Compositions for the Young & Old, Pt. 14 | Sugar, “File Under: Easy Listening” (1994)

Bob Mould’s trio tries to make lightning strike twice on their second, impeccably titled power-pop gem of an LP.

 

 

 

Mike: Sugar returns with 1994’s ironically titled File Under: Easy Listening (or FU:EL). While not as hard-hitting as Copper Blue, this certainly is not that silky smooth adult contemporary you would expect from easy listening. There are some swirling scorching rockers here, as well as some of Bob’s more accessible pop-oriented tracks. It is often overlooked due to the success of Copper Blue.
Jason: There were quite a few birthing pains in the creation of FU:EL. Bob was still exhausted from touring behind Copper Blue and Beaster, and the band recorded a handful of songs that ultimately weren’t up to Bob’s exacting standards. Combined with the effect of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, Bob decided the band needed a do-over, and even went so far as to erase the tapes of everything that had been recorded so far in order to truly start over from scratch.
Mike: A risky (bold) move! But I feel it was the right one. While not as grandiose as Copper Blue, it still is a wonderful album that deserves praise.
Jason: It is a very good album, but it isn’t quite the “catching lightning in a bottle” instant masterpiece that Copper Blue was. FU:EL feels a bit more labored. There’s less of a unified feel to the songs, and there’s a bit more of an element of throwing things against the wall to see what sticks.
The B-sides speak to this, too, I think. The first Sugar sessions, the songs were clearly delineated into Copper Blue songs, Beaster songs, and songs that didn’t fit anywhere else, and even with 20 years of hindsight, it’s still clear Bob made all the right decisions there. But with FU:EL, there were any number of outstanding B-sides that would have it easily into the album proper.
Should some of the songs been swapped out? Should the entire album have been extended? No matter which way you went, you would have ended up with a very different overall experience, even if song-for-song the quality is there.
Mike: Stylistically, agreed it’s less cohesive and a bit all over.
Jason: And it stretches out from Copper Blue in several different directions. The pop songs (“Your Favorite Thing,” “Gee Angel,” “Can’t Help You Anymore”) are even more purely power pop, the folky songs (“Panama City Motel,” “Believe What You’re Saying”) are even folkier, and there are also far more dirgy numbers than the one we got last time (“Gift,” “Company Book,” “What You Want It To Be”). And yet the whole album is only 40 minutes.
Mike: I was listening yesterday while doing laundry and spun it twice before I was even done. I forgot how quickly it goes by, and yet there are a few times where things do feel just a bit long. Prime example: “What You Want It to Be.” The last minute or so is just repeating the song title over and over.
And yes they didn’t seem like they were trying to blend genres…rather, as you point out, the pop songs are pop, the folk songs are folk, etc. The opening pair of“Gift” and “Company Book” are almost Sonic Youth meets My Bloody Valentine in their searing guitars, then they follow that up with just a wonderful power pop classic that is insanely catchy in “Your Favorite Thing.”
Jason: “Gift” feels like it was trying to start off FU:EL in the same chugging sweet spot that “The Act We Act” occupied on Copper Blue, but the chorus doesn’t quite hit the same transcendent heights. It’s still a decent song, but it’s not quite up there with the best opening tracks Bob has ever tossed off. I do enjoy the lyrics, especially the bridge: “Once you give the gift away/ There’s nothing you can do about it/ Nothing that you do or say/ Can change the way I feel about it/ Try to look inside of me/ To find the gift that I am given/ Glad you had a chance to see/ The gift that I delivered.”
“Company Book” makes a great companion to “Gift.” It does bug me, though, how processed the vocals are. The song is written and sung by bassist David Barbe, and yet his vocals sound like they were run through a “Bob Mould filter” to make him sound more like Bob, when really their voices are nothing alike. (The B-sides he recorded during the FU:EL sessions, “Frustration” and “In the Eyes of My Friends,” have the same issue.) It’s like, man, Bob, I get it’s your band, but it’s a different guy singing…at least let the guy sound like himself!
Mike: The vocals are the only thing that bother me about that track. It could have been so much more of a song than it was if it had fuller-sounding vocals.
Jason: They sound so artificial after all the processing. Other than the vocals on “Company Book,” I have no complaints about the production on FU:EL. It really suits the songs here. The instruments are all clearly delineated, the drums especially have some power behind them, and the wide variety of guitar sounds are all well suited to the songs themselves.
Mike: It passed the car stereo test! Malcolm does a great job throughout the album. I was noticing a lot of little cymbal work he was doing on several songs. It added a nice touch when used.
Jason: Those little fourth measure drum fills I mentioned when we discussed Copper Blue are all over this record, too. I think the drums are as much responsible for the joyousness of the poppier tracks as the guitars and vocal melodies are.
