This legendary band later "became the key link between hardcore and the more melodic, accessible music that would eventually be termed college rock" (from the Husker Du chapter in Michael Azerrad's excellent book on '80s alternative rock, Our Band Could Be Your Life), but this debut album, recorded live and featuring 17 songs in 26 minutes, is barely a harbinger of better things to come. The band's sincerity and intensity shines through - something's there, but they're just as obviously not quite there yet - but the crappy sound and few discernible melodies undercut the proceedings. It all starts to sound the same after awhile: loud, fast, sloppy songs with choppy rhythms (provided by singer-songwriter/drummer Grant Hart and bassist Greg Norton - a good player best known for his handlebar moustache and for being the lone straight guy in the band) and REALLY LOUD, distorted leads (singer-songwriter/guitarist Bob Mould) that at this point are easily the band's best attribute. Certainly you'd be hard pressed to pick out more than one or two standout songs, and quite frankly this blur of hardcore rage gives me a raging headache after awhile. Fortunately, the band save their longest, best song ("Date Control") for last, providing hope for the bright future that soon beckoned.
Everything Falls Apart And More (Reflex ’82, Rhino '93) Rating: B
This compilation consists of the band's debut single (the interminable 8+ minute "Statues"), another single (the excellent "In A Free Land"), both of their b-sides, the Everything Falls Apart EP, and a couple of worthwhile unreleased tracks (the fun "Let's Go Die," an extremely rare Norton composition, and Mould's catchy "Do You Remember?"). There are quite a few hardcore-by-numbers duds amid the 19 tracks, some of which are barely 30 seconds long (and really, how can anyone get excited about a 30 minute song?), but unlike Land Speed Record there are a fair amount of highlights as well, as the band (particularly Mould, who wrote most of the material) at times exhibits significant songwriting growth. A cool, hard rocking cover of Donovan's "Sunshine Superman" shows off the band's good taste, and "Everything Falls Apart," a psychedelic pop rocker, is far more advanced than anything on their debut. "Wheels" is a rare Hart composition, and its simmering intensity offers evidence that Hart is learning how to build a song up by having his band mates hold back, while "Gravity" has Mould's most melodic and impressive solo thus far before "In A Free Land" delivers another impressive surge along with a singable chorus and more Mould fireworks on guitar. The aptly titled "From The Gut," "Blah, Blah, Blah," and "Signals From Above" are other less obvious, flat-out ferocious highlights, though elsewhere songs such as "Obnoxious" are equally aptly titled. I'd complain about them repeating "Bricklayer" from the debut, but that song, like "Punch Drunk" "Obnoxious," "What Do I Want?," and "M.I.C.," is over almost before it begins, unlike "Statues" and "Amusement," both of which go on for far too long. All in all, this is a very patchy but often enjoyable compilation that at the very least is an important historical document since it collects scattered early tracks onto a handy 19-song single disc.
Metal Circus (SST Records ’83) Rating: B+
It was here that Husker Du took their first baby steps toward shedding the one-dimensional hardcore blur of their lesser earlier efforts. On this brief 7-song EP they not only occasionally slow down the attack, but they actually add distinctive melodies, at least on Grant Hart keepers such as the bittersweet “It’s Not Funny Anymore” and the haunting “Diane,” whose disturbing rape/murder lyrics (told from the killer's point of view) foreshadowed Nirvana’s “Polly” years later. Those two stellar songs are easily this album’s high points; elsewhere, despite some good Bob Mould guitar grooves (few if any alternative rock guitarists can go “Out On A Limb” quite like Bob) the band is let down by shoddy production and somewhat simplistic songs. Still, a feverish intensity is maintained throughout (Husker Du may well be the most intense band ever), and “Real World” and “First Of The Last Calls” offer more than a few glimpses into the band’s future greatness.
