Photo Credit: David Israel
He Sings, He Plays Guitar, He Operates the Tilt-A-Whirl, and He Will Even Guess Your Weight
Bob Mould first stunned fans of his seminal ‘80s trio Husker Du when he turned down the amps on his 1989 solo debut Workbook, which was a mostly acoustic-leaning, string-laden collection of songs. However, if you were paying attention, Mould offered clues to this stylistic departure with previous Husker tunes such as “Hardly Getting Over It” and “Too Far Down”.
On his last solo release, 1998’s The Last Dog and Pony Show, Mould again hinted at a new musical direction. “Reflecting Pool” and “First Drag of the Day”, a pair of hook-bursting Mould staples, utilized tape loops with a surprising effectiveness, while “Megamanic”, a complete 180-degree turn, was an excursion into electronic music produced with a cheap sampler. During interviews promoting the album, Mould explained that “Megamanic” was born as a result of boredom setting in during the recording sessions.
Jump ahead to 2002, after almost four years of musical silence, and the chameleon-like Mould has emerged with Modulate, a full-blown dive into electronica (though you can still hear his trademark buzz saw guitar on a few tracks) and his most divergent work to date. The question is whether Mould is experimenting with this genre because he is truly bored, or is he simply trying to stay relevant? Despite being a musical pioneer, Mould has toiled on the fringes of the musical mainstream for most of his 20-plus year career. It must be difficult for him to consider a cohort like Moby and not think, “Wow, every song on Play was licensed for a commercial? What about me?” Mould has always operated with musical integrity, and there’s no reason to think any different now. If you were an accomplished producer of widgets for 20 years but wanted to attempt another trade, you would want the freedom to make a change. Mould has made that change.
With a tour christened “The Carnival of Light and Sound,” Mould is once again a one-man band, though his latest tour finds him armed with more than his customary tools of choice. Backed by pre-programmed drum and bass tracks (and in the instance of some of his new material, more than drums and bass) and a series of short films that accompany each song, Mould is criss-crossing the US to treat fans to his latest incarnation. The short films, which ranged from abstract images to clever animation to mildly erotic allegories, were projected on giant twin screens which book ended the newly robust Mould.
Wasting no time introducing the audience to his new songbook, Mould launched into the first five songs from Modulate. Despite a similarity to the album due the pre-recorded backing tracks, many of new songs benefited from the live treatment at piercing decibels, including “180 Rain” (perhaps a reference to the new musical direction) and “Sunset Safety Glass”. Then, as if having suffered a schizophrenic turn, the set list turned from aggressive electronica to acoustic balladry, where old Husker Du favorites such as “Hardly Getting Over It” and “No Reservations” that have not had the benefit of a live rhythm section in 15 years, were given new life. The Sugar years were also revisited with the virtually inevitable appearance of “Hoover Dam” alongside the Workbook-era epic, “Brasilia Crossed with Trenton”, whose accompanying film unfortunately featured footage of Trenton instead of Brasilia.
After a brief stint in “greatest hits” territory, Mould once again shifted back to the new record, where he delved into the more guitar-oriented tracks, such as “Slay/Sway”, “The Receipt” (“Kasey, could you please play ‘The Receipt’ for Grant, wherever the fuck he is!!!”), “Sound on Sound” (which might serve as Mould’s theme song, given his propensity for piling on the layers of guitar and vocals), and the riff-happy “Come On Strong”. The seemingly humble Mould, who seemed very appreciative of fans in attendance, wasn’t much for chitchat other than numerous “thank yous” for coming out to support the new record. Remarkably, Mould creates the impression of a performer lacking the confidence that should complement someone with his credentials.
For those who weren’t so keen on Mould scratching his creative itch, it was back to “best of” mode for the remainder of the show. Included were a slightly reworked version of “Your Favorite Thing” and a power-pop rendition of the Husker Du classic “Celebrated Summer”. Mould nixed the backing tracks (or unplugged, if you will) for the aforementioned “Too Far Down”, which he delivered in a near whisper that, while appearing mildly contrived, left the crowd in a stunned silence for at least five seconds after the song ended before finishing the set with the syrupy sweetness of “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” (which, incidentally, had one of the feebler accompanying films: an account of someone attempting to make amends with a woman that unintentionally bordered on stalking).
After a brief retreat backstage, Mould returned for two more nuggets, “Makes No Sense at All”, whose corresponding short film seemed to hint at the events of September 11, and the show-stopping “Man on the Moon”, which Mould seems to favor more as time passes, and given the powerful, arena-ready version that he delivered, it is easy to see why.
Hearing Mould’s voice compared to his live vocals 10 years ago is one of the best endorsements to quit smoking that the American Lung Association could wish for, as he is now more a singer and less a screamer. Though, in the defense of the tobacco industry, part of this improvement may also be attributable to the 41-year-old maturing as an artist, as he’s not the kid who, on the 1984 landmark album Zen Arcade, roared seemingly simple lines like, “I will never forget you” with a rage so focused it was, well, unforgettable. And the fact that he continues to tinker with and actually improve songs that didn’t even know they needed improving is the mark of an artist not content with the status quo.
For the fans that want more of Mould’s new experimentation in electronica, the upcoming release of Long Playing Grooves under the anagrammed alias LoudBomb should help to satisfy their curiosity. For the fans scratching their heads longing for the old Bob, the fall will bring the release of the acoustic-oriented Body of Song, which is sure to contain a glut of melodic emotional anguish, while the promised fall tour will likely feature Mould in a more familiar and intimate presentation: just him, a stool, and his dependable 12-string guitar.