A Car That Drives on Empty Eyes
69 · 23 May 96
Bob Mould: Bob Mould
I only saw Hüsker Dü play once. It was the Warehouse tour, at the Orpheum in Boston, a show that in retrospect everybody in Boston seems to claim to have been at. The band walked onto the stage, Bob Mould's guitar feedback started, and there was not a moment of silence until they'd played the whole double-album, start to finish, without a pause. It was as if Mould had lifted the handset on the aliens faxing us an extremely large picture of their god, and bathed us for its duration in an unrelenting deluge of noise that was really beyond our faculties to interpret. I've often wanted to hook Mould's guitar sound to a fax machine or a modem, actually, just to see what would come out, only I never have the right connectors. The noise is too elemental, too nerve-shredding, for there not to be a signal in it. It is profound noise, and raised on computers, I instinctively respond to profundity by trying to microscrutinize and disassemble. If there is one thing that explains why Hüsker Dü heads the de rigueur list of bands for interviewees to cite as influences, however, it is probably precisely the monolithic, coherent simplicity of their sound. They changed the shape of music, from a skeletal assemblage of individual notes to a furious river of continuous roiling energy. If music is usually pointillist, Hüsker Dü painted by holding stencils up in front of a fire hydrant spraying a mixture of gunpowder, lead paint and lit matches straight at the audience's faces. Peering more closely into this stream is not the secret to understanding or appreciating it most thoroughly.
Mould followed Hüsker Dü with two restrained, introspective solo albums that, though superficially vastly different from Hüsker Dü, achieved for me something of the same effect. It was as if he had taken modem noise and slowed it down so that each ping was clearly audible, but done this without disrupting the sense of flow, of continuity, that it was Hüsker Dü's genius to recognize as musical clay. Where Hüsker Dü was too brutal for mainstream audiences, though, Workbook and Black Sheets of Rain were too bleak, and it was still hard to be too surprised that Mould wasn't fabulously rich yet. Sugar, however, changed this. Malcom Travis and David Barbe helped channel Mould's guitar assault into pleasing melodic shapes (though this remained an exercise a little like constructing birthday-cake ornaments out of plastique), and he took the time to chainsaw his vitriolic monologues into three-minute chunks and turn outward the sides with the fewest obvious jagged edges. Given how many Bush and Green Day records people bought, it wouldn't have been unreasonable to assume that Rykodisc could have taken Copper Blue or File Under: Easy Listening as an excuse to by their own big fleet of brightly colored trucks. The one thing that keeps the marketing wolves from the door, though, is that an enormous number of inevitable-seeming things (both worthy and not) uncooperatively fail to transpire. And so with Sugar, who folded after two albums, an EP, a disc of b-sides, a live album, and no Windstar full of hundred-dollar bills.
This new-beginning solo album, then, finds Bob Mould with an arsenal of possible agendae. Most obviously, it is an expression of independence and self-reliance. The eponymous title says this, of course, as do the liner notes "Bob Mould is Bob Mould" and "This one is for me", as do lines in the lyrics like "I can deal with King Solomon alone", "The next time that you leave / I'm burning everything you own", "I can change my mind like any other genius", "I'm not in love with your hair" and "Critically acclaimed and publicly defamed, / There's nothing I can say about it, / Much less I could do about it, / Who cares anyway?" In ways it's even more evident, though, in musical touches like the bounding hooks of "I Hate Alternative Rock", the wheezing and cathartic harmonics of "Egoveride", the quickstep breathlessness of "Deep Karma Canyon" and the swirling multi-tracked guitars of "Art Crisis", all of which to me prove that he's more than capable of producing Sugar's compelling synthesis of pop and terror all by himself. The slow pulse of "Anymore Time Between" and the mournful figures of "Next Time That You Leave" and "Roll Over and Die" echo the flickering highlights and emotional pitch of the first two solo albums. And the thick surge of "I Hate Alternative Rock" could only descend from Hüsker Dü's gale-of-distortion heritage. Mould's own bass playing is unlikely to banish Greg Norton, Tony Maimone or David Barbe from the history books, but it easily serves its purpose well enough to justify the indulgence. Conversely, he makes no attempt to disguise his lack of drum-idiom fluency, with the result that his drum-machine programming here has a naive and unforced awkwardness that people are rarely willing to display any more (the first School of Fish album and Michael Penn's debut are the other recent examples that come to mind), but which I always find charming. And, naturally, his distinctive guitar roar provides the structure onto which all of these things are bolted.
