Wait! Before you go any further, check out Part One!
In Part 1 of our Note for Note series on the work of Bob Mould, we looked at the historic Husker Du years, which ended in acrimony in 1987 after the tour for the band’s last album, Warehouse: Songs and Stories, ended. Mould was far from done with music, however, and launched himself immediately into a productive and satisfying stretch of musical endeavors that carried him right through the next decade-plus.
(Click here for part 1 of our look at Bob Mould’s career.)
Bob Mould – Workbook (1989)
Jay: Coming off the breakup of Husker Du, Bob Mould quickly established himself as a solo artist with the excellent Workbook album. He also emphasized acoustic guitars and more jangly sounds (and even some cello) over the electric fury of the Husker albums; songs like “See a Little Light” and “Wishing Well” got plenty of airplay on college and alt-rock stations. Mould has a killer backing band on this album, with Tony Maimone of Pere Ubu on bass and Anton Fier (Golden Palominos, Feelies) on drums. Workbook wasn’t entirely acoustic: “Poison Years” is a classic angry Mould rocker, while “Whichever Way the Wind Blows” is 6-plus minutes of spit and fire complete with primal screams at the end that was a harbinger of the album that followed, Black Sheets of Rain. The album closer, “All Those People Know,” is an upbeat electric number that sounds a lot like the music Mould would make a few years later with Sugar. Workbook holds up as the end of a productive and iconic decade for Mould and served as an introduction to an interesting era in his career.
Bob Mould – Black Sheets of Rain (1990)
Jay: Utilizing the same core band as on Workbook (Tony Maimone and Anton Fier), Bob Mould went in a different direction on Black Sheets of Rain, emphasizing the heavy guitars and the angst. Oh, the angst. Mould was definitely going through some heavy shit at the time (read his excellent autobiography, See a Little Light, for the details) and he vented in a big way on this album. After the success of his light and shade turn on Workbook, this was a move to the back alleys of depression. Not recommended listening if you’re in a good mood on a sunny day, but if you’re pissed off at the world, this is great music to crank at high volume. The album opens with the title track, 7:44 of dirge-like (but well-done) bluster. “It’s Too Late” actually got a little radio play thanks to its catchy chorus and harmonies, but everything else on this album is fairly downbeat. Which is fine. Mould breaks out the acoustics on “Hanging Tree” and “The Last Night,” but piles on the heaviness on the last several tracks, including the Husker Du-esque “Disappointed” and “Out of Your Life.” The bile really rises on “Sacrifice/Let There Be Peace,” which would fit in nicely alongside anything on Sugar’s angry and excellent Beaster EP. As it turned out, Mould was a little ahead of the game, as the alt-rock world would turn to similarly dark, guitar-driven rock in a few years as played by all those kids from Seattle. But by then, Mould had moved on in yet another direction. Still, Black Sheets of Rain is a neglected part of the Mould solo canon that deserves repeated listens…when you’re not near any sharp objects.
In 1992, Bob Mould, Malcolm Travis and David Barbe formed Sugar. In the three years in which they were around, Sugar produced a trio of albums of pure power-pop perfection, which finally got the reissue treatment from Merge Records (U.S.) and Edsel (U.K). These critically-acclaimed albums, highly influential over the years and far more popular in the U.K. than in the U.S., are now being re-released with b-sides and rare live footage. The Copper Blue/Beaster 3-CD set is a remastered deluxe edition of Sugar’s quintessential debut album and companion EP, plus B-sides, a complete 1992 live show and 40-page booklet. File Under: Easy Listening is a remastered deluxe edition of Sugar’s final album. The 2-CD set includes B-sides, a complete 1994 live show and a 32-page booklet with band interviews. All three albums are also available as LPs. The LP version contains the remastered album on vinyl, plus downloads of the full record, B-sides, complete liner notes and the shows.
Sugar – Copper Blue (1992)
Alan: There are so many classics on this one, it demands to be listened to from start to finish: “The Act We Act.” “A Good Idea.” “Changes.” Check out the much overlooked track “Fortune Teller.” A perfect debut. Mould considers this to be one of his “sunniest” records, with most of the songs being inspired by bands he loves—Cheap Trick, the Pixies, the Byrds, the Beach Boys and even the influence of the baroque-pop band The Left Banke can be heard here. The album was NME’s Album of the Year in 1992. The reissue comes with a bonus disc of Sugar’s July 22, 1992 gig at the Cabaret Metro, as well as some other goodies. Mould completed a successful tour this fall playing Copper Blue in its entirety.
Sugar – Beaster (1993)
Alan: A six-song EP originally released in the spring of 1993, Beaster is also included in the Merge reissue package of Copper Blue. Edsel Records (UK) decided to release it separately. This 35-minute aurgasm is (for me) clearly the best of the three. “Come Around” seems innocent enough, as it prepares you for the coming sonic assault that is “Tilted,” which clearly knocks you down and keeps you pinned there for the duration of the EP. As you make your way through “Judas Cradle,” “JC Auto,” “Feeling Better”and the final track “Walking Away,” you realize that this EP is full of human emotion, interpersonal dysfunction, and some religious imagery. It generally consists of much darker themes than its predecessor Copper Blue, but easily showcases some of Mould’s most powerful songwriting. In his book See A Little Light, Mould wrote that the intense emotional purge of writing and recording Beaster left him sick in bed for three weeks upon completion of the record. He broke out with a severe stress rash all over his arms and hands, and had blisters everywhere. Mould thought he was dying, and to this day, he doesn’t perform songs for Beaster live. What Bob may not realize is that the intense emotion that he put into the record is precisely what makes this record so special. After almost 20 years, I still haven’t heard a record with this much emotion and heart. Some records have come close, but ultimately, when you listen to Beaster, it holds your attention, and it will tell you when you’re done listening—not the other way around.
