Album of the Week: Sugar – Copper Blue
Hey there you! Yes, you, Scottish new music blogger! What the hell are doing writing about an album that came out twenty years ago by some band that split up donkeys ago?!?
Well I guess that’s a fair question, but unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ll have seen that this record – and its follow-ups Beaster and FUEL – have been remastered and repackaged for release this summer.
Erstwhile frontman Bob Mould has even been playing the album live under his solo banner of late and while it ain’t new it means a hell of a lot to me and is well worth looking at in its latest form.
Now I’m not going to witter on about how much Copper Blue means to me or how it changed my life. It actually didn’t, back in 1992 I saw it as a very good album indeed, but not a patch on Nevermind or Ten and it was at least another five years until I owned my own copy as opposed to a worn out cassette recording.
But things have changed. The albums from that era (I was a semi-professional grunge kid) that I fish out regularly as a 30-something slacker throwback aren’t Nevermind, Ten or Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, it’s Dirty by Sonic Youth, Green Mind by Dinosaur Jr and this.
Put simply, this is a classic. It’s up there with Grace, Unknown Pleasures, Loveless and OK Computer. There is songcraft on offer here that pisses over 99.9% of all bands that have ever existed.
Sure, Hüsker Dü (Mould’s old band for those who don’t obsess over his career in the way I do) had quality and creativity seeping out of every pore and orifice but they never quite created an album that from start to finish could be held up as a 10/10 job. And could the gentleman at the back please sit down and stop waving round that copy of Zen Arcade, please?
And what a start it has. The Act That We Act has one of the greatest guitar riffs that I’ve ever heard and it’s that sound that gets the hairs on the back of your neck up straight away. It’s a stunning opening gambit, heavily as hell and the only song that really seemed to fit in with that era of American rock music. Sludgy, distorted evenly paced and melodic, the card-carrying lumberjack shirt brigade (that would be me at 14 AND 34 by the way) loved it.
A Good Idea is next. I’m pretty sure I heard this on the old Evening Session (pre-Lammo) before getting hold of my penny pinching tape copy and that’s what piqued my interest in the first place. Again, it’s that intro, THAT David Barbe bassline and that twitching, frantic building outro. No bloody wonder my ears flicked in the direction of the radio when I first heard this.
Mould’s voice has always had a distinct quality – too ragged to really drive the band into the mainstream, but enough charisma and individuality to guarantee instant recognition without the risk of slipping into self parody. The next brace of tunes – Changes and Helpless are a one-two of pure pop charm and encapsulate the optimistic feel of this album compared with Hüsker Dü and Mould’s early solo work. Both boast sneakily catchy guitar melodies and sing-a-long lyrics and still sound fresh 20 years on.
Then there’s a the curveball. Hoover Dam with its acoustic guitar and stabbing keyboards sounds more like a forgotten sixties psychedelic pop classic. Ridiculously, it works, even when a big guitar solo breaks out. In the eyes of many, it’s the best thing on here.
The Slim is considerably more ragged and closer to the bottom of the list when I recall the songs on Copper Blue. On revisitation, however, it actually sounds bloody great – a steady rhythm and riff, with Mould getting increasingly loud and agitated as the song pushes towards a rough conclusion.
So then to If I Can’t Change Your Mind. If any song here is out of place, it’s this. Maybe it’s overfamiliarity with 6 Music playing it regularly. Maybe it the simplicity of melody and lyrics. But if there’s ever a track we’d consider skipping it’s ‘the one that everyone knows’, which unhelpfully appears twice more on this disc as a solo acoustic B-side and a similar-sounding radio session.
Fortune Teller feels like the poor cousin in the package, the only Copper Blue song not featured on the live disc. I’m honestly perplexed as to why. It’s a rocker in the vein of Changes, and arguably Mould’s strongest vocal. The affectations that make Fortune Teller “fortune teheheheller” are utterly charming. This was an instant standout for us in 1992 and it’s still strong.
The growling, downtuned guitars, feedback and ba-ba-bas of Slick take us back to flickers of grunginess. Lyrics like “I hate your face/I’m sick of staring at the wall” were also catnip for angry teens. Far more upbeat is Man in the Moon, which is more like a sequel to Hoover Dam with synth breaks and lyrics barely the right side of cheese. It’s a fantastic ending to a most wonderful album.
But of course, this isn’t just about the original ten track record, there are bags of other goodies to be had. Rounding out the first disc are a clutch of B-sides and a radio session. B-sides include the upbeat pop of Needle Hits E and Try Again. Both are decent enough and their inclusion is a treat. It’s not hard to see why didn’t make the cut, though which is where the ferocious Clownmaster comes in. It’s an aggressive, fizzing instrumental and Malcolm Travis’ drum sound trumps anything on Copper Blue. Within the radio session sits a version of Hoover Dam shorn of its flourishes, bringing it back down to garage rock level. The fresh mix also flushes out Barbe’s backing vocals, before he takes the lead on When Diamonds Are Halos, another competent but unspectacular non-album track.
The live disc is a breathless, frantic full show from Chicago in the summer of 1992, right at the peak of their powers. 90% of Copper Blue is aired in raw form, alongside a few more non-album curios. The real treat comes with Beaster highlights JC Auto and Tilted, however – clearly demonstrating that much of its follow-up was kicking around at the same time as Copper Blue – and a scowling version of Iggy Pop’s Dum Dum Boys. Utterly priceless.
There’s also a short DVD featuring videos of Helpless (umbrellas and super-soakers), Changes (artfully shot live footage) and – once again – If I Can’t Change Your Mind (a sepia-tinted house performance with fleeting glimpses of the couple at the heart of the song). Nineties music videos, eh? You can almost hear Beavis and Butthead huhuhuhing in the background.
They’re followed by an energetic performance of Helpless from The Late Show, the same faintly pretentious late night magazine show that justified its existence with their utterly legendary ‘No Nirvana’ special featuring memorable appearances by Jane’s Addiction, Rage Against the Machine and the Smashing Pumpkins.
A couple of genuinely interesting interviews follow with the surprisingly staid atmosphere of MTV UK actually drawing some decent chat from the famously prickly Mould, with Travis and Barbe also having plenty to say for themselves. And finally, there’s a sizeable booklet including full lyrics, pictures from around the time of the release and the story of the album in the words of the band and label boss Alan McGee. Finally here we see hints of Mould’s difficult reputation as Barbe and Travis recount some difficulties during the recording process.
All told this is a fascinating package, value for money and stuffed with incredible music. When it comes to looking at our album of the year chart in December, I’ll obviously be looking at the new stuff. But this is the bar against which they’ll all be measured.