Grunge, much like modern indie rock, may have been half a reality and half a catch phrase to sell records (as it was often just punk and metal fused together), but let us make this clear -- when Nirvana hit the mainstream, it quickly killed the underground star, at least until the next form of under-the-radar rock could be sodomized by popular culture.
As often with ‘underground’ genres, once a certain sound can be homogenized, it begins to be watered down and bastardized for mainstream consumption until it pretty much destroys the interest by those who established the scene in the first place. Yet, to be fair, as with all forms of art, each style goes through a culture ringer, to soon be forgotten, to then be rediscovered by collectors, and later be again bastardized. This cycle always continues.
For example, look at the current genre getting the mainstream treatment, noise rock. Once thought of as being inadaptable to the mainstream, as during its inception it was the harshest, most brutal son of punk -- listen to the output in which In Utero’s producer, Steve Albini, is the frontman to see the reasoning behind that statement -- the noise genre just recently contains countless noisy indie rock bands, making it just a matter of time before the style dies…for a while, at least.
These statements can really sum up the original grunge sound, as well. Since shortly after Nirvana broke, despite many ‘hip’ sounding grunge rockers resisting the mainstream, (Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley is a good example) many artists still felt the need to get their music and message known by as many people as they can. It’s the typical artist complex (that every artist, even the aspiring ones, like myself) deals with. Yet, when post-grunge was shortly created thereafter, it traded the punk/metal attributes to a safer, pop-oriented sound, that both lost its appeal, and much of its heart.
That is why Mudhoney sounds almost perfect, as in defining a sound that has not yet been reenvisioned by a band that may one day transcend the formula, and/or be figureheads in grunge’s second wave of seamy underground sound.
A singer screams unintelligible lyrics. His voice is scratchy, almost nasal. The music is harsh, repugnant. Produced, yes, but it is done not very noticeably. Someone in the room asks, “Is this what you call music?" The room quickly dissolves, as these mice and peasants all leave. The real men (or women) are the one‘s still rocking out; simply put, any listener realizes this ain’t Kansas anymore, honey -- instead, it’s the alcove of Mudhoney.
Think of a more blood-lust version of the Violent Femmes in the vocals, in that they may be thought to be nerdy at first, yet are spat out with the lyrical sneer of that of punks; laced with sex and drugs like blaze, they make Mudhoney the grunge era's the Stooges. As, these grungsters had more in common with that Iggy Pop-fronted band than anybody else, despite sometimes also using a metal-inspired Motörhead/Metallica crunch, like on their classic song, “In n‘ Out of Grace.”
You see, Mudhoney knew that rock could just mean a good time. They were passionately reckless, on the brink of falling apart with each scream that ended in a crack, or each guitar/bass workout in which you could hear the sounds you were not supposed to from the instruments. These welcome mistakes are what is and should always be rock and roll, as the devil is not in the details; rather, it’s in the attitude -- that “fuck it” frame of mind that they so unmercifully display from the jump-starter track, “Touch Me I’m Sick,” which was also their first single.
“Touch me, I’m sick / Fuck me, I’m sick,” vocalist Mark Arm snares. It’s threatening, like a come-on, so strong, it almost seems like it will cause harm. I read somewhere that Mark Arm has stated that this song is about the reluctance people have to touching sick people, even if you know their affliction is not contagious. Yet, in the late 1980s / early 1990s it seems like the “sick” makes a comment, however intentional or not, about the still present sexual desires of someone with STDs. You see, since the best art is reflective of its time and ironically is usually never intentional, this song, coming from that period in which AIDS was first discovered, makes it a social/political, allegorical statement of this time period, and those since --especially when knowing that back then the contraction cause was not really known, this ignorance created worldwide distress and hysteria towards the homosexual population and other scapegoats.
Yet, on most of the rest of Superfuzz Bigmuff, the lyrics usually are not metaphysical; the song’s title often tells you what the song means. Yet, Mudhoney’s skill lies not within the lyrics, yet within the choruses as big as houses, riffs like leviathans, and that mastodonic drum beat, sounding like it’ll break on through (to the other side of your speakers, that is.)
The slide guitar of “Sweet Young Think Ain’t Sweet No More” is so galvanizing, it’s practically hooked , like a chain reactor to an electric chair, making the few hairs that haven’t ran and ducked for cover stand on elastic end. While the aggressive, stimulus cover of Dicks' “Hate the Police” is the perfect shock-rocker for this Rodney King generation (ironically, there is a video on YouTube of the beating played to Dicks’ version of the song). Moreover, the so-not anthemic, “You Got It (Keep It Out of My Face)" is the perfect hater tune to play for your ex-girlfriend.
What’s good about the 2008 2-disc set’s new running order is that it seems much more coherent than it ever has, such as the fast chug of “Chain That Door,” which makes anything by Nirvana sound tame; that gracefully goes into “Mudride.” Although these two songs may, in 2008, like probably in 1990, show that Mudhoney is better in few-minute, time-constricted punk mode instead of extended jams, this new placement (the fastest song here, going into the most subtle) is a good call, same as the longest track here, their cover of Sonic Youth's “Halloween” that is placed at the end of Superfuzz Big Muff (that’s excluding the three demos on the end of the first disc). There’s also two new songs that fit the mode of the album, “The Rose” and “Twenty Four,” both of which are good additions to their catalogue.
The 2-disc set is complemented with a live disc: 15 songs, nine recorded live in Berlin, Germany, and the other six taped during a radio show. The quality is excellent in the live show, and includes a moment in which Mark Arm asks the crowd, “Drop your pants if you like us!” A few seconds pass, and he sarcastically bemuses, “Ah, no one likes us.” It is truly a classic moment.
The rest of the second disc is nearly fantastic, too. Yet, there are some not-so-classic moments, as their rendition of “Mudride” on the radio show is pretty poorly recorded, sounding pretty thin, and the 14-plus minute “Dead Love” goes on a good few minutes too long (constriction is key in their sound, again, guys/gals). Yet, the second disc shows, much like most punk bands, that live is truly where they shine, with that loud, confrontational sound that works in a raw and enclosed environment.
Finally, almost 20 years later, Mudhoney still show you they were titans of the scene, and it’ll get you saying “Fuck the man” with Tourette’s-like intensity.
Original album (1990):
Deluxe Edition (2008) (Disc One, Superfuzz Bigmuff with new song order):
Deluxe Edition (2008) (Disc Two):