Mudhoney were not supposed to last until 2013. Lead singer Mark Arm admitted that, looking back, they were supposed to record just one single then go their separate ways. They were just four friends deep in the trenches of the ‘80s Seattle punk scene not really looking to fit in anywhere. Twenty five years later, that’s still kind of what they are, albeit with kids and day jobs. The secret to Mudhoney’s longevity is twofold, a magic combination that came to me when chatting with a nay-sayer.
Around 2001, I saw a friend of a friend sporting a Mudhoney t-shirt. I asked him what the band was up to since no one had heard from them for a while. He said, “They’re back on Sub Pop, going to make a new album soon ... but it’s probably going to suck.” On one level I saw his point, that any band that makes it past a certain age should be guarded with suspicion lest they lose their edge. On the other hand, I didn’t think the negative attitude was very fair. After you plug away at something for so long, even in rock ‘n roll, your experience should give you an advantage. Plus, this friend of a friend was not taking into account the two things that helped Mudhoney stay afloat for so long; a) their sound was never in fashion and b) they never took themselves seriously ... traits that would never apply to Mick and Keith.
Vanishing Point is the Mudhoney sound through and through. It’s like Jimi Hendrix playing leads for the Stooges, trying to make the end result sound far more boneheaded than it really is. Apart from the politically jaded Under a Billion Suns, this century has found the band to be taking themselves far less seriously than before. While recording for Reprise in the ‘90s, their underground sense of punk goof was sometimes at odds with the rage and cynicism of the decade’s mainstream music, a thing with which Mudhoney could never be conveniently lumped into. Now that the major label spending accounts are gone and the world’s eye has long since turned away from Seattle, a band like Mudhoney can operate comfortably again. But this can’t be mistaken for a lack of edge. Oh no, Vanishing Point is still filled with snot, and the band are still not above hocking a loogie right back at you.
If Mark Arm’s voice reflects his age in the first half of the opener “Slipping Away”, he’s quick to swat it down with gravely moans and rhyming “baby yeah!” with “oh, goddamn!” This is nothing compared to “Chardonnay”, a punk hurricane tirade against the “soccer mom’s favorite sipper,” lasting only 1:38 and featuring one of those regurgitating howls where Arm practically empties his lungs. Yet Mudhoney saved their most pissed-off sentiment for last with “Douchebags on Parade”. I must admit there’s something sadly comic about hearing a man in his 50s yowl about exhibitionist idiots that are “so satisfied”. Again, Mudhoney’s refusal to take themselves seriously rescue both the words and the music. There’s even one of Mudhoney’s unorthodox signature slide guitar solos that sounds less like the delta blues and more like a UFO trying to get the hell away from this parade. Either Turner or Arm (I’m not sure who plays leads and who plays solos) do a delightfully screwy solo on “What to Do With the Neutral”, a intentionally clumsy piece of soul, bouncing on Guy Maddison’s simplistic bass line, where the middle verse reads like Arm gave up on whatever melody pattern he was decoding and just started making it up as he went along:
I will say no to nothing
And yes to something
But I have no idea what that something should be
Nothing from nothing
I need Bill Preston to unlock this mystery
In addition to a lot of Stooges, there’s still more than a pinch of Jimi to Mudhoney’s sound. “I Don’t Remember You” starts off with a guitar and drum rat-tat, tat-tat, tat-tat just like “Crosstown Traffic” once did (Dan Peters’s drum work still steers the ship tightly). The song’s main character encounters a scenester at a grocery store, one that is hell-bent on being recognized by the narrator. “I Don’t” land on beats one and two, inviting the listener to brace themselves for “live today”. Instead, Arm just assures the stranger again and again that he’s just not that important, ” ... remember you!” He even tries to remove himself from the situation by chiding “excuse me while I fill this shopping cart”.
Saying that Vanishing Point is just another album from Mudhoney can be taken one of two ways. Either they’re not bringing anything new to their sound or they are not pretending to anything they’re not, i.e. ambitious. But as you get better acquainted with Vanishing Point your perspective will shift, as they do on most albums that play up their surface unflatteringly. “I like it small” crackles the chorus of one of Vanishing Point‘s brisker songs, trumpeting the virtues of life’s smaller joys. It’s an attitude that has worked well for Mudhoney. In 2002, Steve Turner even admitted that the band had become more of a hobby than a job. Even if it is just 34 minutes of music after a five year wait, Vanishing Point sounds pretty vital. Not bad for just a hobby.
// Notes from the Road
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