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.