It took a wall socket for Mudhoney to happen. They came from the old, weird Seattle looking damp and strange; beer-swilling jackals plugged into a long forgotten source of distortion. With their stringy hair and high-top sneakers, they looked a lot like those kids smoking pot behind the high school gymnasium, which they probably were. The lead singer, the blonde one with the visage of a hawk, was capable of unleashing a howl so wolfish it might have made Iggy flinch. This singer, Mark Arm, he grunted and screamed about sickness and hangovers, poising himself as a figure more lecherous than even the old bluesmen. His phrasing, no, strangling of the words ï¿½sweet young thing,ï¿½ suggested he was even trying to out-sleaze the great Howling Wolf, something dainty Mick Jagger did not attempt. And then there was the guitar, aptly handled by a fuzzy-headed goofball named Steve Turner. He too, had a hard-on for noise, and it was often difficult to discern his soloing from Markâ€™s singing, they shared the same guttural drawl. This was Mudhoney. They plugged in, they were wild, heavy and loud.
They came from the old, weird Seattle, when it was a city most people had never considered. Their EP Superfuzz Bigmuff introduced the world to a ï¿½brand new sound,ï¿½ which in a few brief years would become ï¿½brand name.ï¿½ This was a sound as remote and soggy as the city in which it was created. ï¿½Touch Me Iï¿½m Sick,ï¿½ their now-classic single, provided a template for something countless other bands would mimic or steal outright in the decade to come. The guitars were fierce; a fierceness Glen Taylor from The Dicks couldnï¿½t have conceived. It was the sonic equivalent of an amplified comb scraping against paper, if you will. The drummer, Dan Peters, was spastic and intense, and bassist Matt Lukin (formerly of sludgies The Melvins) played like his fists were beating something hollow. It was noisy, urgent and, above all else, necessary, if rock music were to survive. This was 1988 after all, the year Alice Cooper announced a run for Arizona governor and Tipper Gore launched an attack against free expression.
Letï¿½s say the story ended there. Mudhoney would have gone down as one of the most significant bands of the late 1980s, with Superfuzz Bigmuff as influential as Fun House. ï¿½Touch Me Iï¿½m Sickï¿½ would no doubt be included on the updated version of the Anthology of American Folk Music. Kids everywhere would fiddle with their amplifiers and effects pedals trying to happen upon the exact configurations of The Mudhoney Sound, also known as The Seattle Sound. These kids would start a band with their friends and the cycle would continue.
But it didnï¿½t end there. By 1990, this Mudhoney Sound became Grunge and our heroes kept making records through it all. In 1991, Mudhoney released Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge and its songs were as brain-melting as ï¿½Flat Out Fuckedï¿½ or ï¿½Here Comes Sicknessï¿½ from their self-titled 1989 album. Some of Mudhoneyï¿½s former band-mates from Green River formed a rock group called Pearl Jam. They were fast the objects of teen desires worldwide, along with a grubby looking kid from Aberdeen, Washington. Frat boys appropriated the ï¿½Seattleï¿½ look by way of flannel shirts and longish hair. Mudhoney jumped to the majors just like their friends. They released Piece of Cake in 1993 and it was pretty good, though a bit stiff. Some feared the business relations with Warner Bros. sucked the life juices from these Northwest Gods. Yet Mudhoney made another hard-ass rock record, 1995ï¿½s My Brother the Cow. It reunited them with producer Jack Endino, who, if youï¿½ll recall, was responsible for their fuzz-drenched earlier work. This album was rife with now-standards like ï¿½Crankcase Bluesï¿½ and the exemplarily titled ï¿½Judgment, Rage, Retribution & Thyme.ï¿½ It even had a song rumored to be about a recently deceased rock starï¿½s wife, ï¿½Into Yer Shtick.ï¿½ Somewhere in there, though, people lost interest in Seattle and rock music altogether. It seemed a matter of days between Soundgarden releasing their swan song single ï¿½Burden in My Handï¿½ and Hootie and the Blowfish diluting the pop charts with golf course standards. The climate changed, the frat boys chucked their flannels and attended shows by the Dave Matthews Band. Nirvana was just a face on some misguided teenï¿½s t-shirt.
By all accounts, 1998 was a miserable year. The concept of hard rock had bloated into white, suburban kids jumping up and down in huge pants, screaming rap lyrics into a microphone, flinging around their cornrow hair. Pomposity and shallowness were shitting all over the place and Mudhoney released another hard-ass classic in the midst of it called Tomorrow Hit Today, produced by none other than the legendary Jim Dickinson.
