With the Blessed Speed of Objects
29 · 17 August 95
If you haven't been diligently buying every Sugar single for the past three years, you have taken a horrible risk, but it looks like things are going to work out after all. Besides collects, as best I can determine, every non-album song Sugar has ever released, rendering a whole pile of my singles musically redundant. My UK "Changes" single had the taut, melodic "Needle Hits E", the acoustic version of Copper Blue's "If I Can't Change Your Mind", and the dense, textural "Try Again". My single for "A Good Idea" has live versions of "Helpless" and "Slick" that aren't included here, but you do get the strained "Where Diamonds are Halos" and the warped "Armenia City in the Sky" (since when is Armenia a city, and why are they saying it with the stress on the first and third syllables?) are. The charged, wordless "Clownmaster" and the murky "Anyone", from I Can't Change Your Mind, are here, though that single's live version of "Hoover Dam" is not. The punchy "Mind Is an Island" and the drifting "Frustration" are from Your Favorite Thing (though the instrumental "TV Mix" of "And You Tell Me" is left out). "Going Home", "In the Eyes of My Friends" and "And You Tell Me" (the menacing full version), from Believe What You're Saying, are all included; "Going Home" is as catchy as anything on File Under: Easy Listening, and lines like "Laying on the sanitarium floor" give this take on "And You Tell Me" a very different feel than the vaguely surf-ish instrumental. The live versions of File Under: Easy Listening's "Explode and Make Up" and Copper Blue's "The Slim" from Gee Angel are here, as is that single's other b-side, "After All the Roads Have Led to Nowhere", which reminds me of Hüsker Dü for more reasons than just the gloomy lyrics. And somewhere in the middle of all that Besides works in a seething live version of Beaster's "JC Auto" and an folky acoustic "Campfire Mix" of "Believe What You're Saying", neither of which I can trace to singles.
Sugar is a very good b-sides band, so just having a compilation of such tracks is quite welcome. Because Bob Mould tends to be such a careful album craftsman, Sugar b-sides usually owe their non-albumness to not fitting in on albums, rather than not being good enough. This collection as assembled, though, is even more interesting than the mere concatenation of its worthy components might suggest. On their two studio albums and one EP, Sugar is both carefully controlled and overwhelmingly Bob Mould's band. Of the twenty-six songs on the three studio discs, exactly one is not by Mould (David Barbe's "Company Book", on File Under: Easy Listening). Of the twelve true b-sides here, though, four are Barbe's ("When Diamonds Are Halos", "Anyone", "Frustration" and "In the Eyes of My Friends"). There's still little doubt that Mould is the band's central figure, but I find Barbe's earnest (if erratic) singing on his songs appealing for its own reasons, more easily appreciated here in some bulk than in isolated tracks on individual singles. Mould's guitar playing also takes on a different quality when it's his only participation in a song, and the combination of these factors makes "When Diamonds Are Halos" one of my very favorite Sugar songs, and the others never less than intriguing. This songwriting balance combines well with the cover ("Armenia City in the Sky"), the two acoustic versions, which are of necessity largely Mould, and the three live tracks, which emphasize the ensemble nature of Sugar's stage sound nicely, to produce a composite portrait of Sugar as much more of a band than they seem on their albums.
For fans new to Sugar, this stuff is probably best understood in relation to the other records, so you'd be better advised to begin with Copper Blue (for chronologists) or File Under: Easy Listening (for anti-chronologists). Fans, on the other hand, need not deliberate a moment before their purchase: if you don't have all these b-sides you need the collection, and if you do, then you've easily spent enough already that there's no reason to begrudge the band another few dollars.
The real reason for fans to scurry storeward, if it's not already too late, is that the first few thousand copies of Besides come with a bonus live album, cryptically titled The Joke Is Always on Us, Sometimes. Stickers on the outside of packages that contain this bonus indicate its presence clearly, so don't settle for the single-disc package without scouring as much of your geographical area as you can for the first edition. The concert disc records what appears to be the entirety of the hour-plus 11/2/94 show at First Avenue, in Minneapolis, from which Gee Angel's b-sides were extracted. The full set list, since you can't determine it from the outside of a sealed package, is as follows: "Gift", "Company Book", "Hoover Dam", "After All the Roads Have Led to Nowhere", "Where Diamonds Are Halos", "Slick", "Going Home", "Running Out of Time" (a song unique to this release, as far as I know), "Frustration", "Changes", "Can't Help You Anymore", "Helpless", "If I Can't Change Your Mind", "In the Eyes of My Friends", "Clownmaster", "Gee Angel", "Explode and Make Up" and "The Slim".
