Compositions for the Young & Old, Pt. 13 | Sugar, “Beaster” (1993)

Sugar follows the glorious alterna-pop debut with a much darker EP full of guitars, rage, and haunting religious imagery.

 

 

 

Jason: At the same time Bob was crafting his alterna-pop masterpiece Copper Blue, he also wrote another set of songs, a song cycle with a darker tone more akin to Black Sheets of Rain. As he and his new band recorded the whole set of songs, it became clear that they were two distinct works. This ultimately gave birth to the EP Beaster, recorded at the same sessions as Copper Blue and released the following year.
It’s kind of hard to fathom that this bracing, furious material came out of the same creative period, isn’t it?
Mike: It’s hard to imagine the much darker tone coming from those same sessions. The tone of Beaster is just uber-thick and dense (yet Beaster opens and closes with two really lush tracks). The album is filled with a lot of dark, religious imagery, and I guess you could say it’s a concept album in that respect.
Jason: Of course, while the songs on CB and Beaster had the same genesis musically, the lyrics of Beaster were largely written during the sessions, when a particularly bad phonecall with Bob’s then-partner left him in a decidedly dark place.
Mike: With some of the other cuts that were recorded during this time and used on the reissue, I wonder if Sugar could have released it as a full LP. As it stands, Beaster is almost 31 minutes long, certainly longer than Hüsker Dü’s first two albums.
Jason: I don’t know that any of the other leftover tracks would have fit the tone of Beaster except maybe “Try Again,” which is probably my least favorite Sugar song so I’m kind of fine with its B-side status.
I guess the upbeat sound of “Feeling Better” could be paired with something like “Running Out of Time,” which was only ever played live. Have you heard that one? It was on the Born to Choose compilation, a fairly obscure pro-choice benefit CD. (Some good stuff on that disc…one of my favorite obscure R.E.M. jams-”Photograph,” with Natalie Merchant- and Matthew Sweet covering the Beatles’ “She Said, She Said.”)
Mike: I don’t think I’ve heard that. I need to hunt that disc down! Sounds like some great stuff is there.
Either way, this release gave the band more reason to tour. A big difference here versus Black Sheets of Rain is these tracks never sound monotonous. They never feel too long or just rushed through.
Jason: The fact that Copper Blue and Beaster were segregated during recording is interesting, because that’s not Bob’s usual M.O. Pretty much every album he’s recorded before or since is “This is a collection of the songs I’ve written since the last record came out.” But here, he made a conscious decision to put his songs into categories, where these songs fit as this one concept, these songs fit as another concept, and these songs don’t fit either place. Really the only time he ever did that again was in the early 2000s when he split songs among Modulate, Long-Playing Grooves, and Body of Song.
Mike: Very good point of fact. It’s really evident here, as Beaster is just so different in feeling from Copper Blue.
DOGS & PONIES
Mike: Malcom’s drumming on “Tilted” is particularly excellent. Bob’s solo is just blistering as well. He’s channeling his bitterness and anger into his guitar.
“JC Auto” is such a great raging song, as well. So much intense energy from everyone. The song floors the gas and doesn’t let up through the whole song. You can almost feel Bob’s anger and bitterness coming through when he’s growling out “Look like Jesus Christ/ Act Like Jesus Christ/ Here’s Your Jesus Christ/ I’m Your Jesus Christ/I KNOW I KNOW I KNOW I KNOW.” And his guitar, good grief. He’s channeling lightening through it.
Jason: “Tilted” is a brutal song. That solo is easily the closest thing to the Zen Arcade/New Day Rising Hüsker Dü era. It’s white hot and played blisteringly fast, but then about three quarters of the way through it morphs into something more akin to the soloing on something like “Fortune Teller.” It’s Bob’s two eras colliding, to great effect. And that drumming is ferocious…it really propels the song along.
Also, only in 1993 would this collection of songs get released and a song as bracing as “Tilted” be chosen as the single. Any other year and your record label would say “Yeaaaah, I think ‘Feeling Better’ is the only thing that won’t send radio programmers away screaming.”
Mike: Good point. “Feeling Better” is a great song, though, and just as powerful but in different ways. It’s lyrically…caustic. I love how, instead of barking out the bitterest portion of the lyrics, that last verse is almost simmering.
Jason: I love “Feeling Better.” It’s a huge pop song in a different way than any other pop song Bob’s written. When I hear that song, I picture the band running around on some big, elaborate award show stage, with a huge horn section.
(Side note: those blaring synths throughout the song are begging—BEGGING—to be played by horns. Has Bob ever used brass on any recording he’s ever made? I don’t think he has.)
Mike: I don’t think he has, but hell yes to the horns! That would be outfreakingstanding to hear.
I love how he’s structured the choruses, with you getting two sides of Bob singing and two sides of his guitar. And damn, Dave’s bass is great here.
Jason: David’s playing is so supple here. And he gets a nice little funky bass solo, even.
I’m still not sure how “Feeling Better” “fits” with the Beaster concept, though. The transition from the crunching last note of “JC Auto” to that nimble opening guitar lick on “Feeling Better” works, but it’s SOOO much more poppy than anything else here. And it doesn’t really transition very well into the gossamer layers of synth on the final track, “Walking Away.”
Mike: Musically, yeah it’s a bit of and odd transition from just distilled aggression to pop to lush. Lyrically, however, the way the last lines of “Feeling Better” (“I gave you everything I could/ I gave you everything I had/ There’s nothing left for me to say/ I guess it’s time to walk away”) immediately kick into “Walking Away” is great.
Jason: Lyrically, the transition works. Sonically, I’m not so sure. That’s a fairly minor complaint, though.
Mike: It is, when the songs are this good. “Walking Away” is very simple but effective. After four raging songs, it adds a nice calming effect. And the little touches like the warbly church organ tie this into the loose religious theme running through the songs.
Jason: So, Dogs & Ponies?
Mike: I don’t have a Dog on this one! Since there are only six tracks, my top two would be “JC Auto” and “Feeling Better.”
Jason: I can’t say I really do either. I listen to “Tilted,” “JC Auto,” and “Feeling Better” marginally more than the other three, but the tracks work so well as a unit that there’s no point in singling out any of them as unworthy.
Mike: Exactly. And it’s short enough it’s worth it to listen to it as a whole.
FINAL GRADES
Mike: For me, I would give it an A-. These songs are great and really work well as a set.
Jason: A- sounds about right, with the caveat that though it is close in quality, this isn’t nearly as accessible as Copper Blue, so people enjoy that album and prefer Bob in alterna-pop mode might be better off sticking with our next entry in the series…
Mike: Agreed. Beaster is fantastic but not the easiest nut to crack.

 

Tune in next time, when Sugar try to catch lightning in a bottle again with their second full-length, the impeccably titled File Under: Easy Listening.

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