Six Stars Out of Ten
1. From the Gut 2. Blah Blah Blah 3. Punch Drunk 4. Bricklayer 5. Afraid of Being Wrong 6. Sunshine Superman 7. Signals from Above 8. Everything Falls Apart 9. Wheels 10. Target 11. Obnoxious 12. Gravity Bonus Tracks 13. In A Free Land 14. What Do I want 15. M.I.C. 16. Statues 17. Let’s Go Die 18. Amusement 19. Do You Remember?
“Land Speed Record” caught a talented young band that had the technical skills to play ungodly fast. The poor production and speed left the impression, however, that there wasn’t any true songwriting talent in the band. Husker Du’s first full length studio album, “Everything Falls Apart” helps to dispel this notion. It is heralded by improved production (everything sounds clear and never in any danger of falling apart) and improved songwriting.
Wait, did I say full length studio album? The “studio” part is definitely correct but full length is a misnomer: while there are 12 tracks on the album, the album clocks in at an astonishingly brief 19 minutes and 18 seconds. It’s shorter than “Land Speed Record” by seven minutes, time enough for at least seven songs (in the Husker Du format). In fact, their next release “Metal Circus” is only 21 seconds shorter but is classified as an EP.
What makes this short length extra odd is that both albums were released in the same year. In fact, combining the albums into one would have made for a 38 minute long album with 19 tracks. Comparing the two albums is actually an interesting exercise as “Metal Circus” seems to be the exact point when the band started to value melody at all, integrating it into their songs. Adding the EP to “Everything Falls Apart” would have improved it immeasurably as it does lack the sense of melody and purpose that drove the best Husker Du albums.
This is not to say that “Everything Falls Apart” is no good. On the contrary, it actually showcases a powerhouse band just beginning to hit its prime. The lead off track “From the Gut” shows off improved production and playing techniques immediately. The arrangements are even a little clever for the hardcore style of the period. The song may lack an immediately catchy hook but the power, drive and devotion helps keep the listener interested, as does Bob’s great speedy guitar solo.
However, the main problem with the album pops up immediately. “Blah Blah Blah” actually has one of the best hooks on the album: the chorus chant of “blah blah blah” sticks in the mind long after the album is over. But separating songs from each other is going to be a hard task at this point. After three tracks that clock in at under 2:30 total, the band covers the Donovan classic “Sunshine Superman.” They, of course, convert it to the standard “Husker Du” style. It’s technically the best song on the album due to it having a melody. This is a small hint at the later levels of melodic marvel the band would hit.
However, the album is just one hardcore blur after another. Each song is arranged in a pretty traditional and standard hardcore format. Bob plays a speedy solo in each bridge and while he is an impressively fast guitarist, it all starts to sound the same. And every song is written by Mould who certainly didn’t value melody at this point in his career. In fact, Hart only sneaks in one track, the semi-catchy “Wheels” but it’s hard to tell the difference between he and Bob’s work at this point.
Fans of hardcore and of Husker Du won’t be let down by this album. It offers up plenty of fast paced tunes with highly political lyrics that are perfect for the time period. The album is over fast, making it a perfect album for those periods when you need a fast burst of aggression. Fans of real melody (such as this reviewer) will be let down after hearing their later albums.
Wait, wait, I can’t finish the review without mentioning the “And More” bonus tracks on the CD. The only CD edition of the album actually adds seven more songs to create a 42 minute listening experience. Mould contributes standout early tracks such as “In a Free Land” which is highly political and has a higher dose of melody than normal. He contributes three more songs in a similar vein. They are basically extensions of the previous musical ideas on the album and fit in perfectly.
Greg Norton even contributes one of his rare tracks with “Let’s Go Die.” It is a solid song that makes one long for more Norton contributions to the band. Alas, he was the bass player, the shy one and the straight one so it was not to be. Hard enough getting songs in with ego maniacs Mould and Hart bickering.
Speaking of Hart, he contributes two more songs. The highly personal “What Do I Want?” is a harbinger of a more sober and inward looking aesthetic for the band. However, his “Statues” is a grinding monster of a song. Clocking in at almost nine minutes, it is nearly industrial in its brutality. It shows a band that wasn’t afraid to experiment with their style, a sensibility which would pay off big dividends in the future.
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).”
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.