Eight Miles High/Makes No Sense At All (SST Records '84, '85, '90) Rating: A
Recorded after Metal Circus, Husker Du’s incredibly intense take on The Byrds’ classic-to-begin-with “Eight Miles High” is simply essential, arguably the greatest single thing they ever did and among the top handful of greatest cover songs of all-time. The powerful rhythms are tense to the bursting point, Mould’s guitar is equally thrilling though much different and harder-edged than McGuinn’s far more exotic interpretation, but above all else it is Mould’s howling, haunted vocals that one most easily remembers. Simply unforgettable, and the rest of this belatedly released 2-for-1 single (so let's call it an EP) inevitably pales by comparison. The b-side of “Eight Miles High” is a crappily recorded live version of Zen Arcade’s "Masochism World" that chugs along with a bulldozing intensity but is inessential nevertheless, while this version of “Makes No Sense At All” sounds less distorted and a bit brighter than the slightly different version on Flip Your Wig. Finally, the band reconfigures “Love Is All Around” (i.e. the Mary Tyler Moore theme song) as a dreamy psychedelic pop song, and though I prefer Joan Jett’s more rocking later version this one certainly is different and is generally enjoyable. Anyway, “Eight Miles High” alone makes this EP essential, as it’s not currently available anywhere else, though hopefully SST will do the right thing and eventually add it as a bonus track to Metal Circus.
Zen Arcade (SST Records ‘84) Rating: A-
Another step up in class, Zen Arcade is a stylistic tour de force with more than a few stellar moments, but this remarkably ambitious double album suffers somewhat from inconsistent songwriting and a thin production, particularly on Grant Hart's drums. The consistent highlight of the album is Bob Mould’s incredible guitar playing; just when you think a song is rather unremarkable Bob will inevitably fire off some great solo to redeem it. This happens a little more often than I'd like, since the band’s earlier hardcore tendencies usually overwhelm their ever-increasing melodic side. Indeed, several songs (examples: "Broken Home, Broken Heart," "Indecision Time," "Pride," "I'll Never Forget You") thrash about with an incredible intensity but without memorable melodies. Side two in particular contains several exercises in primal scream therapy, and though songs such as "Chartered Trips," "The Biggest Lie," and "Masochism World" are slightly more melodic, they're still more about the band's great guitar groove than anything else. Simply put, the melodic side of the band's songwriting hadn’t yet developed to the point where they could deliver consistently memorable songs, yet their excellent musicianship, unremitting intensity, and unique experimentation usually yields enjoyable (and at times exceptional) results anyway. Even “Reoccurring Dreams,” the 14-minute instrumental that closes the album, is rarely boring despite it’s repetitive indulgences. Less successful to me are the briefer "Dreams Reoccurring" and "Hare Krisha," a novelty song that goes on for far too long (quite frankly it gives me a headache), while the band's first take approach was also flawed, yielding some rough vocal performances that perhaps could've used a bit of polish. Alas, for all its considerable flaws, this album (which has been called the "punk rock Quadrophenia" due to its similar themes of a young outcast trying to find his way in the world) is considered an alternative rock classic for good reason. For one thing, the intensely personal lyrics are somewhat unique for music this heavy (which partially explains why critics hold them in such high regard), and nothing is safe from their scathing insights, least of all themselves. In addition, it really does cohere together as an album; witness the pretty piano interludes ("One Step At A Time," "Monday Will Never Be The Same") that provide welcome breaks in the action, for example. Still, above all else Zen Arcade is about its superlative high points. "Something I Learned Today" starts the album with an instant classic that showcases Bob's brilliant guitar surge and impassioned vocals, while "Never Talking To You Again" is the flip side of that coin, being a hushed acoustic ballad on which bare emotions are laid out on the table. "What's Going On," another intense high point with a great Grant Hart vocal, begins a sustained stretch of greatness that continues with the hauntingly moody "Standing By The Sea" and the almost poppy, eminently singable "Somewhere." And then there's "Pink Turns To Blue," which is simply as good as alternative rock gets, period. Actually, all of side three is pretty much terrific, but another highlight that must be mentioned is "Turn On The News," a full speed ahead, Clash-like anthem that simply rages. So, as you can see I'm kinda conflicted about this one; I love large portions of it but find it to be a frustratingly inconsistent package overall. Fortuntately, the band would soon rein in their excesses and reach their enormous potential.
