Archive | November 2011

Husker Du Series Part 3: “Land Speed Record” Review

Land Speed Record

Five out of Ten

1. Side One 2. Side Two

Note: Sorry I don’t go into individual track names here. On the CD, they are all stuck together as if they are one song per side. I know that’s not the case, but it’s annoying to transcribe song lists to the blog. So I’m taking a stand for laziness. So there.

By 1981, Husker Du had been together for two years. They had honed their hardcore playing chops to a completely unbelievable level. The band was a legend of the punk and hardcore scene of Minneapolis as well as around the country. However, they had yet to record or release any music. This problem was rectified in 1982 with the release of their debut album, “Land Speed Record.” It is legendary for speeding through a record breaking 17 songs in 26 seconds. It showcases the band playing a blur of hardcore punk that is truly faster than any of their contemporaries. It was released by Mike Watt on his “New Alliance” label and re-released on CD by legendary independent label SST.

Whoa whoa whoa! Didn’t I just spend two, rather lengthy articles extolling the virtues of this band? Haven’t I claimed that they have earned their “legendary” status and that their influence can be felt up and down the radio dial? I stand by that statement. I also stand by the statement that “Land Speed Record”…well, sucks is a harsh word. It is easily their least essential, least interesting and least successful album.

Let’s start with the most obvious problem with the album, the one that even defenders of the album will have a hard time denying: it sounds awful. I’m not a major “sound” quality guy. As long as I can hear the music and it sounds all right, I’m happy. I know there is allegedly a difference between analogue and digital recordings and that vinyl records are supposed to sound better than CD’s. I’m not gonna lie to you kids: I really only notice the smallest difference. .In fact, I mostly buy CD’s due to their convenience. I mean, I can listen to them in a car. Try listening to a record in a car: it could be done with a lot of extension cord and patience but it hardly seems worth the effort.

Whoa sorry about that digression. The basic point I’m trying to make here, sound quality is not the main criteria for which I judge an album. However, the sound quality of “Land Speed Record” is actually the main problem with the album. It was recorded live to two track in August of 1981. And it sounds worse than most bootlegs: in fact, it’s actually worse than the infamously awful, bootleg sound of the King Crimson album “Earthbound.” Everything sounds like a wild blur of noise, with an occasional scream or cymbal crash echoing in the ear drums and causing severe migraines.

However, another major problem with the album is the material. This album presents Husker Du as the world’s fastest hardcore band: it does not present them as the world’s greatest hardcore songwriters. Each song speeds by as fury of guitar noise, bass thumps and incomprehensible screaming. I understand that’s kind of the point of hardcore, but it’s maddening here because the band doesn’t even attempt to write melodies. Humming one of these songs is more difficult than telling them apart. There are no pauses in between the songs at all, rendering them as one giant, epic hardcore song of unbelievable lengths.

Reader’s may be confused at this point to see that I have rated this album a five out of ten. I just spend the last however many words bashing the life out of the album. I still don’t even own this album despite it being readily available at the local independent record shop, “Vertigo.” But yet I rate it five stars. I guarantee you this isn’t due to me being a complete wimp when it comes to reviewing: I promise many hilarious one star reviews in the near future.

No, this album earns its five stars for one simple reason: it’s exciting. This album captures the excitement and rush of Husker Du at their finest and most primitive. Yes, it would be nice to hear some hummable melodies or distinctive arrangements. Hell, it’d be nice to hear Grant Hart’s drums. But the blur of energy that comes from this album simply cannot be found anywhere else in the Du’s catalog. Or, for that matter, on any other album I’ve ever heard.

Listener’s cannot simply listen to one song off of this album: it has to be experienced in one large rush of sound. SST seemed to realize this as, rather oddly, there are only two tracks on the CD edition: side one of the original record and side two. After all, I can’t even imagine the type of weirdo that would want to hear the 57 second blur of “The Big Sky” out of the context of the album. No, one must commit themselves to the album completely, just as they must do in the hardcore mosh pits of the world.

