We lost Hal David this week.
That’s Hal David as in Burt Bacharach and Hal David, one of the most winsome and winning pop songwriting teams of all time. Burt wrote the music and Hal the lyrics for some of the most famous and justly lauded tunes in history. A partial list: “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” “Walk On By.” “What the World Needs Now is Love.” “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me.” “The Look of Love.” The two of them epitomized a particular late-‘60s-early-‘70s sound, all muted trumpets and delightful, simple sentiments.
One particular Bacharach-David song has a special place in my heart. When I was growing up, my grandparents owned a music box, one that hangs on the wall. It featured an elaborate 3-D carving of a boy with an umbrella, and when you wound it up (via the massive knob in front) and pulled the small metal pin, it played “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” Both of those grandparents are gone now, but that music box still hangs in my mother’s house, and whenever I wind it up and play it, I think of them.
Hal David died on Friday after a stroke. He was 91 years old. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame 40 years ago, and his work – his sublime, silly, sun-shiney work – will live forever. Rest in peace, Hal.
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I hesitate to admit this, but the first Bob Mould album I ever heard was Sugar’s Copper Blue.
It was 1992, I was on my way to college, and the grunge revolution was in full swing. Sugar was just another great, loud band to me, one of a few dozen I was following at that time. I honestly had no idea of Mould’s pedigree – that he was a founding member of the great Husker Du, a band that influenced every single one of the groups I liked in ’92, and that he had carved out a superb little solo career after that, including the amazing Black Sheets of Rain. I knew none of that.
What I did know was that Copper Blue was a great record. You’d have to be deaf not to notice that. Sugar was loud, all right – the guitar sound on Copper is thick and abrasive and endless, even for 1992 – but Bob Mould’s unerring pop sensibility shines through. Try not singing along with “A Good Idea” or “Changes” or “If I Can’t Change Your Mind.” There isn’t a song here that won’t get stuck in your head. Even the epic “Hoover Dam” is hummable, and when you get to my favorite, “Fortune Teller,” buried at track eight… well, damn.
It’s 20 years later, and Copper Blue still sounds as great as it ever has. Better, even, if you pick up the newly-remastered deluxe edition, out last month. The guitars are even louder, but the separation of instruments is clearer, and Sugar the pop band is even more evident. It’s just a near-perfect album, the kind that sells a million, the kind Mould hasn’t really made since. In fact, he didn’t even come close with Sugar, although they had two further releases, both also available in remastered form.
1993’s Beaster is the dark half of Copper Blue. Recorded at the same time, its half-dozen songs represent the crushing steamroller aspect of their sound. Six-minute monsters like “Judas Cradle” and “JC Auto” pummel you in slow motion, Mould’s guitars sounding like tormented screams from the pits of hell. Those squalls are even clearer now in this new edition (bundled with Copper Blue), and while Beaster does have its more melodic moments, like the comparatively gentle closer “Walking Away,” it is mainly Mould taking out his pain and aggression. It’s a tough listen, which is why I don’t pull it out very often.
1994’s File Under: Easy Listening should have been the one to bring it all together, the one to build on Sugar’s success. Instead, it feels rushed, half-formed. Only a few songs, most notably “Can’t Help You Anymore” and “Believe What You’re Saying,” resonate with the force and melody of the prior record. Mould has said that the b-sides, also included in this new edition, might have helped save this record had they been included. I have to disagree. These five songs are louder than the relatively hushed second half of FU:EL, but that’s all they have going for them. “Mind Is an Island” is the best, and it’s not fit to lick the boots of “Changes” or “Fortune Teller.”
And that was the disappointing end for Sugar. They left us a classic, its evil twin, and a disappointing follow-up. Merge has carefully packaged up all three of those records, along with two full-length live documents as bonuses. Live, Sugar was a monster – the guitars are somehow even louder, the vocals more buried, the energy more explosive. While their records were carefully crafted and overdubbed, Sugar became a pure power trio on stage, playing with reckless abandon and never pausing to address (or even acknowledge) the audience. I’m more of a fan of the second live record here, The Joke is Always On Us, from 1994, despite a set list that leans heavy on obscure material. They were just great live.
