The Muffs would-be commercial breakthrough that never was retains its sweetness, power, and fun 21 years later. This reissue isn't a significant upgrade, however.
As 20-year anniversaries continue to cut a swath through the music of the ‘90s, we’re getting some interesting reissues. The Muffs are an unlikely candidate to have their albums reissued, having been neither an overlooked gem of a band nor a beloved hitmaker. Instead, they were one of dozens of bands swept up by major labels in the alternative rock revolution. They never had a big hit single, which may have been a blessing, since they never had to deal with the label’s pressure to follow up that big hit single. Overall, they fared better than most of their ‘90s compatriots, making three albums for Warner/Reprise before being kicked to the curb. Along the way, the band developed enough of a following to sustain them through a couple more independent records before shutting down in the mid-‘00s (followed by the requisite comeback album in 2014).
Their debut album, in 1993, didn’t make much of an impact commercially, but by the time Blonder and Blonder hit stores in ’95, Green Day and the Offspring had made alternative radio receptive to pop-punk, as well as grunge. With Green Day producer Rob Cavallo behind the boards (actually, Cavallo got the job producing Dookie thanks to his strong work on that first Muffs album), the Muffs seemed primed to follow that success. The album’s single, “Sad Tomorrow”, got a few plays on MTV’s underground rock show, 120 Minutes, but getting your video shown between midnight and 2:00 am on Sunday night (Monday morning, technically) isn’t exactly high profile. Despite being catchy and rocking, “Sad Tomorrow” never broke through to the mainstream, and neither did the Muffs.
Regardless of the band’s ultimate level of success, Blonder and Blonder remains a fun, breezy listen 21 years later. Singer/guitarist Kim Shattuck’s songwriting is super focused on melody, and her songs are short and to the point. That songwriting style put the Muffs in a weird no man’s land at the time. They were too poppy and sweet for the punk scene they were associated with, but Shattuck’s nasally voice, love of feedback-laden guitars, and penchant for screaming made them a tougher sell to general audiences. (The only explanation I have for Hole’s commercial success around the same time is that Kurt Cobain’s name counted for a hell of a lot right after he died.)
That dichotomy shows up right away on Blonder and Blonder. “Agony” has catchy verses and a big sing-along chorus, but Shattuck’s singing on the chorus drifts into borderline screaming on certain words. Likewise, the outro of the song finds her doing full-on wordless howls for the final 30 seconds. It’s pretty great, actually. The second song, “Oh Nina”, amps up both the screaming and the sweetness, with singsongy verses and lyrics that find Shattuck continually rhyming “Nina” with “ballerina” and “Pasadena.” The simple chorus -- “Nina / Oh Nina, Nina” -- has a killer harmony that makes it nearly impossible not to sing along with. And yet, all the way through, practically whenever there’s a break in the lyrics, Shattuck is there howling at the top of her lungs. Back in ’95, I never questioned this, but listening to it now I wonder if Shattuck was intentionally undercutting the sweetness of her melodies with the screaming. It seems more likely that this was really just her doing her thing, though, without that kind of calculation.
One thing that struck me in revisiting the album was how high the energy level is throughout. Despite the sweetness of Shattuck’s melodies, the Muffs was a true power trio. Even a relatively laid back song like “End It All Now” finds Shattuck and drummer Roy McDonald playing with strength, while bassist Ronnie Barnett reliably holds down the low end without much flash. Shattuck’s simple songwriting relies mostly on her vocal melodies and chord changes, with true guitar riffs only occasionally driving the songs. This leaves a lot of space within the music, and McDonald takes full advantage of this space, throwing in crazy fills all over the place without ever overwhelming Shattuck. A straightforward track like “On and On” is bolstered at every turn by McDonald’s creativity and musicality, as he uses his whole kit to add interesting ornaments to the song.
Occasionally, Shattuck changes up the formula, albeit slightly. “Red Eyed Troll”, with its syncopated guitar, walking bass, and allllmost swinging drums, is about half a step away from a country rave-up. “Funny Face” is notably slower, though no less energetic, than the band’s usual style. Plus it’s in 6/8 time, which gives the track a different feel. The album closes out with the duo of the easygoing “I’m Confused” and the ballad “Just a Game”. The former has uncharacteristically relaxed verses and a low-key chorus that finds Shattuck chugging away on her guitar but staying calm in her vocals. The song’s bridge is the real hook, the place where the melody picks up intensity. She follows this with a nice guitar solo that drifts into the song’s final minute as she repeats, “Yeah, I’m confused” as the music gets more and more chaotic. This freakout ends with the gently strummed guitars of “Just a Game”, the one place on the record where Shattuck tones down the nasal quality of her singing. It’s a nice change of pace and a good way to end the record.
That is, it was originally, but since this is a reissue, “Just a Game” is followed with a bevy of bonus tracks. Up first are two B-sides, “Goodnight Now” and “Become Undone”. “Goodnight Now” sounds like Shattuck inadvertently rewrote the Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” (or Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” or the Who’s “My Generation”), and it was deservedly left off of the album. “Become Undone” is much more in line with the rest of the Muffs’ material and would’ve fit snugly anywhere on Blonder and Blonder. Then there’s a half-dozen demos, with the ballad “Born Today” counting as the most interesting one simply because it features Shattuck in quiet mode. The rest of the songs feature an omnipresent tambourine click track, and it’s a very good thing that McDonald chose not to replicate that on the finished songs.
Musically, there isn’t really anything here to entice longtime fans. The original production by Cavallo still sounds great and this edition doesn’t improve on that, and the bonus tracks aren’t particularly noteworthy. As Barnett notes in the reissues liner notes, the band’s Warner Bros. albums have never gone out of print, which means availability is not a problem for anyone looking to go back and seek out The Muffs. But hey, one assumes that the Muffs themselves are probably making more money off of every copy of their reissues sold by Omnivore than they ever did while recording for Warner Bros. That’s a good thing, and the reissue is of course also coming out on vinyl, which is great for audiophiles and collectors. Those are most likely reasons enough to spring for another copy of Blonder and Blonder for fans of the band.