Friday, March 24, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins, Vol. 19: Mudhoney, Grunge's "Biological Dad"

Paul, seriously, I'm hung up. Nirvana or Mudhoney?
If the words “Superfuzz Bigmuff” weren’t the first words I heard on arriving in Seattle, it didn’t take long to hear them. I started college in Bellingham, Washington, right after that*, but chatter about Mudhoney followed me up there. Just a few weeks later, I watched a couple guys I knew singing “The Rose” in my dorm’s…shit, it’s not a cafeteria? Common room? Nah, that’s Harry Potter. It’s the place where people eat, they moved stuff around, my friends played, etc.

(* Is it possible that I doctored this chronology? Oh yeah. Still, minimal license taken.)

It’s a bit lucky that Mudhoney legitimately follows Nirvana in this project because I’ve always thought of those two as Seattle’s biggest bands, the Beatles v. Rolling Stones of the Emerald City circa 1990. That probably has less to do with objective reality than a dichotomy that came about because I’ve always liked Mudhoney more. And that’s where this volume detours into an exploration of memory, projection and bad assumptions.

First, both Nirvana and Mudhoney define the “grunge” genre; Mudhoney’s lead singer, the inimitable Mark Arm, coined the term. Grunge as a genre, doesn’t exactly contains multitudes, so it follows that these bands can’t sound worlds apart. In fact, according to Mudhoney’s Wikipedia page, Kurt Cobain credited Superfuzz Bigmuff as one of the “most influential albums to Nirvana’s sound.” It’s just rock in the end, a sound that just sorta mashed together punk rock and (to my ear, old-school) heavy metal (and the kind that falls on the “Black Sabbath” side of the “Black Sabbath/ Led Zeppelin” creative/tonal divide); stomp on a distortion pedal a couple times and, voila, major-label hawks swoop down on Seattle for a couple years trying to find the next Nirvana.

Mudhoney never became the “next Nirvana.” They signed with Reprise Records (part of Warner Brothers), but eventually slipped back to Seattle’s and grunge’s flagship label, Sub Pop. Even though I liked Mudhoney better, I never looked at that as any kind of injustice. It felt closer to a blessing, really, because that kept the band in venues where you could actually see them. (I’ve only seen one show in an arena since high school, at least that I can remember: Weezer at the Moda. Weezer was fine (didn’t do much up there, honestly), but the experience kinda sucked. I mean, they were tiny. I could barely make out their ironic Van Halen-inspired stage prop.) I’ve always been a small venues guy; once a band gets big enough, we part ways, and without bitterness. I’m happy for them, honestly. They look so happy up there on the big stage…well, maybe not Kurt…what? Well, it’s not like you can say, “too soon.”

That only leaves the question of why I liked Mudhoney more than Nirvana. Part of it grows from sound, each band’s approach to music. While both took on – and, in some ways, directed the grunge sound – even Mudhoney’s original sound played footsie with garage rock on the side; garage became a bigger part of what I liked as I got older, and maybe that subtle taste in Mudhoney’s music guided me toward it. The aggression helped too. It’s less a pace thing, or anything to do with one band or the other “rocking harder” than the other (ugh, phrase makes me cringe). Mudhoney just sounds more…comfortable in their sound; that’s as opposed to Nirvana, who sometimes felt like an act stepping toward something without quite knowing what it is, if in a good way. Putting time into this project (but not nearly enough, GODDAMMIT!), reminded me that they had more complexity than I recalled, but they have this way of just hitting it – like when “In ‘n’ Out of Grace” re-launches after that (brilliant) song’s long middle bridge (and is that a bridge, technically? asking for a friend) (And, c'mon, those lyrics are at least clever.)

The clearer sense of identity implied above forms part two of what I preferred in Mudhoney. There’s nothing wrong with grasping (seriously, I am an expert grasper), but, against Nirvana’s reflective self-loathing and frustration, I found more sympathetic emotions in Mudhoney’s combination of themes and the attitude in which those stewed – not that I knew that back then; only makes sense now, in fact, as I’m trying to explain it. At any rate, the loose thematic elements - the fascination with / sincere appreciation for sleaze (their name comes from a Russ Meyer movie; also, if you haven’t seen Russ Meyer movies, I’m not saying you’re gonna love ‘em, but do at least look into them); their smiling, dismissive way of saying, “fuck you” – combined with the weight and volume of their sound in a way that felt a bit like yelling those loose thoughts at the world. And that’s…very satisfying. With Nirvana, you got this sense of, “I’m so fucked up, what’s wrong with me?” With Mudhoney, you got something closer to “hey, we’re all fucked up; let’s go do weird shit fer kicks!”

This whole thing still holds as it turns out. How do I know? I didn’t slip any Nirvana songs onto a new playlist when I went through Nirvana’s catalog, but I did put on some Mudhoney songs – quite a few, especially under the circumstances (new music is the focus of my playlists). Here’s where that piece about “bad assumptions” comes in: when I started my review of Mudhoney, I’d already dismissed them as one of those bands that “didn’t evolve.” I didn’t skip due diligence altogether – I checked their most recent work, The Vanishing Point (ummm) – but that just reinforced my personal impression that Mudhoney never stopped putting out stuff that did more than rhyme.

Earlier this week, in a what-the-hell moment, I went through Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge. Then it was Piece of Cake, then immediately after that – I mean, right after – I flipped to My Brother the Cow. That’s how all those songs got loaded onto this month’s playlist. Also, damn my lazy assumptions, because I’ll be giving those albums far shorter shrift than they deserve here. What can I say, but lesson learned.

