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Bob Mould's Dü Point

[whitespace] Bob Mould
In the Mould: Hüsker Dü's Bob Mould proved that
art rock didn't have to be pretentious.

Bob Mould evokes Hüsker's halcyon days with 'Last Dog and Pony Show'

By Gina Arnold

I REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME I saw Hüsker Dü. It was 1984, in the cafeteria of Foothill Junior College in Los Altos Hills, at a fundraiser for KFJC, and the Minneapolis band was on a bill with local groups Angst, Slovenly and the Dead Kennedys. Hüsker Dü was up first, and as soon as I saw the band, I knew I didn't need to stay for the rest of the show. Hell, I practically could have checked out for the rest of the decade, since the sound I heard that night made the punk-rock rantings of the Dead Kennedys (and everything else that was popular on the radio at that time) seem totally obsolete.

Hüsker Dü was a trio (like Nirvana), and it is not an exaggeration to say that the band singlehandedly prefigured the style known as grunge. It's easy, in retrospect, to see why Hüsker Dü excited us so much: sonically, the band's music wiped clean certain conventions. Hüsker Dü negated the idea that hard rock had to be metal, for example, and that art (read: "smart") rock had to be pretentious.

The members of the band were three plain-looking Midwestern guys in work shirts, and they blew me away with songs like "Everything Falls Apart," "Pink Turns to Blue" and the wonderful "New Day Rising."

In a way, Hüsker Dü was the first band to give license to the idea that older people could still like rock without embarrassment. They took away rock's adolescent aspect, leaving the field clear for a million thirtysomething indie-rock addicts--so it's no wonder Hüsker Dü's leader, Bob Mould, is having such trouble with the concept of leaving it all behind.

In his post-Hüsker life, Mould has released six LPs, three with a band called Sugar and three solo. On his new release, The Last Dog and Pony Show (Rykodisc), Mould claims this will be the last time he will tour with "a full-on, loud electric-rock band." After this, the liner notes say, he will effectively retire the live performance of the sound.

But, even if Mould feels frustrated and fed up with what Spin and The Village Voice are pleased to call "post-rock," musically he sounds the same as ever. That is, he sounds good--particularly if his meld of big guitars, anthemic choruses and thoughtful, poignant and sometimes angry lyrics, is one that has always moved you.

Given today's techno-ridden milieu, Mould's music is not a very modern sound, but for all that, The Last Dog and Pony Show may be the most adept version of it yet. Mould rocks hard on songs like "Moving Trucks," "Classifieds" and "Skintrade," which all carry his trademark ability to soar beyond mere midtempo song patterns.

On the wonderful "Who Was Around?" a song that I take to be about the end of the Hüsker era, when a bunch of great bands broke up in tears and a bunch of newer bands reaped all the rewards, Mould asks, "Who walked away when the game wasn't fun to play? Nothing can change the way things went ... You just weren't interested, I guess."

The entire record has a much gentler mien than Mould's previous releases, but there's still a sense of urgency and momentum that permeates even the sweeter songs, energizing the entire project. Only on the song "Megamanic" does Mould stray from his roots. This is Mould's first rap song, an experiment in electronica that frankly, doesn't play on his strengths.

If Mould has a flaw, it is his voice, which is somewhat nasal and can, after a few songs, sound repetitive and overbearing. His act contains no theatrics and he is distinctly short on personal charm--both characteristics that put him at a huge disadvantage in today's music scene. How can someone like Mould win a new audience? The answer is, he can't. He is doomed to play to the converted--those who, like me, have a personal association with his history.

THESE THOUGHTS all occurred to me after seeing Bauhaus' highly anticipated show at the Warfield in San Francisco recently. Bauhaus broke up in 1984--the year I saw Hüsker Dü at Foothill--and thus, there are many people like me who never saw the group live in the first place.

That fact may explain why the Bauhaus shows in this area engendered such hysteria. Tickets to the first show sold out instantly, causing Bill Graham Presents to add a second show, which sold out nearly as fast. The audience was both rapt and rabid, and the band itself was wonderful. Indeed, I was astonished. Bauhaus looked as good as ever, and played even better.

Bauhaus' brief career spawned a few big hits ("She's in Parties," "Bela Lugosi's Dead"), but had an even larger effect on rock as a whole, pretty much spurring on the entire movement known as Goth. After breaking up, its individual members formed Tones on Tails and Love and Rockets, while singer Peter Murphy went solo.

But it's only as Bauhaus--as the band at its peak of creativity and influence--that the players were really appreciated, and I fear the same thing may be true of Mould and others of his era. If Soul Asylum had gone away in 1988, instead of touring relentlessly and putting out album after album, we'd be overjoyed to see them back again now. And if Hüsker Dü reformed--my God! I'd be at the head of the line.

That may say more about me then it does about Mould, who is clearly intent on doing no such thing. But although it is easy to understand why an artist wouldn't want to go the nostalgia route--reuniting to entertain old fogey fans; playing songs that were written in another lifetime--it is hard, especially in Mould's case, to make a case that his new work is either very different from or superior to the earlier stuff.

The Last Dog and Pony Show is a very good album. It won't, however, speak to anyone whose wavelength isn't already attuned to Mould's--who, as he says in that one song, wasn't around when the world was falling down.

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From the September 3-9, 1998 issue of Metro.

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