And this makes the album incredibly unique in the world of rock. It is the only album I’ve heard that so fully replicates the wild rush of being in a hardcore mosh pit as a band plays as fast as possible. Your blood starts pumping immediately when the album starts and, if you’re the type (I’m not but I can pretend to be) you suddenly find yourself thrashing about wildly and letting off some of that childish angst. Not recommended as casual listening but as a nice little piece of occasional catharsis.

Tune in next time as I review an album that has actual music on it: their studio debut album “Everything Falls Apart.” That review will discuss the album itself (a ridiculous 12 songs in 19 minutes, even shorter than “Land Speed Record”) as well as the bonus tracks Rhino added to their CD reissue, “Everything Falls Apart (and More).”

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Husker Du Part 2: The Music

Greetings again from Mr. B! Having delved deeply into the world of Husker Du’s legend in part one, I am now going to explore the actual music more in depth. Legend and quality often go hand in hand, but not always. A band that was ground breaking can often seem tame and banal in retrospect, after all their ideas have been integrated into the mainstream. Does Bowie’s “Low” sound as impressive after having heard albums that took his (Kraftwerk inspired) ideas and expanded upon them? It sounds great but a bit thin and not as impressive as it must have in the 70‘s.

Does Husker Du suffer from this problem? Has their legendarily aggressive and melodic style become passe over the years? After all, bands as diverse as Nirvana and Green Day (who covered a few Du songs in their time) have come out, presented Du’s breakthrough as their own and become famous and even passe as time went on. Has Husker Du’s ground breaking combination of hardcore, noise and melody become dull?

Not to these ears. Husker Du’s fuzzy wall of melodic noise still holds up as exciting all these years later. When Bob Mould leans into his flying V and unleashes a torrent of power chords, screaming “does it hurt you, when I do this?” followed by harmonized, melodic “ooooohs” the hair on my neck still stands up. There are several reasons for this excitement: production, songwriting and musicianship.

To many modern listeners, Husker Du albums can sound incredibly quaint or even horrible produced. While I can agree that “Land Speed Record” sounds worse than the average bootleg, the rest of their albums lack that type of ear destructive lack of fidelity. However, even their best produced album, “Warehouse: Songs and Stories” seems muddy.

For lack of a better word, their albums often have a fuzzy feeling to them. Part of this is because of more primitive equipment but it is also due to Mould’s odd guitar sound. His guitar has a vacuum cleaner tone. This combined with his fast playing often makes it hard to tell the difference between chords and notes.

Another major problem is the drum sound. Although Grant was one of the tightest and fastest of all hardcore drummers, his drums sound flat and tinny. Each drum can be heard but they sound almost like a weird drum machine. The best mixed instrument is, oddly, Greg Norton’s bass. Sometimes the instrumental melodies can be discerned only through his fast paced, unison bass lines.

Modern production techniques may have improved incredibly since “Zen Arcade” but to me this is actually a slight detriment. Not that albums by “Rancid” or other punk bands don’t sound crystal clear, loud and heavy. They do and they can even be exciting. However, Husker’s odd, tinny buzzing sound is completely unique.  To me, it sounds more “real” which is, I know, a rather vague and subjective opinion.

The best way to describe it is to say that it actually sounds like Husker Du is playing in the room with me, live. Listening to higher quality recordings remind me that they are, in fact, produced. Husker Du sounds like a tiny band living in your speakers, playing their heart out for you. And that’s cool.

Husker Du also possessed two of the finest songwriters of the 80s. Bob Mould forged a successful career with his post-Du band “Sugar” and with a variety of highly acclaimed solo albums. His music has ranged from high speed hardcore, acoustic balladry to dabblings in electronic music. It has all been united by his odd bellar of a voice and searing, highly personal lyrics that pick apart his emotions, present them raw and make them universal to the listener. Although hardly poetic, they seem to hit upon a sharp nerve with this listener.

