Bob Mould – Modulate

Bob Mould

There’s a good Bob Mould album in here – maybe more of an EP, actually. There is also, by elimination, about an EPs worth of material that diehard Mould fans would likely deem heretical, if they weren’t prepared for something a little different. Mould set the stage for this change himself when he claimed that 1998’s Last Dog and Pony Show would be his last album of high-powered electric guitar-driven rock, at least as far as we’ve come to expect. Turns out, that’s not really the truth.
There’s a fair amount of Mould’s trademark jangly, hook-driven guitar and slightly raspy vocals here, powering songs that will likely match up with any of his best solo efforts and even hark back to the early days of Sugar’s landmark Copper Blue album. So what if that’s a drum machine supplying the beats on many cases or some electronic elements dribbled here and there. Some of these songs are vintage Mould, just like I remember him.
It’s in his newer, experimental electronic moments, that Modulate will forever gain its status as a “transition” album. Unwilling – thankfully so, perhaps – to hit us all at once with his newfound fondness for gizmos and gadgets, Mould has liberally mixed in some rockers to prepare us and help get the longtime fans of the former Husker Du frontman and godfather of alternative rock to give his new sound a chance.
That new sound, however, may be the problem here. There’s no doubting that Mould is a gifted musician with a knack for clever and catchy lyrics. But on Modulate, he has the feel of a child unwrapping a new toy and playing with it incessantly. As I imagine happens with any musician who discovers the neat sounds a computer and keyboard can make, Mould has found neat noises, and he wants to use them all. There’s little discretion, and thus the more electronic songs on Modulate feel overwhelmed and overloaded with bleeps and effects, often to the point of obscuring the actual song itself. It’s unfortunate, but as a transition album, Mould may discover that some electronic elements add to a song without overtaking the song itself.
And so the songs here are a mixed bag. Of the more electronically minded tracks, you get nice vocals of a hodge-podge assault of keyboards and drum machine beats on “Sunset Safety Glass,” Mould singing like he’s gargling marbles over an unsure beat and washes of keyboards on “Semper Fi,” Then there’s the more rocking tracks, like the fuzzed-out guitar of “Slay/Sway” that goes right into the stellar “The Receipt,” which brings to mind the best of the Copper Blue days. “Soundonsound” is as vintage Mould as you’re going to get, jangly and catchy, and there’s virtually no electronic adaptations to his sound on the rocking “Comeonstrong.” At very rare moments, the two styles merge, like on the undeniably catchy “Quasar” that has some nice sonic background and “Trade,” which would be almost dreamy if not for the up-tempo beat. The closing “Author’s Lament” is a starkly new side of Mould, centered around piano and moody, a little chilling.
Mould’s electronic songs here sound like he has yet to learn what cool noises to keep and what to throw away, and his vocal-less tracks or long introductions are noisy but uninteresting. His next album, recorded under the LoudBomb name, is all electronic music, and despite my love for Mould’s music, I doubt I’ll seek it out. Still, this one is worth getting if just for the typically strong Bob Mould rock songs.