Copper Blue
File Under Easy Listening

Copper Blue (Rykodisk ‘92) Rating: A
For my money this album is Bob Mould’s finest hour. Reforming a power trio after two solo albums following the implosion of the much-loved cult band Husker Du, this album shows Mould at an accessible peak. Basically, this album can be seen as Mould's belated sequel to Warehouse: Songs And Stories but without Grant Hart's lesser songs and with an even better band backing him up. Simply put, everything here is top-notch, as Mould produces one great song after another to go along with a punchy production that lets his intense, tortured vocals travel through loud and clear. Mould effortlessly stretches out his songwriting, too, while his killer pop melodies are aided by his trademark guitar crunch, which sounds as good (and as noisy; these are basically pop songs played at an ear-splitting volume) as ever. As for his new bandmates, David Barbe is a tremendously talented bass player (and later, producer), while beastly drummer Malcolm Travis plays with a monstrous force that Grant Hart never mustered. Mould’s predictably downcast lyrics generally focus on failing (or failed) relationships, but the songs have such great, catchy hooks that this album ends up leaving me feeling inspired, not depressed. The album kicks off with the great chugging groove of "The Act We Act," while the start/stop dynamics and the lighter tone of "A Good Idea" is an obvious homage to The Pixies, and a completely successful one at that. This song makes a seamless transition into "Changes," a fantastic, hard charging rocker, while if anything "Helpless" up the ante further, what with its great ringing riff and a surging rhythm that's punctuated by tremendous drum fills from Travis. After that stellar sequence, the album changes gears somewhat for "Hoover Dam," whose bright synths may seem somewhat dated but whose impressive melody and admirable intensity duly compensates. "The Slim" is simply one of the most gut wrenchingly emotional songs I've ever heard, with a tightly coiled intensity and a phenomenal vocal performance from Mould. Obviously highly personal in nature, the song centers around the death of a loved one due to AIDS. Yes, Mould is gay, but he wouldn't officially "come out" until a couple of years later, and besides, the song isn't overtly homosexual and is in fact universal (when Mould angrily spits out the final stanzas it's all I can do to hold back tears). Anyway, as if to again showcase his mastery of pacing and sequencing, "If I Can't Change Your Mind" is a charmingly low-key acoustic pop song that provides another welcome change of pace after the unremitting intensity of "The Slim." Of course, even the most lighthearted song here has a bittersweet edge to it, but again the melody is so superb that I can't help but feel good while listening to it. Alas, the quality dips somewhat towards the end of the album ("Fortune Teller," "Slick"), depriving Copper Blue of the highest possible rating. However, its at-times intrusive synths (a la "Hoover Dam") aside, "Man On The Moon" provides a fittingly epic finale to one of the best and most overlooked albums of the 1990s.

Beaster (Rykodisk ‘93) Rating: B+
Whereas the fury of Copper Blue was often coated within poppy melodies, Beaster is a dark, bludgeoning aural assault. A dark hued song cycle centering around religion, the bulk of this six song EP features a huge, surging sound that's anchored by the massive drums of Malcolm Travis. Of course, Bob Mould kicks in with his wailing guitar as well, while David Barbe admirably holds his own. Anyway, "Come Around" is an overly long introductory song that repeats a single groove/catchphrase for almost 5 minutes, yet the end result is oddly hypnotic. "Tilted" continues with a hard charging rocker that proves just how tight this band was, though the song itself isn't especially memorable. Much better is "Judas Cradle," which features a howling intensity that escalates impressively, in part due to Mould's impassioned vocal performance. Indeed, Mould's screamed vocals achieve a cathartic power throughout the album, with awesome results on the six-minute showstopper “JC Auto,” which easily ranks among Mould’s best songs ever. “Feeling Better” is certainly anti-climactic by comparison, and the album then fades out on a low-key note with "Walking Away," which ironically concludes an often-brutal mini-album on an almost ambient note. Then again, it does serve to reinforce that Beaster is more about an overall sound than its songs, only one of which would qualify for my "best of Bob Mould" playlist. Still, though some of these angry songs are overly long and repetitive, Beaster has some stunning moments, and the album works well as a showcase for the band's impressive chemistry and chops.