Grant Hart has not had the same type of success as Bob post Du but this seems due more to outside influences as opposed to his own innate talent. Grant has recorded several high quality albums that show off a diverse songwriting talent. Grant moves wildly between genres, from post-Husker hardcore blur to organ driven instrumentals and even odd sea shanties. His lyrics, while less personal, can be highly devastating. His “Diane” was an obviously influence on Nirvana’s “Polly” as he sang through the perspective of a rapist.

Bob and Grant seemed to grab everything they could in music and force it into their hardcore sound. Blues, jazz, folk, metal, rock and roll, balladry, funk and anything else they could grab was fine tuned into their sound. Moreover, they were smart about how they integrated these elements. They didn’t start playing slow jazz instrumentals with horns: they simply improvised wildly, like a manic free jazz combo. “Never Taking To You Again” features an acoustic guitar and elements of folk harmonizing, yet it is as punchy and fast paced as the rest of their material. Simply put, they emphasized their natural affinity and talent for hardcore while still diversifying their approach.

Lastly, Du’s musicianship was among the finest of all hardcore bands, past or present. Each band member was able to play as fast as humanely possible while still staying a tight, functioning unit. Other bands may have been slightly faster or louder but Du held it all together like a band. And they made it sound natural and musical, even at their most hardcore focused. Bob and Grant were also skilled multi-instrumentalists, with pianos, organs, dulcimers and other odd instruments making their way into the mix.

So, Du is still as exciting as their legend suggests. They are still not quite for everybody: sound purists will complain about their muddy sound. Hardcore fanatics will complain about excessive melody. Others may complain about the evenness of their sound as the band was always united under the sound of Bob’s buzz saw guitar, Grant’s bippity bop drumming and Greg’s lightning fast bass lines. Some may hate Bob and Grant’s “shout it out loud” vocalizing style.

However, I honestly believe that almost anybody with an interest in hardcore, punk, rock and roll or alternative music will still get an honest kick out of the band. But just how good were each of their albums? That’s a good question: join us next time for a look at the band’s debut, “Land Speed Record” to find out how this great band started their career.

Mr. B’s Legendary Bands: Husker Du

Greetings! My name is Mr. B and “Culture Fusion” has asked me to do a series of music reviews focusing on “Music Legends.” I took this post with a great deal of excitement and concern. There are so many music legends from which to choose! I was worried my rambly nonsense may offend fans of the band or even the band themselves. Because if there’s one thing legendary bands do, it’s check out blog posts every day.

The basic format of this series will follow a three-pronged attack. The first article on a band will discuss the band and their legend. Legend’s can include the influence the band has had on others, the way their music touches people emotionally or even controversial aspects such as the personal lives of the band members. The legend will be delved into deeply and examined to see if the legend still holds up.

The second article will discuss more about the band’s music and lyrics, including strength and weakness in each aspect. Sometimes, the second and first articles will be combined for the sake of simplicity. It all depends on the depth I can delve into the band’s legend as well as the value of their music. Some bands will have a huge legend but not much musical merit *cough Kiss cough*.

The third aspect will be an examination of each of the band’s albums. Each album will take up an article of its own, unless two albums are related intractably, such as “Smile” by the Beach Boys and “Smiley Smile” or the “Use Your Illusion” albums (I doubt I’ll review those overblown pieces of cock rock, though). Each album will be reviewed on a 10 star scale because, hey, we all love star scales am I right?

The first band I’ve decided to take a look at is Husker Du. Husker Du formed in Minnesota (of all places) in 1979. The band centered around the guitar work of fat Bob Mould, the drumming of long haired, bare footed Grant Hart and the bass work of large mustached, future chef Greg Norton. They started out as one of Minnesota’s premiere hardcore punk groups. Their early days found them emphasizing pure speed and brevity over all else.

The band was quite a sight to see live in those days: huge Bob Mould leaned forward on one foot, inches from the microphone, playing a ridiculous flying V guitar faster than anybody else in the scene. He screamed impressively, if incomprehensibly. Nimble fingered Greg Norton played bass just as fast, often leaping into the air in celebration, locking into tight locked grooves with “faster-than-the-speed-of-light” Grant Hart on drums. Grant had long hair, anathema to the scene at the time and played without shoes, branding him to some as a hippie.

