Husker Du

There's a new day rising in Minnesota. Would you like some Sugar in your tea?

Strongest album: New Day Rising
Must to avoid: Nova Mob's The Last Days of Pompeii; Bob Mould's Black Sheets of Rain

I spelled their name incorrectly, I know, but I just couldn't figure out how to type in those umlauts. Anyway, it's Danish or Swedish for "Do You Remember?", which they got from a local board game, but luckily these guys don't sing like Fargo. By the time I started getting into them in 1988 they'd already broken up, so I'll never get a chance to see them live (like they'd pass through Arkansas anyway. The metalheads here like'em loud, but they sure don't like'em weird). Oh well, I'll never see the Who, either (the real Who, not these washed ups without Keith Moon), or the Clash, or the Stooges, or....the list goes on. Like those bands, Husker Du was the loudest, most intense band of their era - legend has it that you could sit in your car three blocks away and enjoy a Husker Du concert as if your ears were next to the speakers. But Husker Du's methodology in extracting the prime nirvana of loudness was different because of the era they emerged from. In the early '80s, a music called hardcore punk was developed by bands like Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Black Flag, etc., that took loud white (in both the racial and static cling sounding sense) noise to its extreme - the race for loudest, hardest, fastest effectively ended in 1981 when these bands released their debut albums. With punk rock taken to the extreme, Husker Du did the only thing possible: they brought the melodies back. Yes, pop-punk - invented by the Buzzcocks, easily Husker Du's biggest influence - but pop-punk that gave no quarter in either the punk or pop direction. They really did try to simultaneously wrench the most tinnitus-ripping noise and la-la-la the sweetest, most hummable melodies. When they succeeded, which was a great deal of the time, they provided one of the most grippingly visceral experiences you'll likely encounter in this lifetime or the next 10. It took them a bit to get there, though; Husker Du started off as just another hardcore clone. But their songwriting and musicianship kept making leaps and bounds, with each record a substantial improvement over the last. Until they reached a plateau and subsequently broke up. Alongside R.E.M. and fellow Minneapolians the Replacements, Husker Du made the '80s best and most influential music. Everybody rips off them these days and everybody earns a dozen times more fame and fortune than them, though none of the alterna-crap bands on your "alternative rock (as long as they play it on 120 Minutes)" radio dial deserves it. Husker Du's main flaw was to release far too much material, which is what can happen when you don't have a public to edit you. I'm either being to easy on them since even on their best albums they had a lot of filler, or being too hard on them since all albums have filler and Husker Du's best material bowls you over like a Kansas tornado. Newcomers are advised to start with their later, more accessible work (i.e., the major label stuff) and work their way backwards. It's what I did.

Dig those crazy Scandinavian-Americans? There's a New Day Rising at this website.

Land Speed Record (1981)
Everything Falls Apart (1982)

This page begins with a pair of records I don't own. I have, however, heard both of them, and can tell you that the first one is barely listenable and the second one is better but still not very good. Husker Du were a pretty generic hardcore unit at this point, and hadn't learned how to write pop songs. Fortunately, this would change with the next record.

Metal Circus (1983) ***

I'm not sure whether this is an EP or an LP - seven songs, total time 18:57, list price $6.98 on tape (lord knows why you'd want this on CD - it sounds like it's recorded in the janitor's closet of an aluminum factory). This sounds like heavy metal in its original sense, flat metal alloys scraping against each other as the gears of rusty industrial factories grind on. It's the sound of rustbelt decline as industrial capitalism makes way for the information age - far from the shiny punch of most heavy metal, this is the sound of decay, of machines that are still in use but haven't been oiled or updated in several decades. That said, the muddy mix does get in the way my enjoyment - I wish I could understand half the words, and the impact of the band is dampened. "Real World" is nihilistic but that's all I can say because I can't figure out what guitarist Bob Mould is screaming about, but I do know that "Deadly Skies" is about protesting nuclear war and possesses a killer chorus (as do most Du songs). Drummer Grant Hart writes the two best tunes here, and they're really tunes, too, the kind you can sing along with. The guitar hook in "It's Not Funny Anymore" will drill itself inside your heard permanently, and is the catchiest number. But "Diane" is the one you'll remember, a power ballad (again, in the truest sense) sung from a psychopathic rapist's point of view, with Hart tearing his voice out screaming the chorus over and over. "The First Of The Last Calls" is another good song, "Out On A Limb" and "Lifeline" don't possess melodies and pretty much suck, and that's it. Greg Norton is the other guy - he plays bass and has a mustache and doesn't write songs and makes his living as a chef now. A good album, or album side really, but kind of underdeveloped in terms of performances and melodies, and too short; it functions more as a teaser of what's to come than a fully satisfying work in its own right.

