Hüsker Dü will always loom largest in Bob Mould's discography. They released a wealth of material, toured constantly and just so happened to be the best hardcore band of the '80s. Also, their records stayed in print, which helps. But if you've read his autobiography, See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody, then you know that Bob Mould is A) really proud of his work but B) not one for nostalgia. It's because of this fine line that he's been able to stay artistically active, which is probably why it's taken so long for his second most famous band, Sugar, to see their discography re-released. Dude's got a new record due in September, but Merge Records is here with a reminder of where he's been.
Sugar's complete run is split between two sets: The first is a triple disc collection featuring full-length debut Copper Blue, the EP Beaster and a live set from around that time. Again, if you've read Mould's autobiography, you know that this is the material Mould is proudest of. While there is a second set, collecting Sugar's final release, File Under: Easy Listening, as well as another live show, it can't compare to the thrill of Copper Blue and Beaster back to back.
Part of what makes Mould a compelling songwriter is his willingness to explore contemporary music. While Copper Blue's noise-pop is hinted at on Hüsker Dü's major label releases, albums like My Bloody Valentine's Loveless and Pixies' Doolittle provide just as much context for what went into the record. Copper Blue is, without question, a perfect album. Despite coming out during the grunge boom and the '90s loudness wars, it holds up quite well 20 years later. Mould's penchant for swirling pop tunes takes a few notes from shoegaze and indie rock, and it's fascinating to hear him pull hooks out of the noise. What's even more fascinating is that, when he walked away from Hüsker Dü, Mould walked away from that style as well, essentially reinventing himself for Sugar. "If I Can't Change Your Mind" is a huge departure from what was at the time his established m.o. It's also a monstrously poppy tune that still caters to the college rock crowd, so much so that a second, solo version is included here, as well as three other rarities.
Copper Blue announced Mould's new direction; Beaster took one step back towards Hüsker Dü. It's hardly derivative, however, trading Copper Blue's pop ambitions for more noise and darker imagery. It isn't exactly Zen Arcade, but it does prove that Mould could still go loud, and gloriously so. The two releases complement each other well, perhaps owing to their overlapping histories. Merge is essentially doing a public service by re-releasing these two.
That said, Merge and Mould could have just cut the live material in favor of releasing all three studio efforts in one set. While both collections are decently priced, the concerts remain superfluous. Well recorded, but hardly necessary.
Then again, F.U.E.L. isn't exactly essential either. It's a solid alt rock record, especially with those strong bonus tracks, but coming off the one-two punch of Copper Blue and Beaster, it feels rote. Mould himself acknowledges such feelings in his book, as studio time yielded nothing the first time around. While Sugar broke up because of their intense touring schedule, you can hear the exhaustion setting in here. The record packs some catchy tunes ("Panama City Motel," "Gee Angel"), but the spirit just isn't the same. Sugar ultimately burned out quickly after this one, but their brief discography overall ranks among the best of '90s rock. While the F.U.E.L. reissue is probably best left to die hards, the Copper Blue/Beaster set is essential listening.