It's hard to remember at this late date that the "Seattle sound" used to be exciting. After the hype and nth-generation knockoffs not to mention the toxic upheaval of rock radio that the scene caused "grunge" these days is equal parts epithet and punch line. Yet, during the late '80s and early '90s, this was the sound that made it OK for smart college kids to rock out again. Sonic Youth won't be inviting Shinedown or Crossfade or any bands of similar post-grunge ilk on tour with them, but the chaotic mess created by bands like Mudhoney and Nirvana resonated sonically and ethically with the underground rock masses who adored the MC5 and Blue Cheer more than the Sex Pistols and The Clash. The soggy, vaguely trashy aesthetic was rooted in garage rock and Black Flag, and, before it was co-opted by dour, detuned butt-rockers, was the sound of 20 years of visceral punk-rock energy laced with sarcasm and (believe it or not) humor.
Twenty years later, a lot has changed. The guys in Shinedown probably don't even know who Mudhoney is, much less the U-Men, Skin Yard or Malfunkshun. If they did, they'd realize how pointless their musical life has been. Hopefully, someone will forward them a copy of Sleepless in Seattle, an excellent overview of the familial (and freaky) early Northwest explosion. Although some late-era bands are tagged onto the end (Love Battery, Seaweed), the compilation primarily focuses on the material that made Sonic Youth pay attention. Early Melvins tracks bristle with raw doom along with punky thud from Coffin Break and seminal tracks from Mudhoney, Green River, Screaming Trees, Tad and many others. Particularly interesting is the inclusion of tracks from Mr. Epp Mark Arm's high school band and the Blackouts, a raucous, wiry post-punk band that included future Ministry members Paul Barker and Bill Rieflin. Sleepless in Seattle is no Sub Pop 200 or Deep Six, but it'll do for now.
In the 18 years since the release of their monumental first single ("Touch Me I'm Sick"), Mudhoney has continually refined and improved their fuzzy garage-rock sound. From the (literal) Green-River-meets-Melvins approach of their early records, they've brought us up to date with the driving, visceral clarity of Under a Billion Suns. It's been a slow but steady improvement. A career, if you will.
There were some moments of doubt (when original bassist Matt Lukin quit) and some eyebrow-raising atrocities (Five Dollar Bob's Mock Cooter Stew), but the band has persevered. With bassist Guy Maddison (Lubricated Goat, Bloodloss) in the ranks since 2002, the post-Lukin era has seen a more direct sound from the band, one that emphasizes their bluesier, Nuggets-influenced side. Under a Billion Suns finds the band at a curious peak; 1995's My Brother the Cow was the beginning of a creative slide, bottoming out in 1998 with the shiny but shallow Tomorrow Hit Today and the subsequent departure of Lukin. A hiatus was called when Mudhoney re-emerged in 2002 on Sub Pop with Since We've Become Translucent, and it was clear they had entered a new stage. The music on that disc was tentative but darkly aggressive, and now, with Billion Suns, they seem to have captured the vibe that was only hinted at before.
Some very adult anger bubbles up but without sacrificing the scathing cynicism and full-throttle attack they're known for "Hard-On for War" is surprisingly unfunny, while "Where Is the Future" laments the fact that we live in a dystopia, but we still don't have flying cars. Indeed, Mudhoney has gone and made a "sophisticated" garage-rock record. It's the stuff of a legacy punk rock band that's never bothered to acknowledge their legacy and, instead, focused their energy on continuing to create exciting music.
Under a Billion Suns