Mudhoney. I am very aware of their legacy: Formed in the late `80s, they practically invented grunge and influenced little bands like, say, Nirvana. But while their peers cashed in, they never received much worldwide acclaim, despite a stint on major label Reprise. A perfect example: I don't own any of their classic albums. Sure, I was never huge into grunge; I never bought a Pearl Jam album, I had two Soundgarden albums but sold them both during my silly "exclusively punk" phase in high school, and I really just liked Nirvana because they seemed more on the faster, screamy, punk side of the genre. But still, it goes to show that they never reached the average teenager audience the way their peers did.
So I don't have a back catalogue to compare this to besides some MP3s I tracked down. It doesn't matter entirely, as the Seattle band sounds practically the same in their 18th year as they did in their first. Under a Billion Suns finds the aging rockers not sounding too aged, with hard, fuzzy, intentionally sloppy rock á la the Stooges throughout. The album as a whole actually seems more 'grunge' than some of the stuff I have found from their albums of the 'grunge era,' which itself seemed less sludgy and more punk, and some tracks that were acoustic and twangy.
The album's start of booming drums gives a quick glimpse of things to come in "Where Is the Future;" these guys are not softening up. A highlight of the album, "Hard-On for War" shows a little different side of the quartet, a political side, which also pops up in a few other tracks. They tend to take a different spin on things; here it's a twisted take about why "dirty old men are always pushing for war." Another track that sticks out later on is "In Search Of…" which explores murky territory with a slow groove and classic Ozzy-style vocals.
I was surprised by some of the additional instruments found here. Splatty synths appear in the bridge of "Empty Shells," vibraphone on "Endless Yesterday" and horns frequently throughout the album, an addition they tested on their last outing, 2002's Since We've Become Transluscent. One of my favorite moments on the album is in the closer "Blindspots" where a pep-band worthy horn lick (complete with an awesome rip) descends into chaos as all the horns separate from the unison part and the album ends in shambles. I love these horn moments, because the raw nature of them combined with Mudhoney's fuzzy guitars and pounding drums reminds me of Cougars.
Another way that Mudhoney try to keep things fresh is through a recording technique that brought them success on their last album: instead of one giant studio session in which everything gets laid down, they went in spurts, and with different producers. In early June last year they met with Phil Ek (Built to Spill, Modest Mouse) and recorded four tracks, then mid-June met with Johnny Sangster (the Posies) and laid down three more. Then early July they put the last four tracks to tape with Tucker Martine. But honestly, I cannot tell a difference between each track's production or song style.
All that being said (and legend aside) this album doesn't do it for me. I like the music; I think it's mostly the vocal style of Mark Arm kind of talking or singing in unison with the guitar chords that turns me off; in fact, I think my favorite song on the album is the instrumental "A Brief Celebration of Indifference." Anyway, if you are a long-time Mudhoney fan, you will like this album because it's more of the same. Give me crap if you must, but I think that maybe after all these years they should take a different approach and be an instrumental band with full-time horns carrying the melody. I'd listen.