Compositions for the Young & Old, Pt. 12 | Sugar, “Copper Blue” (1992)

Jason and Mike turn their attention to Bob Mould’s finest hour and a classic of ’90s alternative rock, his band Sugar’s debut.

 

 

Jason: The year is 1991. Bob Mould’s career is at a low ebb. He let his new band go. He left his label. He fired his management. He lost the publishing rights to his last two albums.
One year later, he has 30 new songs. He has a new band. And he walks this new band and these new songs into a world that has been transformed into one that is hungry for exactly what he has to offer. The result is the biggest success of his illustrious career and, coincidentally, my favorite album of all time.
What a difference a year makes, eh?
Mike: Exactly. Highly praised isn’t strong enough for what is about to come. It was NME’s album of the year in 1992. Consistently makes every top ten list of the 1990s. In my opinion, it is the best thing Bob has done in his entire career. It is one of my all time favorite albums and is easily in my top 5 of the 1990s. There isn’t one thing I do not love about Copper Blue.
Jason: It’s fascinating because most albums that become this storied have something else driving their reputation besides their quality. They’re an out-of-nowhere debut from a new band. They’re an old band either finally breaking out into the public consciousness, or trying something really ambitious.
But Copper Blue isn’t any of those things. There’s no overarching theme or tragedy laden backstory. It’s just a really, really, really great album.
Mike: Yes, there wasn’t a theme or event that drove the creation of the album, just Bob writing amazing songs and fully hitting his stride. The timing was absolutely perfect with “alternative” being the next big thing in music. Why not let one of that scene’s most influential musicians get in on that?
Jason: It didn’t hurt that Kurt Cobain name-dropped Zen Arcade as an influence at every opportunity.
Mike: From 1991 to1994, nope, that wouldn’t hurt at all.
Seriously, there is nothing I hate about this album. I wouldn’t change anything. Maybe I have the benefit of having it in my life for 20 years and know every little nuance of it.
Some noticeable improvements over BSoR are made here. First off, every song is melodic. There isn’t a constant drone throughout and they are not all samey. Most of the songs are very upbeat sounding even if the lyrics are not so. Same goes for Bob’s vocals: he sounds supercharged here, passionate, determined.
Jason: Let’s talk about the band, too. Sugar. What a lineup he had there.
Mike: Dave Barbe just does an incredible job weaving a groove through the songs on bass. It’s a huge improvement over Bob’s first two solo records. He drives “A Good Idea,” and I LOVE his bass on “Slick.”
Jason: I don’t really have any complaints about Tony Maimone, but David fits perfectly in with Bob, and especially on this set of songs. It was interesting to hear how many problems they had with recording his bass on this record (problems with the tonality of his instrument required David to re-record his parts for the entire record). It doesn’t come through in the final product.
Mike: The big improvement is that the bass on Copper Blue is clear and not buried.
Jason: And Malcolm Travis…my god, how I love Malcolm Travis’ drumming. He scatters these little drum fills on the last beat of the measure of pretty much every song. It’s a simple little thing, but it adds a little kick to the energy of the song every time he does it.
I was never that into drummers until I picked up the next Sugar album, File Under: Easy Listening, and started paying attention to the drums on “Gee Angel” and noticed those little fills. From there, I started dissecting the drums on Copper Blue, and I just love them to pieces. Malcolm Travis is the first drummer that made me want to be a drummer, that made me drum along on the steering wheel of my car.
This was a crazy fertile period for Bob. Not only are there the ten songs on Copper Blue perfect (I typed “damn near perfect” at first, but there’s no “near” about it), but the killer six-song cycle that formed the EP Beaster (released the next year) and a number of great B-sides all came out of these same sessions, including “Needle Hits E” (as great as anything that made the album, though maybe a bit too sunny to actually fit among the other songs here), “Clownmaster” (a great, chugging instrumental that was performed a few times with lyrics, something I would love to hear someday), “Running Out of Time” (a speedy slice of punk that Sugar never recorded in the studio but released a live version on the benefit compilation Born to Choose), and a trio of phenomenal tunes from bassist David Barbe’s other band at the time, Buzz Hungry, that the band played live regularly: “The Beer Commercial,” “Anyone,” and “Where Diamonds Are Halos” (the latter being one of my favorite Sugar songs, actually).
