Thursday, February 20, 2014

Sugar - Copper Blue/Beaster

Nirvana came along at a good time.  The 1980s were full of hair metal bands that were just lame.  Nevermind got rid of all that hairspray in a hurry [thank whatever god you pray to].  In Nevermind’s wake came a band called Sugar [Bob Mould – guitar, keyboards, David Barbe – bass, Malcolm Travis – drums, percussion].  This has a bit of symmetry to it, because both Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl expressed undying love for punk legends Hüsker Dü [of which Bob Mould was a songwriter, guitarist, and singer].  Hüsker Dü split up in 1987, but to me Sugar was the next best thing.  Hearing Copper Blue was like hearing an exiled king reclaiming the throne that was rightly his.  To wit, Copper Blue is the best-selling album of Bob Mould’s career.  It didn’t sell by the truckload like Nevermind, but not many albums have changed the landscape of pop music, either.  It did sell over 250,000 copies in Europe, and was named Album of the Year (1992) by the UK’s New Music Express.

How did Sugar come together?  In 1992, Bob Mould had no manager, no record label, and no band.  Drummer Malcolm Travis played for a band called The Zulus, the last record of which Bob Mould produced.  When The Zulus split up, Travis was available, and Mould gave him a call.  Bassist David Barbe [who now produces the Drive-By Truckers] played with an Athens-based punk band called Mercyland and was a mutual acquaintance of Bob Mould and his significant other.

How did Sugar get its name?  The explanation is the three guys in the band were sitting in a Waffle House, saw a packet of sugar on the table and decided “let’s call it this!”

What is Copper Blue?  It’s an essential collection of hooks, riffs, and beautiful melodies married to dark melancholic subject matter.  There are plenty of stunning, power punk masterpieces contained therein.  Clearly, Bob Mould learned from 1960s pop as well as 1980s punk [who ironically learned a lot from Hüsker Dü].  The production is top-notch.  Hüsker Dü’s records sounded like crap.  The drums were tinny at best; vocals were buried in the mix; you couldn’t hear the bass; it was an undefined, messy blur.  Not so with Sugar.  You can [for the most part] comprehend what Bob Mould is singing. The drum sound is huge.  The acoustic guitars cut through the mixes like a diamond.  Sugar’s rhythm section is much superior than any that Bob Mould played with before.  The guitar sound on Copper Blue is thick and abrasive and endless.  The guitars are even louder, but the separation of instruments is clearer, and Sugar the pop band is even more evident.  The songs are very melodic and there are hooks aplenty.  They sound happy, but beneath the happy exterior things aren’t quite so joyous.  There are songs about breakups, murder, car wrecks, death and maybe suicide [depending on how you look at that one].  There is not a bad song in the bunch.  There are a few songs which immediately grab my attention:

The Act We Act

The first eight bars with just Bob Mould’s chugging, distorted riffage sets the tone for Copper Blue.  After the first eight bars, Malcolm Davis’ beefy drums make their entrance.  Then Bob starts to sing, and to my surprise the vocals aren’t buried in the mix.  The topic here is a relationship coming to its end - the act we act is wearing thin

A Good Idea

This is an homage to The Pixies.  The subject – the drowning of a girl in a river because she said it was a good idea.  I saw them from the ocean / She didn’t seem to mind / Didn’t fight at all / She didn’t fight it at all…  That's a good idea/She said she said/That's a good idea/ She said…Dark humor, anyone?

Hoover Dam – Bob Mould’s love for ‘60s pop is evident here, from the Good Vibrations beginning, the backwards guitar solos a la George Harrison in the middle, and the psychedelic Tomorrow Never Knows ending.  In the twenty-two years since its release, Hoover Dam has become one of Bob’s most beloved songs.  The opening lyrics set the table immediately –

Standing on the edge of the Hoover Dam
I'm on the center line, right between two states of mind
And if the wind from the traffic should blow me away…

What two states of mind does he mean – between sanity and insanity, life or death?  Is this a suicide song?  Bob said it could be taken that way, but he calls it a good travelogue song because it hops all over the place – Hoover Dam, the Mississippi River, New Orleans, carousels, getting covered in lava, getting sucked into the center of the Earth, etc.  Hoover Dam is poppy, it’s trippy, and it’s a damn good song.

The Slim – coming immediately after the pop psychedelia that is Hoover Dam is this grim meditation on AIDS.  This is told from the point of view of someone who has lost a partner to the disease. Remember, this was during a time when an AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence.  Chances of survival from this disease were “slim.”  “The Slim” was the gay community’s name for AIDS.

If I Can’t Change Your Mind
This is a breakup song with a happy melody.  Such is Bob Mould’s music – a dichotomy between light and dark.  This is a twelve-string homage to The Byrds.  Some reviewers hear The Beatles – I hear The Byrds.

How does one feel after a car crash?  Listen here and find out.  I can’t put my finger on why I like this one so much, I just like it.  Maybe because the sound is disorienting, kind of like its subject matter.  Slick has the same vibe as The Slim.