Sugar, live, is an awesome force. This could be induced from the smattering of live tracks included on various singles, of course, but listening to a whole show at once like this, it's inescapable. There's no banter, no self-indulgent riffing, nothing extraneous at all. All three players attack the material like thrashing it to within an inch of its life is their only hope for survival, and Mould's singing is inspiringly frenetic and unhinged. The song selection is especially appropriate for the context of Besides, as it includes the four songs that appeared on singles in earlier live form but not on the compilation, live versions of five b-sides, the one new song (new to me, anyway), and Barbe's only album track, as well as the three songs duplicated on the other disc, and five other album tracks to give the less industrious members of the audience the occasional familiar landmark. The omissions of "Believe What You're Saying" and "Your Favorite Thing" are a little strange, given that this show was ostensibly in support of File Under: Easy Listening, and they're two of the album's three singles, but then again, who hasn't heard the singles already? Or, in my case, who hasn't already bought them at least twice?
Bob Mould: Workbook
My maniacal repeat-loop addiction to Besides convinced me that it was finally time to go back and get Mould's two solo albums, whose absence from my collection up to this point I can't adequately explain. Workbook is his post-Hüsker Dü solo debut, from 1989. At the time it came out it was a rather severe stylistic shock, punk's demigod of guitar noise recruiting a cello player, taking up the odd mandolin himself, and retaining the drum services of the decidedly un-Grant-Hart-like Anton Fier. Now, having Sugar to triangulate from, it's much easier to appreciate Workbook without worrying about whether it signals a decline in Mould's intensity.
And frankly, it ought to have been perfectly possible at the time, too. Mould's songwriting, emerging here from out of the murk of Hüsker Dü's customary torrent of distortion, is bewitching, and his ringing guitars, both acoustic and electric, sparkle with mesmerizing clarity. Buoyant vocal harmonies, especially on the ebullient "See a Little Light", make an unexpected case for Mould being a better singer than his former band's work showed. Indeed, the whole affair is impressively reminiscent of Richard Thompson, both in the type of music and its quality. Given that Mould has elsewhere covered Richard Thompson songs twice, I assume this resemblance is the result of conscious admiration.
The album opens unambiguously with a gentle two-minute guitar instrumental called "Sunspots". I imagine that a slow horror crept over the faces of punk hard-liners as it became clear that this was not merely an introductory fragment, poised to break into something apocalyptic in the manner of Savatage or their ilk (not that punk hard-liners would listen to Savatage, of course), but rather a self-contained album opening. Some guitar rage eventually infuses "Wishing Well", the second track, but not at the expense of the chiming acoustic guitar. "Heartbreak a Stranger" is even more overtly understated, a simple finger-picked guitar figure forming the backdrop for a sweet, sad lyric about the pervasiveness of melancholy. The mood picks up musically for "See a Little Light", but inspection of the lyrics reveals pained ambivalence lurking under the glittering harmony and lithe cello. "I can see it in your eyes, I know you still care, / But if you want me to go / You should just say so."
"Poison Years" then takes a power sander to "See a Little Light"'s veneer of cheer, exposing an expanse of darkness and desperation underneath. "Every time you knock me down / It's all that I can do to get up off the ground." Even this, though, is couched in stirring vocal harmony and propulsive guitar hooks. Jane Scarpantoni's cello returns for the ominously titled "Sinners and Their Repentances", lending it an air of monastic deliberation that Mould supports with a droning vocal part that seems to be trying to hide humbly behind the instruments much of the time (especially hard when a cello and an acoustic guitar are all there are).
The Richard Thompson likeness feels strongest to me on the oblique and extended "Brasilia Crossed with Trenton", in which methodical verse instrumentation supports a vocal line that feels more like a guitar solo than a conventional sung melody, and the truncated choruses surge with unexplained portent (and a little of the feel of "the big lake they call Gitchee Gumee"). I can't help but wonder, especially given this song's length, if it wasn't improvised in some large part. "Compositions for the Young and Old" also adopts an unhurried pace, with some Mould-supplied keyboards meandering in the background. From there things trail off a bit for me. "Lonely Afternoon" seems to be missing a needed melody, and Fier's angular drumming feels out of place. "Dreaming, I Am"'s repeated chorus feels a little lazy, too, though I like the cello here. And while the pace certainly picks up at the end, for the electrified monster-blues number "Whichever Way the Window Blows", its histrionics aren't the way I would have chosen to end an album that began as subtlely and beautifully as this one.