Would nothing stop this band? Apparently not. Even after revered bassist Lukin retired and they were dropped from Warner Bros., they released a psych-inflected rock record in 2002 called Since Weï¿½ve Become Translucent, containing at least two songs (ï¿½Sonic Infusionï¿½ and ï¿½Baby, Can You Dig the Light?ï¿½) that were among the strongest mindfucks of their career. This album also introduced fans to Mudhoneyï¿½s new bassist, the inimitable Australian Guy Maddison, who filled Lukinï¿½s massive shoes and split them at the seams. But what was most significant was that Mudhoney no longer felt pressured to strike while the iron was hot, so to speak; the looseness of that record stands as testament.
Which brings us to Under a Billion Suns and Mudhoney nearing its 20th anniversary as a band. Most anniversaries are polluted by memories and nostalgia. Not Mudhoneyï¿½s. This is to say that you too, listener, should not be thinking of days past. Instead you should look ahead to the future, or at least stop to question why youï¿½re not living in the one you were promised, as Mark does on ï¿½Where Is the Future?ï¿½ The guitars here are heavy and tense, almost ready to lift from the ground, until the horn section sweeps them off into a Twilight Zone vision of bubble cars and personal jet packs. Then, just as you thought the future was near, he reminds us our world is not run by giant brains, but arrogant, small-minded fools. Here is a new element: Mudhoney tackling politics.
Uh-oh, you say? Has Mudhoney gone Steve Earle? Nary a chance. This is Mudhoney weï¿½re speaking of, a band whose view of the world has always been skewed. Not to mention theyï¿½ve maintained a refreshing sense of humility about themselves, keeping their political commentary free of self-importance. Even the most blatantly political track, ï¿½Hard-on for War,ï¿½ is twisted into a dirty come-on (ï¿½Itï¿½s our patriotic dutyn / to make sweet love tonightï¿½) similar to the MC5ï¿½s mix of fightin and fuckin. (And, fittingly, over the past couple of years, Mark has superbly filled in for the great Rob Tyner on DKT/MC5 tours, and on occasion, when duty calls, he still does!)
You may also notice the angelic harmonies on the crunchy blues number ï¿½I Saw the Lightï¿½ and on the juicy ï¿½Letï¿½s Drop In.ï¿½ Thatï¿½s Christy McWilson (The Picketts) and Amy Allison (thatï¿½s right, Mose Allisonï¿½s daughter!). And take notice of the horn section popping up for the albumï¿½s most climactic moments, all arranged by Seattle sax maestro Craig Flory. (For you true Northwest rock enthusiasts, Craig once played in a Sonics cover band with Mark, Steve and Dan.)
But politics, horns, and high harmonies are all minor asides. There is still plenty of familiar Mudhoney stock to savor, namely thick, meaty punk riffs and underrated guitar dynamics, and how Mark and Steve sound like a hangover, if one could talk. Gutter Twins rather than Glimmer Twins. Take a listen to ï¿½A Brief Celebration of Indifferenceï¿½ and how there are no words. Words arenï¿½t necessary when punks rage together for the hell of it. Wasnï¿½t that the whole point of Mudhoney to begin with? If this is your idea of Mudhoney, look no further than the punked-out ï¿½Blindspots,ï¿½ which stands as the most vintage of the new batch. When Mark claims heï¿½s ï¿½looking right at you, baby, but it donï¿½t mean shit,ï¿½ one gets the feeling itâ€™s more than a pretty girl heï¿½s ogling. Perhaps itï¿½s everyday life, the numbing distractions of the Modern World. But everything is beautiful, Mark, beautiful in its own way. Oh yeah, he contradicts, well ï¿½you got such a lovely cancer, darling, eating right through your brain.ï¿½
There it is, the sweet ring of pessimism; the root of the great Mudhoney! Like Dorothy Parker, they are simply too smart to be optimistic. Even the albumï¿½s cheeriest refrain ï¿½Happy days are here againï¿½ from ï¿½It Is Usï¿½ reeks of sarcasm. It is a rarely praised art form and, above all else, a refreshing one for these dark times. Under a Billion Suns even offers a new twist on the tired love song, with the chilly ï¿½In Search Ofâ€¦ï¿½ in which a lone figure (the Yeti perhaps?) cries out from some frozen wasteland for the warmth of something else like him. Listen to how Steveï¿½s guitar echoes those old sci-fi movie soundtracks.
It took a wall socket for Mudhoney to happen again. Seattle is no longer old and weird, but new and homogenized. The band has stayed for the duration. They have rocked harder and longer than most bands are willing (9 albums in 18 years) and show few signs of softening. Call it stubbornness, an unwillingness to conform to popï¿½s standards, but thatï¿½s what has made great rock music and always will. Donï¿½t take Mudhoney for granted. They are here for our world right now and thankfully, so is Under a Billion Suns.
Mark Arm ï¿½ vocals
Dan Peters ï¿½ drums
Steve Turner ï¿½ guitar
Guy Maddison ï¿½ bass