One of the last true Grunge bands left standing, Mudhoney defined the Seattle sound. Blending contemporary punk with a clear love for their garage rock forefathers—not to mention MC5 and Iggy & The Stooges—they offered simplicity of style with a great sense of humor and showmanship. Furthermore, the chemistry between frontman Mark Arm, guitarist Steve Turner, bassist Matt Lukin, and drummer Dan Peters practically serves as the ideal for what you want a band to be: serious musicians with a devil-may-care personality. Mudhoney was fun. They were real. Real Low Vibe: The Complete Reprise Recordings 1992-1998, offers new light on the band’s major label era.
Their decision to sign to a major label came just a bit before Nirvana broke through. In 1991, Mudhoney released Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, their second album. Warmly received, the album proved something of an underground hit in the United Kingdom. These factors clearly proved Mudhoney were standing at the edge of greater success. Their record label Sub Pop, however, had cash flow problems. Bankruptcy seemed imminent. The band wasn’t sure they were even getting paid what they deserved. So they figured a major label wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. After all, their friends in Screaming Trees, Sonic Youth, and Dinosaur Jr had made the transition. Thus, the decision was made to sign to Reprise, a major label with a younger staff that understood the bands they signed.
For 1992’s Piece Of Cake, Mudhoney decided to repeat the Every Good Boy formula. Once again the band recorded with Conrad Uno, resulting in a rather lo-fi major label production that could easily have been made for Sub Pop. Indeed, the band realized that they could make an album for cheap, and then pocket the lucrative recording advance for themselves.
Yet with this decision, Mudhoney unintentionally undercut Piece Of Cake. The band seems more interested in building on their established sound than redefining it. But Piece Of Cake is by no means a bad album; it contains two of the band’s signature numbers, “Suck You Dry” and “Blinding Sun,” while “Living Wreck,” and “Make It Now” offer up two powerful rockers. In the liner notes Arm declares “Acetone,” the acid-country album closer, to be one of his favorites, and he’s right; it’s a fantastic song. Overall, though, Piece Of Cake isn’t a bad album.
In early 1993 Reprise issued Mudhoney: On Tour Now, an promo-only eight-song live EP. Meant to promote the band’s Spring 1993 tour, the EP consists of three Piece Of Cake cuts, two covers, two deep Sub Pop-era numbers, and a hilarious bit of banter. The entire set shreds, even though the songs are a bit more obscure. Their take on Fang’s “The Money Will Roll Right In” proves to be the definitive statement on the whole “Grunge” thing, as does “Fashion Forecast,” evidence of the band’s wicked sense of humor. “Dead Love,” taken from their self-titled debut album, impresses most, a pounding ten minute psychedelic grunge powerhouse.
In 1993 they released Five Dollar Bob’s Mock Cooter Stew, an EP of five new songs and two b-sides. The five songs, recorded with The Fastbacks’ Kurt Bloch, were recorded in a marathon 45-minute session. Good move, too; these songs possess an intensity lacking from Piece Of Cake. The pace gives the fast-driving “No Song III” and “Six Two One” the shimmering intensity of red-hot metal. “In The Blood” offers a rare emotional intensity not seen before. “Make It Now Again,” a revisit to Piece of Cake album cut “Make It Now,” hits much, much harder than the original version.
The band’s fourth album, 1995’s My Brother The Cow, picked up the slack. Reuniting with legendary producer Jack Endino, the band decided to go full grunge-rock. Two decades later in the band’s documentary I’m Now, Steve Turner declares, “We’re grunge, goddamnit!” in reference to the album’s M.O. It’s understandable, too. Arm had dealt with a secret heroin addiction and felt revitalized and clearer-headed. Furthermore, the album’s creation came after the suicide of friend Kurt Cobain. Add to it the music industry’s almost instant abandonment of grunge and Seattle, no wonder why the band doubled down on founding principles.
My Brother The Cow easily stands as one of the band’s best albums. The woozy opening of “Judgement, Rage, Retribution, And Thyme” set the tone for the rest of the album. A mixture of straight up garage-rock, blues-tinged grunge, and angry political rock, it’s the sound of a newly-confident band with things to say and no fucks given about the consequences. “F.D.K. (Fearless Doctor Killers)” addressed the rash of murders of abortion doctors. “Generational Spokesmodel” is a scathing rebuke of the exploitation of the Seattle scene, while “Today, It Was A Good Day” extolls the virtue of positivity of getting clean from the grungy self-destruction Seattle offered.
But it’s “Into Yer Shtik” that has made My Brother The Cow live on in infamy. It’s an unbridled and rather specific attack on the Seattle scene itself, of the musicians willing to suck on Hollywood and Wall Street’s teats. The song tells of a self-centered, manipulative, and destructive unnamed individual. If you didn’t know who it was talking about, the chorus of “why don’t you blow your brains out, too” sort of answers that question! That’s not the only evisceration, either; there’s a verse about Hole drummer Eric Erlandsen, Alice In Chains frontman Layne Stayley, and record executive Janet Billig. Yet the song would have further repercussions; the president of Reprise cut off all ties with the band after Courtney Love complained about the song.
Not that they really needed a scathing song to end their relationship with Reprise. Musical tastes were changing, and labels no longer had any interest in the Seattle scene. Surprisingly, in spite of the changing times and label alienation, Reprise allowed the band to make one final album. But this time, Reprise made them play the game. The label would choose the producer; and instead of recording on the cheap and pocketing the rest of the budget, they could only use what they spent, Realizing this might be the last opportunity to make a great statement, they decided to work with legendary producer Jim Dickinson, recording it at the equally legendary Ardent Studios. The resulting album, 1998’s Tomorrow Hit Today, stands as a truly lost gem of a record.
Dickinson proved an inspired choice; he captured the rawness their garage rock side required, and drew out the band’s bluesier side as well. Listening to the album for the first time, one might be shocked. Like returning to school from summer break and discovering the homely girl had blossomed into a beauty, the Mudhoney heard here has blossomed into a very mature band, one that sounds like the band you know, but bigger and heavier. The lows are deeper, and the catchy melodies are stronger and more flexible. “Oblivion” and “Move With The Wind” are bottom-heavy numbers, the likes of which only hinted at. Their rockers are no slouches, either; “Poisoned Water” and a cover of The Cheater Slicks’ “Ghost” capture their live sound perfectly. Album closer “Beneath The Valley Of The Underdog” sounds like the band channeling everything they’ve ever done into one song.
Unfortunately, Reprise gave the album zero promotion, and dropped the band shortly after its release. Not surprisingly, Mudhoney took a breather, during which Matt Lukin officially left the band. As they had an informal all-or-none agreement about the band, it seemed the end. But a few years later, the band reconvened–with Lukin’s blessing in new bassist Guy Maddison–and have picked up where they left off, the prodigal sons returning to Sub Pop, and it’s as if they never went away. Case in point: it’s hard to imagine their comeback album Since We’ve Become Translucent sounding anything like it does had they not made Tomorrow Hit Today.
Real Low Vibe serves a valuable purpose: it helps to remind you that just because a beloved indie rock band signs to a major label, that said records should not be thought of as lesser. If anything. the set helps to reintroduce the Mudhoney fan to a fantastic and often dismissed era of one of the world’s finest bands.
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