Rock musicians have mid-life crises just like everyone else, they simply have them earlier and deal with them by unplugging and disclosing heretofore untapped sensitivity — which is certainly more credible than buying a fancy sports car and a toupee. Having weathered such a creative predicament in the wake of Hüsker Dü’s 1988 implosion, Minneapolis singer/guitarist Bob Mould left town and retreated to the insularity of solo twilight on a pair of albums that revealed both his disdain for the rock merry-go-round and his profound personal misery. When he regained his bearings, Mould was, impressively, able to rejoin the fray — as leader (a term he abjures) of Sugar — at just about the spot Hüsker Dü would have reached had that trio continued to exist.
Both Workbook and Black Sheets of Rain are psychological trials played out in public. On the former, style-breaking mostly acoustic album (recorded with a rhythm section and cellist Jane Scarpantoni), Mould shows little compunction about airing his personal demons, but his unfettered approach is largely stymied by the overly tasteful playing of drummer Anton Fier and bassist Tony Maimone. As a result, raw passion sometimes cooks down into singer/songwriter mush. The record works best when Mould lets a little optimism unknit his brow, or at least his musical horizon (“See a Little Light,” “Heartbreak a Stranger,” “Dreaming, I Am”).
The disarray of Black Sheets of Rain — which could be an overheard session of exceedingly bellicose primal scream territory — sounds like an overly sensitive reaction to accusations of having gone soft. He’s back to electric guitar — but rather than an impenetrable wall of sound, Mould hangs a thin, opaque sheet of distorted riffage, an accompaniment that proves difficult to stomach after a few soundalike tunes. Likewise, the bilious contents of songs like “Disappointed” and “Out of Your Life” would probably have better been saved for wee-hour answering machine messages. Poison Years compiles the highlights of both albums, appending a non-LP item and five live tracks, including an unblinking version of Richard Thompson’s “Shoot Out the Lights.”
After another retrenchment, Mould emerged and — abetted by bassist David Barbe (formerly of Athens local heroes Mercyland) and drummer Malcolm Travis (a veteran of such Boston combos as the Zulus and Human Sexual Response) — formed Sugar, a band that allowed his bottled-up angst to gush forth with geyser-like intensity. With Copper Blue, Mould reclaimed his role as exemplar of ear-splitting power pop (or is that melodic bludgeon-rock?), tearing through an array of galvanizing love songs (“Changes,” the lust-as-sacrament “A Good Idea”) with audible relish. Even though the kinder, gentler Mould is capable of writing a song as achingly pretty as “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” (which could easily become a hit for Wynonna Judd), he’s no less likely to turn his volume knob clear to the right, and Travis’ sternum-thumping beats encourage that impulse to a great degree. Copper Blue has but one dark interlude, but it’s also the album’s most powerful: “The Slim,” a harrowing tale of a lover lost to AIDS, matches the emotional pain with the visceral sonic ache caused by collisions between slow-moving glaciers of dissonance.
In terms of sound, that song pointed the way to Beaster, a howling six-track statement of rage-through-ritual that straddles ecstatic spirituality and outright blasphemy. On songs like “J.C. Auto,” Mould’s crescendoing wails (both vocal and amp-derived) are thoroughly riveting; his bandmates maintain just enough structure to allow for lifejacket-free navigation, but the waters are certainly choppy. A powerful expression, and not for the squeamish. The other post-Copper Blue EPs augment album tracks with previously unreleased material: If I Can’t Change Your Mind exists in three distinct versions, each with a different trio of B-sides, the best of which includes BBC radio session versions of “The Slim” and “Where Diamonds Are Halos.”