File Under Easy Listening (Rykodisk ‘94) Rating: A-
Beaster was a bit stingy with the guitar hooks, but File Under Easy Listening (a.k.a. F.U.E.L.) finds Sugar returning to the immaculate melodies of Copper Blue. The album isn’t entirely misnamed, however. Though “The Gift” roars out of the gate by showcasing an unbelievably tight power trio (fittingly, I once saw this in a promo ad for a bobsledding competition, for the song hurtles forward with a similar sense of reckless abandon), most of this album is propulsive without being overly heavy. For example, “Your Favorite Thing” (with an assist from My Bloody Valentine) is a gloriously upbeat power pop song, while “Gee Angel” is a fun dose of whimsical pop. Indeed, Mould’s outlook is considerably sunnier than usual, perhaps due to the band's unexpected (and short-lived) success after Copper Blue, and David Barbe adds airy vocal harmonies to accentuate this fact. Of course, this isn’t always the case since Mould the pessimist simply can’t help himself. He vividly describes the mundane, decidedly unglamorous details of touring on the acoustic “Panama City Hotel,” while bitter emotional turmoil is everywhere on the intense “Explode And Make Up.” Elsewhere, "What You Want It To Be" has the classic mid-tempo Sugar chug (overly repetitive though it may be), “Can’t Help You Anymore” is a sprightly, singable number with inventive harmonies (and darker overtones), and “Believe What You’re Saying” is a gorgeously singable jangle pop song. Even Barbe lends a compositional hand and sings “Company Book;” he's no Grant Hart but I quite like this lightly melodic pop song, which of course is powered by Mould’s swelling guitar hooks. Long story short, though File Under Easy Listening broke no real new ground, which was something that the critics noted (which may have helped contribute to the album's comparatively disappointing sales), hindsight has proven it to be yet another stellar effort from what was a briefly great and underrated band.

Besides (Rykodisk ‘95) Rating: B+
This cleverly titled collection of b-sides, alternate takes, and live tracks turned out to be Sugar’s swan song, as Mould unfortunately disbanded the band to return to his solo career. As such, it was a fine finale for one of the best (if short-lived) bands of the '90s, as this hodgepodge is better than most of the proper albums released that year. Although few of these songs equal the band's best work (faves include "Needle Hits E," "Where Diamonds Are Halos (live)," and a cover of The Who's "Armenia City In The Sky (live)"), some of the live and/or alternate tracks are good but don't really add anything to the originals, and several other non-standouts simply do the loud groove thing that the band does so well but that they can do in their sleep ("Clownmaster" is a good example of this), there are no real clunkers anywhere, as by and large the collection shows off the intense trademarks that made the band so special. Surprisingly, even the five David Barbe composed songs are good, including the cathartic "Anyone (live)" and the dreamy yet rocking "Frustration" (which recalls My Bloody Valentine), as well as the aforementioned "Where Diamonds Are Halos," while Mould adds catchy low-key compositions such as “Going Home” and “And You Tell Me.” Mould’s "Needle Hits E" would've sounded right at home on either Copper Blue or File Under Easy Listening, and his weary, defeated “Try Again” (“you try and you try ‘till you just can’t try anymore”) is also pretty cool, with acoustics at the forefront and feedback blaring in the background. Their cover of The Who’s “Armenia City In The Sky,” often covered in concert, is captured here in a fiery version, led by Mould's ragged howls and the booming wallop of Travis, always the band's secret weapon. Meanwhile, though neither are improvements upon the originals, acoustic guitar-only renditions of “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” and “Believe What You’re Saying” lay bare and therefore reinforce the sheer loveliness of Mould’s melodies, while the whispered menace of “The Slim (live)” is notably different from the original (which I still definitely prefer, though this version is solid enough). Actually, among the already-should-be-familiar-to-fans tracks (i.e. tracks that already appeared on their three previous releases), only the sparsely arranged "Explode And Make Up (live)" actually improves upon the original, though “JC Auto (live)” is fittingly furious and enjoyable. Overall, obviously this is an album that's more for hardcore fans than novices who should start elsewhere (i.e. Copper Blue), and even hardcore fans will likely find it to be an album that's best listened to in small dosages, since it doesn’t quite cohere together as an album and its generous length makes its unremitting intensity rather exhausting over the long haul. Still, for all its flaws this collection is a veritable feast for big fans, as it does a great job of filling up discography gaps while providing consistent and at times genuinely thrilling listening pleasure. In short, though few songs here are top-shelf Sugar, this welcome addition to my collection still served as a fitting sendoff.

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