Crate-Digging Quick Takes: Sugar – Beaster

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

(Rykodisc, 1993)

The first thing that comes to mind when spinning the Beaster EP is that it’s a bit more violent than its predecessor Copper Blue – IMHO the best thing that Sugar’s laid to tape. Where that record was a heady mix of rock dynamism and angsty art punk, the band, fronted by Hüsker Dü frontman and all-around genius Bob Mould, continue down the path toward harder stuff and darker emotional turmoil. And history provides a nice window into the turmoil – Mould came out around the time of this recording. That would be a potentially traumatizing (or liberating) experience for anyone, let alone for someone in the public spotlight. Sugar’s output, and Hüsker Dü’s for that matter, were ripe for criticism within a new context. Maybe that pissed Bob off.

But volatility has always served Mould well, and Beaster sounds great, a perfect complement to the just-this-side-of-underground alt rock in the early 1990s. The guitars are fierce, and there’s a taut interplay between Mould and the Other Two-Thirds of Bob’s Band, David Barbe and Malcolm Travis, really capturing a laid-back groove in opener “Come Around,” and ripping abandon in punk clusterbomb “Tilted.” Mould’s vocals are mixed right into the background, so it’s really difficult to make out much lyrical content, but it sounds as if he oscillates between a combination of dejection and inferiority and outright hostility. “Judas Cradle” soars in stadium-filling majesty, and then “JC Auto”’s back to tear you a new one, Mould seething “I’m not your Jesus Christ” over and over through the choruses and coda. (I know, Bob, I know.)

Sugar stretches out a bit here too, as extended outros appear on “Judas Cradle,” “JC Auto,” and the I’m-not-sure-he-means-it “Feeling Better,” pushing the pop format into 6-minute territory on each. The band largely succeeds in retaining listener attention spans, which is good because this is a practice of which I’ve become largely critical. “Feeling Better” also reaches into the band’s bag of tricks and pulls out a nifty synthesizer melody straight out of the 1980s, a welcome tonal change up. Oh, and of course the 12-string acoustic makes an appearance on “Come Around” – how could it not?

The Beaster material was actually swept off the Copper Blue cutting-room floor, and I can see how it didn’t quite fit the intricate and lofty alt-rock of the debut. But it’s good, and I say this about all good b-sides – lousy bands would kill for what Bob Mould tosses away. And aside from the unfortunate attention the capital-M Media gave to Mould’s personal life, Beaster still hits that pent-up, gnarled, aggressive spot, but with just the right hint of sweetness. Maybe the Media should turn its laser focus on something more palatable to both the scrutinized and the scrutinees. I guess that wouldn’t generate enough ad revenue though. Buncha greedy jerks.

You hear me, Media? I’m warning you.

Oh wait. I’m the media too. Crap.

RIYL:  Hüsker Dü, Poster Children, Monsterland

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