Zen Arcade (1984) ****

An ambitious double-album concerning a misfit kid, like most concept albums the plotline's hard to follow and there's too much dross. Major themes: the anguish of children from broken homes, bad acid, saying goodbye to friends, finding yourself, indecision and the teenage blues. A Quadrophonia for the '80s, the Husker's most Who-influenced platter, complete with low-budget tape looping and backwards guitars and drums. Supposedly recorded in one marathon weekend, the one-take spontaniety fuzzes up too much of the material - "Chartered Trips" is a great song that really deserved to be cleaned up. About half the material's worth the vinyl, and as usual with batting averages like that, the dross ways down the good stuff - have track-skipper of choice handy. The above all said, there's so much great stuff that this would be a classic if it stood a bit of editing and they went back to the studio and did a few more takes. The great leap forward that turns the Huskers into a great band, they cover a lot of territory, from chilling acoustic ballads ("Never Talking To You Again") to psychedelic backward-tracked throwaways ("Hare Krsna") to anthemic powerpop ("Chartered Trips") to pretty piano instrumentals ("One Step At A Time" and "Monday Will Never Be The Same", both of which share titles with light pop '60s hits) to thrash punk (the opener "Something I Learned Today" and most of the rest) to anthemic punk ("Turn On The News", deserving of classic status and possibly the Husker's greatest moment). And they end it all with a 17-minute instrumental called "Recurring Dreams". Powerful stuff when it's powerful and not so powerful when it's not so powerful, which is to say like most double albums it needs an editor.

New Day Rising (1985) *****

Another huge leap forward, the Huskers bring some real melodies to all but a handful of the songs, and hook'em up so much it approaches power pop. Which it is, but in the truest sense of the term - the Huskers pack a HUGE, LOUD wallop, ramming their hooks and melodies into you like a body slam. Still plenty of mindless noise - Mould simply screams the title track over and over and calls it a song - but it's more focused this time around. Cutting down to a manageable single disc length makes this enjoyable all the way through. Until you get to the last three songs, that is, which do not possess real melodies and nice things like that. But if that's their dross, that's their dross and it's probably the least amount contained on any Husker Du album. I'm not completely satisfied with it, but since Husker Du are one of the most vital and innovative bands ever, they deserve at least one five-star, canonical record, and this one will do. Mould's guitar is too fuzzed up due to the cheap production; at times it has the effect of a warm electric blanket over your head, which is to say it's comforting, non-agressive noise - pastoral, even. As are the dogs on the cover. Hart and Mould come into their own as classic pop songwriters, discovering their own unique styles that they'd rarely vary from in their careers. Average guy Hart offers sing-songs that remind you of lost '60s bubblepop singles; tortured genius Mould's more ambitious, less melodically direct songs aren't quite as immediately catchy, but perhaps more enduring. Hart sings about girls and Mould sings about himself; on this album Hart falls in love with a "Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill" and one who's into UFOs, and Mould apologizes to a lover and nostalgiazes about Minnesota summers. My favorite Du album, and probably their best.

Flip Your Wig (1985) ***1/2

Another step forward in terms of production - for the first time Mould's guitar can be heard clearly and distinctly. But this one's a letdown because the material's not as consistent as the previous album. Perhaps releasing so much material in so little time stretched the Dus thin; it's only a manageable single disc, but about half of these songs I could do without. The stuff I like starts with the title track, a joint Mould/Hart composition that's easily the best song found wherein. After that there's Mould's classic compressed single "Makes No Sense At All", Hart's gushing "Green Eyes", Mould's tortured "Games" and "Find Me", and the second best song, Hart's "Flexible Flyer" - dig that wailing guitar on the fadeout. And that's about it. Okay, "Hate Paper Doll" is halfway good, I suppose, but the filler here's some of the worst stuff the Huskers have ever done. The biggest offenders are Hart's tuneless "Every Everything" and Mould's self-indulgent guitar wankerama "Don't Know Yet". For the life of me I can't figure out why they put "Baby Song" on here - a baby toy solo!? The good stuff's a shade or two less memorable than the Husker's usual, I suppose, too. But hey, half a good album's half a good album, right?, and I'll take the Du at their weakest over Candlebox at their strongest any day.

