue's "Helpless" gets heavy rotation on the station.  Maybe the tempo made this the song of choice, but at least he was on the radio again.  Any song from this record could have made a radio playlist since it was the era to be hard.  But, there were also some lighter tracks.  "If I Can't Change Your Mind" and "Hoover Dam" could have made Sugar a household name in moderate-rock circles.  But, one can never trust radio to bring you the best.  Sometimes they get it right, but most of the time they don't.

"The Act We Act" starts the album heavy-metal-hard only to break into yearning vocal beauty.  My favorite type of tune ... desperate truth-saying on top of a heavy bed of guitar force.  "A Good Idea" is next.  Very 'up' for a 'down' topic.  More realistic the feel of suicide than any horror-flick style death, the way Metal songs would do.  "Changes" would have made a great radio staple.  It was a single, but I think KLOS needed "Helpless" to be the song to fit the slower grunge tracks that were being allowed on radio.  And by-the-way, this is '96, years after the album.  But radio would have you think that they were hip to the variety of indie artists of the '90's.  They were not.  "Changes" had that guitar movement that reminded me of Rush's "The Big Money" from Power Windows.  Alex Lifeson from Rush and Bob Mould both understand that chord progressions are half the story.  Lead guitar is great, but without showing off the beauty of just letting notes and chords repeat in a round, the listener would miss being transported to a higher plane.  All the cerebral greats know this.  It is the stuff of great songs.  James Honeyman-Scott of The Pretenders used to blow our minds with this too.  A good, slow dirge is "The Slim."  It's overriding feature being the fact that Mould sings the word 'slim' as 'slime,' but he does say, "the chances seems so slim" during the song too.  So, I don't know.  "Fortune Teller" is a straight-up rocker with a punk ethic, the way only a person with a love for both could provide.  This is why his style of rock is so fresh.  The fact that he came from a punk world, but doesn't actually write punk songs makes for the uniqueness that is his catalog.  "Slick" is another dirge, but a bit more up.  It has a nice warped feel to it, thanks to the vocal phrasing.  Ending the album is another poignant full-weighted piece as perfect for the finish as "The Act We Act" was for the beginning, "Man On The Moon."  And, don't think I wasn't upset that a band I used to love (R.E.M.) had a song on the charts at the time with the same title.  It could have been nice for radio to play 'em back-to-back on a show showing off songs with the same titles.  But, I guess, the deepest weekday radio can be is to say, "Here's two for Tuesday!"  Yeah, wow.  You guys are so witty.  Any other brilliant ideas before free radio becomes obsolete?

For 1993, Sugar hits us with second of the one-two punches and takes the rock up another notch.  Unbelievably, all the hard-hitting excitement of this new release, "Beaster" is delivered with just a few songs on this long-playing e.p.  With mellow bookends surrounding the harder songs, these are his hardest songs yet and about as hard as you can get while still being a rock band, not a metalhead joke like so many respected hard-rock outfits.  Of the hard songs, I'm nuts for three of the four, "Tilted," "JC Auto," and "Feeling Better."  And they're perfect played in that order too.  One building into the next.  Each one long enough to last a good length.  This is especially important when driving around town and you want to wallow in this state of mind.  The melodies, the words, the guitars, the vocal overdubs, the tasteful, but upfront use of synth on "Feeling Better" all secure this album as another Mould masterpiece.  Thank you, Bob Mould, David Barbe, and Malcolm Travis.  You've made the world of rock a better place.

Before Bob Mould went back to releasing songs under his own name again, there was one more Sugar outing.  The third release, File Under: Easy Listening, was both a cute title and the truth, in as much as it was an exhale from the bone-crushing hard style of Beaster, but then again, it wasn't.  It was simply both.  And both aspects of the album were good.  It was hard to accept some of the Hootie & the Blowfish truck-drivin' style at the time.  But, that's alright.  I'm not one to say anyone who has made great contributions should ever be expected to repeat themselves or be different either way.  Artists take you on a trip you would not have gone on yourself.  This is a fact that should be appreciated.

Speaking of the harder side again, this album has the solid-rockin' tunes, "Gift," "Gee Angel," and "Granny Cool." And, as always with this band, single-only classics.  In this case, "Going Home," "Mind Is An Island" and "And You Tell Me."  Masterpieces, all!  In a way, the cool-down was almost a relief.  After so many great songs and heavy live shows, I wasn't upset that I could see this being the last Sugar album.  I knew it even before it was reality.  But, ya know what kiddies?  Bob Mould had more tricks up his sleeve.  A one-off comedic rap track that I loved blasting from the car.  Electronica.  More acoustic soft stuff.  And, definitely more hard stuff.  And, you know I'm the guy to like all of that when there's a trusted artist at the helm.  Because intelligence in words or composition or better yet, both, brings the art of rock music to a fulfilling place.  A place I wish all of you to be.

             "Get out there and rock and roll the bones!"  -  Rush, 1991


  1. We did go to a Bob Mould show together once (was it Sugar?) -- and I did think it was noise. But, I like My Bloody Valentine, and they're noise too. Would you say My Bloody Valentine is even noisier? I'm just curious. Maybe I should give Bob Mould a try... I will check out some of these songs :-)

  2. It was after Sugar days. It was probably his tour for "Body Of Song", but no need to keep going to his shows. M.B.V. and Mould are the same level of noise depending on the record. Ear-blistering either way.