It would come as no great surprise to discover that the members of this Seattle Bigfoot-rock progenitor were sent home from school with report cards covered with comments about laziness and unfulfilled potential. Although possessed of the ability to toss off staggeringly galvanizing anthems — early singles like the legendary debut “Touch Me I’m Sick” could easily have propelled them to the stature Nirvana later achieved — Mudhoney’s endemic smugness and creative inertia has kept them shackled at a middling career point where they’re generally less known for their output than for their historical standing as the guys from Green River who didn’t join Pearl Jam.
Superfuzz Bigmuff (named in honor of the vintage guitar distortion pedals Mark Arm and Steve Turner, respectively, used to chisel out the sludge-punk sound later dubbed grunge) makes it clear that Mudhoney, in the grand tradition of earlier Pacific Northwest rock, intends to let a smirk be its umbrella. Songs like “In ‘n Out of Grace” allow singer Arm (a Green River alum, as is Turner) ample room to wheedle in classic garage-punk fashion. The 1991 reissue adds six early songs — including the creepy “Sweet Young Thing (Ain’t Sweet No More),” a 45 track also on the import-only Boiled Beef EP — that rank with their best work ever. The full-length Mudhoney is a big letdown, relying on Turner’s wah-wah wash to mask the lack of ideas. (It doesn’t.) Other than the seething “This Gift,” there’s little to differentiate this sort of posturing from the metal-boy variety it was meant to supplant.
Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge extends the period of coasting. Producer Conrad Uno’s dry 8-track production sharpens Mudhoney’s garage-rock edge — evident in Arm’s fuzzed-out vocals and a shared fondness for second-hand blues progressions — enough to stand apart from the watered-down metal of most flannel merchants, but they don’t go anywhere with it. As usual, there are a handful of riffs that make you go “hmmmmm” — notably the ones running through “Let It Slide” and “Check-Out Time,” both of which revisit Arm’s death-is-cool fixation. All too often, however, the quartet displays a pre-pubescent infatuation with its own slop, which oozes from half-baked songs like “Fuzzgun ’91” and “Don’t Fade IV.” The subsequent EP (untitled, though known as Let It Slide for the song with which it begins) augments a pair of EGBDF tracks with three previously unreleased tracks, including a cover of “The Money Will Roll Right In,” from the catalogue of Bay Area hardcore pioneers Fang.
Even though those smirks haven’t faded, Piece of Cake indicates that Mudhoney has practiced more than just lip action: Arm’s pissed-off diatribes about his own dissatisfaction (“No End in Sight”) and his antipathy towards those who don’t share it (“Suck You Dry”) bounce off a revamped set of fuzzed-out riffs. A deft mix helps bring out the volatile rhythms laid down by drummer Dan Peters and bassist Matt Lukin (ex-Melvins). Sure, there’s still some filler (including a passel of untitled instrumental interludes that drip with disdain), but the genuine fire that flares up in “Ritzville” (an evil twin to R.E.M.’s “Rockville” that turns on a shrugged “it’s as good a place as any to go and die”) is heartening. The effort must have taken a lot out of the band, considering the lackluster heave it gives the seven-track Five Dollar Bob’s Mock Cooter Stew, a dull, dopey mishmash of suburban-boy backwoodsiness and rote garage aping (although “Between Me & You Kid” does eke a few more miles out of the well-worn “Psychotic Reaction” riff).
Though largely ignored by a waning public, My Brother the Cow fulfills the promise made way back when. Arm’s verge-of-hysteria shriek — best showcased on lurching, feedback-drenched songs like “Execution Style” and “Judgment, Rage, Retribution and Thyme” — is Mudhoney’s signature, but when the singer drops the intensity just a notch, his lyrical incisiveness cuts with stiletto precision. The wry icon-bashing of “Generation Spokesmodel” (“listen to my songs, I guarantee you’ll relate/look at me, recognize your face”) might mask the taste of venom with the sugar-coating of snappy punchlines, but there’s no missing the bracingly acrid aftertaste. Nowhere is that used to better effect than on “Into Yer Shtik,” a pointed open letter to Seattle’s most famous rock widow, which ends its reading of the riot act with the suggestion “why don’t you blow your brains out too?” The topper, however, is the epic closing track, “1995.” Picking up where the Stooges’ “1969” left off-complete with a similarly squawking free-jazz-as-concealed-weapon sax line-Arm and the band agonize dissolutely over the vast emptiness of existence and then shrug, deciding the whole shebang is only half-vast after all. And who can argue with that?
