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Mudhoney - Under a Billion Suns Print E-mail
Tuesday, 07 March 2006
ImageSub Pop
performance 7.5
sound 8.5
released 2006

Somewhere along the line Mudhoney went quantum, although it's still too early to tell whether they're stumbling towards oblivion or reaching for enlightenment. On 2002's Since We've Become Translucent and here again on Under A Billion Suns, this added cosmic awareness is quantified in … a horn and sax section. That's a strange move for a group that has steadfastly defended a muddy fort of loud guitar rock to ride Mark Arm's atonal, occasionally abrasive and always indifferent howl.
If Mudhoney were to claim that they invented grunge, it would be about as credible as Al Gore's assertion that he invented the Internet, although the statements would be similar in context. Al Gore was certainly doing something on planet Earth around the time the Internet sprang up, and likewise Mudhoney was busy tearing up the Seattle scene and probably pissing off the local law in the late 1980s – around the time and place that grunge took on its current lexical significance. That's about as firm as things get for a band that seems to have a love-hate relationship with itself: at times ironic (their addition to the soundtrack for Cameron Crowe's 1992 film “Singles” was “Overblown,” an angry punk piece that trashed the entire scene/decade) and often schizophrenic in dealing with their own commercial failure in the wake of the grunge bubble. That they're releasing an album at all in 2006 is miraculous (longtime bassist Matt Lukin quit before the 2002 release and is replaced here by Guy Maddison, which I suppose isn't as serious as losing an Arm), and equally satisfying is that they've come full circle to land again on the incomparable Sub Pop.

With an outsider status as the catalyst for inspiration, Mudhoney's charm has always been that of the ugly kid who could run circles around you with smarmy wit. This is what makes the joyless opener “Where is the Future?” so depressing – dour, angry guitar precedes an uncharacteristically pessimistic Arm: "Where is the future that was promised us?/I'm sick to death of this one." Has Mudhoney lost their wicked-tongued enthusiasm? Do they pine for a success that is deserved of long-toiling but obscure rockers? Not that you can tell if he's lying, or that he's even convincing in any way other than the fact that he probably doesn't prescribe to any traditional sense of happiness, but Arm proclaims that "happy days are here again" on follow-up “It Is Us.” It's the slow-moving guitar sludge and pouting that trip up some of the early tracks (“Endless Yesterday”), but Mudhoney shakes through it with boogie and chant on album standout “On the Move.” You won't catch them referencing their actual band name in any lyrics or song titles, but they're one of the few non-rap acts to at least acknowledge their existence and legacy through the use of a pronoun: "We are so outside we're on the inside."

Under a Billion Suns would have been a catastrophe had it been dragged down by loneliness, so it's a relief that Mudhoney celebrates their condition on “I Saw the Light,” as Arm half-asses a vocal-only Elvis swing to an affect that is probably as strange as you are imagining. The career-encapsulating radio-punk instrumental “A Brief Celebration of Indifference” is one of the tightest arrangements on the album, and Arm unchains over sax and Sabbath as “Let's Drop In” reaches an unexpectedly mature crescendo. Channeling Black Sabbath again, “Hard-On for War” flows and stings like “War Pigs.” Don't worry if the politics are half-baked, they're consistent in their horny rabble-rousing and that's all that really matters. With the real men off fighting, Arm and company find that they're the best of what's left: "These lovely lonesome ladies/They don't ignore me anymore …/I'm the only game in town/And it's so easy to score."

Mudhoney, now in their third decade, are eight studio albums, two compilations (2000's March to Fuzz is a great place to start) and one market collapse deep, and here releasing another punk record on the backside of a decade that has yet to define itself musically. So while the horns are playfully mature, that's not what it's about. It's about sickness and hangovers not being mutually exclusive and taking out your anger at the establishment on a lonely serviceman's wife. Trendy hipsters will trash anything right up until it goes retro, but it's all just a variation of everything else. Don't tell me that grunge is dated unless you're prepared to make the same argument about rock and roll. Maybe Mudhoney will lash out against time on their next album, but they won't have to convince me of anything – really dirty punk rock never gets old.

I had a problem with some of the bleak, murky guitar noise that kicks off the album, but as things progress, Steve Turner's typically crisp guitar cuts are as loud and lively as ever. Dan Peters' drum crack is dominant, loud and consistently awesome (“I Saw the Light,” “Endless Yesterday,” “Empty Shells”), and Mark Arm has a punk voice that no amount of production can or should touch and no amount of aging seems to effect. Under a Billion Suns is cleaner than their earlier releases, but it's still uglier and angrier than anything you're likely to hear on the radio. The horn section surprisingly doesn't take off any of the edge (except for the jazzy ending to album closer “Blindspots”), even helping to close out some of the earlier tracks that otherwise might have landed awkwardly (“Where is the Future?”), and going positively epic on “Let's Drop In.”

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