“Real Low Vibe: The Reprise Recordings 1992-1998”
Cherry Red Records
It was a sure sign of record label bafflement that Mudhoney was one of the last Seattle-based bands to be signed by a major during the frantic signing of contracts in the Pacific North-West in the 1990s. As one of the more obviously commercial of the offerings available for acquisition, they still found themselves behind the likes of Hammerbox, Flop and Best Kissers in the World in leaving the world of independence and joining the big boys and girls. It’s difficult to understand how Mudhoney with their catchy melodies, ability to crank out the odd radio-friendly single and endearing humour could seem a tougher challenge than the curiously-named and far heavier Alice in Chains or even the Sabbath darkness of Soundgarden but nevertheless, it was 1993 before Reprise took the band off Sub Pop’s hands.
Of course, the band themselves were wise to the dangers of signing their lives away. Vocalist and guitarist Mark Arm and guitarist Steve Turner had already played together for many years, most notably in Green River, whose members bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard had no qualms about going off the form the far more commercial project Mother Love Bone…then Temple of the Dog…then Pearl Jam, steadily climbing the ladder to untold riches by changing their sound to suit the market. Arm and Turner meanwhile recruited The Melvins alumni Matt Lukin on bass and Dan Peters on drums, eternally the go-to drummer in Seattle, fresh in this case from Feast.
The band they formed as a four-piece, Mudhoney, did not musically dilute itself to jump on any band wagons. They remained at heart, garage punks, devotees of The Stooges and slaves to fuzz and distortion. Their cache as the members of Green River who didn’t sell out found favour with Sonic Youth who took Mudhoney on their UK tour, perfectly timed so that their debut EP on Sub Pop, Superfuzz Bigmuff and assorted single releases were not only snapped up but pestered the indie charts for months and became instant collector’s items. It feels noteworthy that the track “In and Out of Grace” features the same sample of dialogue from the film, The Wild Angels (Peter Fonda‘s “We wanna be free to do what we wanna do…”) significantly before Primal Scream used the same line in their track “Loaded”. History would have you believe it was the other way around, with Primal Scream being the innovators but this is very typical of Mudhoney – they were there first and yet are treated as almost invisible entities.
All this occurred at the turn of the decade with their first self-titled full-length album equally pleasing critics and record buyers without bestowing riches upon the band members. This pattern reached boiling point with 1991’s Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, an album which delivered on every level, apart from to the band who watched helplessly as Sub Pop dithered over promotional duties and signed-up new acts whilst letting their existing roster rot on the shelf. Early suitors were Caroline Records, more well practised as distributors in truth and with ideas of their own about how Mudhoney should temper their sound to, y’know, sell more records. Rescue came instead from Warners’ imprint Reprise, the best possible match imaginable for the band, with the patience historically to cope with everyone from Captain Beefheart to Devo. They were even allowed to stick with their own producer (at the time, Egg Studios’ Conrad Uno) and artwork (Ed Fotheringham). What could go wrong? WHAT?
Well, essentially, nothing did, aside from hopeless timing, a band who simply wouldn’t compromise their sound or songwriting and increasing apathy from a label who could easily afford to ignore any number of bands Mudhoney’s size. Their insistence on maintaining the sound they had moulded so perfectly from across the past decade meant that the amount they were given to record their Reprise debut, the album presented in glorious completeness here, Piece of Cake, instead bought them all houses, whilst normal service resumed nailing down tracks the way they knew best, though they at least promoted themselves from 8-track to 16.
The album remains such an odd beast. It genuinely swings from some of the greatest moments recorded by the band – the bowel-shuddering “Suck You Dry”; the underrated fairground inferno of “When in Rome”; the preposterous urgency of “Blinding Sun” to some of their lousiest – who wants skits on records? Pissing about and self-indulgence which barely works on first listen, let alone a band whose very DNA focused their output towards audiences who played their records until there was literally no groove left. Time has not come to their aid and the comedy punctuation points still throw shade upon the release, which smuggled itself into the UK Top 40 but still feels, well, a bit flabby and self-regarding. At 17 tracks, it was already somewhat bloated and without too much aggressive trimming, there’s an amazing album here.
Added to the 17 tracks are a further nine, seven of which are the EP Five Dollar Bob’s Mock Cooter Stew. This in itself is a reminder of how wayward the band were at the time, happy it seems to experiment but documenting their work on record every time. For fans, this is great ultimately but in terms of record sales and gathering new listeners, not so much, with yet more re-recordings (Piece of Cake’s “Make it Now here “Make it Now Again”; “Deception Pass”, and “Underide” already released on 7”s). Other B-sides, “King Sandbox” and “Baby O Baby” are also included – only the former stands out. It’s possible that this album alone was enough to shift Reprise’s attention away from them for the remainder of their stay on the label as the follow-up, 1995’s My Brother the Cow, was not blessed with promotion. This is typical, as it is comfortably one of the best albums to band has recorded to date.
