After the dramatic implosion of the much heralded Husker Du, Bob Mould retreated from the limelight and released this comparatively low-key affair. And this is a solo album through and through; despite sympathetic support from Anton Fier (drums) and Tony Maimone (bass), this is clearly Mould's vision (the cover photo of him sitting alone, isolated in a small dark room, is perfect), as he gamely attempts to come to terms with his former band's breakup and the subsequent uncertainties in his life. And though many old fans were probably put off by the acoustic instrumentation, replete with prominent cello (provided by Jane Scarpantoni) and mandolin, a closer look at the album reveals Mould to be as intense as ever (certainly fans of Richard Thompson, who clearly inspired Mould here, can attest that intensity can't be measured by decibel levels). Besides, the first side is damn near flawless, beginning with “Sunspots,” a nifty little guitar instrumental that immediately lets the listener know that this will be something different from what they might’ve expected. Continuing, “Wishing Well” is one of the most intense acoustic songs you'll ever hear, though it brightens in spots and it definitely still rocks (his searing electric guitar solo sees to that), while “Heartbreak A Stranger” is something of an overlooked minor classic, with a great little riff and a lyric/melody to match. Of course, “See A Little Light” would've been a big hit in a fair world, what with its catchy chorus and a pure pop melody that's at least bright on the surface; lyrics like “I can see it in your eyes, I know you still care, but if you want me to go you should just say so” end the song on a far from upbeat note. Yet that song is positively jubilant compared to “Poison Years,” Mould’s pointed take on the dissolution of his former band, while his hurt is again palpable on “Sinner And Their Repentances,” a hushed, haunting ballad. Alas, although the rest of the album remains intense and quite listenable, the memorable melodies appear with less frequency after that, as the album at times sags under the weight of its brooding ambition. However, at least the fascinatingly bitter and regret-filled lyrics remain, though perhaps he plays the victim just a tad too much; there are two sides to every story, after all. Also, I do like the epic-scale “Brasilia Crossed With Trenton,” the harmonized vocals on “Lonely Afternoon,” the Cure-like guitar on "Dreaming, I am," and the briskly paced yet tuneful rocker “All Those People Know,” to cite a few side two examples, so it’s not like this album isn’t highly worthwhile in its entirety. Indeed, this was a courageous departure for Mould, who used his lonely and painful post-Husker Du time to blow up all preconceptions about him and begin a brand new career. As such, Workbook was an unqualified success despite its flaws, for it was a brave rebirth that proved that Mould had many years of vitality left, whether blazing away or delicately stating his case.
Black Sheets Of Rain (Virgin ’90) Rating: B-
The ugly duckling in the Mould solo catalogue (at least until Modulate), Black Sheets Of Rain sees Bob venting his spleen while bringing back the feedback (if not the speed) of Husker Du. Most of these songs are intense mid-tempo numbers, but too often the rhythm section (Anton Fier and Tony Maimone again) is too staid to make the hammering intensity of Mould’s galvanizing guitar and cathartic screams really work. The murky mix is a problem, too, resulting in a relentless wave of noise that can grow tiresome. Simply put, the melodic element that makes Mould's best work so special is largely absent here, and as a result few of these songs really stand out. There are some admirable efforts, however, such as the catchy pop of “It’s Too Late,” an acoustic ballad featuring nice harmonies and keyboards (“The Last Night”), the musically upbeat and melodically engaging “Hear Me Calling,” and the surging guitar and earnest lyrics of “Out Of Your Life.” It figures that even a not especially inspired Bob Mould album would have some fine moments (“Disappointed” is also a hard rocking highlight), and these songs stand out even more since the rest of the album offers so much of the same thing, which might’ve worked well in limited dosages but which loses its effectiveness after repeated assaults. This was the album that Mould needed to make at the time, but a recharging of the batteries was clearly needed; fortunately, Sugar was right around the corner.
Bob Mould (Rykodisc ’96) Rating: B
After his stint with Sugar, Bob Mould again turned solo, playing all of the instruments himself on an album that deals largely with his newfound independence. Although he clearly misses former drummer Malcolm Travis’ whomping wallop, songs such as “I Hate Alternative Rock,” “Egoverride,” and “Deep Karma Canyon” show that Mould’s knack for melody and noise remains undimmed. However, most of the album consists of mellower, somber reflections from a bitter musical pioneer who never really got his due (being “legendary” doesn’t pay the bills, after all). Still, Mould is simply too good to dismiss even when he’s wallowing in self-pity, and given his disdain for the star making mechanizations of his chosen industry part of me feels that Mould actually prefers it this way, anyway. When this album came out I read several articles where Mould claimed to be enamored with the work of lo-fi artists like Sebadoh and Beck, which might help explain his often-whispered vocals and my feeling that some of these songs aren’t quite fully fleshed out. Still, these mellower meditations are the songs that provide most of the album's best moments (special mention for "Anymore Time Between," a hushed, dramatic ballad that builds impressively and which stole the show when I saw Mould live in '98), and though the album lacks some of the excitement of his very best band work (solo Bob Mould remains a less fulfilling proposition than his full band efforts), and Mould's woe-is-me attitude gets wearying after awhile, this self-titled album was still another fine entry within an outstanding career.
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