Thursday, February 5, 2009

Meet Me In the Dollar Bin

Music obsessives are well-versed in searching the dollar bin; their eyes attuned to scan the minute point size of CD-spine text and minuscule record-label logos--like a red-tailed hawk spotting a prairie dog from 500 feet. The dollar bin is wonderful and necessary, but let's be honest: the shit-to-gold ratio hovers somewhere around 50-to-1. But when you find that 1, it's like pulling a 24-carat nugget from amid a panful of schist and granite pebbles. You dance your jig and go home happy. In this new recurring NQL feature, we discuss and dissect those 24-carat nuggets. First up: Copper Blue, the overlooked 1992 debut from Bob Mould's excellent post-Hüsker Dü outfit, Sugar (and, coincidentally, a nice companion to Jim's latest opus).

Confession: I'm not really that into Hüsker Dü. As a music nerd, I know they're a band I'm supposed to like, I know they're influential and seminal and all that, and their chapter in Our Band Could Be Your Life was rad, but for whatever reason, they've never hooked me like so many of their SST brethren and underground/hardcore/noise-rock contemporaries. So I had no real stake in Sugar--a classic guitar-bass-drums power trio--but I had heard enough good about them to snatch up Copper Blue when I saw it on clearance.

"The Act We Act" kicks off the album innocuously enough, and as any great album should be kicked off: with power chords. But make no mistake, this is not a "nice" record. The first hint is Pixies rip/fetish-ballad "A Good Idea", a tune about a dude fake-drowning his girlfriend: "The air was thick with the smell of temptation," we learn, as "he held her down in the water"--and she fucking likes it: "I wanna feel you in the water with your hands on my head." Whatever gets you through the day, I guess. (I wonder if this is a documented paraphilia? But I'll save that discussion for my other blog.) "Hoover Dam" uses its titular edifice as a metaphor for the divide between sanity and insanity--the "center line / right between two states of mind"--and makes suicide sound quite intriguing. The song employs a snaky synth line which critics have called "a wry tribute to Sgt. Pepper's orchestral-pop grandeur." Agree, kind of, but I hear more cheese than irony/humor, yet the synth is effective nonetheless.

Another clear highlight jump-starts the album's back half. "If I Can't Change Your Mind", a power-pop sugar rush (Sugar rush?) which most children of the '90s will recognize for its indelible melody. Beneath that saccharine veneer, though, is a broken-hearted, pleading narrative of rejection and wasn't-meant-to-be resignation. The next track, "Fortune Teller", is a perfect slice of straight-ahead rock; I just wish that four-bar guitar figure around 2:10 would happen more than once. "Man on the Moon" is the album's most playful cut--with its stops and starts, nonsensical lyrics ("don't you know that space is the place"), and most excellent guitar/synth bridge--and closes things on a fun (or at least less serious) note.

My grievances with Copper Blue are few and minor: (1) The grunge/post-grunge production dates the album somewhat. (2) The geography of "Hoover Dam" is just plain wrong: the real Hoover Dam spans the Colorado River, not the Mississippi. This flub is not a matter of cadence because both "Colorado" and "Mississippi" have the same number of syllables (four), or composition because both rivers also empty into a gulf (California and Mexico, respectively), so the lyrics would hold up regardless. How do you sleep at night, Bob Mould? (3) A few of the songs--"A Good Idea", "Changes", "Helpless"--go on too long, simply repeating a phrase or the chorus ad nauseum during the fade-out, giving the impression that Mould just couldn't come up with a suitable compositional ending. But no matter. These quibbles, individually or in sum, are hardly enough to detract from an album as uniformly solid as Copper Blue.

For a bit more insight into Copper Blue, check out the Beaster EP. Recorded during the Copper Blue sessions (I like that..."Copper Blue sessions"...imparts an air of importance to these proceedings), Beaster is as advertised: gnarly, dense, and heavy; more self-flagellant and unforgiving than its companion LP; and revealing in terms Mould's pop savvy and skills as a self-editor. The six songs on Beaster, "Walking Away" excepted, would've been too much for Copper Blue, and constitute a strong enough statement on their own. Beaster bristles with intensity and howls with loathing and anger. "Judas Cradle", for instance, deals with dishonesty ("could you lie and mean it?'), and "Feeling Better" tackles the push and pull of an unhealthy relationship ("you pull me off the floor / I'm coming back for more"). By comparison, Copper Blue is sunny.

One note before closing: While most of my attention has been focused on Mould, a great deal of credit belongs to his bandmates, drummer Malcolm Travis and bassit David Barbe. If Sugar were a human being, Malcolm and Barbe would be the muscles to Mould's skeleton. Analogies are not my strong suit.

From the forgotten corners of the '80s to the forgotten corners of the '90s and beyond, Bob Mould has made a career of being under-recognized and under-rewarded. And while he achieved a modicum of commercial success with Sugar (Copper Blue almost went Gold and was the NME's album of year in '92), the project was short-lived, producing only two full lengths and an EP. Even today Mould's work still flies largely below radar, which is a crime, because he is a legend and Copper Blue is a classic that should be discussed alongside other great albums of its era.

--Brian Herrmann

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