Bob Mould: Modulate

Bob Mould
Granary Music

Change is hard; change is necessary, yet change ultimately is good. If change scares you, stay inside and keep playing your old Hüsker Dü, Sugar and other solo Bob Mould CDs. Modulate is a musical transition. While perhaps forsaking commercial success for musical growth, Bob Mould gives us a “bear with me while I try something new” release following some four years of relative silence.

After 20 years of loud guitar rock band recording and touring, Mould made a promise to abandon his signature sonically distorted guitar sounds for something different in 1998. While billing tour support of his last solo album Last Dog And Pony Show as “an end to the punk-rocky guitar guy standing at stage left, jumping around and yelling”, Mould did put in a few great decades of hardcore rock time.

His loud and tuneful rock career has been underway since age 19, when Mould really paved the way for others in alternative rock, first with Hüsker Dü in the 1980s (where he was oft-cited as a sort of innovative American Pete Townshend) and then through the 1990s, releasing several CDs with his second band Sugar as well as exploring a viable ongoing solo career.

With his influential guitar sound and music forever inscribed as a footnote to rock history, Mould decided it was enough. “That’s good for when you’re in your 20s and you have that angst and you want to change the world and you’re pissed off at everybody,” Mould declared. “I don’t feel like I’m going to be a lost soul by not playing in the white-boy-punk-rock guitar game.”

So at age 38 (he’ll be 41 in October), he walked away from rock into a new realm. He simplified his life, lost weight and let go of the way he used to worry and convolute over everything. He also spent seven months in late 1999/early 2000 living out a childhood dream as Creative Consultant at the now defunct AOL/Time Warner-owned World Championship Wrestling.

Friends in the business let him know about this opportunity and this wrestling fan ran with it. He helped steer creative direction of the product, making talent decisions, managing the “behind the curtain” spots, as well as being part of deciding who fights who, for how long, and who wins or loses. As part of a team creating four to seven hours weekly of episodic television watched by three to four million households, Mould says it was perhaps the hardest work he’d ever done.

“I wish I could have convinced the other creatives to see things more my way, and less through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy who’s just learned about girls and masturbation,” Mould relates. “The wrestlers, by and large, are gifted athletes who need a little guidance and encouragement. Unfortunately, some of the writers felt that athleticism and natural charisma weren’t as important as hare-brained stunts that lead to injury, or playing on xenophobia and homophobia to draw a crowd.”

Mould claims he learned a lot about life from the job, but it took him months to decompress from the experience. Perhaps it was during that time when he started listening to the likes of Expander by Sasha and was intrigued by the droning structure, the way it seemed to relate to his own pop sensibility. He liked Digweed, Swayzak, Paul Van Dyk, Morel and the kind of do-it-yourself spirit found among artists in electronic music. He went out and bought lots of new toys, outfitting a studio full of electronic gear.

Aside from writing things like the theme music for Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, Mould spent the intervening time relearning the process of composition — using only electronic tools — samplers, synthesizers, and computer-based recorders. Modulate serves up simple chordal structures, direct lyrical content and manages to mirror the density of Mould’s sonic layering in media other than guitar.

The Mould pop sensibility remains — only it’s a palette of vocorder, distortion, loops, samples, and other noise tricks from which he paints his sound pictures now. And, to be honest, Modulate does not totally abandon the past; occasional strains of that familiar Mould guitar sound are evident.

Already, it has incited a flurry of mixed reaction from fans, intriguing some and affronting others. Mould is hoping fans listen with an open mind: “I’m trying to find different ways to create songs, and while the work may not appear to be as sophisticated as the work of others who specialize in electronic-based music, I think the songs stand up as well as any I’ve written.”

This is a CD that requires patience. The distinctive Bob Mould voice and songwriting remain intact, that deceptively soft-toned delivery still packing power in the words and images it conveys, only now filtered through and surrounded by a conglomeration of electronic effects.

