Artist Spotlight: Sugar

Following the acrimonious break-up of transcendent Minneapolis punk band Hüsker Dü, guitarist Bob Mould was at a musical crossroads. Despite making two resentment-packed solo albums and opening for acts such as Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr., Bob was flat broke. He was essentially forced to rebuild his career from the ground up with just a guitar, rental car, and several bottles of water. Mould kept his sanity by spending his free time writing songs for something called the Copper Blue Demos. (“Copper Blue,” I’m speculating, because those were the colors of his two electric guitars).

The demos were intended to become a third solo album, but Mould handpicked two musicians-for-hire just to work out some kinks: drummer Malcolm Travis (Mould produced an album for his previous band the Zulus) and bassist David Barbe (was a friend of Mould’s boyfriend-at-the-time). After spending some time playing together, it was clear to Mould that he had found a new band. The morning before they were to play their first show at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, GA, the group sat in a Waffle House, still without a name. Mould looked at a sugar packet on the table and said “Why don’t we call it Sugar?”

This is an Artist Spotlight on the short-lived but brilliant power pop trio Sugar. One of the few upsides about covering a band with only 43 songs is that crafting a superfluous ranking of their entire catalog isn’t too difficult (I’d bet I would turn into Howard Hughes if I tried this with Guided By Voices). Since the tracks will be ordered by quality, not chronologically, this list will double as a scattered history, traveling all over the sonic map to Panama Hotels, Islands, Cities in Sky; until we arrive standing on the edge of the Hoover Dam.

Abbreviation Guide of Where Each Song Originated:
CB=Copper Blue
FU:EL=File Under: Easy Listening
L=Original songs that the band only played at live shows
LC=Cover songs that the band played at live shows

N/A “Sapphire Capital” (L)
This song is unranked because I’ve never heard it. Searches on Youtube and similar sites yield no results. The only evidence that “Sapphire Capital” even exists is it’s appearance on a few early set lists. In this Internet Age a lost song by a relatively well-known act is a pretty rare find.

N/A “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver” (LC)
A rendition of Mission of Burma’s most famous number. The only recording of “That’s” is a concert video of poor sight and sound depicting the singer Barbe as a wailing ghost thumb. If it weren’t a cover, it’d be impossible to know what was going on, and thus is the second Sugar song to get a rank of Sodium.

41. “Beer Commercial” (L)
In the Mothership’s Gateway to Geekery on Bob Mould, someone in the comment section joked that the best thing about Sugar is that there are no Grant Hart songs (the Hüsker Dü drummer’s contributions tended to be a bit hammy and bombastic with several fantastic exceptions). Well…David Barbe is no Grant Hart–his nasally singing voice is severe downgrade from GH and his lyrics sure are lyrics alright. This song is the worst offender. Mould can usually save a bad song with some guitar licks but even he’s a little off here. The smeared Live at Cabaret Metro CD that I own knows to skip “Beer Commercial” on it’s own.

40. “And You Tell Me” (B)
39. “Try Again” (B)
All of the B-Sides appear on the cleverly titled hodgepodge Besides, which would prove to be Sugar’s swan song. Mould often gets a lot of mileage out of simplistic lyrics but in these two unspectacular examples they kind of tip-toe in a circle. “Try Again” gets the nod for trying some interesting stuff with weary, defeated acoustics at the forefront and feedback blaring in the background.

38. “Granny Cool” (FU:EL)
37. “What You Want It To Be” (FU:EL)
The recording process for Sugar’s final studio album File Under: Easy Listeningwas anything but easy. The studio space, which hosted albums such as Hole’s Live Through This, was unusually large and created drum noises that sounded echoey–a bad seed if Power Pop is your goal. An entire album’s worth of material was thrown out and these two survived songs rose from the ashes like a couple of average phoenixes. The best compliment I can give “Granny” is that it isn’t nearly as bad as everyone says it is. “WYWITB” is a mid-tempo chug that sounds great at the jump but becomes repetitive after the first verse. It’s mumbly meandering reminds me of Mould’s “I Don’t Know For Sure” (a carbon copy of one of his best Dü songs, “Makes No Sense At All”)

36. “Clownmaster” (B, but the L is better)
We’ve approached “Songs I Don’t Skip” territory. “Clownmaster” is nothing more than a loud groove and you get the feeling that the guys could do this one in their sleep, but the live version is quite ferocious and works well as an interlude for songs such as “Gee Angel” and “Tilted.”

35. “Where Diamonds Are Halos” (L)
Some cringe-worthy Barbe lyrics are saved this time around by a catchy course and some mesmerizing Mould guitar. Your mileage on this one may depend on your tolerance for the line “She’s piling laundry on top of the man she impaled with a decorative spear/ If he was turned face up we could gauge his repose.”

