Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Bob Mould - Modulate

Bob Mould
Modulate


Released 2002 on Cooking Vinyl
Reviewed by Popel Vooje, 28/11/2004ce


The reason I've opted to review "Modulate" - Mould's most recent release apart from the purely electronic Loud Bomb album - rather than any of the better known Husker Du or Sugar classics, is because it is a truly unsung record, eliciting the most negative reviews of his career so far. Judging by the variety of reactions from customers who reviewed it on Amazon, it seems to have polarised opinions amongst his fanbase as well. One disgruntled punter gave it a mere one-star rating, summing it up as "by an immense margin the worst release Mould has ever attached his name to".

Writing as someone who's been following Mould's music for twenty years now (the Huskers' "Zen Arcade" was the first Mould-affiliated release I bought), I say, poppycock! "Modulate" is, to my ears, by far the best thing he's produced since Sugar's "Beaster", if not since his solo debut "Workbook". Not only has his embrace of electronic instrumentation sucessfully added a new dimension to his music which has been missing throughout his three previous (and largely water-treading) releases, the songs are also his best in years.

Whilst I can understand why the more conservative elements of Mould's fanbase might be instantly repelled by the heavily vocodered singing on the opening cut "180 Degree Rain", surely this is not the first time the guy has evolved musically (remember the acoustic, string-laden "Sinners And Their Repentances" on "Workbook"?), and personally I would much rather listen to an older artist like Mould, John Cale or Robert Wyatt who's still refining the muse and testing himself than someone content to repeat a formula with ever diminishing returns.

"Sunset Safety Glass" is cool enough, but "Semper Fi" is utterly brilliant, an updated and blatantly sequenced variation on Sugar's "Hoover Dam" with those giddying melodic flourishes that only Mould can pull off. The 2-minute instrumental interlude "Homecoming Parade" is a rain-spattered industrial soundscape which wouldn't have sounded out of place on a late-period Throbbing Gristle album. "Lost Zoloft" doesn't have one of the album's strongest tunes, but it does feature intriguing lyrics which appear to address both homophobia and the debilitating loss of confidence which can arise from losing one's stash of anti-depressants.

"Slay/Sway" returns to the uplifiting, anthemic sound of Sugar's "Copper Blue", albeit with the addition of disorienting samples filtering in and out of the mix. "The Receipt" is another catchy would be-hit whose melody disguises vitriolic lyrics which, although I'm sure Mould would never admit this publicly, appear to be about his former sparring partner Grant Hart (a shame that two such talented, visionary songsmiths can't bury the hatchet enough to communicate with each other other by any means other than through song lyrics or their lawyers).

"Quasar" is song-based elctronica which puts many such fusions by electroclash outfits half Mould's age to shame. "Soundonsound" is another one of those relentlessly insidious happy/sad pop anthems Mould is such a genius at crafting, getting its downbeat lyrical message across with a melody that sweetens, but doesn't obscure, the melancholia at the heart of the song. "Comeonstrong", meanwhile, is one of his all-time best, featuring another indelible chorus that would easily make Mould an MTV star if he had Kurt Cobain's looks, or even Dave Grohl's - listen to the Foo Fighters' grunge-lite debut next to Sugar's relatively pedestrian (by Mould's standards) "File Under Easy Listening" for confirmation.

"Trade" is allegedly an old castoff from the Husker Du days, although it's reflective melody and absence of fuzzed-up guitar dynamics make it sound more like an electronically-upgraded successor to "Dreaming I Am" from "Workbook". Admittedly, the closing "Author's Lament" is an anti-climax, an experiment with trip-hop dynamics whose gimmicky use of vocoder can't quite disguise a half-written song that sounds like an offcut or even a demo. Nonetheless, as our good mentor Julian wrote about the infamous second side of "Neu! 2", where's the experiment if there is no room for failure?

For sure, Mould's released some disappointing albums in the last decade or so ("Black Sheets Of Rain", "File Under Easy Listening", "The Last Dog And Pony Show") but this ain't one of them. Overall, it seems that some listeners just want more of the same (like the guy on Amazon who advised Bob to "strap on yer axe, buddy"), and aren't prepared to accept that a musician as artistically driven as Mould needs to evolve in order to remain interesting, or even interested. "Modulate" is a feat of self-re-invention that rivals John Cale's "Hobosapiens" (another Twilight Years classic) or even Radiohead's "Kid A" whilst still containg enough of Mould's trademark gift for melody and structure to make it distinctively his. Don't let it pass you by.


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