Have you ever heard the original Buzz Hungry versions?
Mike: I don’t think I’ve heard those. Were they on the reissue? “Needle Hits E” is great. And Beaster, which we’ll discuss later, is just spectacular. And you are correct, there is no damn near. CB is perfect. It hit at the right time and is the embodiment of what Bob is and sounds like to me.
Jason: “Clownmaster” is on the reissue, yes. “Clownmaster,” “Anyone,” and “Where Diamonds Are Halos” are all on the B-sides compilation Besides (the latter two in live versions). Live versions of all three Buzz Hungry songs are on the bonus disc for the CB reissue. Oh yeah, and “Running Out of Time,” another Sugar castoff that was only recorded live but never in the studio.
Mike: I only have the “original” copy. I need to update my copy to the reissue, which I have heard.
Jason: Not that the sound on the original was bad, but the remaster is really beefed up…it sounds fantastic. And the bonus live show (a 1992 concert in Chicago) is pretty killer, too.
Mike: Live Sugar is a great thing.
Jason: They become a very different band live, a lot more careening and closer to the Hüsker Dü sound. While I wouldn’t trade the versions recorded on Copper Blue for anything, I love the way David Barbe’s voice as a background singer complements Bob’s in a different way than the multitracked Bobs of the studio versions.
I’m actually a big fan of Barbe’s songwriting…I have both Buzz Hungry albums, a compilation of everything his pre-Sugar band Mercyland ever recorded, and his 2001 solo album Comet of the Season. Of course, these days he’s more famous as a producer, having worked on just about every Drive-By Trucker album.
Mike: Yeah, I know Dave only here and as the Truckers’ producer. Another band I love, even if the last few albums left me cold.
Jason: An interesting nugget from the liner notes of the Copper Blue reissue: David and Malcolm had never met each other prior to the recording practices for Copper Blue. Bob basically just slapped together a band with two guys whose work he liked. It’s an insane risk, but obviously it worked out in the end.
Mike: That is crazy. There is so much potential for something to have gone wrong. But trust in Bob…
Jason: They rehearsed 26 new songs for 3 weeks, played one gig in Athens, then took off to Massachusetts to record the albums.
Mike: Pretty much an incredible trial by fire. I think this shows a lot for how talented all three members of Sugar are as musicians, that they were able to play off each other so incredibly well so quickly.
NO DOGS, ONLY PONIES
Mike: I’m almost thinking we have to take the entire album track by track. There is nothing on this album I do not like.
Jason: The only album where the entire article is Dogs & Ponies…with no Dogs!
Mike: My god, those opening chords on “The Act We Act.” Bone crunching and simplistic but conveying a message that something different, something special was about to commence.
With the opening volley of chugging chords on “The Act We Act” you knew you were in for something different. The sound sounded so much better than anything prior. Bob’s vocals just sounded so much more passionate and uplifting the way he was singing. The lyrics here are not the most upbeat, but Bob makes it all feel so positive with his delivery, and Dave and Malcolm drive this song home. Throughout the song, Bob’s guitar switches over to a more swirling/jangly feel with a great little solo before he brings it back home with his crunchy-as-hell chords.
Jason: “The Act We Act” is a phenomenal opener, but it’s much different than anything Bob had done before. On top of that thick, chugging, grungy guitar comes Bob’s voice, pushed through a filter that makes him sound downright otherworldly. When I first heard the album, that song grabbed me from the get-go. It was like, “WHOA, what planet did THIS guy come from?”
Mike: Otherworldly, yes.
It’s like a chorus filter of some sort.
Jason: And then that swirling guitar hits on the chorus and the whole song just takes flight. You can really hear the influence of Bob’s favorite new band at the time, My Bloody Valentine, with the whole sea of distorted guitars that still manage to sound sunny and shimmering.
Mike: Pretty good influence to have too. Swirling is a good word to use, and you will hear that throughout the album.
Jason: The lyrics to “The Act We Act” are something else, too. They’re not the most literal, and can sometimes read like gibberish outside of the context of the song. “The act we act we under my skin”? What does that mean, exactly? But in the context of the song, the way Bob sings it and the way it’s amplified and uplifted by the music, it all just flat out works.