34. “Judas Cradle” (BE)
33. “Walking Away” (BE)
During the Copper Blue recording sessions, there was a suite of six songs whose tone seemed too dense and dark for what was essentially a pop album. These tracks were “quarantined” and later unleashed after Copper Blue’s initial wave of success as a brutal EP. Beaster is a bludgeoning aural assault, featuring a song cycle centering around torture both emotional and physical with heavy religious overtones. The shapeless jam “Judas Cradle” rages like a zombie, constantly moaning and falling apart (backing vocals repeatedly cry for “Jesus” and “Mary”). The Judas Cradle torture device was a pyramid-shaped chair where the victim was placed vagina- or anus-first onto the point and slowly lowered. Conversely, the ambient “Walking Away” drifts by as the only Sugar song without drums or guitar. Mould liked to end his albums with the listener wondering if the artist is OK, and this closer’s calm organ invokes a feeling similar to the acceptance of death.

32. “Frustration” (B)
31. “Anyone” (L)
30. “Company Book” (FU:EL)
Three decent Barbe songs. “Frustration” is a dreamy shoegaze rocker that’s certainly not Loveless-level but actually wouldn’t have been out of place on MBV’s Isn’t Anything or mbv. “Anyone” somehow has a better build than “Frustration” despite being half the length. And the lightly melodic “Company Book’s” droning vocals and bridge mesh well with the song’s administration theme. The main reason for Sugar’s dissolution was because Barbe had two very young children at home and couldn’t juggle family life with a rigorous touring schedule. Mould amicably ended the group right then and there but not so amicably did not tell drummer Malcolm Travis that the band had broken up. Travis and Mould’s relationship was strained or several years after that and was mended only recently.

29. “After All Roads Have Led to Nowhere” (L)
28. “Going Home” (B)
27. “Running Out of Time” (L)
A trio of nice and short Mould songs that were played often in concert. All three are punchy, catchy, and the titles pretty much explain what each song is about: “Nowhere” concerns aspirations that didn’t work out, “Going” is (nods yes), and “Running” is (nods yes). It was a two-and-a-half hour drive between where I went to college and my hometown and I usually cued up “Going Home” right before I made that last turn.

26. “Panama City Hotel” (FU:EL)
25. “Come Around” (BE)
Two songs with nearly the exact same instrumentation that are somehow quite different. “Panama,”– sorry, “Panama City Hotel” is a rustic ode to the mundane, decidedly not glamorous details of being in a beautiful place without any money. “PCH” is a distant cousin of another serene Mould travel log Workbook’s “Brasillia Crossed With Trenton.” “Come Around” repeats the same groove and lyrics (“come around”) for nearly five minutes, but the result is oddly hypnotic. The swirling guitar (which sounds like every Foo Fighters song ever) and the repetitious invitation instills a sense of warmth. But when the five minutes end with a prolonged sharp, squeal, the listener is left wondering just what exactly she has just been invited to. Although Beaster has this reputation as a pummeling album it’s two bookends are soft and nearly sweet.

24. “Feeling Better” (BE)
Some random rock critic described this synth-powered ballad as being “tickled by shards of glass after jumping out a window of a tall building.” Added to that high praise, “Feeling Better” is the only Beaster song that contains any semblance of fun: Bob Mould, David Barbe, and another Bob Mould create heartfelt harmonies like a trio of bloody Beach Boys. Beginning as a standard break-up song, things end on a bizarre note as the singer reveals himself to be God and states that the person he’s breaking up with is all of us.

23. “Fortune Teller” (CB)
Nearly halfway through our countdown we encounter our first song off of Copper Blue, Sugar’s brilliant debut and one of the best records of the 90’s. “Fortune Teller” isn’t particularly outstanding in any way and suffers from being just a really, really good song. On a different album from a different band, it could’ve been a lead single. The band never actually played this one live, but Mould resurrected it twenty years later for the tour surrounding the Copper Blue/Beaster reissue.

22. “Slick” (CB)
“Fortune Teller” ends with the ominous sound of a garage door opening, kind of messing with that song’s playlist value but creating great ambiance for “Slick.” Like the other two “dark” songs off of Copper Blue, “A Good Idea” and “The Slim,” “Slick” is a spiraling narrative about a grim relationship. After a car crash, Mould’s protagonist is reduced to a vegetative state, and the only one who comes and feeds him is a lover that he doesn’t want to see. This five minute episode of The Twilight Zone and #21 on the countdown have something strange in common: they both end with Mould pretending to be a DJ and reacting to positively to his own song.

