Copper Blue/Beaster and File Under: Easy Listening

I’ll never forget seeing Sugar live. It was October 23, 1992, and the three-piece Bob Mould had formed with bassist David Barbe and drummer Malcolm Travis were playing The Academy in New York (now a Disney theater) in support of Copper Blue, their debut which hadn’t left my stereo since its release the month prior. While rock shows are frequently compared to tsunamis and other forms of inclement weather, this one really was storm-like. Truly embodying the term “power-trio,” Mould, Barbe and Travis came on and plowed through three songs from the record without even taking a breath. After a simple greeting from Mould, Sugar dove right back into another three cuts. With the rest of the night proceeding in a similar fashion, there was no time to even pine for a little Hüsker Dü or a track from one of Mould’s solo records. In short, I was left as breathless as the band.

As such, Copper Blue looms large in my consciousness, probably more so than anything else Mould has ever done. And though old-timers may beg to differ, listening to it once again for the first time in awhile, I’ll still argue that it’s as great as anything in the Hüsker catalog. Sure, it’s a different beast entirely than what Mould did with Messrs. Hart and Norton, but it’s no less fierce. Copper Blue is filled with gnarly riffs—that’s obvious from the get-go, with a lone crunchy riff leading off “The Act We Act” and the album. But just as that crunchy guitar gives way to a lighter chorus like clouds parting for the sun, so too is the whole record laced with pop hooks (which make the Sugar moniker make sense). “A Good Idea,” which in a bit of full-circle reflexiveness owes an obvious debt of influence to The Pixies (who formed after Black Francis ran an ad for a bass player who liked Peter, Paul and Mary and Hüsker Dü), is the best of both worlds, with sharp guitar hooks coursing through the entirety of the song. But Copper Blue remains a staggering accomplishment because there isn’t an ounce of filler on the album. Even two-thirds of the way through we get “If I Can’t Change Your Mind,” a bittersweet break-up song of acoustic pop.

Merge, who will be releasing Mould’s new solo record next month, have been smart enough to release the entirety of the Sugar discography. For Copper Blue, they’ve paired it with Beaster, the EP Sugar released the following spring, and tacked on the B-sides from Copper Blue’s four singles. Those four songs are on par with the album proper, with “Needle Hits E” and the instrumental “Clownmaster” sticking out. Beaster lives up to its name and is a more cacophonous version of Sugar, with the noisy, frayed bits bolstered to give the six songs a prickly coating of sharp ends. The set, which can be purchased in various configurations of CDs, vinyl and downloads, also includes a live recording from Chicago from 1992 that echoes my own experience of seeing the band in the flesh.

File Under: Easy Listening, Sugar’s second and last full-length, is an album that’s only grown greater with age. Listening to it now, I can’t imagine why it didn’t make a greater impression on me at the time of its release. Ensconced in a swirl of guitars that’s very much the American equivalent of what Sugar’s British contemporaries (i.e. shoegazers like My Bloody Valentine and Swervedriver) were doing, “Gift” is a powerful way to lead off a record. Meanwhile, songs like “Your Favorite Thing” and “Believe What You’re Saying” exhibit the same kind of songwriting smarts that Mould had tapped on Copper Blue. The difference comes with the moments in between that don’t tread on the same lofty ground or reach the same pinnacles as Copper Blue’s many great moments. However, a live set recorded at Mould’s old stomping ground, First Avenue in Minneapolis, in 1994, reveals many of the songs to prosper in a live setting. Originally released as The Joke Is Always on Us, Sometimes, this recording shows the band still in the same shape as the two years prior.

There’s that old idiom about burning bright and fast, and Sugar’s short existence was emblematic of that metaphor. One gets the sense just listening to these recordings that the band somehow knew that their time was short and thus poured themselves into everything they did. Mould’s career was long before and has continued long after, but his three years with Sugar produced a catalog of concentrated potency.
Stephen Slaybaugh