The joint EP with Jimmie Dale Gilmore is a nifty sidestep, an improbable collaboration that actually kills several birds with one shiny platter. If not quite faithful, Mudhoney’s modest but spiny two-stepping cover of Gilmore’s “Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown” proves the group can actually muster a convincing measure of cultural respect, while the Texan’s stirring version of Piece of Cake‘s bluesy “Blinding Sun” extols the cowboy ballad’s intrinsic virtues. If nothing else, the Gilmore/Mudhoney rendition of Townes Van Zandt’s “Buckskin Stallion Blues” demonstrates the band’s ability to play it straight and keep their ‘tude to themselves. (Rounding out this fascinating oddity are the artists’ original versions of the two swap-meet numbers.)
In the Monkeywrench, Arm and Turner join with members of Poison 13, Gas Huffer and Lubricated Goat in order to lovingly deconstruct (read: cluelessly bash through) the maximum R&B side of mid-’60s Brit-rock. If the sounds stacked up to the high-concept packaging, Clean as a Broke-Dick Dog would be terrific fun. (Of course, if cat spit tasted just a little bit better, it would provide an inexpensive alternative to Guinness Stout.) Turner approaches the same beast with a bit more regard (if no more sobriety) in the Fall-Outs, a longstanding garage band he joined on bass in the early ’90s. On The Fall-Outs, the trio’s fondness for circa-’63 Stones speed-blues is as clear as vodka: songs like “The Life for Me” and “Ambition” (an ode to lack of same) stop well shy of the two-minute mark, but the sheer energy exerted in those seconds could carry most bands through an entire set. Authenticity, rather than freshness, is definitely the point on Here I Come, but again, the Fall-Outs get over on enthusiasm — along with the rising snot level that accompanies these more Sonics-like proto-punk bashes.
Through the agency of drummer Martin Bland, an Australian member of the Monkeywrench, Arm joined forces with his foreboding — if often silly — Aussie combo Bloodloss (a loose, long-running group which includes former members of Lubricated Goat) shortly after the release of the trashily involving The Truth Is Marching In. Rather than pour forth the viscous sludge one might expect, Bloodloss churns up a dour, post-Cave blend of gutter-blues and garage-rock that’s most effectively captured on In-a-Gadda-da-Change, well-marbled with Arm’s smoky organ lines. Misty appends several singles (including the demented “Hair of the Future”) to that album for Australian release. Live My Way, the band’s American major-label unveiling, tones down the sonic ugliness a tad — focusing attention on Renestair EJ’s boozy sax playing and the punkified Tom Waits arrangements-but the self-loathing vibe of songs like “Hated in My House” and “Face Down in Mud” remains unabated.
Arm and Turner were once half of the Thrown-Ups, a much funnier — and scarier — sludgehammer of a band with a fixation on body parts and bodily fluids and a fondness for what sounds like perfectly good guitars being jammed neck-first into garbage disposals. The EPs don’t have much, er, subtext, but Turner’s equipment eviscerating is captivating enough in its own right. The twelve-song Melancholy Girlhole Box (eponymously retitled for German release) may well be the most willfully inept objet de f’art ever knowingly committed to tape. Even GG Allin would be green with envy (or for some other reason) after slogging through no-fi transgressions like “Sloppy Pud Love” and “Hairy Crater Man.” Heck, there’s even some vision of the future in the form of “Stock Boy.” Testimony to the notion that sometimes art is 99 percent desecration and one percent inspiration.