Sugar – File Under: Easy ListeningPosted by Adrian MacDonald
There’s always something to be said for a guy as consistent as Bob Mould — he’s always been sort of a cross between boring and awesome. Listening to the wall-of-sound guitar slab he lays down in song after song in basically any album you want to take from his 30-year discography, it’s easy to see how his 80s work in Husker Du built the template for the whole early 90s explosion. Nirvana might have broken out as the biggest band in the world by melding pop structures with punk f**ked-upedness — but it was years earlier that Bob Mould from Minneapolis lit up the college radio stations by snarling his words into disaffected, unintelligible choruses and drowning it all in a mountain of power chords dense enough to pull asteroids into orbit.
So it makes plenty of sense why Merge Records, home of a boatload of rockers tapping a similar vein of swirling jangling power pop, would buy in for a lavish re-release of all the early 90s material from his second band Sugar. On the other hand, File Under: Easy Listening isn’t the go-to record for anyone who’s never heard of Mr. Mould, and it isn’t even one of the classic favorites from the time — for that, pick up the re-release of Sugar’s first record, Copper Blue, about as defining a soundtrack for the sprawling pogo-ing moshpit 90s vibe as any band ever came without becoming a household name. Sugar represented the modest height of Mould’s commercial success, but it was a short-lived project, which fizzled in the middle of recording its sophomore release. What you hear on FU:EL is mostly a collection of half-formed songs that are heavy on guitar squall and short on focused writing, despite some hooky highlights.
You can’t completely toss it — it’s vintage Mould, in a thundering full band with more production clarity than the punkier stuff from Husker Du — sensitive tales of introspection and personal identity, projected at earthquake volume, sung about the way someone might put logs through a woodchipper. But these songs go on for an eternity, a lot of them tending to drive their better sections into the ground with repetition — as on “Company Book,” “What You Want It To Be,” or “Granny Cool,” which all take a relatively cliche idea and chew on it till it gets annoying. If you’re determined to invest some time into a messy album with no stand-out singles, that mostly functions as a historical data point, there are redeeming moments. Like opener “Gift,” that recalls the soaring 747 heaviness of early Smashing Pumpkins, or the seductive hooks of “Gee Angel” that get things pogo-ing back towards the sing-along mania that made everybody pay attention in the first place.
Bob definitely has a few songs in his catalog that, while not varying much from his standard sonic palette, still make you stop and wonder what the hell he’s talking about. The location-based imagery tends to make for some of his best work, as on “Brasilia Crossed With Trenton” from his first solo release, which suggested all kinds of layers of urban discourse, or “Hoover Dam” from Copper Blue that pretty much summed up his entire aesthetic. ”Panama City Motel” keeps it short and sweet – ”Spaghetti concrete overpasses / I keep grasping for something familiar… In this Panama city motel / I came out on the freeway again.” It’s a little depressing and doesn’t exactly rock, but it stands out on an album that otherwise tends to the weak lyrically.
It’s a good thing that Merge is plumping up this deluxe re-release with liner notes and B sides and a live show, but none of it is going to make it more valuable as more than record collector completism. The best part is the live show features blistering deliveries of a lot of songs from Copper Blue, where you can hear the feedback dripping from their guitars like wet paint from a brush.