Mike: The lyrics may have been deep and down, but the music here and his and the band’s intensity to rock your face off lift you into the heavens. The way everything throughout is presented, Bob is hopeful. He’s longing for peace, for love, for acceptance, but mostly he’s hopeful.
You really need to get the full context of the song to understand his meaning. I’m almost positive it is autobiographical. It’s told from the perspective of someone at the end of the relationship. He’s tired of putting up that front that it’s going to work out, that it’s fixable the way it is.
Jason: The bridge is what really nails the uplifting feel of the song. Coming out of that epic guitar solo, the shimmering feel comes back as the lyrics turn sunnier: “Another big explosion/ Leaving you hoping/ That something that once hold you down/ Could leave you feeling on the ground.” The line “Once the final curtain has been raised” ties it all together. And the closing lines just cinch the deal: “The words, the words, we said goodbye/ The words left choking in my mind/ The act we act is wearing thing/ I think we wear it out again.” Just, boom. The last minute and a half or so of that song just warms the cockles of my heart* every time I hear it.
* Attentive readers will note this is a reference to the Denis Leary song “Asshole,” which was the A-side on the dubbed tape that was my only copy of Copper Blue for many years. It all comes full circle!
Mike: Yes…the bridge is pretty incredible, and with whatever filter he has on his voice, it just makes it feel even more larger than life. You are in the heavens at that point. I want to just be trapped in the sound of that song from the solo on. if you do not need feel the need to jump around, or move something during the second half of that song, you might not have a pulse.
Jason: As great as the guitars are, they’re only amplified by the drums. After so many crappy sounding, in-badly-need-of-remastering abums, FINALLY the drums sound muscular here, especially on the latest remaster. The kick drum shakes your ear drums, the snare has pop, and the cymbals shimmer just as much as the guitars on the chorus. Malcolm Travis is a fantastic drummer, and that’s only amplified by how well recorded the album is.
Mike: 100% agree. This is an album meant to be played loud. Your teeth rattle on this between Malcolm and Dave. It really is one of my favorite to play in the car. Just to feel the power of it all washing over you.
Which leads to the next song, “A Good Idea,” a song totally driven by Dave’s bass and Malcolm’s drums. Bob’s guitar here adds an incredible bouncy guitar texture. This is their tribute to the Pixies, hell they lift the opening bass line from “Debaser,” even.
Jason: See, now I always assumed that song was a tribute to the Pixies (who famously drafted Kim Deal when she was the only person who responded to their “bassist wanted” ad that said “must like Hüsker Dü and Peter Paul & Mary”), but then I read in Bob’s autobio that it was completely on accident and he didn’t realize he had done it until after the album came out.
Mike: Either way, it’s glorious. And that Pixies ad still makes me laugh.
Jason: “A Good Idea” might just be my favorite Pixies ripoff about drowning someone…which might sound like a ridiculous thing to say, but hey, the competition is Toadies’ “Possum Kingdom,” which is also a really great, really disturbing song, really “early ‘90s” song.
Mike: [laughs] That is the only other Pixiesesque song about drowning someone I can think of. And it really is great. But “A Good Idea,” aside from the kinda creepy lyrics, is such a fun little song. Dave’s driving base, Malcolm is almost frantic in parts on the song. And Bob’s singing here—like the way he sings “TempTATION!”—is almost tongue in cheek. But my favorite part is:
Some things are best left alone
Sometimes I’m best left alone
And sometimes I see you in the water
At night at night at night
Jason: You can practically hear Bob’s eyebrow raise with the way he says “tempTATION.” Heh.
Mike: Exactly! It’s almost maniacal.
Jason: The line before that is great, too. “I saw them from the ocean/ She didn’t seem to mind, didn’t fight it at all/ She didn’t fight it at all…” Again, super creepy, but it’s all in the delivery.
Mike: Henry Rollins does the same thing on “Liar,” that straight-faced-but-tongue-in-cheek delivery….You can just hear Beavis screaming “Look, Butthead, he’s lying.”
