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One does not associate the name Bob Mould with percolating sequencers, relentless machine drums, and that annoying vocal effect that propelled Cher to another round of international fame with her monster 1998 hit “Believe.” No, one associates the name Bob Mould with blissful waves of distortion, therapeutic doses of chorus-drenched feedback, and, best of all, keening folk-rock melodies that somehow manage to survive the ferocious din. (One also associates the name Bob Mould with chronic tinnitus, but that’s a different, more personal, story.)
True: In between his stint with greatest-band-ever candidate Husker Du and shoulda-been-one-album-wonders Sugar, Mould relented a little from that sonic fight plan, issuing for his first post-Huskers work a fair-to-middling singer-songwriter disc that elicited comparisons to Richard Thompson. And, also true: His last rock record carried the bitterly sarcastic title The Last Dog and Pony Show, and the one before that, the one-man-band outing Bob Mould, came with a hand-wringing press-kit-cum-essay whose subtext seemed to be a real-deal luminary’s caustic reaction to his evaporating fan base. It’s even true that Mould made a mint developing story lines for AOL Time Warner’s now defunct World Championship Wrestling venture.
Regardless of any of those developments, though, no one could possibly have been prepared for this. Modulate, one of three albums the habitually prolific Mould intends to release in 2002, is an electronic-rock record that makes beatific sense of that hybrid and, not surprisingly, also adds a new layer of luster to Mould’s Du-over career. This is easily the man’s best outing since the first Sugar LP and (can it possibly be?) maybe even his best since, oh, I don’t know, New Day Rising, the Husker Du classic that, along with Meat Puppets II and the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime, sealed SST’s reputation as the best American indie label ever. No, really. Modulate is that good. I swear.
Hyperbole? I think not. Consider, for instance, the insanely, incessantly catchy “Come On Strong,” which Mould doesn’t even uncork until Track 12 on this too-short-at-14-songs LP. Threading the kind of overdriven, post-Buzzcocks chord progression that he perfected with the Huskers through the song’s frenetic, nearly overwhelming rhythm, Mould carefully crafts his signature sound: orchestrated chaos. With a strummed, distorted guitar keeping time like a slightly off-kilter metronome—or maybe like a busy signal you’ve listened to longer than you should—the synths that begin low in the mix gradually rise to the surface, finally supplanting the guitars just in time for a gurgling coda that you’ll no doubt cut short with the Skip button to get back to the beginning. Like the rest of Modulate, “Come On Strong” is a post-punk, postmodern, post-post wall of aural pleasure, a seriously addictive confection that signifies mainly as sonic hedonism. Indeed, the track is so audaciously hook-laden that Mould’s restrained (though supertuneful) vocals seem like a taunt to get you to listen more carefully to the words.
Those, for the record, are mostly hit-and-miss cryptic confessionals, scanning more like notes to lovers ex and current than anything like pop-song lyrics. On “Semper Fi,” a swooshing slab of synth-pop layered with crunching guitars, Mould revels in that opacity, whispering to a companion who’s nearly asleep, “We’ll share our secret world with no one” and, a little later, “We’ll undercover things our own way.” That sense of intimate privacy pervades the disc’s verbiage, with the upshot being that you frequently feel as if you might be overhearing something not meant for your ears. That’s especially true of the mysteriously menacing “Slay/Sway,” which is positively David Lynch-like in its maybe-it’s-a-pivotal-scene-maybe-it’s-a-goof suggestiveness. Over the top of a fat, deliberate chord progression punctuated occasionally by a drunken guitar riff worthy of the Fall, Mould unfolds a dark secret from his adolescent past—maybe. “A monkey shot in the mouth,” he sings. “I changed the view on the lens/I watched them do it again/And it was two against one/And one by one/My family came home.”
What’s it mean? Who knows. Maybe it’s an anagram. That would be cool. But whatever: The lyrics on Modulate, though not totally disposable, are almost beside the point, there more for the phonemes and syllables they provide than for any secret-decoder-ring meaning they may contain. Like most of the Huskers’ oeuvre, Modulate is definitely a sound-over-sense record. Or, more precisely, its sense is the sound. “She’s addicted to the sound on sound,” Mould sings on one intensely Sugarful track here, and he should know: He’s had the same affliction for more than 20 years.
And it’s fully metastasized here, too, with the once-and-future post-hardcore guitar god sounding set free and set loose in a veritable toy store of synthesized doodads: The instrumental “Homecoming Parade” sounds like incidental noise left over from a discarded Blade Runner scene; “Lost Zoloft” could be the soundtrack to the highly anticipated next iteration of the Tron video game; and “180 Rain,” the disc’s bouncing opener, features Mould’s heavily processed voice sounding as though it were being forcibly dragged across the digital equivalent of corrugated sheet metal. Gimmicky? Sure. But when the follow-up, “Sunset Safety Glass,” kicks in like a digitized hailstorm set to a throbbing club beat, you won’t care. “Sunset,” the disc’s second-best track, finds Mould grafting a part of the riff from the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High”—which Husker Du once covered to miraculous effect—to both hyperactive sound effects and his best Kraftwerkian monotone: “Feel my head get trapped inside a tangle of wires,” he sing-speaks, providing the perfect image of an arty punk rocker’s electronic seduction.
So, yeah, this is a great record—forward-looking in a way that remembers the past, challenging but nonetheless accessible and, in a way, punk as ever. Not in the political sense, certainly. Citizen Mould never had much patience for that, anyway, particularly the wing of the party that got infatuated with nihilism and anarchy; “I don’t rape and I don’t pillage other people’s lives,” he sang 19 years ago on the Huskers’ great “Real World.” And it’s not punk in the strictest aesthetic sense, either, though when the guitars get fully revved up toward the second half of the disc, Modulate does become at least somewhat more traditionalist.
But as a theory of sound and how to fuck with it, punk is obviously a renewable resource, one that Mould has exploited—and expanded—throughout his career. Which is precisely what he’s up to again on Modulate. To put it gushingly, the results are thrilling. Seriously, put away your Radiohead and your Sigur Ros and any other of those fey sonic experimentalists you think are up to something new and tune into Modulate. If it’s any indication of things to come, Mould’s next step is gonna be a doozy. CP