Candy Apple Grey (1986) ****

The major label sellout that proves that sometimes sellouts can improve the band. Here I go again, but this is another huge improvement in terms of production and band competence. For the first time you can hear the band without all the murky fuzz, and it only sharpens their hooks and streamlines the attack for greater impact. And since the corporate baddies insisted on cutting out the self-indulgent dross, you don't get any noise experiments or tuneless noise bashes. The only bad part of the deal is that with only 10 songs, the album's too short. The surging choruses come crashing to the fore to make this much more accessible for non-punk fans, who aren't going to like this anyway so what's the point? Well, the point is that I like big, surging choruses, and so should you. Theoretically this should be the great Husker Du album except that the material isn't quite as good as New Day Rising, which isn't to say that the material isn't great. Hart's "I Don't Want To Know If You Are Lonely" possesses one of the most jawdropping opening guitar hooks in history, the hook just rams itself right down your throat and won't let go. Hart's other great song is the organ-driven, mid-tempo "Sorry Somehow". Other new developments are Mould's two acoustic guitar numbers, and Hart's piano ballad "No Promise That I Made", which actually manages to be the most ear-splitting and abrasive tune on the album! Mould's only great song is the bad trip of "Eiffel Tower High", but some of the others are pretty good. If you're new to the Du, start here since it's easily their most accessible album, if not quite their best.

Warehouse: Songs And Stories (1987) ****1/2

Another double album in only 3 years, but unlike Zen Arcade this isn't a concept album and it's actually consistently enjoyable. By this time Husker Du had perfected their particularly approach as far as it would go, and no new ground is broken for the first time. The main problem with the album is its very consistency - Husker Du don't vary their style much, which over a double album can be wearying. It's hard to listen to it all the way through, but in measured doses it's as brilliant as anything else they've done, and it contains more good songs than any other. Which, in one sense, makes it the definitive Husker Du album, and I probably play it more than any of their other albums. Though it offers few surprises, it does offer a warehouse of highlights. Generally, Hart's songs aren't as good as Mould's, which is no doubt due to the fact that Hart was suffering a serious heroin addiction at the time. Hart does have his share of great songs, though, especially "Too Much Spice" and "She's A Woman And Now He Is A Man". Mould's writing, however, has never been stronger; he has so many great songs spread out over these four discs it's hard to pick favorites, but let me try: "Standing In The Rain", "Could You Be The One?", "Ice Cold Ice", "No Reservation". This is an excellent place to discover Husker Du, but be warned that it's hard to take all at once.

In early 1988, Husker Du broke up. Greg Norton quit the music business and opened a restaraunt in Minneapolis. Grant Hart and Bob Mould both pursued solo careers, which are discussed in the reviews below.

Nova Mob: The Last Days Of Pompeii (1990) **

Though they shared greatness equally in Husker Du, Hart's and Mould's solo careers have been more lopsided, with Mould experiencing even greater success (commercially, at least) than in the old days and with Hart slowly fading away into obscurity. It's easy to see why, since Hart's solo material is nowhere near the quality of work he did in Husker Du. His solo career started off promisingly enough, with the brilliant single "2541" chronicling the band's dissolution; sadly, Hart has never had that stroke of inspiration again. Hart formed the band Nova Mob and switched to guitar, which I suppose feeds his ego and desire to be a frontman but is otherwise a mistake, since his guitar playing isn't all that great and Nova Mob's drummer is nowhere near as maniacally pounding as Hart. This is Hart's attempt at a rock opera. I can't figure out what he's talking about, but maybe I'm just not paying attention because the songs are too simplistic to hold much interest. In Husker Du, Hart was the straightforward, sing-songy one with the immediately likeable poptunes, but on his own he's way too sing-songy to not come across as melodically limited and perhaps a bit simple-minded. The organ driven sound is okay but nothing special, and the catchiest tune is "Werhner Von Braun", and the single's "Admiral Of The Sea". I never listen to the this album myself.