Jason: I love the production on this song, too. Bob’s production up to Copper Blue tended to be pretty “meat and potatoes,” but there’s so much going on in this song. The gurgling sound during the intro, the weird, almost Tool-like creaking noises during the first verse, that weird Doppler effect guitar noise that sounds like police cars driving by off in the distance.
Mike: The creaking noise is an easy trick doing a pick scrape really slow on a certain part of the E string.
Jason: And the juxtaposition between the mostly straightforward pop rhythm section (Malcolm’s grooving, whipcrack drums and David’s Pixies-ish bass lick) and the guitar, which sounds downright unhinged in places. And Bob’s vocal performance basically splits the difference, going back and forth between both extremes.
Mike: Through out the album we get these great pop grooves with lyrics that do not necessarily belong to something this upbeat. But it all works so perfectly here and changes the tone of the lyrics
Jason: Yeah, the album as a whole is very much the sum of its parts. The songs are solid, but it’s the whole package that elevates it from “ten good songs” to “one of the greatest albums of all time.”
Take for an example, the transition here.“A Good Idea” devolves into mania in its final minute as Bob chants “That’s a good idea, she said, she said” like a mantra, adding in an extra little punchy power pop guitar bit as the song rockets toward the end. Then, all of the instruments drop out in unison in the middle of the last “a good idea” (actually, between the “I” and “D” in “idea”) and that chiming bells and guitar of “Changes” kick in immediately. Then comes the boom-whap of Malcolm’s drums and the song rockets back to life. A great song wraps up, you get a little respite, and it’s off to the races again, and it all happens in 6 seconds, a flat out perfect transition.
Mike: I love Bob’s symbolism of the seasons, comparing the relationship he’s lamenting about to the seasons on “Changes.” He did something similar on “Celebrated Summer.”
Jason: “Now that winter has fallen upon us/ I need something that’s warm and honest.” Love that couplet.
Mike: My favorite part of that song is that whole stanza….besides that breakdown at the end. Being in my situation, I so feel this song. And I felt it immensely in 1993, when things were not that great for me in the dating scene. One just massive point of comparison between BSoR and here: it’s all in the delivery. Bob is giving you some pretty introspective, heartfelt lyrics but instead of giving us bleak and monotone here, he’s changing things up, giving us pop melodies and brightening up his delivery to make things so much more palatable. “We need to make some changes/ We need what we need/ Do I need you?/ Do you need me?” That is such an honest look a failing or stagnant relationship.
Jason: The lyrics to “Changes” definitely hit on common emotions in a very universal way. There’s a reason why this album grabbed people the way it did.
“Helpless” as well, which tackles a troubled relationship from a different, more hopeful angle, the idea that you want to make things better but just don’t quite know how to.
If you held a gun to my head and made me pick a favorite song in Bob’s catalog, it would be “Helpless.” The lyrics really hit home with me. I’m not a guy who talks a lot about his emotions or the emotions of others, so I feel like the narrator of this song a lot.
Mike: “Helpless” is a great example of what I mentioned earlier. By brightening up his delivery, giving us an upbeat cheery guitar riff, and letting his rhythm section give us a bouncy beat, you have a great song that makes you feel hopeful.
Jason: Listening to this song has a it of a cathartic element for me, whether I’m down in the dumps or not (though especially when I’m down in the dumps). Hearing someone else who has been there capture it so eloquently is very soothing, and when you add in the music, with those shining pop guitars and gradually rising melody, it gives you a feeling of hope. Songs like this that can brighten your day just by hearing them, this is why I love music in general, and Bob’s work in particular.
Mike: I got the sense from his book, that Bob is similar to you in that respect. He internalizes things. His release is through his music
Jason: He’s a lot more willing to cut all ties and start over than I am…or most people, for that matter. Quitting Hüsker Dü, dumping Virgin, quitting music to write for wrestling, all of the times he’s moved cities…these are not the kind of bridge burning moments that happen in my life, for sure.
Mike: Yeah, when something is over, it’s really over for him.
“Changes,” “Helpless,” and “Hoover Dam” make for an incredible trio of pain-ridden but incredibly hopeful songs, “Hoover Dam” being the most pop-oriented and effervescent of the three, and the first song on the album to prominently feature Bob’s acoustic guitar work, even though it does contain an eerie backwards sounding solo on electric guitar. And synthesizers! Lots of synths.