File Under: Easy Listening takes a step or two back toward pop convention. But while the mood is still predominantly ebullient, Mould is more likely to pepper his melodies with barbs: the amorous “Gift” is veined with note-bending screeches, and even the beach-blanket singalong “Your Favorite Thing” pumps up the volume to levels lovebirds might have trouble nuzzling to. There are signs of burnout, however: neither “Gee Angel” nor “Granny Cool” rise above sketchbook status, with Mould seemingly content to bash out a soaring chord progression and coast home from there. He even revisits the bedsit gloom that inundated his Poison Years on tracks like the brooding “Panama City Motel,” which can’t be a good sign. The rasp inherent in Barbe’s contribution — an anti-corporate middle-finger called “Company Book” — makes for a nice contrast, though. (The four-song EP of Your Favorite Thing contains another Barbe tune, “Frustration.”)
With rumors of an impending split on the horizon, Sugar released Besides, a compilation that raids the band’s considerable backlog of B-sides (hence the title). While a fair number of the cuts are alternate or live versions of songs available elsewhere, the seventeen-track collection does touch on some less-traveled terrain. Mould rages with typical isolationist fury on “Mind Is an Island” and the jaggedly accusatory “And You Tell Me,” while Barbe (normally the inveterate noisemonger) cools things down with a gorgeously melodic “Where Diamonds Are Halos.” The capper is a titanic version of the Who’s “Armenia City in the Sky” (long a staple of the band’s live set), which trails a dayglo jet-stream that’s impossible to avoid getting swept up in. Initial pressings of the album included a bonus full-length live CD, recorded before an adoring Minneapolis crowd, that reveals Sugar’s torrid intensity as well as its inability to shift gears in concert. While hard-edged songs like “Company Book” and the instrumental “Clownmaster” are rendered absolutely crushing, more subtle numbers (like “Gee Angel” and “Changes”) lose all their texture and bleed into an undifferentiated roar.
Apparently soured on the craving for democracy that led him to form Sugar, Mould dissolved the band in late 1995 and picked up his solo career in pretty much the same dour spot he left it off. Many of the songs — a majority, in fact — on Bob Mould (aka Hubcap) betray the degree to which the ever-popular tortured-artist effect has affected him. Dealing with topics like his own misunderstood genius and the sorry state of his industry (“Egoverride,” “I Hate Alternative Rock”) might be good therapy for Mould, but they don’t do much to enlighten listeners.
While in Sugar, Barbe served concurrently as de facto leader of Georgia’s Buzz Hungry, a significantly surlier aggregation that walks a tightrope tautly stretched between the burnished Steve Albini axis and the more frayed structures common to local soundblasters like, say, the Bar-B-Q Killers. Fried Like a Man wastes no time in setting up the trio’s agenda, seeing as it lurches straight into “The Beer Commercial,” a rancorous indictment of…well, just about everything modern society has to offer. Barbe’s thin, arid voice works just fine in that sort of declamatory context, but when the band downshifts for “When Diamonds Are Halos” (later recorded in superior, rougher form by Sugar), his deficiencies as a frontman are laid bare.
At the Hands of Our Intercessors is more of a group effort; drummer Brooks Carter dots the landscape with a handful of textured instrumentals (“Vomit Ball” is a particular favorite). The tone of the disc isn’t that different from its predecessor; it even kicks off with “White Sky,” another list of grievances that includes “a plethora of mediocre rock bands” among our universal woes. Barbe, however, sounds a little less tightly wound, which allows him to sustain vocal melodies for more than a bar or two before launching into gut-wrenching screams. A surf-rock rewrite of the traditional “There Is a Time” benefits most from the restraint, but the most pleasant surprise comes from new bassist/guitarist Eric Sales, who checks in with the stellar Who-styled “Black Hole Soul.”
Besides a tribute edition of Zen Arcade (in complete and correct sequence) made by two dozen Minneapolis/St. Paul bands (including Walt Mink, Arcwelder, Hammerhead, God’s Favorite Band and the Blue Up?), the glorious memory of Hüsker Dü was refreshed in the ’90s by Everything Falls Apart and More, a reissue of the band’s 1982 album repackaged to include some early single tracks (like the machine-gun thrasher “Statues”), and a terrific live set, The Living End, recorded in 1987 on the Hüskers’ final tour. Likewise, Spillage is a vivid and exciting requiem for Mercyland, Barbe’s energetic punk-pop trio, which broke up in 1991.