21. “Mind is an Island” (B)
A great B-Side that is easily better than half the material on FU:EL. As evidenced by other songs on this countdown, Mould experimented often with POV in his lyrics. Here, he portrays a raving homeless man who once had everything but no has to sing for his supper. The rapidly changing guitar squall meshes well with the narrator’s fragile state. Unfortunately, there were three better up-tempo pop songs on FU:EL–“Your Favorite Thing,” “Can’t Help You Anymore,” and “Gee Angel”–causing “Mind is an Island” to be swept under the rug.

20. “In the Eyes of My Friends (B)
A so-so Barbe B-Side that sounds damn good on the live CD The Joke is Always On Us, Sometimes. The lyrics seem authentic and sound best shouted out after a skillful build. Barbe spent a good deal of his Sugar output trying to be MBV or Nirvana when he should’ve focused on out-Weezering Weezer.

19. “A Good Idea” (CB)
A Pixies rip-off, but a darn infectious one nonetheless. Mould claims to have unconsciously lifted the opening bass line from “Debaser,” and the song contains the quiet-loud-quiet dynamics that were practically invented by Frank Black and Co. Due to it’s grim subject matter, “A Good Idea” also seems out of place as the second track on Copper Blue But, since Pixies were a rip-off of Hüsker Dü, I think it’s a good idea to give this jumpy tale of assisted suicide via drowning a nice spot on the list.

18. “The Act We Act” (CB)
The first ten seconds of this song are the first ten seconds of Copper Blue, and serve as a perfect litmus for how much you will enjoy the album to come. The noises and ideas at play remind me a bit of an introductory level to a video game–teaching the listener rules that will be expanded upon later. The allusions to “curtains and acts”, this being Side One Track One, and the doubtful monologue help to epitomize the phrase “butterflies in stomach.”

17. “Can’t Help You Anymore” (FU:EL)
In a span of three seconds, Mould transforms from an architect of hardcore rock to a bulking, balding Carly Rae Jepsen. The sprightly, infinitely singable “Can’t Help You Anymore” expertly blends doo-doo-doo-doo harmonies with the band’s signature morose lyrics and meaty hooks. It might be the Sugar song with the most, well, sugar.

16. “Dum Dum Boys” (LC)
Sugar (and by extension, Hüsker Dü) excelled at picking cover songs. The selections were standalone excellent, yet the group was able to discover untapped sources of energy that were seemingly inside the song all along. This David Bowie homage builds and builds into an incendiary space jam. Mould wasn’t the singer or fashion icon Bowie was (as evidenced by the crazzzy shirts he wore during his Sugar tenure), but he could keep with Ziggy in terms of passion and sound (as evidenced by two awesome songs named “Changes”).

15. “Your Favorite Thing” (FU:EL)
Inspired by a line My Bloody Valentine’s Bilinda Butcher sings in “Blown a Wish,” this single remains gloriously upbeat despite some genuinely creepy lyrics. Lines like “dream about you every night, something tells me that’s not right” and “I’ll sit on a bookcase in your room” read like a spec script for a Child’s Playmovie.

14. “Armenia City in the Sky” (LC) The Who’s landmark album The Who Sell Outlampooned the commercialization of music that remains relevant today, but was super relevant during the heyday of MTV. Similar to Hüsker Dü’s rendition of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” a breezy psychedelic jingle is set ablaze. This fiery vision features Mould’s ragged howls battling Travis’ booming artillery over what was the band’s secret weapon.

13. “Gift” (FU:EL)
Mould first listened to My Bloody Valentine’s landmark Loveless during a snowy ride home from a show, and was completely blown away by what he heard. The album completely altered his view on what guitars and vocals could do. Mould eventually struck up a friendship with MBV frontman Kevin Shields and received an amplifier as a present: the gift that inspired “Gift.” This song “that best that (Mould) could do” to repay Shields, sounds like a Loveless track with poppiness and direction.

12. “Man on the Moon” (CB)
1992 was a good year for songs named “Man on the Moon.” This closer is apparently an old nursery rhyme given the gift of power chords. It touches on how sleep is a vague form of finality: we don’t remember anything once our “heads turn to sand.” Near the end of the song is a stunted, creaky guitar along with haunted choral vocals peaking out like little ghosts. And, as sappy as it seems, my favorite Sugar lyric is “As strange as it seems if you wish all your dreams they’ll come true after all.”

11. “Believe What You’re Saying” (FU:EL)
Three of Sugar’s four releases possess a consistent theme throughout: sunny, melancholy pop (Copper Blue); torture (Beaster); and B-Sides (Besides). But due to the chaotic nature of it’s recording, FU:EL is a bit messy as a result: it contains hazy My Bloody Valentine-inspired fuzz (4 songs), super-catchy bubblegum (3), whispery country (2), “Granny Cool” (1), and a devastating closer (1). Consider it a minor miracle that most of these mismatched parts have a pretty high sum. The jangly “Believe What You’re Saying” channels Fables of the Reconstruction-era R.E.M. with a gorgeous chorus and thoughtful words that simultaneously sound spoken and sung.