Hell, they were just great. It’s rare for a songwriter to find even one superb band. Two is a miracle. Sugar’s entire legacy is contained on these five discs, but it’s a powerful one, and it still holds up. What’s especially important about Sugar is that it has seemed for a very long time like Mould’s last gasp. Since these records, he’s resurrected his solo career, but dabbled in ill-fitting electronics and songs that simply lack inspiration. His last three albums have been decent, yet unremarkable slabs of guitar-pop, a far cry from his glory days.
So Sugar has long served as a fine reminder of the songwriter, player and singer Mould used to be. That is, until now. Because I told you that story to tell you this one.
Bob Mould’s new album is called Silver Age. It’s a reference to his greyed-out beard and temples – the man is 51 this year. But listening to this thing, you’d never know it. This is Mould’s first power trio album since the Sugar days, and if you play this back to back with Copper Blue, you’re unlikely to hear much difference. The songwriting is certainly back to top quality, and the energy – the sheer balls of it – is just remarkable.
Like Sugar’s live sets, this album never lets up. It’s 38 minutes of explosive goodness, starting with a three-song opening shot that will knock you down. “Star Machine” is just awesome, bursting out of the gate at full gallop, and it segues neatly into the equally breathless title track, and “The Descent,” perhaps the melodic highlight of the record. In 1993, this would have been a hit single, no question. It moves like a rushing wave, the trio locking in and riding it out, Mould singing for all he’s worth. When the band hits that drop-down chord on “make it up to you somehow,” I just have to air-guitar along. This is one of my favorite songs of the year, no doubt.
Does the album slow down from there? Like hell it does. “Briefest Moment” charges in like a rush of horses, all fire and thundering hooves. Even when this album slows down, like on “Steam of Hercules” and the wonderful closer “First Time Joy,” it’s loud, almost overpowering. (It only pulls back a little. There are no slow songs.) And when it explodes, as it does on the terrific “Keep Believing,” it’s something to behold. Remember when R.E.M. roared back with Accelerate a few years ago? This is like that, but louder and bigger and overflowing with melodies. It is, quite simply, Mould’s best album in 20 years.
I love it when this happens, when an elder statesman kicks over the tables and shows the kids how it’s done. Revisiting the Sugar catalog was the best thing that could have happened to him. It reminded him of what he does best, and Silver Age is full to bursting with it. If you remember how great Bob Mould can be, well, good news. He remembered too. May his Silver Age last a hundred years.
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I saved this for the end, since I know you fine, faithful readers are probably sick of reading my thoughts on Marillion. Their new album, Sounds That Can’t Be Made, should hit my mailbox next week, which means my (very likely) long, flowing review will be published on Sept. 19. After that, I’ll probably shut up about it (at least until December, if it’s as good as I expect), so never fear. A couple more weeks, and it’ll all be over.
But I need to pass this on, since it’s knocking me on my ass. This week, Marillion shared the opening track to the new album. It’s called “Gaza,” it’s 17 minutes long, and it’s written from the point of view of a child living in that war-torn part of Palestine. And it’s unlike anything they’ve done. The music includes elements of stomping metal, ambient atmosphere and electronic pop, moving through deeply emotional moments to a dark and powerful conclusion.
And the lyrics? To say this will be Marillion’s most controversial effort is an understatement. Steve Hogarth plays a child here, so some of the lines are simplistic, yet some – including a section that implies an understanding of the motivations behind suicide bombers – are strikingly mature. “Gaza” is not a political song, it is a cry for peace and justice, a demand for a human response to senseless war. This is not going to stop people from decrying it as a polemic, though, since its only character is a Palestinian child suffering at the hands of the Israelis. The end of the song features its best line – “It’s like a nightmare rose up from this small strip of land, slouching toward Bethlehem.” Aggression and response, on both sides, locked in a spiral that lays waste to the innocent.
But the key section, to me, is around the 12-minute mark. “Nothing’s ever simple, that’s for sure, there are grieving mothers on both sides of the wire, and everyone deserves a chance to feel the future just might be bright, but any way you look at it, whichever point of view, for us to have to live like this, it just ain’t right, it just ain’t right…” Giving a voice to the voiceless is a lifelong theme for Hogarth, and here, in this most beautiful part of the song, he does it again, with grace. I’m still absorbing “Gaza,” and I’ll have more to say about it in a couple of weeks. For now, hear it for yourself. And read the lyrics here. And then tell me what you think. This is perhaps the band’s most ambitious song ever. Did they pull it off?
See you in line Tuesday morning.