Working with producer Jack Endino was undoubtedly one of the reasons the album is so magical. It’s also very much a product of its time, recorded in the immediate aftermath of Kurt Cobain‘s death and at a time when tensions were ramped up in the Seattle area with fingers pointed in every direction (well, actually, one particular direction, of which more shortly) as to how sunshine and promise had turned to abject gloom and division. There is a leanness to this record not even seen on their revered early work. Opener “Judgement, Rage, Retribution and Thyme” feels almost accusatory and certainly threatening, not that the brake pedal is evident in track two, “Generation Spokesmodel”:
Oh I got these looks
That just won’t quit
I got at least
A half of some kind of wit
I got a guitar
Check it out, I’m a star
Hey kids, how would I look on
The cover of Spin
OK, it could be about anybody but realistically, you can narrow it down quite efficiently yourselves. “Into Your Shtik” goes even further:
You’re so tormented
To all the assholes just like you
Who’ve come and gone before you
Just plain dull
Why don’t you
Blow your brains out, too?
You’re so into yer shtik
Musically, the band are magnificent, Arm and Turner entwined as one, a whirlwind of slide guitar and feedback controlled like a master snake-charmer; Lukin and Peters firing like army personnel on a suicide mission, cracking off shots and quickening and slowing the ominous pace disorientatingly. It’s not until track six, “In Your Finest Suit”, that it feels like you’re given chance to take a breath. The notes accompanying the set wisely point out the influence of others on the album – Beefheart on “What Moves the Heart” and “Ball-Peen Hammer”; The Stooges on “1995” (their nod to the band’s “1969”); Robert Johnson and The Flesh Eaters on “Judgement…”, you can find Led Zep, Bad Brains and otherwise at your leisure. Lyrically it was all too much for Reprise who now just twiddled their thumbs and waited for the contract to run down but the band continued to record and, as was their wont, play live. Seeing them myself around this time and contrary to what some may say, the attendance was markedly down on previous tours, though the band were still on top form.
Extra tracks are plentiful, from B-sides such their work with Jimmie Dale Gilmore (“Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown” and “Holden”) to the tracks from the bonus seven inch which accompanied the vinyl release (the band had grown wise to their own folly and these are easily skipped over) to their excellent contribution to the soundtrack for With Honors, “Run Shithead Run” which ensured their telephone was not sufficiently troubled with follow-up offers. Further offerings include demo-quality noodlings that quite rightly stayed on the maybe pile. It doesn’t matter, My Brother the Cow, irrespective of lousy sales, label apathy and top ten lists is peak Mudhoney.
1998’s Tomorrow Hit Today couldn’t come soon enough for the band or the label. If anything, they were now one of the few Seattle bands still on a major but those who remained alongside them were titans of the mainstream, in particular Foo Fighters whom Mudhoney had virtually nothing in common with by this stage. The urgency had gone from the band but in its place was a more studious approach – not a resignation but an acceptance of their place in the world and a pride that they existed on their own terms. Working this time alongside Jim Dickinson, there’s far more space for the band to manoeuvre, certainly it’s more overtly bluesier, employing the band’s increasingly favoured slide guitar for purposes other than country inflections. Tomorrow Hit Today is recorded quite defiantly as an album – there’s no feeling that these are strung together single ideas nor the cream that rose naturally to the top – it feels like Mudhoney flexing their muscles and acting like gown-ups with no point to prove other than to themselves. Could they have become the commercial success Reprise hoped for? Most certainly. Was that the sound which flowed through their marrow? Nay.
Of the three studio albums here, it’s the one most worthy of reappraisal. I have to say I was a little underwhelmed when it first appeared (though I do appear to have two vinyl copies and the CD, which is possibly a little overboard) but now it feels like the album you can proudly show people to dismiss any preconceptions. There are gargantuan beasts here – “Beneath the Valley of the Underdog” snaps all the way through its nearly nine minute running time, whilst tracks like “Night of the Hunted” combine their early wallop with a knowing intensity and “Poisoned Water” is as close to The Sonics has the band has yet drifted. Yet again, there are excellent extras to wade through – the very limited single, “Butterfly Stroke” is well worth a listen, as is their cover of Roxy Music’s “Edition of You” which backed that release. The album did absolutely nothing. It was tricky to even find out when it was coming out, let alone find a copy other than online. Such a lack of coverage at the time really taints this album, which is tremendously unjust – it’s an incredibly rewarding album to revisit and it’s a relief that it was recorded at a time when its existence didn’t rely on a digital world where this could far more literally have disappeared without a trace.
Bringing up the rear on this collection is On Tour Now, an excellent reminder of how terrifyingly majestic Mudhoney are live. Recorded in Seattle in 1993, the first eight tracks (actual seven, “Fashion Forecast” is Arm crowd banter) were only ever a short-lived promotional release and its reappearance is much appreciated. Alongside their own material, there are renditions of “You Stupid Asshole” and “The Money Will Roll Right In” by Angry Samoans and Fang respectively, which hopefully will have you seeking out the originals too. There are even three bonus live tracks, just to ensure the diehard Mudhoney fan isn’t too jaded by re-re-releases. Mudhoney’s Reprise years, it transpires, were a triumph, only clouded by the greed of others and a fickle world which so easily distracted by brightly coloured wallpaper.