Sugar – File Under: Easy Listening (1994)
Alan: The third and final album by this short-lived but brilliant trio. It was originally released in September 1994, and featured the instant classics Company Book, Your Favorite Thing, Gee Angel, Panama City Motel, and Believe What You’re Saying. In the spring of 1994, the band went into Triclops Studio in Atlanta and worked on an album for two months. They were completely unsatisfied with the record, and went to to erase all of those original tapes and started over in a suburb of Austin, TX, where the sessions went more smoothly. F.U.E.L. has a different sound to it than its predecessors—the guitars seem a tad lighter in the mix, and Bob’s vocals are stronger here. The final record of Sugar’s short-lived career is truly a classic. Absolute perfection!
Sugar – Besides (1995)
Jay: This 17-track collection of B-sides from Sugar’s Copper Blue and File Under: Easy Listening singles was released by Rykodisc in July 1995; less than a year later, the band split up. The compilation is a mixture of unreleased songs and live versions. There are four songs written by bassist David Barbe on this album, including the punchy “Where Diamonds Are Halos.” The album also features Sugar’s cover of the old Who classic “Armenia City in the Sky,” which was a staple of the band’s live shows, and different mixes of two excellent Mould compositions, “Believe What You’re Saying” and “If I Can’t Change Your Mind.” In addition, the first 25,000 copies of the Besides CD were packaged with The Joke is Always on Us, Sometimes, a Nov. 2, 1994 live Sugar show at the First Avenue club in Minneapolis. Besides isn’t necessarily a must-have, but it’s a nice way for true Sugar fans to remember a terrific, if short-lived, band.
Bob Mould – Bob Mould (a.k.a. “Hubcap”) (1996)
Alan: In 1996, Bob Mould needed to reinvent himself. Sugar was done and his personal life was a mess, but Mould’s ability to channel that into another great record resulted in 1996’s self-titled effort. This record has some of the signature Mouldisms- layers of guitars, melody, and highly personal lyrics. Songs like “Fort Knox”,” King Solomon” and “Deep Karma Canyon” easily could have been reworked for a fourth Sugar album. Bob’s personal trials also manifest themselves in “Anymore Time Between” and “Eg0verride” as well. The acoustic “Thumbtack” is simply Bob and an acoustic guitar. Powerful as ever, and he’s clearly hurting. Then there’s “Hair Stew.” The first time I heard this, many years ago, I remember thinking “What the fuck?” There are songs about cheating, and then there’s this. I’m not sure what makes that sound (and if you’ve heard the track, you know what I’m talking about), but it’s definitely not coming from a happy spot. Mould, in his pain, appears to be taking it out on the listener! Ouch! “Art Crisis” appears to be about the SPIN article that essentially outed Mould as a gay man towards the end of the Sugar era—another great track, but nothing out of the ordinary here. The album ends with“Roll Over and Die,” which again deals with throwing in the towel on a failing relationship. Overall, the album has it’s high points – we see Mould doing some new and innovative things musically (like the middle section of “Hair Stew”), and there’s enough familiarity with tracks like “Fort Knox” and “King Solomon.” The album is the first (and only) where Mould plays all of the instruments. He wrote all of the tracks, played the role of producer, and instead of having a long list of “thanks yous” on the liner notes of the disc, he says, “This one’s for me.” No thanks yous, no endorsements, no dedications. This album is clearly therapy, which is part of what makes it so good. However, the one major downer is the use of a drum machine (ugh!). It wasn’t a terrible drum machine (thankfully), and it was programmed in a way to stylistically mimic how a drummer would actually play (as opposed to how most electronic music is generally programmed), but it did make the album seem a tad less emotional musically, and slightly more mechanical. Even though the lyrics were personal, the drum machine took a little bit away from that. Overall, this is a great, but unique record.
Bob Mould – The Last Dog & Pony Show (1998)
Alan: The title of this record indicated that this might end up being his last one. Ever. By 1998 Bob Mould was getting bored. Churning out a dozen guitar-driven pop songs on a recond that the same people would buy time and time again was getting old. Don’t get me wrong – some of these songs are amazing, and knowing that this might be his final record ever, well, that meant that we would just have to savor every note on here. “New #1” is about a new found friendship, and “Moving Trucks”is about, well, moving. Nothing earth-shattering here. There are quite a few gems, though. “First Drag of the Day,” “Who Was Around” (another perfect pop song), “Skintrade” and “Reflecting Pool”find Mould in a much better place, emotionally speaking, than his previous record. I really love this record. It’s everything we love about Bob—great songs, soaked in layers of guitar and dripping with melody—and a full band! However, somewhere during the recording sessions, Mould discovered a sampler, and crafted the weirdest track on the album, “Megamanic.” It’s the only track to seem out of place, however, we later find out that this is an indication of what’s to come from him in just a few short years. The album is thoroughly enjoyable to listen to from start to finish, though it doesn’t break any new ground, but at least there’s a real drummer on here.