Bob Mould: Workbook (1989) ***

One of the more effective ways to sever your ties with your old band and assert your independence is to completely overhaul your sound, which is exactly what Mould did on his first solo effort. Mould had experimented with acoustic ballads before, but here the entire album consists of folky, acoustic-driven songs. The opening instrumental, "Sunspots", even made it on NPR's "All Things Considered"! Mould effectively throws off any percieved shackles of what he can and can't do, but while the ambition is commendable, not all of Mould's songs are as interesting. A great attic album in spots, but too much of it feels too much like an attic. The spiderwebs and sunlight approach works well on the jubiliant "See A Little Light", the nostalgiac "Compositions For The Young And Old", and the hallucinatory "Dreaming, I Am". A lot of the rest is jangle minus hookage, long-winded lyrics sans melody, and as a whole the album's too meandering and restrained for its own good. It's a halfway successful departure for Mould with some really good spots, but the overall effect is diffuse.

Bob Mould: Black Sheets Of Rain (1990) **1/2

After that acoustic pastoral detour, Mould decided to crank up the amps again. The result's an unentertaining, graceless album that's got volume but little else, despite two or three good songs. Mould's guitar is sludgy, like the black coffee he describes in the title track thickened to mud, and the Golden Palominos rythm section consists of a couple of art-funking New York eggheads who are too professional to rock out in the way that Mould needs. The band lumbers along in midtempo, occassionally picking up speed but rarely picking up melody, and the mix is seriously out of whack: it awkwardly squishes the sound, overemphasizing the low end and muffling Mould's guitar. "It's Too Late" possesses real drive and a good melody; "Out Of Your Life" is a powerful emotional plea; and the acoustic ballad "The Last Night" offers relief amidst the heavosity. Other than that, there's not a whole lot going on here songwise. Some people basically wrote Mould off after this debacle, myself included, but luckily brighter things were just around the corner....

Sugar: Copper Blue (1992) ****

Mould forms a band that's a band in name only since he writes all the songs, and gets back to where he once belonged with powerfully catchy overdriven Du-pop. Stylistically it's a step back but highly enjoyable, and Sugar are poppier and more accessible than anything Husker Du did. The first half's all great, with every song possessing monster guitar, sweet melodies, and irresistible hooks. Mould rewrites the Pixies' "Debaser" as "A Good Idea", visits the Hoover Dam, and coasts on the huge melody hook of "Helpless". The second half's iffier, but "If I Can't Change Your Mind" is classicist jangly British Invasion pop, and "Fortune Teller" possesses the most incredible drive of any song on the album. There's not a whole lot to say about Sugar; Mould's ambition seems to have waned, and he's content simply to recycle the loud pop formula he invented in Husker Du. But as long as he keeps the songs this good, I care not a whit for any of those reservations.

Sugar: Beaster (1993) ***

A six-song EP that's a miniature rock opera (Pete Townsend, what hast thou wrought?), its length kind of defeats the purpose of rock operas - you need some exposition squeezed in there, don't you? Somehow it concerns a psychotic who thinks he's Jesus or something like that, and Mould tries to keep the music darker, more intense, and less poppy. The atmospheric numbers that open and close the EP are gorgeous when I'm playing them and fade away into the ether when I switch the record off. "Tilted" has a great chorus. "JC Auto" is one of the best things Mould has ever done - scratch one up for his canon. "Feeling Better" and "Judas Cradle" are average Mould tunes. And that's all she wrote.

Sugar: File Under Easy Listening (1994) ***1/2

Mould has made the same album about four or five times since Candy Apple Grey, and this time it feels more formulaic than inspired. I haven't entirely grown tired of the formula, and Mould's two previous solo albums prove why he should stick with what he does best, but I am growing a bit tired nonetheless. Bassist David Barbe's "Company Book" puts the lie to Sugar's supposed democracy, as it's a mediocre drop in quality. There's a lighter touch to Mould's writing on this album, as if he cheered up a little (long overdue, if you ask me), especially on the joyous "Your Favorite Thing" and the whimsical "Gee Angel". There's still plenty of patented Mould moodiness, of course. "Granny Cool" mocks some unnamed mope rocker (Trent Reznor? Kurt Cobain?), and "Explode And Make Up" plunges into familiar troubled emotional terrain. A highly entertaining album, but I've been here before.