10. “Needle Hits E” (B) Yep, a B-Side in the Top Ten. “Needle Hits E” equals the band’s best work and I can’t believe this song wasn’t saved as a single for FU:ELThough it concerns a beaten-down man taking life one tank of gas at a time, “E” is practically “Eye of the Tiger” by Sugar standards. Optimism and defiance are weaved together with pessimism and woe with golden hooks, and it is clear from the title what wins out.

9. “Helpless” (CB) One of Mould’s great unheralded talents was concocting a sing-song melody and finding an exact guitar part to match it. After a machine gun-like opening from Travis a riff appears that’s so immediately accessible it’s hard to believe it’s never been done before. The drums, bass, and vocals dance around this rising and falling riff while a simple pluck takes over in it’s absence during the chorus. The title says “Helpless,” but this is one of the few Sugar songs with a rigid structure that ends in practically the same fashion that it begins.

8. “The Slim” (CB)
7. “Explode and Make Up” (CB)
6. “JC Auto” (BE)
Three of the most raw, nakedly emotional songs in Mould’s 30 year career. It feels practically corrosive ranking these three so close together, like combining unknown elements. “The Slim” is about a man whose partner died of AIDS (“The Slim” is a slang term for the virus) and must await his turn alone. The song was Mould effectively coming out as a homosexual, which was not an easy thing to do in the early 90’s. The bitter emotional turmoil of “Explode and Make Up” contains some of Mould’s best writing and definitely contains the former; a possible make-up session is up for debate as the track fades into wishing well echoes. Finally, the savage six minute “JC Auto (Jesus Christ Autobiography)” is an absolute beat-down, with Mould as a Christ-figure angerly debating topics of love, drugs, faith until the rage comes pouring out in a cathartic chorus (“LOOK LIKE JESUS CHRIST ACT LIKE JESUS CHRIST I KNOW I KNOW I KNOW I KNOW”). Trivia: The first letter of every word in the line “Parts of It Seem Over Now, You Expect A Real Solution” spell out “POISON YEARS,” previously the darkest song in the Mould library.

5. “Gee Angel” (FU:EL)

A mega dose of whimsical pop that ends with a suicide. The lyrics paint a strange narrative of Mould “buying a set of wings that he couldn’t use.” Many speculate that “Gee Angel” is about what happens when you put a loved one on a pedestal. This might be Travis’ best song as a drummer, as he provides both finesse and muscle while also supplying excellent drum fills. Filming the music video that contains an old educational cartoon was one of the last things the band did together.

4. “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” (CB)

I first discovered Sugar after Mould “covered” this as part of the Mothership’s Undercover series. This is far and away the group’s most popular song evidenced by the fact that my Mothership (my Mom) has heard it before. After Nirvana blew the roof off of modern music, there was space to try almost anything, including a gorgeous pop song on acoustic. There’s a twinge of sadness to the bouncy opening riff and there’s a near-salsa breakdown near the end. Mould has compared the melody of “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” to “Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

3. “Changes” (CB)

“Changes” has a rubber soul, beginning as a lovely welcome but turning into a whirlwind once the singer realizes he can’t burrow into his loved one’s head.
The hard-charged five minutes conclude with something resembling a woozy theremin attempting to lull the listener to sleep so that “Helpless” can jolt them awake.

2. “Tilted” (BE)

A bit of a cheat here. In my personal opinion this is the best song that Mould has ever written: just when you think “Tilted” can’t get any more intense, it launches into a Cerberus-like guitar solo with two very disparate bites. The non-stop energy, tight instrumentation and precise lyrics perfectly encapsulate the insanity of silence versus telling a loved one how you feel. However, I’ll always think of Sugar as the group that combined 90’s edge with 60’s innocence, and the song I have ranked #1 exemplifies that better than any other.

1. “Hoover Dam” (CB)

Mould combines the ’60’s pop music touchstones he adored as a child to construct the towering “Hoover Dam:” the Beach Boys intro, harpischords from the Left Banke, things get Younger Than Yesterday during the backwards guitar part, and a little “Tomorrow Never Knows,” thing at the end. The lyrics give of the impression of a suicide song, but in interviews Mould has said “Hoover Dam” is more about the realization that some things in the world and bigger than we are, and really the only thing you can do to comprehend it all is to stand there and say “Wow.”

Comments: If I can’t change your mind, what are some of your favorite Sugar songs?