New Day Rising (SST Records ‘85) Rating: A
After that long and somewhat rambling review I'm going to keep this one short and to the point. Simply put, this essential album is where Husker Du put it all together. Unsurprisingly, Bob Mould’s guitar is on fire throughout, battling Grant Hart’s piston-like drums on some amazing songs, most notably the blazing “The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill,” the truly transcendent “Celebrated Summer,” and the irresistibly catchy “Books About UFOs.” Though the title track demonstrates that the band can still kick up an incredible wall of sound, other key songs such as “I Apologize” and “If I Told You” prove that their melodies have caught up to their sound. And despite what hardcore aficionados might think, by increasing their melodic quotient the band has actually increased the power and intensity of their songs (which are still pretty abrasive, mind you). They also remain lyrically intriguing, with Mould’s confused and cathartic self-obsessed exclamations juxtaposed against Hart’s more idiosyncratic musings. Although Mould’s reputation is as the battered punk songsmith while Hart was allegedly the pop craftsman, the fact of the matter is that Mould also had a terrific melodic touch (which really flourishes on this album) and Hart could likewise be an edgy composer. They’re both simply great songwriters and musicians who deftly complemented one another (not to diminish Greg Norton's contributions, but he was "just the bass player"), and only the thin production and weak finish (“How To Skin A Cat,” “Whatcha Drinkin’?”) prevents New Day Rising from receiving the highest possible rating.
Flip Your Wig (SST Records ‘85) Rating: A-
The songwriting becomes even more melodic and accessible here, while the playing is ragged yet tight. The production is considerably cleaner and more professional than previous efforts, making it all go down a little easier while losing little of their intense power. And though the lyrics can still sound plenty anguished, the overall tone is far more optimistic, which is fitting considering the poppier music, on which melody shines through more forcefully than ever. Flip Your Wig is another excellent album by a band that steadily progressed in the songwriting department with each album, though the overall sonic onslaught here doesn’t connect with quite the same stunning force as the prior two albums. Still, aside from the somewhat silly (if mindlessly catchy) "Hate Paper Doll," side one may be the best that this band ever did. For example, the title track is a great straightforward rock song with a fantastic fadeout ending, while the insanely catchy "Makes No Sense At All" is easily among the band's best pop songs. Despite the start/stop dynamics on the verses, "Games" is also memorable due to its melodic, singable chorus, while "Green Eyes" is a pretty and affecting love ballad, albeit one that somehow still rocks in a laid back but very satisfying way. In a case of role reversal, incredibly intense but ultimately not quite as good songs such as "Every Everything" and "Divide And Conquer" see Hart increasingly grabbing Mould's mantle as the band's screaming punk shouter, while Mould's songs are growing increasingly melodic. Still, they're both at their best on my favorite track here, "Find Me," an amazingly dramatic and atmospheric rocker that brilliantly buids up the intensity, helped along by an admirable restraint; sometimes it's the notes you don't play that make all the difference. Alas, after "The Baby Song," a jokey little instrumental interlude, the quality of the album drops dramatically. Don't get me wrong, Hart's "Flexible Flyer" and "Keep Hanging On" are good songs that remind me of his melodic gifts, but they don't approach the level of the high points on side one, and the album ends with two experimental instrumentals that merely pad out an album that didn't need any padding. Fortunately, the aforementioned high points here are very high indeed, and this was the second great album the band released during the single year of 1985, a simply spectacular achievement.