The songs that sport electronic effects seem curiously concentrated on the first half of this CD. “180 Rain” opens with its array of sirens, car alarms, vocoder and other noises to enhance the lyrical idea of “a catastrophe is happening tonight”, like rain that can’t be stopped, another unhappy relationship.

“Sunset Safety Glass” lets noisy synth sounds and drum machines replace familiar instruments in this tune that trades on repetition to drive home its musical point, while oddly juxtaposed lyrical images seek to disturb: “Faster ’round the roller rink / Smell of meat and suicide / Guides me nearer to dementia.”

“Semper Fi” is old-school melodic Mould dressed in new electronic clothes, and is one of the true hybrid songs. Electronic effects are layered much the way the guitars used to be, sonically couching the pleasant melody and obscure lyrics that seem to reference some sort of secret military love affair. “Lost Zoloft” similarly seems very much a familiar Mould concoction, only with synthesized keyboard percussions driving its stream-of-consciousness comments as lyrics that explore emotions and self-doubts.

Fully halfway through the CD, dedicated fans will delight to the distinctive Mould guitar sound on “Slay/Sway”, a lyrical dream/nightmare that moves forward without a familiar chorus or refrain (just the catchy repetition of the music). “The Receipt” follows a similar structure with old guitar sounds intact, and apart from the final half minute of electronic coda, could fit easily on Mould’s last solo album.

“Quasar” lets Mould play with his new synthesizers, samplers, and digital toys in another interesting layered clatter that’s tuneful and catchy, but suffers from its halfway treatment. It seems just different enough to displease old fans, yet not electronically original enough to win over new fans. Mould veers into New Order/Pet Shop Boys territory in “Trade”, and not unpleasantly. Using synthesized hooks around his seasoned pop vocals, he tells a tale of an unnamed trade that suggests pleasant karmic recourse.

“Soundonsound”, by contrast, shows how old and new can work together. Perhaps my favorite song here (pop traditionalist that I am), it weaves a chorus of unusual rhythms, and even sports a middle bridge, telling a tale of a couple that has grown apart and yet remains together.

“Come on Strong” ironically does just that, another strong example to show that Mould can successfully meld his classic sound with a new electronic one. Here is where the CD’s title is derived, as Mould explores the difficulties of maintaining the right balance in this fragile life: “Some times we make our choices / Some times we take our chances / Know when to walk away / Know when to stay / We try to find the balance / We try to keep it straight / We try to stay in tune / We modulate.”

“Author’s Lament” ends the album with electric piano and digital percussion, starting spare and building with eerie feedback and noise, in perhaps an apt questioning of identity. The point here is that Mould is trying on a new skin, and is to be admired for the effort. Instead of selling out, he’s stepping ahead and taking some chances.

This is just a start however. As mentioned above, not all of these noise-pop songs achieve the right degree of unity and balance between old and new. Some get lost in a limbo of electronic cacophony, with too many elements not coming together to match Mould’s pop-songwriting skill.

Three instrumental tracks are interesting experimental diversions between longer songs and give Mould a chance to display his studio mastery: “Homecoming Parade” is a two-minute “art piece” that uses bagpipe samples and other noise to conjure up the title’s image. “Without?” sounds like a piece of something from a longer soundtrack, while “Hornery” is a short distorted guitar feedback session that lasts just over a minute.

Perhaps this is a sneak preview of what’s to come next. Now that the ambitious Mould has his own independent record company (Granary Music), he plans two more releases in 2002. In May, we’ll get the all-electronica Long Playing Grooves(under the alias moniker Loudbomb) and in the Fall he promises a softer acoustic collection entitled Body of Song.

Mould is a happy paradox: a lover of change (even in Hüsker Dü days, he flirted with psychedelia and folk music and his more recent “Megamanic” was a fun romp into pseudo-rap) and yet the same angry, creative sonic-layered genius he always was and ever will be.

Modulate doesn’t claim to be Mould’s best work; he admits it is a departure as he tries to re-invent himself with new tools. He’s an artist-in-progress, growing and learning as he goes. Still, this CD sounds better the more you play it. One hopes the public will understand it as a first step toward a new phase in an important ongoing career.