Compositions for the Young & Old, Part 20 | Blowoff, “Blowoff” (2006)

Bob Mould’s years of electronic experimentation come to fruition on this excellent collaboration with DJ Richard Morel.

 

 

Mike: As we hit the midway point of the Aughts, a decade filled so far with a further commercialization of alternative, several years of a return to rock roots in the garage rock movement, and the growing trend of making music stars through “game” shows, Bob releases a curious album of dance rock songs in collaboration with his friend, Richard Morel. Since 2002, the pair had been hosting monthly dance events in Washington, DC under the name Blowoff. They eventually expanded the dance parties to other cities due to its popularity. Spurred on by that success, they decided to release an album of songs that fit their scene to a T. If you are a fan of Bob’s more dance oriented works on Modulate and LoudBomb, this is probably going to be more your cup of tea. If you are not, I personally would encourage you to at least give it a spin if you’ve never heard it
Jason: I struggle to think of a musical release I had more anticipation for with less actual knowledge about than Blowoff. In news that will surprise absolutely no one who has been reading this series of articles, I spent a huge chunk of time hanging out on the BobMould.com messageboards in the early 2000s, as well as reading its spiritual successor, Bob’s blog “Boblog: A Quiet and Uninteresting Life.” I remember Bob frequently posting about the music he was listening to, but nowhere was his excitement more palpable than when talking about Richard Morel’s 2002 album Queen of the Highway. He absolutely loved the thing and raved about it nonstop. (Naturally, I attempted to acquire a copy through my local record shop, but they never got it in.)
Fast forward to (I think) 2004, and Bob and Morel had launched what started as monthly (and eventually evolved into a weekly) DJ/dance event called Blowoff.
I followed the news about Blowoff gigs on Bob’s blog. I signed up for the Blowoff email list even though every event was a thousand miles away. My favorite musician was creating this epic new thing light years away from anything I had ever heard from him, and I couldn’t hear it. The obsession drove me pretty crazy, honestly.
And then finally, came that glorious day when Bob announced that Blowoff was going to release an album, and they unleashed the first track “Hormone Love” as the first single. I was instantly hooked.
Mike: And boy is that track, and most of the album for that matter, hook heavy!
Jason: That’s putting it mildly.
Mike: I like in your interview with Bob at that time, when asked why “Hormone Love” was the first single and his answer was “because it’s the best song.” It immediately grabs you. Such a wonderful singalong song, too.
Jason: That song really made for the perfect first single, the perfect first taste of the idiom Blowoff was operating under.
For Mould fans who might be turned off by electronica in general and Bob’s explorations of electronica on Modulate, Long Playing Grooves, and Body of Song in particular, “Hormone Love” is a song that meets them halfway. That opening is almost set up to make those sort of fans cringe then sigh in relief, that electronic ”beep-beep-beep-beep” offering a glimpse of blippy electronica before the heaping layers of the most Bob Mouldian of guitars blast in.
Mike: Bob’s guitar is great on it. Just crunchy Bob chords, but with a great harmony and he throws in a nice little solo. His playing is energized here.
Jason: And then, of course, listeners accustomed to Bob’s passionate vocals are instead greeted by Morel’s flat, almost dispassionate vocals, while Bob serves as an angelic backing choir. It simultaneously defeats both the expectations of people who think they know what “rock Bob Mould” and “electronica Bob Mould” sound like, because it doesn’t exactly sound like either (though there’s certainly some Sugar rush in the guitar sound).
I love how understated that solo is. It’s used structurally the same way most artists would use a key change to amp up the energy of the song before coming in for the landing.
Mike: Exactly! It’s a non-solo solo. It feels natural here. And that chorus! So damn catchy, and Morel’s dispassionate voice fits the lyrics. 
And immediately they kick back into more a rock Bob track of “Here and Now.” The first 30 seconds or so make it sound like a standard EDM track…then the guitar kicks in. Again, Bob’s guitar sounds super charged here. It helps drive the song along but also takes a back seat when it needs to, particularly in the chorus. It’s a much more serious track than “Hormone Love,” which is just pure fun. However, this is not a dour song. It’s not an eight-minute dirge, thankfully.