Candy Apple Grey (Warner Brothers ‘86) Rating: B+
This is the album that set the indie community in an uproar, being as it was Husker Du’s major label debut (granted, such a practice is commonplace today but back then it was a big deal, believe me). Yet despite such charges from the naysayers, this was hardly a sellout, as the band simply continued the natural progression from the past few albums. By that I mean that Candy Apple Grey is more song oriented and less reliant on an overall sonic onslaught and Bob Mould’s guitar heroics (on a side note, as the antithesis of the archetypical guitar hero, the balding, pudgy Mould must have inspired thousands of physically awkward geeks to go out and buy Bob's trademark Flying V). Anyway, Mould and Hart again split the songwriting chores; Mould’s songs are the depressing, contemplative thoughts of an obviously unhappy person, while Hart’s equally personal lyrics delve into utterly lost relationships and their aftermath. Fortunately, their sound hasn’t changed much (it’s just been cleaned up a bit), and the three ballads that got the band’s hardcore following so upset are actually among the album’s high points. “Too Far Down,” “No Promise Have I Made,” and the excellent “Hardly Getting Over It” are stunningly sad songs, and the incorporation of an acoustic guitar with keyboards and piano lends more flavors to what can occasionally be a one-dimensional (if often thrilling) sound. The groove-based rockers are all good, too (especially Hart's terrific time-to-turn-the-page “Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely” and his more mid-tempo, I'm-not-quite-over-it-yet "Sorry Somehow") though they’re generally not quite as exciting or as memorable as the band’s best prior efforts. But there’s no filler, either, making Candy Apple Grey a highly worthwhile transitional effort even if it’s a notch below the band’s best albums.
Warehouse: Songs And Stories (Warner Brothers ‘87) Rating: A-
Trading in their raw, hazy sound for a more accessible, streamlined attack, this double album (20 songs spread out over 70 minutes) concentrates on simple, well structured songs to achieve perhaps their most consistent album. Though Mould’s fiery guitar playing is still the band’s centerpiece, most of the songs are remarkably melodic, with soaring pop choruses commonplace. Perhaps the flattened out singing style Mould and Hart have adopted here is less distincitive than their earlier heart-on-their-sleeves shouting styles, but they were never great singers to begin with. Besides, I'd be remiss to complain too much, for I prefer this more reserved style; after all, "Ice Cold Ice" is all about its dramatic harmony vocals, and "She Floated Away" likewise is elevated by its ethereal harmonies. Anyway, Mould and Hart again split the songwriting chores almost evenly, but Mould’s songs are far superior as a rule, foreshadowing how their subsequent, independent careers would go. As usual, the lyrics are intelligent and introspective, and the glossy production and multi-tracked vocals lend a clarity to their sound that in the past had sometimes been lost amid their fuzzy guitar growl. Of course, this further disappointed those who loved the full on roar of Zen Arcade, and after awhile the songs do start to blend into each other since many of them sound somewhat similar. However, the overall quality of the songs are so high that this is easily forgiven. After all, “These Important Years,” “Standing In The Rain,” “Ice Cold Ice,” “Could You Be The One?,” “Friend You’ve Got To Fall,” “She Floated Away,” “Bed Of Nails,” "It's Not Peculiar," “Turn It Around,” and “Up In The Air” are all great songs. There are a fair amount of good to very good songs besides those, too, and picking out outright filler is a tough task, though one could argue that the uniform nature of the album makes it add up to less than the sum of its impressive individual parts. On the album's first and arguably best song (along with “Could You Be The One?”), Mould states “these are your important years, you’d better make them last,” and this album was the culmination of five astonishingly productive years, during which time the band ensured that their years together would leave a lasting impression. “You Can Live At Home” closes the album with an intense guitar raveup, a fitting finale considering that that’s how this band originally raged into our consciousness. Unfortunately, Husker Du experienced a hostile breakup soon after this album’s release (caused in part by Hart’s drug dependency), but at least this influential unit went out at the top of their game. Note: Warner Brothers released a satisfactory but hardly revelatory live album titled The Living End in 1994. Note #2: After Husker Du, Norton retired from the music business to become a chef, while Hart formed Nova Mob and then went on to a solo career that I quite frankly should know more about. It was Mould whose post-Husker Du career shined brightest, however, first as a solo artist, then with the superb power trio Sugar, and then back as a solo artist again.
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