I love this line so much: “And if you’ve made a deal with the guy with the horns and the cape, I’ll see you later.” I’m surprised people then didn’t raise a stink about the backwards lyrics at the end of “Hoover Dam.”
Jason: There are backwards lyrics? I know there’s the backwards guitar solo, but I never heard any backwards singing.
Mike: At the end, listen closely starts when there is 23 seconds left
Jason: Oh, right, that part. Any idea what he says there? They never registered to me as backwards, more like the sound when you skip ahead on a CD.
Mike: No idea. He may be saying nothing and just threw it in there for the effect. I did also notice at the very beginning, there is some very muffled lyrics buried underneath the keys. Just sounds like Bob saying Hoover Dam over and over.
I do really love the image Bob paints here. “Standing on the edge Of the Hoover Dam/ I’m on the centerline/ Right between two states of mind.” He’s at a crossroads and if the winds of change blow wrong, he’s failing over the edge. If not, he lands on the safe side
Jason: This week has been nuts at work, so my listening through Copper Blue keep getting interrupted again and again. And every time, I end up restarting at “The Act We Act.” MUST HEAR COPPER BLUE IN ITS ENTIRETY.
Mike: I know the feeling! But “The Act We Act” NEVER ever gets old
Jason: I know. I could listen to nothing but this album for months and months and never get tired of it.
Mike: It really is the only thing I’ve spun for days now. My son Trent was like “Whoa, what is this?”
Jason: It’s definitely the most immediately accessible thing Bob ever recorded. It totally grabbed me as a 13-year-old and has never really let go.
Mike: My son’s 15 and angsty, so it’s perfect match.
Dave’s bass is particularly great on “Hoover Dam.” It’s slow and with purpose but every so often he throws in a little da-da-da-da riff. Then he picks up the pace and is nice and bouncy through the keyboard and guitar solos.
Jason: I know I said before that “Helpless” is my favorite song Bob has ever done. I think “Hoover Dam” is a very, very, very close second. The lyrics are just unreal. The imagery is very vivid, but just abstract enough that they leave you, no matter what state you’re in, with a feeling of hope.
When I was a standard issue depressed teenager, I obsessed over this song. I reveled in it. I would lay on the couch with pillows over my face and listen to this song over and over again and knew that, somehow, everything would be all right.
And it’s all wrapped up in such a beautiful musical package. This is Bob’s tribute to the Beatles, and you can really hear that kind of fearless pop experimentation throughout the song. The chiming 12-string guitar forms the song’s heart, but so many other little musical bits cycle in and out throughout the song, keeping it engaging through every second of its 5 1/2 minute run time.
It’s also the best job Bob ever did at working synths/organs into one of his songs. He started experimenting with it as far back as “Turn It Around” on Warehouse. But whereas that song came off as a clumsy stab at the ‘80s pop of the time, here it seems confident and fully integrated with the rest of the song. Hell, I hesitate to say it, but the keyboard solo actually beats the Beatles’ “In My Life” at its own game. And that’s one of the greatest songs ever recorded!
Mike: And that is a big thing, it doesn’t feel like it’s that long because there is so much going on to keep you enthralled. The imagery that Bob is giving us alone would be enough. However you have this wonderful pop melody though the songs….and synths!
I mentioned earlier that we all have felt like him at times, at the crossroads and do you fall hard or not. Instead of just saying that, he gives us this grandiose imagine to think about, to visualize to really put into perspective the enormity of the situation. And the solo is actually a nice slower one that pulls you in emotionally even if it’s a backwards looped one. The slight psychedelic nature of that tone just adds to it and really does make you think of that ‘60s pop-meets-psychedlia that the Beatles mastered.
Jason: It’s just a handful of sustained notes, too…simple, but wonderfully executed.
And then the album goes from its most hopeful moment to its most harrowing and depressing: “The Slim,” a brutal emotional journey through losing someone to AIDS.
Mike: “The Slim” is so gorgeous. Bob’s raw emotion and anger at the situation makes this an incredibly engaging song. He’ done depressing songs, but rarely have you felt this kind of passion through him. It’s like he’s screaming at the heavens so the person lost can hear him. Those three stanzas before the “I swim alone” part just kill me emotionally…every time. You can almost feel his anger, his pain of losing someone.
