Bob Mould gets his groove on with musical partner Rich Morel in new project at the intersection of electronica and rock.
Pleasure is a quality rarely associated with Bob Mould. Anger, maybe, and frustrated longing, certainly; in a quarter-century of songwriting he's often approached love from the jilted end, rarely from the erotic. Even when fulfillment seemed in grasp he quickly dismissed it: "Could You Be the One", asked a song on the legendary Husker Du's final album, but it concluded with the singer crying and brokenhearted. In his next band, Sugar, Mould hoped to be "Your Favorite Thing", but even there he imagined himself "stuck on a bookcase in your room, alone with all your other favorite things". And those are the high points of his romantic life as chronicled in song; for a more representative sample, see "Next Time That You Leave", "Too Far Down", and the tormented "Explode and Make Up". Great songs all, but not much in the way of steamy, torrid passion.
Perhaps this absence can be connected in part to Mould's historical reluctance to serve as a spokesman for gay identity. Though never in the closet, Mould for years militantly refused to be defined by his sexuality, which resulted in a noticeable paucity of gendered pronouns in his work. It was a request both reasonable and not -- no straight artist has ever borne the burden of representing his or her "community", but in an ostensibly "alternative" rock world starved for three-dimensional gay figures, it was only natural that many would clamor for Mould to take the mantle of queer icon.
When Mould finally imbued his music with a specific sexuality on 2002's Modulate, its synthesis of his signature loud guitar rock and newfound interest in electronica went poorly received. The gripping album remains the most underrated of Mould's extensive catalog, but though it explicitly delved into gay life, it did so with a grim emphasis on desperate, sordid encounters. With all the cheerful zest of Fassbinder's Querelle, Modulate remained miles away from unblemished eroticism.
Finally, with his new rock-electronica hybrid project Blowoff (actually not so new, having commenced some years back, but new to record), Mould achieves the sound of desire being met. From the salacious band-name (which refers without surplus meaning to the pro-wrestling deciding match only to those who thought Limp Bizkit's Chocolate Starfish and the Hotdog Flavored Water was about food and drink -- regardless of Mould's well-known affection for wrestling) on down, Blowoff embraces pleasure, and delivers it.
Though Mould has been evincing new levels of comfort with himself, his songs, and his audiences in live shows for at least the past half-decade, much of the credit for this shift resides with Blowoff partner Rich Morel. Though rock-oriented critics (present company guiltily included) are sure to emphasize Mould, as half of Blowoff Morel brings several critical components, not least of which is the hedonistic hepcat attitude that makes the self-titled debut album such a breeze. As musician, producer, and remixer extraordinaire, Morel has his own deep roots in the progressive house scene, with remixes of artists from the Pet Shop Boys to the Killers under his belt and five tracks conquering the Billboard Club Dance Play charts. He is, in short, as established in his field as Mould is in indie rock.
He's also eager to expand his horizons, and it's the boundary-traversing glee with which Morel embraces rock formats while Mould continues to push into electronic explorations that gives Blowoff its winning exuberance. The first voice we hear is Morel's, on "Hormone Love", and with its blazing guitars and pounding drums it could well be Sugar, if perhaps Malcolm Travis, that band's drummer, had ridden the hi-hat a bit more. While the song deals with despondency over a romantic loss, Morel isn't necessarily seeking the love of his life; rather, another "dose of that hormone love" is closer to his wishes. Indeed, a delectable lechery pervades Morel's tracks here, from the general decadence of "Saturday Night All the Time" (with its wonderfully seductive keyboard line) to the casual assertion in "Lemon" that "it's cool when love is only skin deep". And that's before he gets to the part about wet dreams.
Spurred on by Morel, Mould distances himself somewhat from the sad-sack persona he's developed over the years. His first track, "Here and Now", sounds plucked from last year's solo album Body of Song, itself a return to the form of Sugar classics like 1992's Copper Blue. But by "Overload", track three, Mould has given himself to the beat, trading strumming patterns for a steady percussive pulse as he eggs us on toward the song's titular condition. When "Beautiful" shows up to rework Modulate's "Lost Zoloft", the change is clear: in the song's first incarnation, Mould sang through gritted teeth about "a latent homosex", mustering up all the self-pitying woe he could find to declare, "someone as beautiful as you would never look at me". Here, the effect is dramatically lighter; when Mould hits the chorus his voice turns dreamy instead, and bolstered by Morel's backing vocals, it sounds as if the beautiful guy did look at Mould. Violent sexual imagery that sounded vaguely unsettling the first time around now takes on softer hues, coming across as consensual forays into pleasurable kink.
Morel and Mould work together with an intuitive, organic understanding; press material emphasizes that Blowoff is a full collaboration of equal partners, and listening, it's easy to believe. The sharply defined, memorable songs feel fresh, vibrant, excited to be played and sung. Morel sounds completely unintimidated by the legendary Mould, and he stars in several of the album's standout tracks. "Fallout" features an idiosyncratic reimagining of 1960s pop, with floating keyboards over modern techno beats, as Morel winds his way through a simple but effective melody hoping to stave off a breakup with beatnik poetry and "a pocket full of reefer" (Mould's treated backing vocals sound like Kermit the Frog, which shouldn't work but does). As closing track "The Ballad of Mark Dirt" shifts from a droning soundscape to glistening acoustic guitar, Morel deploys impressionistic lyrics to tremendous effect, somehow claiming the rock cliché of the closing ballad as his own.
Blowoff loses steam in its middle section (canned horns can't save the plodding "Life With a View"), and it misses an opportunity by burying Mould's "Get Inside With Me" in icy, compressed overproduction when the song begs to invoke the nervous jangle of 1980s indie-pop by the dB's or the Feelies. Curiously, aside from dance track "Tag It", Blowoff rarely wanders as far afield from rock foundations as Mould's anagrammatic (and overlooked) 2002 album Long Playing Grooves as LoudBomb. Nonetheless, the project effectively bridges gaps between genres, delivering strong material by two confident musical partners. Mould will probably never cover "Shiny Happy People", but he sounds more at ease working with Morel than he ever has before.