Bob Mould: Black Sheets of Rain
Mould's characteristic sonic barrage returns in force, however, on 1990's Black Sheets of Rain. The inclement title quickly proves to be an accurate forecast of the contents, as the listening is immediately greeted by nearly eight minutes of the howling title track. Fier's drums echo menacingly, Mould's guitars squall implacably, and the lyrics drone darkly, any glimmer of melody submerged beneath layers of bitter despair. The song is way too slow for Hüsker Dü to have ever played it, but its intensity level certainly wouldn't have been out of character for them. They probably would have shied away from the straight-ahead rock drive of "Stand Guard", though, which finds Fier anchored behind a square mid-tempo groove that Mould augments with a surprisingly conventional power-chord riff, while his vocals slide crazily over the music like he can't quite find a purchase on it. Things then suddenly come together quite convincingly for the succinct, musically upbeat "It's Too Late", which to me is this album's "See a Little Light". The lyrics are bleak, and "It's too late" has to be one of the least reassuring choruses ever rendered this anthemically, but if it weren't for that, the song would be timelessly rousing. The vocal rounds on the chorus are nicely executed, and the simple arrangement makes the most of the slashing guitar line, which reminds me of the one in the Replacement's contemporaneous "Merry Go Round".
"One Good Reason" opens with a country-esque guitar part that echoes back momentarily to Workbook, but the distortion storm whips up again after a few bars, and to me it seems like the song never quite gets going. Fier's start-stop drumming doesn't help, and I can't find enough else to focus on. This isn't entirely true of the muscular "Stop Your Crying", but here some disappointingly stilted chorus thrusting and a blustery guitar solo bother me, and the blues progressions of "Hanging Tree", next, seem like a similarly misguided application of Mould's distinctive skills. On the other hand, I like the gentle folky "The Last Night", which resists the temptation to break ranks and dive into cacophony again.
I snap to attention again a song later, when the blistering "Out of Your Life" kicks in. The pop songsmanship too little in evidence for my tastes on much of the rest of this album puts in an appearance, and Mould leans into the dismal refrain "If you want me out of your life / All you gotta do is tell me", echoing "Heartbreak a Stranger". The tempo level then gets nudged up toward Hüsker Dü's reaches for the snappy "Disappointed", on which Fier behaves himself and sticks to a straightforward beat for once, and Mould rides his guitar surf in old-fashioned style.
Lest the album end up such a relatively cheering note, though, Mould chooses to conclude with the hoarse epic "Sacrifice/Let There Be Peace", whose lyrics he croaks with what sounds like the last shreds of his voice, as waves of guitar continue to pound out of your speakers, frightening your pets and spoiling exposed food. It's an in-character ending for an album whose guiding aesthetic I can't seem to embrace properly. I miss the melodies that, though in drastically different form, were at the center of both the quietness of Workbook and the speed rage of Hüsker Dü, and neither the texture nor the vitriol here strike me as adequate substitutes.
Bob Mould: Poison Years
Only a record label would consider a two-album solo career broad enough to justify a best-of, but given how unapproachable Workbook and Black Sheets of Rain both were, there's some sense to the idea that a single disc, extracting the most accessible moments from each, and capitalizing on Sugar's visibility (the collection came out in 1994), might be a viable idea. In an annoying reverse-chronological ordering, the tracks from Black Sheets of Rain come first. Virgin's abridgment reduces the album to "Black Sheets of Rain", "It's Too Late", "Stop Your Crying", "Out of Your Life", "Hanging Tree" and "Sacrifice/Let There Be Peace". Personally I would have traded "Stop Your Crying" and "Hanging Tree" for "The Last Night", but their selection is sensible enough, emphasizing the album's catchiest moments while still providing a decent sense of its underlying mood. Workbook proper is represented by only "Wishing Well" and "See a Little Light", with live versions of "Compositions for the Young and Old", "Poison Years" and "Brasilia Crossed with Trenton" substituting for more album tracks. The absence of "Heartbreak a Stranger" is glaring to me, but the three live tracks are stunning, and much more electrifying than their album counterparts, which makes them better company for the Black Sheets of Rain material that begins the compilation. The live choruses of "Brasilia Crossed with Trenton", in particular, are sublime.
A couple of non-album tracks help bolster the collection's appeal for those who already have the two albums, at least theoretically. However, "All Those People Know", which from the production credits appears to be Workbook-era, is rather monotonous and unremarkable, and the live version of the jerky, nasal "If You're True" doesn't seem up to the quality of the surroundings to me, either. The thing that turns the collection from extraneous to essential, though, is the final song, a harrowing rendition of Richard Thompson's "Shoot Out the Lights". Mould doing Thompson is a combination that always makes me wonder momentarily (but only momentarily) whether Richard should give up playing and Bob should give up writing. Mould's version of "Turning of the Tide" was easily my favorite thing on Beat the Retreat, and this is as good. It's performed as if Mould is half mumbling it to himself as he prepares to step off a ledge, and the combination of the powerful guitar sound and the intentionally anti-power performance dynamics is uncanny and riveting. It's hardly life-affirming, and it concludes a musical phase whose grim introversion I find wearying at times, but if you want to ever make sense of the bridge from Hüsker Dü to Sugar, you're going to have to venture into this darkness, and Poison Years isn't a bad first route to follow. Bring along an emergency copy of "Gee Angel", just in case, and I think you'll be fine.