Saturday, March 29, 2008


I've been thinking about this, pondering it and trying to figure it out: Husker Du were, when all is said and done, one really strange outfit. They were not your ordinary hardcore-turned-college-rock transformational excercise you may figure them to be. For one thing, their psychosexual and aesthetic make-up was one of a kind. Two gay guys in a punk rock band when that still wasn't talked about all that much; the only guy who looked gay as the breeze (that's Greg Norton, of course) in the group was the straight one. They began as a ferocious, pioneering hardcore act (and apparently Mould was a nihilistic, anti-music Throbbing Gristle fan at their birth), quickly switched to being a PiL-ish post-punk outfit for about two minutes at the dawn of the '80s (as heard on their debut 7"), then jumped back into mile-a-minute HC w/ a distinctly political bent before maturing into firstly, a kinda progressive, almost psychedelic punk rock act then a mid-tempo post-HC semi-college-rock outfit which died a fairly quick death at the hands of drugs and a label (Warners) which probably didn't give a damn, and wouldn't've known what to do w/ the band even if they did. That brings me to the two albums in question I wish to discuss: the debut solo albums by the two main songwriters of the band, both released in 1989: Mould's Workbook (Virgin) and Hart's Intolerance (SST). Do you have any idea of just how great these records are?

Lyrically, both albums tend to tread vaguely similar paths: an excorcism of all the bitternes brought on by the nasty break-up of their previous band, and a desire to move on. Musically, they couldn't be more different. Mould's is clean as a whistle and, production-wise, the slickest he'd ever been at that stage. I would be tempted to call much of this Adult Contemporary Singer-Songwriter... so much so, I will! His backing band has credentials up the wazoo, too: Anton Fier (Pere Ubu/Feelies/etc.), Tony Maimone (Pere Ubu/The Scene Is Now) and Jane Scarpantoni on cello (not sure where she's from, but her musical contribution here is quite key to the sound). The opening track, the instrumental "Sunspots", sounds like it could've come off an old Pell Mell disc: crisp, echo-laden and repetitive guitar lines with an instantly memorable melody. It remains, for me, possibly the best song on Workbook. Not that there's too many slouches, though; there's pop hooks a-plenty, and despite the depressing nature of the lyrical material, Workbook is no bummer. I bought both this and Intolerance in '89 when they first came out. They were, amongst others, the soundtrack for that very year, the final of my high school years, and call me a sappy sentimentalist if you will, but that means something to me. I cannot hear this record without somehow thinking of that year: 1989.

Intolerance? When this first came out, I heard a local blowhard (too well-known to mention here!) on 3RRR describe it, upon first listen, as about "as impressive as a three-legged goat". But wait, he was getting somewhere, and I must concur to agree: he then went on to say that, upon the 3rd or 4th listen, things started to sink in. What at once appears to be a dog's breakfast of styles patched together under the guise of an album, an opening statement by a songwriter fairly well respected in many circles, begins to make its mark with a bit more weight. Intolerance jumps everywhere; there is no symmetry of approach as heard on Workbook (which sounds like it was written in a single afternoon). Hart delves into simple pop, rootsy, almost Springsteen-ish rawk, bar-room sea shanties ("The Main", a strange piano/vocal romp about copping drugs), anthemic rock 'n' roll obviously cut as the single ("2541": it was), organ-based instrumental drone-rock (the aptly-titled "Roller-Rink) and even dashes of musique concret. To be honest, if you're going to hear only one of these albums for the very first time in the year 2008, I'd make it Intolerance. It's weathered the years mighty well, its patchwork of styles fitting in perfectly w/ the short attention span of today's youth. Not that old man Mould didn't strike gold w/ Workbook. It remains a sentimental fave, its cheezeball heart-on-its-sleeve sense of earnestness and betrayal, not to mention sophisticated songwriting, earning it a permanent place on my shelf, no matter how uncool you may consider that to be.

I didn't even think about Husker Du between the years 1991-'97. Man, I was over it. Time to move on. I barely even knew Sugar existed at the time, and I had zilch interested in listening to them. Ten years back I came full circle, gave everything from their first to their last a thorough hiding and walked away smiling. Husker Du were way more unique and edgy than people tend to give 'em credit for these days, and both Workbook and Intolerance are similarly worthy additions.


Mrow said...

"The Main" and "2541" are total favorites of mine. Those are better than any late-era HUSKERS stuff, IMO.

James said...

Jane Scarpantoni came from a Hoboken band called Tiny Lights. I can't claim certain knowledge, but I would guess they were from the same early 80's scene as Yo La Tengo, the dB's,, and aesthetically it was a similar sound. I had a few of their records, and liked them, but I eventually sold them off because I needed the money. Bob Bert contributed to the liner notes for their first LP.

Yeah, I love both Workbook and Intolerance, but I consider the latter a truly underheraled record. The other solo disc Hart recorded a few years ago is pretty good and just as unrecognized, too.

Dave said...

Mike: you're right, "2541" and "The Main" are better than anything else off "Warehouse", a good example of a double LP which would've made a far superior single effort, had it been trimmed down a bit. I still think it has some killer moments, though, despite the horrible production.

Darien said...

Hüsker Dü itself has only been with me for a year, but I’ve been hooked and gotten just about everything. I’ve heard and enjoyed most Sugar, Bob solo, and Blowoff (I think I’ve listened to "Man Keeps Winning" more than any other song this year). I only listened to Workbook once though, and fell asleep. I’ll give it another go, I mean, I was tired anyway. But it’s Intolerance you have me really interested in. Most of my favorite HD songs are Hart’s and I didn’t know he had any solo albums before reading this. Thanks for the tip.