However, the scene of Husker Du, while impressive, wasn’t exactly unknown. The hardcore scene was filled with hundreds of bands that played a similar blur of tight, fast noise. Husker Du may have played faster than anybody else, but that was about it. Their debut live album, “Land Speed Record” shows an impressively tight, fast and exciting band that speeds through 17 songs in a ridiculous 26 minutes. Good luck humming the tunes or remembering the songs but hey: fast is fast and sometimes fast is a value in and of itself.

The impressive thing about Husker Du and the thing that helped make them a legend was that they actually made the huge leap from “fast is best” to actual musicality. It didn’t even take them very long: their debut studio album, “Everything Falls Apart” clocks in with 12 songs in a ridiculous 19 minutes. It may have seemed like generic if high quality hardcore but moments popped out that showed the band was a bit different: a few catchy refrains here and there, some memorable riffs and an odd cover of Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman.”

After an impressive, if equally short ep “Metal Circus” Husker Du earned their legendary status by releasing the monster “Zen Arcade.” The hardcore scene had never seen anything like this album: a double length, concept album that integrated different musical genres. Metal was introduced as was the idea of simply slowing down for a moment. Psychedelic tinges were brought out, acoustic guitars were utilized, the lyrics grew complex and psychological and the band ended the album with a 15 minute progressive/free jazz/acid rock/hardcore jam that was unprecedented at the time.

Husker Du’s legendary status was obtained by this album alone. However, their following albums “New Day Rising,” “Flip Your Wig,” “Candle Apple Grey” and “Warehouse: Songs and Stories” continued to experiment with non-hardcore sounds, including integrating pianos, organs, multiple guitar tracks and 60‘s vocal harmonies. They have been cited by hundreds of bands as a vital influence, being highlighted as the most influential underground band of the 80‘s alongside R.E.M.

At this point, the band has progressed from legendary to nearly mythical status. After their break up, Bob Mould began a solo career which included such impressive albums as “Workbook” and “Copper Blue” by his band “Sugar” while Grant Hart increased ignored, but impressive albums on his own. Greg Norton opened a still operating restaurant. And of course, the personal lives of the band members became essential knowledge.

The easiest way to describe the personal lives of Husker Du is to state two words: drugs and gay. Bob Mould and Grant Hart were active and open homosexuals, which lead many to believe the large mustached Greg Norton was also gay, which is not true. Naturally, Bob and Grant were rumored to have been involved with each other, even though both have denied this as being untrue to this day.

The homosexual aspect of the band’s career has gained an unfortunate focus for many people. Nobody acts with shock and awe when a straight man hooks up with a woman in a band. Or acts shocked when the two aren’t active together. But the homosexuality of two of the band’s members brought a lot of retroactive examinations and forced homoerotic ideals to the lyrics that blurred the line between reality and theorizing.

Drugs also took their toll on the band. Grant Hart was a heroin addict when the band broke up and many blamed him, solely, for the break up of the band. Greg and Bob seemed to state this was the case, although many confirmed reports have found that Bob was an out of control alcoholic early in the band’s career while Greg had experimented with acid, amongst other drugs, with Grant. The band was also known for “motorheading” it with speed: “Land Speed Record” is not simply a reference to the how fast the band played.

The band is also legendarily acrimonious towards each other. While low key Greg Norton seemed to stay out of band squabbling, Bob and Grant squabbled so heavily that they have yet to truly put aside their differences. Grant accuses Bob of being a petty control freak that stated “you will never have more than half the songs on an album in this band” to the equally gifted Hart. Bob accuses Grant of unprofessional behavior and of ruining the band through excessive drug use. These squabbles have caused the band to ignore all requests for reunions and to leave their albums hard to find and poorly mastered.

So, in 2011, does the legend of Husker Du still hold up? Is the music worth caring about or can they be tossed into the dust bin of history? Check back soon to find out!