The complement of independence is a small measure of retributive fury. This is most obvious in "I Hate Alternative Rock" and "Art Crisis", which are pretty explicitly directed at those who owe Mould stylistic debts. In both cases, though, Mould's comments in interviews about the songs tend to be more pointed than the songs themselves, which seem, almost involuntarily, to lapse into empathy for the inevitable fate most of the bands will surely suffer. Somehow Mould never seems to evade implication in his own denunciations, whether he's discussing art or life, and I think this is what makes his songs both so depressing and so affecting. Even in Hüsker Dü, Grant Hart's songs drew cartoon characters and retreated safely into second and third person, but Mould's invariably circled back on him. Emblematic, too, of his seeming incapacity for wholehearted self-righteousness, is the way he asserts the debts other bands owe him by writing songs in their styles, thus provoking reverse comparisons even as he states his own claim. Sugar's breathtakingly direct Pixies-homage "A Good Idea" was almost certainly the most obvious of these sorts, but the cello and acoustic guitar of "Thumbtack" here reminds me strongly of Jason and Alison, who show traces of Mould's imprimatur lyrically, as well as musically.
And the extension of self-reliance, perhaps, is personal growth. I don't think this album charts any major territory not introduced earlier in Mould's career, but to me it integrates his impulses perhaps better than any of the others. Sugar's albums were cohesive, but didn't reach to Mould's pensive extremes. Hüsker Dü records I always liked better in theory than in practice, as even at their most accessible they tended to wear me out faster than they played. There are riveting moments on both of his solo albums, but both albums also seem to me to have dead spots where the faith eludes me for a few minutes. Maybe I'll tire of parts of this one, too, but it hasn't happened yet. If there's a tradeoff for consistency, it's usually a leveling that sacrifices peaks to fill troughs, but while nothing here quite equals the live version of "Brasilia Crossed With Trenton" to my ears, "Egoveride" and "Art Crisis" vault straight onto my short list of Mould's greatest pop songs, and several of the slower ones are growing on me steadily.
The album is most powerful, for me, though, when it gets beyond fighting its predicament to ignoring it, and when it ceases to be its own subject. The self-criticism of "Egoveride" is quickly swallowed up in Mould's delightfully unhinged vocal delivery and the insidious snicking hi-hat patter. I love the touch of the role-playing dice beside the lyrics to "Deep Karma Canyon" in the liner, emphasizing that even misery is a role you play. The incidental guitar noises in "Art Crisis" are delicious, and the sheer inanity of the line "Monkeys made of brass, / Fly out of your ass" is, from the usually-grim Mould, astonishing. My favorite lyric by far, though, is "Thumbtack", where the mechanical details of a cute domestic routine (a couple marking their movements in a new town with tacks on a map, the punctures gradually perforating the paper) turn it into a harrowingly apt metaphor for the relationship's decline, and the narrator's internal hopelessness is thus projected onto the geography. Geography is not neutral, nor are maps. Noise is not neutral, nor is solitude. Mould wields them with a knowing hand.
Alex Chilton should age so well.
Bob Mould: Egoveride
The single for "Egoveride" adds three more tracks. If "Wanted Was", which sounds to me like a cross between "Company Book" and "Gee Angel", is not in fact a Sugar out-take, then I don't know what the point of having facts is. "Eternally Fried" is quieter, with desultory acoustic guitar and muted bongo drums accompanying a tense Mould auto-duet about the way words are twisted and erased. "Doubleface" is a sturdy, if somewhat arid, blues derivation whose primary distinguishing feature is a few minutes of odd fading in and out that happens after the song feels like it should have ended. Two out of three is pretty good for b-sides, though, and Bob Mould's castoffs are better than most people's title tracks, so this is a worthwhile single on my scale.
The Posies: Amazing Disgrace
If all my experiences of Bob Mould spiral out from that winter night at the Orpheum, sitting way in the back with a girl upon whom I had an excruciating crush, but who exercised enough better judgment for the two of us (I appreciate this now better than then, naturally), then my web of Posies associations emanates from the dorm room of another girl I knew in college. How N- and her roommate A- came to discover the Posies, I can't remember; nobody else around had ever heard of them, and I think my first question, after looking at the primitive blue and white cover of Failure, was "Do they sell these in stores?" The two of them constituted a substantial enough fraction of the Posies' fan base at the time that when A- ended up being in Lesotho when their second album was released, the band sent her a copy themselves. The eventual demise of my relationship with N- took with it my appreciation for Shawn Colvin, but the Posies were too good to surrender to associations.
If Bob Mould is making the slow transition away from sheer noise, the Posies are intent on making the return journey, and at a pretty similar pace. Failure, their first album, was a wide-eyed guitar-pop foundling lurching toward you with an endearing mismatched-part gangliness that might have been Frankenstein's-Monster-ish if it didn't make you dissolve in cooing noises and start petting the thing on its misshapen head. I know of no more charming album in all of creation, unless you find Tim Quirk notably cuter than I do.
For the second album, Dear 23, the band's two significant digits, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, recruited a real rhythm section, went to a real studio, and turned on a whole bunch of real music-mutilating devices. The resulting album, to me, was a gruesome disaster, drowned in viscous pseudo-psychedelic production and technological embellishments that were far worse than unnecessary. I know that at least some Posies fans consider this their favorite of the band's albums, but the most enthusiastic contortion of attitude towards it that I can sustain is just forgetting about it and proceeding to number three.
