The father of alt-rock guitar runs his victory lap
Of all the bands responsible for the development of alternative rock, Hüsker Dü gets the least amount of credit amongst the public in proportion to what it actually deserves. In bluntest terms, without the Minneapolis trio, the sound of alternative/indie rock as it is commonly understood would not exist. While the better-known R.E.M. made oblique lyricism de rigueur and crucially showed later alt-rockers how to develop careers that could cross into the mainstream without sacrificing the underground spirit, the influence of its actual music has paled in comparison to the immense propagation of the sonic template Hüsker Dü invented for the genre.
Seeking to leave the constraints of their hardcore roots behind, in the mid-1980s the Hüskers started favoring slower, more melodic songs that nonetheless crucially never dispensed with the aggression or the abrasive edge of the three-piece’s punk past. The band’s daring marriage of pop hooks and a monstrous storm of guitar distortion resulted in music that was cathartic, rocking, pretty, and singable all at once—and very much ahead of its time. Less than five years after the group disbanded in early 1988, that very sound would be all over radio and music television, selling millions of records. Yet in a sort of cosmic cruelty, the trio has proven too seminal for its own good, for the influence of admitted Hüsker Dü-indebted acts the Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., and My Bloody Valentine (and in turn, ‘90s alt-rock juggernauts like Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Foo Fighters) has been so immense that it went on to obscure the innovations and importance of the Hüskers themselves.
Fortuitously for former Hüsker Dü guitarist/vocalist Bob Mould, his early ‘90s power trio Sugar was well-poised to show everyone in the post-Nirvana/post-Lollapalooza age who did it first. Rounded out by bassist David Barbe and drummer Malcolm Travis, Sugar produced only two albums and an EP for Rykodisc before quietly disbanding in 1995. It’s a small legacy, but now that we’ve hit the 20-year mark after the release of the first Sugar LP Copper Blue, today’s diaspora of retromania dictates that the occasion has to be marked with a reissue program. Storied indie label Merge is doing the honors, and it does not skimp on doing justice to the semi-forgotten band’s miniscule catalog.
Of the two Sugar LPs, the first is the unequivocal go-to listen. In fact, Copper Blue is a phenomenal, nigh-essential record, one the NME honored as its Album of the Year for 1992. It was also Mould’s biggest-selling record (nearly 300,000 copies, double what Hüsker Dü’s hardcore death knell Zen Arcade shifted), and managed to finally get him decent airplay on MTV and modern rock radio alongside his second- and third- generation offspring. Even if Copper Blue doesn’t break any new ground for the man (it’s more of a robust refinement than another reinvention of underground rock), Sugar’s debut holds its own against the mightiest installments in the back catalog of Mould’s previous band by virtue of being the most consistent album the guitarist has ever written. What began as a selection of 30 possible tracks was winnowed down during the production process to a lean ten-title CD—all killer, no filler—that showcases a well-rehearsed and simpatico ensemble burning at its very brightest.
It’s hard not to fall for archetypal allure of Copper Blue’s buzzing guitars and mountains of overdubbed vocal harmonies—in a sense it’s Nirvana’s Nevermind six years early, released a year later. Its opening four-song salvo of the churning “The Act We Act” and the singles “A Good Idea”, “Changes”, and “Helpless” is indomitable, a faultless sequence bound to win instant converts even now in today’s fractured Alternative Nation. Yet the album’s true peak is in its latter half, where the acoustic breakup lament “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” is ingeniously paired with “Fortune Teller”, a blazing riff-o-rama that’s the record’s most exciting moment. Sure, there are points where the songs get locked into repetitious cycles, where sections feel like they are alternating ad infinitum. Mould handles what could have been a songwriting shortcoming by spinning it into an asset—his deliciously hooky melodies make the repetition compulsory, and in “Changes” and “Fortune Teller” he releases the tension built up by those endless verses and choruses by breaking them up with roaring bridges.
The new edition of Copper Blue encompasses three discs, which in addition to the original album contains single b-sides, the 1993 Beaster EP, and a full concert performed at Chicago’s Cabaret Metro in July 1992. The b-sides added to fill out the first disc do nothing to weigh down the listening experience (well, ok, the solo mix of “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” is inessential, and “Try Again” takes forever to get going). Anyways, the bonus studio material that will garner the most attention from consumers is the much-lauded Beaster, which consists of six cuts written during the Copper Blue sessions that were set aside to solidify into a seething and partially religious-themed song suite. The errant noise and the intensity are dialed up, and Mould’s burly voice isn’t as audible as it is on Copper Blue, instead being overcome by the roar the band is generating. The EP has attained a hallowed status amongst Mould aficionados, and though it doesn’t quite outshine Copper Blue, when placed alongside the LP its harsh timbres augment the album in a manner that compliments both works. With such masterfully-realized studio material, the live set is noticeably rougher in comparison. Stripped of overdubs, Sugar’s attack is boiled down, its barely-contained energy recalling the Hüsker Dü glory days. The trio is still a little tentative at this juncture (particularly Mould’s singing, which defaults to monotone bellowing), though it pulls together around the halfway point to conclude the gig at full efficiency.
The second and final Sugar LP, 1994’s File Under: Easy Listening, never amassed the critical cache nor the sales its predecessor did. Which is unfortunate, as it is by no means a weak record. True, it’s not exactly Copper Blue: the songs are less immediate, and the music is a tad slower and grungier, with the guitars more prone to squalling fills. Regardless, Mould’s knack for candied alt-pop hooks and fervid rock ‘n’ roll is not diminished in the slightest on FU:EL. The top tune here is “Gee Angel”, its insistent, needling riffs raising the question of why the band and Rykodisc released it as the LP’s second single instead of its first, even if Mould did write “Your Favorite Thing” with all intentions of it being the lead a-side.
The slightly larger helping of b-sides available with Merge’s File Under: Easy Listening pressing (six to Copper Blue’s four) goes a small way toward making up for the lack of an equivalent to Beaster to help pad out the package. The stronger nature of these help rectify some of the imbalance that exists between FU:EL and its companion reissue—“Mind Is an Island” posits what Bad Religion would sound like playing a Beatles tune, “Frustration” is a surprisingly effective My Bloody Valentine homage, and the “Campfire Mix” of “Believe What You’re Saying” ends up being more worthwhile than the rejiggered “If I Can’t Change Your Mind”. The live performance included here is also more assured than the one available with Copper Blue. Taking the stage in Minneapolis in 1994, Mould has a better handle on his vocals during this concert, being less shouty and more tuneful, and there are some abrupt transitions (an incendiary “Clownmaster” into an equally energized “Gee Angel”) to be found here that only a well-honed live act could pull off. The show closes with especially harrowing renditions of “Explode and Make Up” and “The Slim” that silence the audience into reverent attention.
For such a short-lived band, Sugar never wasted a moment on record. A comparison can be made with Nirvana, another ‘90s alt-rock band that made such consistently astounding work on borrowed time. Unlike Nirvana, Sugar didn’t sell millions (though it sold more than Mould could have ever dreamed of back when he was touring the U.S. in a van back in the ‘80s). Maybe it should’ve, and could’ve. That line of thought only ends in hypotheticals, though. What isn’t idle speculation is putting Copper Blue, Beaster, or File Under: Easy Listening on the stereo, and hearing a dues-paying underground hero serve up song after song as exciting and as stellar as any of the other momentous numbers he has been responsible for in his storied career. What a way to show the kids both in 1992 and in 2012 how it’s done, Bob.
Copper Blue / Beaster (Deluxe Edition)
File Under: Easy Listening (Deluxe Edition)