Fans' bitch sessions over Bob Mould's new "electronic" direction are a real puzzler: What do these people miss about the old sound? The Sugar bear's songs have always redeemed his sonics rather than vice versa, at least since his seminal band Hüsker Dü began coating its Great Wall of Guitars in chintzy production gloss back in 1985. Nobody who has worked the alt-rock idiom that Mould helped create (not Elliott Smith, not Kurt Cobain) has approached this guy's gift for melodic catharsis. Yet even his best tunes depend on the practical merit of being so unforgettable that you don't have to listen to his slick and claustrophobic CDs.
By contrast, Modulate is the first solo Mould with a texture worth getting lost in. The monolithic guitar now seethes with tinny synthesizers and silly laptop loops. And these charming flourishes are distilled into tight little songs and noise digressions that move with Hüsker-like pop efficiency. "Trade" even finds the not-so-daft punk in Depeche mode, crooning an unrecorded Warehouse-era number over the dinkiest of synth-pop arrangements. (Headline: Hardcore icon embraces the big Eighties!) The album belongs to a proud rock tradition of reinvention through inept electronica--the tack of so many self-doubting guitarists with no functioning cheese detector. Like Big Audio Dynamite's similarly dismissed Megatop Phoenix, Mould's bleepy comeback is more reverie than rave, hardwired to a motormouth subconscious rather than an ass or any conceivable dance floor. (And Mould has the advantage of producing and playing everything himself, without other musicians.)
For a transition album (two more full-lengths are due this year), Modulate is a surprisingly well-realized work. Even the more traditionally Mouldy "Soundonsound" can't rupture the waking-dream atmosphere. Amid the mass of vaguely suggestive lyrics, I can report only one major disappointment. "The Receipt" can be taken as a barely veiled attack on Mould's old Dü-mate Grant Hart: "You've become embarrassing....So please don't call me anymore/I don't wanna know you." (The kiss-off couldn't be more complete if Mould hired Snoop Dogg to appear on the album and call Hart a "biyatch.")
The irony is that Modulate mirrors the strengths and weaknesses of Hart's own one-man electronicopia, Good News for Modern Man. Mould may be more economical with structure than Hart, but Mould's approach to creative control (now extended to ownership of his own label) similarly consists of getting any competing forces out of the room and relieving his music of the tension that comes from playing with other people. No, I'm not pining for the day when these hyper-talented pricks might get along. But each should still get a band.
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