Jason: The electronica elements are fairly understated on those songs, but they come to the fore on others. The album opens with three songs in a row where Bob’s big electric guitar sound is front and center, then throws in a whole batch of dancier songs where the guitars are either entirely absent or used as an accent color (see the fuzzy disco strut hiding behind the horn synth patches on “Life with a View”). Bob’s Workbook-ian acoustic sound also crops up, sometimes as the heart of the song (the jangly riff at the heart of “Fallout”), sometimes as electronic building block (the periodic acoustic guitar loops on “Lemonade”).
Mike: It’s an incredibly effective blending of both sides of Bob. Yeah, the first three tracks are rock-oriented with some beats to it, but boom: “Saturday Night All the Time” is all club with some subtle guitar here and there. It’s texture, an effect.
“Saturday” has a nice groove to it. If this is what their dance parties were like, I can totally see why they were so popular. My beef with most EDM is it’s so obnoxious and lacking of any semblance of harmony (or soul) that it just hurts my head. It’s all beeps and bass. Here, there is a groove that isn’t a thousand beats per second, the effects used are not overwhelming. It lets the groove drive the song. If any of that makes sense.
Taking a step back, on “Overload” I feel Bob has tried to do something similar before. A slower, sultrier track, that just hasn’t always panned out. It seems to work here. Not sure if he’s just not trying so hard and just letting things flow or if it’s the simple drumbeat behind his relatively quiet distorted guitar.
It might also be the track placement, too. You had two faster tempo tracks, then they give you a slight break, before picking up the pace again.
Jason: There is a pretty eclectic mix of styles on this album. Songs range from upbeat (“Hormone Love”) to menacing (“Here and Now”) to slinky and sexy (“Saturday Night All the Time”). “Lemonade” mixes it all up in a blender, pairing a slow, dirgey vocal performance from Rich with a more upbeat drumbeat, noodly acoustic guitars, and then Bob going all disco diva on the chorus.
The craziest thing to me is how well all of these disparate sounds hang together. Especially considering, as Bob mentions in his autobio, that the songs were not written for an album so much as written over a long period of time for the live show and the album was released simply because they had enough to fill one. That certainly explains the kitchen sink approach, but the fact that it resulted in a set of songs that work so well together is pretty astounding.
Mike: Not knowing anything about bear culture, I feel this is what I would hear at a bear-centric dance club. No idea why, I just picture a club and this is the soundtrack to it. And knowing that these songs were not necessarily designed for a proper LP release, that makes sense. 
Jason: I agree, I can totally see how “Saturday Night All the Time” would turn any gathering into a dance party. I love how it’s got two tempos going at the same time, with the beat going at a quick clip while the synth groove is a bit more languorous. Whether you’re looking to sweat or just sway, it’s got you covered.
Mike: “Man Keeps Winning” has the same formula to a lesser degree: starts out all slow and borderline slow dance than it picks up, then slows back down.
Jason: The big thing for me is how much more assured the blend of rock and electronica elements are on this album. As we discussed before, the arrangements on Modulate tended to be overly fussy, and while the two dance tracks on Body of Song (“(Shine Your) Light Love Hope” and “I Am Vision, I Am Sound”) were a big step forward, they still had that element of clumsiness. They didn’t feel like Bob was 100% comfortable doing what he was doing.
Blowoff, by contrast, feels very comfortable. I don’t want to say it sounds effortless because clearly a lot of effort went into the arrangements and hooks, but it feels less labored, less like he’s fighting against the limits of his own skills to make a song sound the way he wants it to sound in his head. When you listen to each of these songs, you can tell that Bob and Rich had an aim for what the song was supposed to sound like, and that they hit that mark.
