2006 / Music

Review: Mudhoney Shines Brighter On ‘Billion Suns’

Seattle Band Releases Seventh Album

Ask most rock fans about what they think of Mudhoney — that is, if they remember them at all — and they’ll likely name them as one of the faceless yet quintessential grunge bands of the Nirvana era.

Photo: Sub Pop Records

Photo: Sub Pop Records

But, as the Seattle band creeps ever closer to its 20th anniversary, another image of the group has emerged: that of smartass journeymen of underground sludge rock, doggedly making their music in the face of buyer apathy.

This creative obstinacy, especially when faced with competition from their more charismatic hometown rivals, left Mudhoney in the shadows. They were permanently doomed to second-tier status.

The band’s latest record, “Under A Billion Suns,” is yet another in a long line of solid efforts. And although it’s their strongest, most pointed disc in years, it won’t change Mudhoney’s place in music history.

That history is thoroughly intertwined with the early ’90s grunge explosion that it helped spark but neither effectively promulgated nor reaped any long-term rewards from. They were in on the ground floor. The band’s brain trust — frontman Mark Arm and guitarist Steve Turner — were founding members of Green River, an ’80s proto-grunge outfit whose splintering over metal versus punk influences would birth Mudhoney as well as Pearl Jam.

The fledgling members of Mudhoney eventually found a home on the Seattle’s answer to Motown, Sub Pop. The group’s first and biggest single for Sub Pop, “Touch Me I’m Sick,” was a minor hit on college-rock radio and is sometimes credited with awakening attention to Seattle’s music scene. The song and the group were partial inspiration for the fictional band lampooned in Cameron Crowes’ 1992 Seattle-exploitation movie, “Singles.”

While Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden became international rock stars, Mudhoney got some bones thrown their way. They signed to a major label, had their names dropped by their buddies in magazine interviews and were always available to be interviewed with much sarcasm for any documentaries on the grunge phenomena.

By the late ’90s, the band’s fortunes were at a low ebb. Longtime bassist Matt Lukin jumped ship and they were without a major label deal. The group found its way back to their former home on Sub Pop and released a record that grafted boisterous guitars with horn arrangements (obviously, Arm and company were listening to the Stooges’ “Fun House.”) Meanwhile, Arm and Turner experimented with various side projects, the most high-profile of which was Arm (now looking just like head Chili Pepper Anthony Kiedis) fronting the reconstituted version of the MC5.

 

The album gets out of the gate with “Where Is The Future?” a heavy, slow-grinding number that thunders in a style reminiscent of Soundgarden. Arm and Turners’ two guitars create the deep, turgid din — one heaving with distortion and the other making ear-rattling pings with the guitar strings. Some dissonant horns during the chorus seemingly echo the song’s narrator’s feelings of disconnect. This disconnect revolves around how Arm feels underwhelmed when seeing the world of today as compared to the sci-fi one promised for tomorrow. (The best, mildly amusing lines include: “I want to fly with my personal jet pack,” “I want a world run by giant brains,” “I want to visit my family on Mars.”)

“Blindspots,” too, combines loose-limbed, Stooge-like guitarwork and horns, but is more brazen in using the brass to transition from the verses into the chorus. The song has a sloppy ebb-and-flow dynamic. Interestingly, the guitar freakout eventually dissolves into a jazzy horn pile-on.

 

“On The Move” is also familiar sounding, but its origin isn’t as obvious. Based around a descending bass pattern, there’s little more to it than that. Arm hoarsely howls purposeless, platitude lines over the bland, possibly Kinks-inspired melody.

The lyrical flimsiness of this song sharply contrasts with the acerbicness that Arm is famous for. The prime example on this record is “Hard On For War,” which is a semi-serious, anti-war anthem. Arm shrieks with outrage when he delivers lines like, “The little boys are dying/To preserve our way of life.” While there’s elements of sly humor injected throughout the track, there’s a very powerful moment of realization by song’s end.

By album’s end, another realization should take hold with listeners. Mudhoney will never wipe away the years of being overlooked. But, their continuing dedication to the craft and persistence serves to give them a face that outlasts any hype.

For More Info:

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2006 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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