And, after an inexcusable pile of personal notes and remembrances, the music.

If there’s a quintessential Mudhoney song, it could very well be the aforementioned, “In ‘n’ Out of Grace.” The vintage audio intro frames it without referencing it, then the whole damn song drops like someone kick-starting a big, surly Harley – and the song just fucking flies from there. Its already-noted “special moment” (where the whole damn thing kicks off again) launches with a drum roll that sounds like it's tearing through something, but it also will always be the sound of shit flying in the air for me…beer cups, people, clothing. Just…boom.

There’s no shortage of other candidates on Superfuzz Bigmuff: “Touch Me (I’m Sick),” “Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More,” You Got It (Keep It Outta My Face),” and even “Get Into Yours” and “Here Comes Sickness” from their eponymous second album all possess the essential elements that laid the foundation of Mudhoney’s message to world (even “Chardonnay” from The Vanishing Point keeps in touch with it – e.g. “You're the grape that launched a thousand strippers”). A lot of Mudhoney’s songs stay in that lane, or even a lane on either side, but even early on, they showed they could be “real” – see a song like “If I Think” (which I’ve always found more affecting than justified) or the just-slightly more compromised “Need.” A kind of sneering superiority mingles with an ill-fitting, but still intense sense of camaraderie with misfits…hold on…”Mudslide” is playing right now…very grungey. Still, “Get Into Yours” nails that theme in a specific way…but that’s playing right now, so...

If Superfuzz Bigmuff made Mudhoney’s reputation, their eponymous album cemented it. As a rock album, regardless of genre, every fault I can name feels like a nit-pick. Maybe “This Gift” starts things out a bit flat, but “Flat Out Fucked” sounds like its title in all the right ways; even the short instrumental, the masterfully named “Magnolia Caboose Babyshit,” sits very smartly in the albums middle section. I have a couple other favorites – “The Farther I Go” comes in here – but I’ll never settle the argument between “Running Loaded” and “When Tomorrow Hits.” They follow a similar theme – avoiding some vague something to dread – but the melodic components of “Running Loaded” suggest one thing (skipping ahead of it) while the weighted paralysis of “When Tomorrow Hits” speaks of another (being unable to move as it looms). That last one's sort of a personal anthem, even if I keep forgetting it is...might end up on the funeral playlist. Think I got time...

I’m going to wind this up with a lament – specifically, the vague impression I picked up while listening to Every Good Boy, Piece of Cake and My Brother the Cow, and that Wikipedia’s page confirmed when I checked that out to confirm which albums came out when. Mudhoney tried on some new sounds, and really damn close to Mudhoney; I can’t listen to a song like “Pokin’ Around” and hear it fitting on that album, or even “Good Enough” (both off Every Good Boy). They had thinned out the sound on their guitars by the time they got to Piece of Cake, leaning deeper into the garage elements that have been a bigger part of my tastes since the mid-90s, maybe early 2000s (for example, listen to “Living Wreck” and “Blinding Sun” (also, they don't look comfortable in that video).

I don’t want to exaggerate the differences – it’s not like every Mudhoney album feels like a trip to different country (in fact, see chorus for “Blinding Sun”) – but I would encourage anyone who loved Mudhoney’s first two albums, or even liked them, to do what I failed to do: give their later albums a chance.

Because I’m pretty sure this will be the last time I talk about grunge, I want to close the chapter on the genre. I slipped a phrase in an earlier post in this series, the one on The Fluid, that read: “sure, it sucked after a while, when all the bands starting sounding like some lesser version of the same thing.” I missed the first wave of grunge (Green River, maybe others; listened to them a while tonight; they were decent), and I fucking hated its long demise – mostly because, in its death throes, grunge sounded like this - but the middle passage, the period lead by Nirvana and Mudhoney, was a damned good time. Still, Nirvana’s success visited a curse on all of us: the hell that the Quest for the Next Nirvana. Broadening the appeal of anything requires making it more accessible; it’s holding onto a couple defining tropes (e.g. song structure (brooding start and…ROCK EXPLOSION!) and distortion) and dumbing things down enough until everyone gets it.

I don’t blame Nirvana for any of that and, to be clear, I don’t think they did anything to consciously broaden their appeal. I also think they possessed an easier appeal than Mudhoney ever did, and for several reasons that start with the contrast between Kurt Cobain’s voice and Mark Arm’s, or just the way Mudhoney’s sound stuck closer to punk (or garage). Both bands made a hell of a racket, but Mudhoney always sounded a little dirtier in my ear, and that’s why I liked them. I don't know how far that personal preference travels, but it seems less than universal, and, if I had to explain why Nirvana “succeeded” while Mudhoney “failed,” that’s my stab at it. It’s also why it became very, very easy for me to walk away from grunge as it persisted well beyond its useful life in the American mainstream. The shift to “big voice” (see, Vedder, Eddie) and cleaner production lost me real quick.

I don’t know if they’d ever agree with me, but, yeah, I think Mudhoney dodged a bullet in the end. They’re a good goddamn band. Mark Arm is one of my favorite "rock personalities" to this day and that's entirely down to stage persona. This week reaffirmed that. I plan on going back to what I missed so that, if it ever comes up again (it won’t), I can tip people off on the best tracks for the rest of their stuff.

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