Sugar: Besides (1994)**1/2

A pun on B-sides, this gathers up all of Sugar's many non-album tracks, 17 in all. It's a treat for fans, naturally, and saves you the trouble of buying assorted CD singles. Unfortunately, many of these tracks are simply live versions of songs available in better studio versions on the albums, and the new studio material simply isn't very good. David Barbe displays a surprisingly melodic side on "When Diamonds Are Halos", and for fans of him (there must be some Barbe fans out there), several more tracks are his; mainly, though, Barbe's songs show why Mould is the main songwriter. Mould himself doesn't fare much better. "Needle Hits E" is good and noisy, but "Try Again" starts off good but soon becomes the definition of numblingly repetitive. Unplugged versions of "If I Can't Change Your Mind" and "Believe What You're Saying" are redundant, considering that those are already two of the softer Sugar songs - howsabout an acoustic version of "JC Auto" instead? The real highlight of this disc is a live cover of the Who's "Armenia City In The Sky". Elsewhere Sugar dabble in an instrumental, "Clownmaster", and come up with a title that sums up this record: "After All The Roads Have Led To Nowhere". Essential for fans, extraneous for everyone else.

Bob Mould: Bob Mould (1995) **

A solo album in the purest sense - Mould played everything, produced, etc. - and it suffers from it. At his best, Mould makes pain and depression cathartic as no one else can - but this isn't Mould at his best. Mould's mood is so insular and misanthropic - typical of him, music-as-emotional-purge, only this time it's oppressive rather than exhilirating. Musically Mould sounds like he did in Sugar, but without a real band behind his multitracking, he can't break free to generate any exciting sparks; what you're left with is numbing Mould-noise by the numbers. If you get past the endless, dirgey first track, "Anymore Time Between," you've gotten past the worst - that's the good news. "I Hate Alternative Rock," makes Mould's disgust with the rest of the world clear; "Egoverride," makes his disgust with himself clear. He has a point in both songs, but the sentiments aren't very nice to hear. There's not an ounce of fun to be found anywhere, despite a nice melody here and there ("Fort Knox, King Solomon"). It's a chore to sit through; by the time you get to the final track, "Roll Over and Die," you're more than convinced that Mould wants to do just that - and that's nobody's idea of a good time.

Husker Du: The Living End (1996)

The posthumous Husker Du release is a live album from their final tour. I'm not a big fan of live albums so I haven't picked this up, but response has been highly positive from most critics.

Bob Mould: The Last Dog and Pony Show (1998) ***1/2

So titled after Mould's promise to make his tour behind the album his last-ever loud electric guitar shows (he's not ending touring, but will stick to acoustic sets from now on, because his ears can't take the strain of the excessive volume he's subjected himself for his entire career anymore), this is a surprising and most welcome return to form. Again playing everything himself, notably excepting Matt Hammon's drumming (the presence of a real drummer is the most striking sonic improvement over the previous solo album), yet it somehow manages to avoid the claustrophobic insularity of the "hubcap album" (as Mould refers to Bob Mould). Musically Mould is stuck in the same formulaic rut he's been in since 1992, but when he pens songs as soaringly catchy as "Moving Trucks," "Taking Everything," and "Classifieds," all with grippingly melodic choruses, who cares? Emotionally Mould seems inspired by a recently broken relationship, as most of the songs deal with the consequences of an ex-lover leaving him, as the moody opener "New #1" sets the tone. If you've heard any of Mould's previous albums, you know exactly what to expect from this one - there are no surprises or musical advances here. Except for the mechanical rap experiment "Megamanic," which sucks. As a bonus, early copies contain a bonus disc containing an interview conducted by the Big Takeover's Jack Rabid - however, like the album itself, the interview doesn't offer any new revelations.

Post Your Comments

Reader Comments

Tim B,

I really enjoyed your review of the Husker Du back catalogue. I think you are a little over critical at times though. "Hardly Getting Over It" is surely one of the best songs written by Bob Mould. I also like both of his pre-Sugar albums especially Black Sheets of Rain. You should also check out The Living End as it contains some great versions of the classics (Hardly Getting Over It especially). Bob Mould's last solo album is frankly a real disappointment, I am afraid he has now "Had it".

Brett Groves,

Most REAL Husker Du fans agree "Turn On The News" is the worst song on Zen Arcade, not the best. In fact, in a lot of cases it almost ruins the album. It sounds like a song KISS would do. And what in the world were you thinking when you gave Flip Your Wig 3.5 stars and Workbook 3 stars? You need to get your ears checked my pretentious friend.

Satan Stole My Teddybear,

In response to that Brett Groves fella, I didn't realize that liking "Turn on the News" was the defining point in if you are a REAL Husker Du fan or not. That's a pretty sharp cutoff point and besides, if that's the criteria, I guess I'm not a real fan for actually liking the song. Besides, are we all supposed to have the exact same opinion of the band to be "REAL"? I think the pretention exists elsewhere and the irony runs deep.

It's Indecision Time: stay here or go Somewhere else.