Frosting on the Beater, that third album, was the band's surprise embrace of grunge. As they'd previously showed not the slightest interest in this sort of clamor, it prompted predictable accusations of opportunism, but the album was roughly contemporaneous with second albums from School of Fish, Michael Penn and the Cavedogs that all attempted to portray darker sides of those artists than prior work, and the Posies' was the one album of the four that I thought pulled the transformation off. It's a long way from Failure, but I thought Jon and Ken's melodic interpretation of grunge's overall atmosphere was more compelling than many of the bands credited with inventing the subgenre.
The two of them then took an implausible detour, repaying some debts to their idols Big Star by temporarily helping Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens field a "reunited" version of that band, Ken switching to bass for the occasion, and Jon covering for the late Chris Bell. The ragged live record, Columbia, is as fascinating for the four songs that Jon and Ken sing as it is for Alex's somewhat erratic performances.
That excursion into pop nostalgia doesn't appeared to have altered the Posies own course appreciably. Amazing Disgrace, with yet another new rhythm section, is even louder and noisier than Frosting on the Beater, so fans with hopes firmly set on a return to the playfulness of "I May Hate You Sometimes" and "Ironing Tuesdays" need not contemplate any additional capital outlay just yet. Jon and Ken's facility for melodies with show-tune intricacy still pokes through occasionally, as on the chorus of "Ontario", the dramatic swells of "Precious Moments", the lilting verses of "Fight It (If You Want)", and the airy "ahh"s and Byrds-ish folk-rock of parts of "Will You Ever Ease Your Mind?", but stormy guitar aggression is again the unifying theme.
In fact, the one explicit allusion on this record is not to Big Star, but to Hüsker Dü. "Grant Hart" is actually a much more biting indictment of bands that crept down the trail Hüsker Dü blazed than anything on Bob Mould's album ("For a start take two Grant Harts and call me when you die", goes the enraged tagline). If the song is meant to sound like Hüsker Dü, though, I think they're overestimating the extent to which excessive distortion and a two-minute running time compensate for nobody actually playing or singing like Mould, Norton and Hart did. For some more generic venom there's also the scene put-down "Everybody Is a Fucking Liar", though I'd be more afraid of this song if it didn't end with a sound-bite about baseball, and if the goofily enigmatic line "A man's an Edsel in his own way" didn't sort of undermine the title profanity's attempt at confrontation.
Shredded disgust isn't really the Posies forte, anyway. This album sparkles most brightly for me when soaring vocal harmonies float over roaring guitars in such a way that the vocals seem to calm the guitars even as the music buffets the voices, like in the second chorus of "Please Return It", where two guitar parts weave a duel underneath the desperately howled "There's an upside, / There has to be an upside!" I also especially like the frayed, drumless guitars and odd keyboard sounds on "The Certainty", the synth-string surges in "Precious Moments", and the solid stomp of "Song #1".
If you like the Foo Fighters, and plenty of people do, then I think this album has a substantially similar appeal, and is probably, objectively speaking, better played and written. The correlate, however, is that it seems to me to suffer from the same sort of generic pointlessness that caused me to tire of the Foo Fighters album after very few listens. It's not that there's anything actively wrong with the music, I just don't sense enough animating passion. Failure was a record made by two kids maniacally driven to create stunning pop songs that transcended their production origins; Nevermind was a record that waded into a veritable congregation of neuroses and personal and social antagonists with a rusty bowie knife in its hand. I don't sense any comparable intensity in Foo Fighters or Amazing Disgrace. The form of a record is there, but I can't find a soul. Seeing the Posies flay their older songs in concert by trying to make them rock in ways they weren't meant to didn't help my attitude any, either. Frosting on the Beater proved that the Posies once knew that you don't turn pop into rock by just twisting amp knobs. They need to be reminded, and I need more than an obscured craftsmanship if I'm to care about this.
The Posies: Please Return It
I'm loath to give up on the Posies, though, and the b-sides to the album's first UK single reinforce this reluctance. "Sad to Be Aware" is, I think, exactly what people who hoped the Big Star experience would make a deeper impression on Jon and Ken wanted to hear, a later-day "Back of a Car" with some exquisite calliope-like reverse-guitar arpeggios that could be straight out of an unused take of the Three O'Clock's "A Day in Erotica". "Terrorized" manages to remind me simultaneously of "Don't Fear the Reaper", the Comsat Angels and God's Eye, which is a pretty uncanny combination. Both songs breathe individuality in a way that, at least for me, too many of the songs on Amazing Disgrace don't. I guess I agree with the band's implicit decision that these songs didn't fit the album. I just hope there are another dozen that were similarly inappropriate.