Under a Billion Suns
What happened to music that bands have these protracted lifespans? Used to be the Rolling Stones were the only ones allowed to outstay their welcomes, and the Beatles and Duran Duran were considered impressive that they made the decade mark before dissolving (I don't consider the new Duran Duran official. Not for any real reason, but it just doesn't feel right) but now, every goddamn band hangs around forever.
Take Mudhoney for instance. Superfuzz Bigmuff was perhaps the only truly necessary document out of the Grunge movement Nirvana wasn't involved with (and both of those are probably due to their relative tangential relationship to the grunge marketing machine) and they had their moments over the years, and the true believers hung on like happy little ticks, and I never really got it. I thought they were good, but not that good. Not devotional good. I figure a number of people must've had what I call a "Bauhaus moment" with them early on, where a tendril of a notorious group laps into your psyche and something clicks and never unclicks. Even when you've grown past the band itself, that click still resonates in your head.
Mudhoney trudges ever forward, and by the sounds of Under a Billion Suns, I might just come around. Mark Arm still has that arena-in-my-garage croon that falls just short of the required pitch to make the thing ring. He can sing, but he can't Sing. Also, lyrically, I've always thought Mudhoney a little weak, a little obvious. And none of this is exactly corrected here, but the elements converge to make a great album. That ambience of menace, the incessant somnambulant groove, the ebb and flow tide that mid-tempo Mudhoney songs do so well is perfectly in check. "Where is the Future?" - a lament about the absence of jetpacks may not be cutting any new soil, but the way the horns, the feedback rings and the vocals interplay with the pop-Melvins trudge totally works. Faux metallers, take note: this is how "stoner rock" is supposed to sound.
The rest of the record staggers on this trajectory with great poise as well. Mudhoney is a band I've always associated with Sonic Youth, based mostly on that early split 7" they did on Sub Pop eons ago, and I have to say, Mudhoney has fared better. I get the feeling Sonic Youth is more into being "Sonic Youth" than pursuing a rockist musical trajectory. Maybe the screwdriver-in-my-strat dynamics is just not that jarring anymore. But Mudhoney still lives in the world of fuzz and reverb they always have; they just have learned to navigate it better. Indie blues-metal workouts like "I Saw the Light" are timeless like those early Sabbath albums. "Endless Yesterday" is a woozy ballad abouthe apocalypse, and the shining moment is the lost alternative power anthem "Empty Shells" where they proclaim "We are the empty shells of our former selves" but honestly, I think they've filled those ravaged husks quite nicely. I might just have to go re-investigate the Mudhoney catalog of the past couple years to see what I've been missing, or I might just let it go, and pick up at this point. "Let's Drop In" which pits Arm's death howl and some akimbo drumming and an errant horn or two makes for the best track that never made The Complete Funhouse Sessions. And its good advice on any band that's been soldiering on even while no one was watching, it's worth your time to see what the greasy kid stuff has turned into. You just might like it.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com
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