Changes and Helpless
Both songs were singles from the album.  They’re pretty much the same theme as If I Can’t Change Your Mind.  These are good, short pop songs with buzz-saw guitars.

The songs for Beaster were recorded during the same sessions as Copper Blue.  But Bob Mould knew this set of songs was different than the pop songs, so he ‘quarantined’ them away from the Copper Blue songs.  He and his bandmates even joked that perhaps the pop songs should be labeled ‘Sugar’ and the Beaster songs as ‘Spice.’  Copper Blue [released in September 1992] sold very well, and only seven months later they unleashed Beaster [on Easter Sunday 1993] on an unsuspecting public while they were still hot.  The Beaster songs have more layers of buzz-saw guitars, they’re [for the most part] faster, and they definitely sound angry.  As Bob tells it, the words for these songs came pouring out of him after a telephone conversation with his partner that didn’t go very well.  There’s religious imagery sprinkled throughout, but the words are so vague I can’t tell what exactly he means.  But given the frenetic pace of the music, Bob Mould is one extremely pissed-off human being.   While Copper Blues has melodies galore, Beaster is just brutal.  Between the beginning and the end of Beaster is venomous, spleen-venting rage.  

Come Around

Beaster begins with an ‘instrumental’ that lulls the listener into a false sense of security.  Bob chants ‘come around’ over and over again like a mantra, buried in the mix [hence the quotation marks around ‘instrumental’].  Once you’re almost lulled to sleep by Come Around, the band sucker punches you with Tilted.

It’s a good thing there’s a lyric sheet included because I can’t understand what Bob is singing.  Even with the lyric sheet the meaning escapes me.  But which is faster – the drums, the guitars, or the vocals?  The answer: yes – it’s a race.  It’s like hearing a better-recorded version of Hüsker Dü, not that there’s anything wrong with that.  It’s ferocious, fast, and exhilarating.  I don’t know how Malcolm Travis keeps up this punishing pace.   This song begins 23 minutes of unrelenting pummeling of the listener into submission.

Judas Cradle
More angry guitars, more religious imagery.  A ‘Judas cradle’ refers to an Inquisition-era torture device [the ‘Judas chair’].  Was Bob going to introduce the object of his ire to the Judas cradle?  One gets the idea he’s pissed-off enough to do just that.  The whole idea of this device was to lower an individual slowly onto the chair, with the point inserted into either the anus or vagina, and let gravity do the rest.

The Copper Blue/Beater package includes four B-sides [all of which could be found on the post-breakup release “Besides”].  Needle Hits E is the best of the bunch.  How it never made it to the original Copper Blue release, I’ll never know.  This package also includes a recording of a complete Sugar concert from Chicago.  It’s not essential listening, but it’s nice to hear what these guys sounded like live.

JC Auto
Part of “JC Auto” [short for “Jesus Christ Autobiography”] has the melody from the chorus of Poison Years, the bit that says "Treason is the reason for my poison years…"  So we have a clue that JC Auto, like Poison Years, is about betrayal.  Bob said as much in his autobiography.  But somebody out there in cyberspace [who is much more clever than I] went a little further and looked at these words from JC Auto - "Somewhere in this song/ A little clue to something (clue to something)/Parts of it seem over now/You expect a real solution" = Poison Years.   So when Bob sings [over and over again] “I'm your Jesus Christ I know...”, what does he mean?  Is he a messiah or a martyr?  My guess is that Bob is playing the martyr card.  He also sings “You'll be sorry when I'm gone…”, is he singing about leaving a relationship, or just ending his life altogether?

Feeling Better
Bob is hoping someone is feeling better – wash, rinse, repeat.  It’s got a great guitar riff with some cheesy synthesizer thrown on top.  The mood has lightened but it still feels a bit crazed.

Walking Away
After the stürm and drang that was the previous four songs, Beater comes in for a soft landing with Walking Away.  As Bob sings I’m walking away back to you… the only instrumental accompaniment is a celestial church organ.  And so it ends, with one asking “what the hell just happened?”

Unfortunately, Sugar had only one more album in them [File Under:  Easy Listening (FU:EL)] before calling it quits in 1995.  David Barbe felt like an absentee dad and wanted to spend more time at home.  The whole package of Copper Blue/Beaster ranks with Bob Mould’s best work [Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade and New Day Rising, his solo Workbook].  They’re a sonic onslaught full of melodies with a lot of angst and a little primal scream therapy thrown in for good measure.

Caveat emptor – this sucker is LOUD!  The remastering job boosted the volume on Copper Blue/Beaster, but without the clipping and distortion on hears from albums recorded during the “loudness wars.”  During the original recording of these works, there was an equipment alignment problem, which made it sound like most of the sound was coming through the right channel.  The remasters fixed that problem – there is proper stereo balance to the sound where there wasn’t before.

Bottom line – essential!