Modulate (Granary Music)
By: Stan Hall
Much has been made about Bob Mould's foray into the trendy new world of electronica, but the most shocking aspect of his first album in four years is not the music. The real surprise comes upon opening the CD and seeing his photo. What happened to the sweaty, chunky guy we know from the old days? Mould's been to the gym, shaved his head, grown a soul patch -- jeez, he looks like Moby!
The music on "Modulate" is still vintage Bob Mould, even with synths, drum machines, samplers and -- gasp! -- vocoder. Whether he's draped his songs with fuzz guitar and hardcore rhythms, pastoral acoustic guitars or the hard-rock trio treatment, Mould has two common elements running through his work with H?sker D?, Sugar and on his solo albums: uncompromising artistic integrity and an ear for memorable pop melodies. In this sense, "Modulate" is hardly a departure at all.
Still, the first two tracks here are pointedly defiant of his audience's expectations; they're completely electronic, and Mould's voice is integrated into the mix via various sonic manipulations (including, for a few seconds, the aforementioned vocoder, that favorite toy of Cher and Daft Punk). "180 Rain" is intriguing, but this approach truly pays off on the incredible "Sunset Safety Glass," a lush, surging synth-pop wonder that just may have you forgetting that the man ever picked up a guitar. "Semper fi" returns to more familiar territory; it's still partly electronic, but makes prominent use of Mould's familiar fuzz guitar sound. In fact, much of the electronica buzz surrounding "Modulate" comes from the first two tracks; from the third track on, most of the CD features guitar-based work, and even some live drums.
There's not a single weak track, unless you're not partial to the industrial soundscapes of the instrumental tracks "Homecoming Parade" and "Without?" Highlights abound: the imaginative pop of "Lost Zoloft" and "Quasar," the satisfying crunch of "Slay/Sway" and "Comeonstrong," and the wonderfully catchy, vaguely '80s-sounding "Trade" (I've seen a couple of references to this track being a "lost" H?sker D? song, but I'm not sure).
Mould plays every instrument on the album, in addition to most of the knob-twiddling work. One of the most gratifying things about "Modulate" is his palpable inspiration; he sounds like a man who has dug himself out of an artistic rut and found new musical vistas to explore. Anyone who creates any sort of art can relate to this elation, so perhaps that's why I can forgive the solipsism of the last track, "Author's Lament" ("Inside this box, I spend most of my days creating lucid rhymes/In hopes that something I write gives freedom to clarity").
All told, "Modulate" is one of Mould's best post- H?sker D? works, and more than a fair preparation for the all-electronic album he's dropping in June under the moniker LoudBomb (don't fret, guitar-lovers of the world; the busy man is also releasing a mostly acoustic album, "Body of Song," in September)...
Welcome back, Mr. Mould, may you always be this relevant.
Arbitrary grade: A-