A big part of that, I’m sure, is a mix of Bob now having four, five years of experience DJing under his belt, but the biggest I’m sure is Rich’s years of experience as a DJ and professional remixer. When I interviewed Bob about Blowoff back when it came out, Bob outlined how truly collaborative the writing process was. That had to make a huge difference. Imagine two guys in a room who are both brimming over with ideas for this thing that blends together two distinct worlds, with each guy being an absolute expert in one of those worlds. Even though they came in individually with songs and ideas, the skills each guy brought to the table elevated the songs beyond what they could have done individually. It seems obvious that the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts, but so many musicians (including Bob himself!) tend to labor away at their creations alone that when they finally find that kindred spirit they can collaborate with, it’s a revelation.
Mike: All in all, for Bob’s electronica era (what we’re calling his Saturday Night phase, in honor of this album), Blowoff is hands-down the best album he put out in that period. Just such a fun album and one that so effectively blends both sides of his musical coin. For a man who wanted to stop making guitar music just a few years earlier, his playing here was energetic and seemingly revitalized. 
When he tones down some of the sad sack aspect of his lyrics and puts a bit of a smile (or a smirk) to them, he sure as hell can make an album a blast. I didn’t immediately get into Blowoff mostly because I didn’t know it was around. But I regularly listen to it because it’s a great album regardless of who is on it, and the fact that it is our man Bob makes it better.
Jason: Agreed, it’s definitely the best album Bob put out in the Aughts, hands down. It’s not even a contest.
And you’re right, it does sound so much happier than you’d ever come to expect from a Bob album. And yet his personality is still there. That buzzsaw guitar is not something you’d typically find on an album alongside mellow trip-hop grooves, but it’s something that gives Blowoff a flavor of its own, rather than being simply a rock guy emulating his new favorite electronica records.
Mike: Comfortable is a great way to put it. This album was put out around the time where he really was getting comfortable with himself and coming to understand who he really is. I’m sure that personal understanding and confidence augmented his growing experience with EDM and his work with Rich. And we are greatly rewarded for it.
Jason: It was also long enough after his breakup with his long term boyfriend that he was away from his personal drama and settled into his new life enough that it makes sense for him to be giving birth to songs like this, rather than bitter breakup songs.
(Though what’s especially odd is his next album, “The District Line,” is packed with breakup songs.)
Dogs & Ponies
Jason: My favorite songs, hands down, are “Hormone Love” and “Saturday Night All the Time.” Those are Blowoff’s two absolute stone cold classics.
I love “Hormone Love”‘s big, buzzy guitars, and the song is just hooky as hell. And as we said before, “Saturday Night All the Time” is all about the groove. The song title implies party anthem, but I love how the beat makes good on that promise even as the affect-free vocals subtly subvert it. It’s a great trick.
Mike: No dogs for me here. I have nothing bad to say about any track at all. It’s just a great and fun record. Any negatives would be nitpicking, in my opinion. “Hormone Love” and “Saturday Night” are excellent, agreed. “Fallout” is great as well. I personally love “Tag It” but it probably because I add it in my workout playlists for when I used to run marathons and now when I have to ride indoors in the winter.
Jason: “Tag It” is where you really see the Daft Punk influence come out, I think. It’s the only song that truly eliminates Bob and Rich’s personalities and goes full Anonymous Robot.
“Fallout” is pretty slick, too. I love the acoustic guitar loop and churchy organ that make up the main melody.
Mike: The warbly keyboard bass used on “Saturday Night” give it an almost loungy feel, which for me makes it even better. It helps warm the beat as by itself might feel a little hard.
Jason: I can’t help but notice you’re picking the Rich-iest songs. Have you ever heard any of his solo stuff? I have his album “The Death of the Paperboy” and it’s pretty damn fantastic.
Mike: I like that Bob isn’t afraid to take the back seat on a lot of the songs here. I’ve never actually heard any of Richard’s solo stuff. If it’s more like Blowoff and less Skrillex, I’m bound to love it.
Jason: Heh…trust me, there is no Skrillex to be found there.