Jason: Yeah, the anger and sadness on much of Black Sheets of Rain didn’t feel earned. This sure as hell does. This is among Bob’s most passionate vocal performances on record.
Mike: And I hesitate to say this, but I think Bob learned a few things over the last few albums. This potentially could have been a flat song with the repetitive nature of the music. Other songs he’s done, he’s gone for relatively monotone vocals. Here, he varies his performance. He sings his damn heart out. He gives us highs when the lyrics demand it and levels out when it’s needed.
Jason: Workbook had similarly nuanced vocal performances, but it’s kicked up another notch on Copper Blue.
The end of the song, where he’s invectively spitting out the words to marriage vows (“To HONOR, and OBEY, to CHERISH, and to WORSHIP, in SICKNESS and in HEALTH, for RICHER, for POORER, for ANYTHING, until DEATH to us part”) just slays me every time. If you’ve ever heard a live version (such as the version released on the B-side compilation Besides) he sounds close to a nervous breakdown at that point. It’s no wonder he took the song out of his repertoire for a while…I can’t imagine it’s easy to summon that kind of fury every night, and the song wouldn’t work without it.
Mike: I know! It’s one of those songs that you just pour your heart into every time you perform it. Jim James of My Morning Jacket is like that with “Dondonte.” It’s a song that emotionally guts him every time and you wonder if he’s going to make it through. Similarly, I believe MMJ has scaled back performing it because it’s so painful to do.
“The Slim” is frequently used in one of my marathon and cycling playlists. Its such an emotional song for me, I literally feel the electricity in it.
So Sugar gives us that huge emotional rollercoaster with “The Slim,” and then come back at us with another just glorious power pop track that is virtually impossible to hate. You seriously have no soul if you cannot love “If I Can’t Change Your Mind.”
Jason: That’s the only place for me where the sequencing fails a little bit. I love both “The Slim” and “If I Can’t Change Your Mind,” but butting them up against each other makes for a pretty jarring transition. They have Bob’s beautiful 12-string acoustic guitar tone in common, but that’s about it.
That song is a behemoth, though. And pretty much the quintessential “pop song with downer lyrics.” It’s giddy–downright bouncy, even–and the first line is “Tears fill up my eyes, I’m washed away with sorrow.” It shouldn’t work, but man, does it ever.
Mike: The whole song is bereft with that juxtaposition, and is just glorious times 100. That whole first verse explains my life from 1992-1995.
Needless to say, this song more than any on the album was on continuous play during that time in my life. Musically, it’s just gorgeous, with the ‘60s-era power pop arrangements and the twangy countrified guitar solo and outro. Even though it’s a downer in nature lyrically, the music along with Bob’s vocals make you feel like everything is going to be ok, that the end of the relationship he’s singing about is for the best.
Jason: It’s easily the most perfect pop song Bob ever wrote. The arrangement is wonderful, too, especially with the little bits of flamenco guitar thrown in just for the hell of it.
Also, this is a song where Bob was nice enough to show you how much his bandmates add to the song by releasing a “solo mix” that’s just voice and guitar. Listening to that version, the song is great. Add in David’s bopping bass and Malcolm’s drums with those giddy little fills every fourth measure, though, and it moves to a whole other level.
Mike: Any discussion of “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” warrants at least a brief mention of the video, which was somewhat controversial at the time. Bob was not publicly out until a 1994 interview with Spin. Yet in the video for “IICCYM,” at the end Bob holds up a picture of his partner and himself and on the back wrote “This is not your parents’ world”. Nowadays its common place to be out, but not in 1992. I didn’t pick up on it right away as frankly it doesn’t matter to me anyone’s orientation, but others did.
Jason: “Fortune Teller” is the closest anything on Copper Blue gets to being a dog for me, and that’s only because it’s an A- song on an album packed with A++++++++ songs. And that’s only because the lyrics, in my estimation, aren’t quite up to the standard of the rest of the album. This is Bob’s best guitar song, though. He really lets loose on this one.
Mike: He really does cut it up on this one. And yes, if really pushed for a “weak” song, this would be the weakest cut. Weak is a relative term here
Jason: Actually, saying the lyrics “aren’t up to the standard of the rest of the album” is a bit much. They just aren’t as personal, so they don’t have the emotional gut punch that the rest of the album does.
Mike: Yeah, it kinda flies in and flies out without letting up on the gas.
Jason: It’s like the “Private Plane” of this album.
Mike: With so many other just amazing songs on this album it does get overshadowed.
Jason: “Slick” is the one song that my opinion on has changed the most over the years. When I first discovered the album, I never liked this one, and I held onto that prejudice for years and years. This was always a skip for me. The droning, monotone guitars and Bob’s out-the-side-of-his-mouth vocal delivery just bugged the crap out of me.
Mike: Same here. It’s his most MBVesque in terms of guitar. It’s just glorious in that respect.
Jason: Now, I love it. Maybe it’s actually having been in a few nasty car accidents, but the song perfectly captures that weird slow motion feeling of a car wreck perfectly.
Mike: I love how as the song progresses it gets more frantic and weird.
Jason: Yeah, the layering of guitars gives it a real funhouse mirror vibe. It’s like the song is always this close to careening out of control. Which, considering it’s about a car accident, is fairly apropos.
Mike: Very. And the funhouse mirror is a good tie-in to the rollercoaster sound at the beginning of the song.
Jason: Those little touches—the rollercoaster at the beginning of “Slick,” the little bit of studio dialogue at the start of “Man on the Moon,” or, jumping backward, the gurgling sound at the start of “A Good Idea”—are nice, but they’re so weird in the context of Bob’s discography. Copper Blue is literally the only album where he does stuff like that. I wonder if it was co-producer Lou Giordano’s influence? Or maybe Bob was just in a more playful mood on this album?
Mike: I think it was Bob being playful. Having seen enough interviews, he actually is a pretty funny guy and not this just the down-in-the-dumps guy his lyrics portray.
Jason: Speaking of Lou Giordano, another interesting tidbit from the reissue’s liner notes: when Bob and co-producer Lou Giordano were doing the final mixing for the album, Lou insisted on creating a second mix where the vocals were pushed further into the foreground, and those generally were the mixes that the mastering engineer Howie Weinberg used. One of my chief (hell, only) complaints about the last two Bob solo albums is how the vocals are too deep into the mix and are a little hard to identify. Apparently burying his voice in the mix has been his preference for a while.
Mike: I didn’t realize that was intentional.
“Man on the Moon” may be some of the most optimistic and hopeful lyrics Bob had written at that point in his career. It never fails to make me smile and happy.
Jason: It’s a gorgeous track. Lyrically, it’s like a fairy tale. And those MBV-style guitars never shimmered more beautifully than they do here.
Mike: The whole section near the end where there is the build up before launching into the end always has me bobbing my head. I feel like such a happy person when listening to this song. I feel like things will always be better. I mean come on:
If you look to the sky
Look him straight in the eye
And as strange as it seems
If you wish all your dreams
Will come true after all
Jason: The rhythm section is great on this song as well. The guitar figure has this ascending, two-steps-forward-one-step-back quality to it that hits in perfect sync with the lurching beat of the drums and bass that makes it feel like Malcolm and David are pushing Bob up, up, up to greater and greater heights.
Mike: If he plays this at the Old Rock House show, I may die.
Jason: He closed the main set with it when I saw him in 1998, and closed his entire show with it in 2005. They ere both great, as you can imagine.
Mike: Sigh. I can’t imagine a more perfect closer.
FINAL GRADES
Mike: So for me it’s all ponies, there are no dogs on this album. Copper Blue is a landmark of ‘90s alternative and has aged incredibly well. It hit at the right time. Bob was in a stellar groove here and he’s backed fantastically by Dave and Malcolm. It’s deserving of every accolade it has received and then some. This is an album that should be required listening. A+++++++++++. It’s in my top five ‘90s albums and easily in my top 10 of all time. Just an incredible album.

 

Jason: Copper Blue is quite easily my favorite album, and not only is it empirically the best album Bob ever recorded, it’s also the most immediately accessible and the one most likely to appeal to a wide range of listeners. If you like ‘90s alternative rock, punk, power pop, or just guitar rock in general, odds are you’ll find something to love on this album. A+, no question.

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