Mike: “Life with a View” is great, also. The distorted guitar lower in the mix and the horns allow Bob to shine on vocals. He’s not known for having a pretty voice, but here he sounds just so honest. He’s not forcing it.
Jason: Complete side note, but I remember reading an interview back when Stephen Merritt of Magnetic Fields put out that album as the 6ths with all these different singers, and he said he picked Bob Mould for the song he had him sing (“He Didn’t”) because of how pretty he thought Bob’s voice was. And then I heard the song, and it was just a horrible fit…it was this song that sounded like the “I want” song in an overwrought Broadway musical, and Bob just was not the right guy to sing that song at all. You ever heard it?
Mike: I have not. That just sounds awful. I’m not sure I want to hear this….yeah, I do kind of want to heard it to see how bad it is.
Oh yikes, I’m listening to “He Didn’t”…this really is like a bad Broadway song or a really bad hymn.
Jason: That 6ths record is the only album I ever purchased due to my Bob Mould fandom that I was willing to part with. Just…not my thing.
Back to Blowoff: of the songs Bob takes the lead on, my favorite is probably “Life with a View.” It’s got that great throbbing beat leading the way, while the guitars (one that chimes with echo, one that’s a dirty disco riff) are buried deep in the background. I absolutely love the chorus (“Cat got the tongue, I could get hung up on you/ A day in the sun, I need a life with a view”) with its sneaky internal rhymes and that blaring horn synth patch.
Mike: I’m trying to place with “Life with a View” reminds me of, but I can’t. It’s very…effervescent. 
Jason: I wouldn’t say Blowoff has any outright Dogs, but there are a couple songs I could take or leave. Even with how eclectic the rest of the record is, “Get Inside With Me” doesn’t seem to fit. The drums and guitar effects make it sound kind of like The Photo Album-era Death Cab for Cutie to me, which is far outside the rest of the album’s purview, and Rich’s growled backing vocals seem out of place as well.
And then “Beautiful,” which is basically a remodel of Modulate’s “Lost Zoloft” that strips that house down to the studs and builds it up again from scratch. It’s certainly a vast improvement on the original, especially on the chorus, where Rich tosses out the “Lost Zoloft” phrase with his own new backing vocals that amplifies the song’s catchiness by roughly one hundred million. But “Lost Zoloft” is still a clumsy-as-hell phrase, and it’s still repeated ad nauseam in the verses. So yeah, Rich bumped a C song up to a B, but it’s still a B song on an otherwise A album.
Final Grades
Mike: Overall, yes, I would give this an A. This is just a damn good record. Both artists get so much right on this one. Great flow, fun, exceptional blending of their DJ sound with some of Bob’s rock sound.
Jason: Now, don’t forget, we are on the Bob Mould scale, here! On a general grading scale, I have no problem giving it an A…I did name the album my favorite debut of 2006 (above Arctic Monkeys, no less!) and fifth best of the year overall, but you gave both New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig an A-. Do you really rate Blowoff above those?
Mike: Well ok, good point. Not better than those, for sure. I almost feel a B or B+ might not be strong enough. Maybe like a B++ or an A – -. 
Jason: That’s cheating! But I get what you’re saying…given my own rating scale, if New Day Rising is an A- and FU:EL is a B+, certainly this belongs in the middle somewhere, right?
If I have to pull the trigger, though, I settle back to my “As are a must for anyone’s collection and Bs are where to explore next” and give Blowoff a B+. I’ll admit that I may just be a rounding error. Heh.
Mike: Rounding error, hahahaha
I’m good with a B+. I forgot that was what you were using for your scale. Definitely an “explore next” album and borderline “must own” so you can see how Bob changed during his electronica period and own the best of Bob’s experimental work.
Jason: Hey, you don’t have to use the same scale I do, that’s why we have 2 professors of Mouldology here.
Mike: Not using it, just more for context here. It’s a good rationale.
Next time, Bob reteams with Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty for another Body of Song-esque exploration of all of his various musical facets, 2008’s District Line.

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