Mike: The drums even lift some of the more somber tunes as well.
And we are blessed to get “Believe What You’re Saying” here. That is such a gorgeous song.
Jason: And it’s pretty far outside anything we’ve ever gotten from Bob before. It was established by Hüsker Dü’s cover of “Eight Miles High” that he was a fan of the Byrds, but he had never really explored that sunny, jangly folk sound before. The guitars sound closer to something you might hear from R.E.M. or even the Gin Blossoms, but the betrayal seeping through the lyrics is pure Bob.
Mike: Exactly. The countrified guitar a la the Byrds is so great here. The pacing is spot on. Lyrically, it’s trademark Bob.
Jason: And then it’s countered with “Explode and Make-Up,” quite possibly the most intense closer that Bob ever penned. “Believe” and “Explode” are only united by their acoustic guitar, but the sunny-music-with-bitter-lyrics dichotomy is replaced by pure bitter and invective. This is one angry fucking song.
The lyrics are bit more abstract here (“Heart holds mouth to words/ Said it’s gone beyond the line this time/ Eyes twitch close/ Numb the lights turned out, I’m out”) but the emotion is still right up front. This is every bit as brutal emotionally as “The Slim.”
Mike: It is. And I just noticed something, maybe it’s just my copy, but when the solo kicks in (great fucking solo, by the way), the volume went up very noticeably to add emphasis.
And as far as choices as a closer…I don’t know, it seems like an odd choice to me. If I was doing things, I’m not sure I would have had that as a closer.
Jason: I think it’s a great choice as closer. If you shoved it into the middle of the album, I don’t know what you’d follow it with.
Mike: It’s just kind of an odd one for me. I love the song, but overall I’m not sure it fits the best with the rest of the songs. Especially following “Believe What You’re Saying.” But that does open that can of worms as far as where you would put it then. Definitely not at the start. It’s always just seemed to feel a little out of place.
Jason: The B-side “And You Tell Me” might have made a good transition song. The acoustic-to-aco​ustic of going from “Believe” straight into “Explode” works for me, but “And You Tell Me” is a dark song that is kind of a slow builder that might have eased that transition a bit. Not that we should waste a lot of time Monday morning quarterbacking instead of talking about the album we actually have.
Mike: Thoughts on “Granny Cool”? Is this just Bob telling people to start acting their age instead of trying to be what they’re not, or is it a more pointed attack at someone?
Jason: I’ve never put that much thought into the song, to be honest. It’s a pretty slight, goofy little song. It doesn’t quite seem pointed enough to be an attack on any one person, just kind of a general dig on aging hipsters. Musically, it’s an alright song (I love the big, crunching guitar riff) but the lyrics make it pretty forgettable on the whole.
Mike: That’s how I always took it. I know he’s had issues with Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth in the past and I’ve read a couple accounts that say it was directed at her. I do love the guitar on the song, but yeah, the lyrics seem a little nonsensical.
I used to think “Gee Angel” was similar: great guitar, but a silly little song. That is, until I sat and thought about it and realized it’s about the rise and fall of relationship and being ultimately rejected, and the last verse especially is pretty poignant about the subject:
Climbed up the mountain, observed the view
But angel wouldn’t say what I had to do
Then angel flew away and left me standing there
I knew I couldn’t fly, but I didn’t care
Jason: “Gee Angel” was not a grower for me. Hopping backwards a bit, FU:EL was the third Bob release I ever got: Copper Blue, then The Last Dog & Pony Show, then FU:EL. So I was still very much only familiar with (and generally into) Bob’s electric guitar-driven alterna-pop stuff, so “Gee Angel” was the first song that grabbed me on the record.
That guitar riff is so speedy and poppy, and I think the lyrics are fantastic. It’s not even strictly a relationship song so much as wanting something, anything, so badly that you can think of nothing else, and when it’s taken away from you, you realize you didn’t need it as desperately as you thought.
Mike: It took me a while to get into that one outside of the guitar. Now, if I’m crunched for time and I’m playing FU:EL, it’s one that gets played.
Jason: I love the imagery of angel wings as something the narrator of that song wants even though they don’t really “fit.” “When I got home and I tried them on/ I noticed that the wingspan was way too long/ I couldn’t take them back, there was no return/ I should’ve gotten more, I was feeling burned.” On the surface, it’s kind of a goofy metaphor, but there’s a universality to it that I think makes the song more appealing.
DOGS & PONIES
Jason: For me, FU:EL peaks in the middle, with tracks 5, 6, and 7. “Gee Angel””s pop confections, we’ve already covered. Similarly, “Can’t Help You Anymore” is a fantastic little slice of super-catchy pop, though a bit of a weird one: the guitars and bass are pretty simplistic and played kind of slowly, but the drums and vocals are both much faster to still give the song that giddy pop edge. And then, of course, there’s the skillfully layered vocals, with that “Doo-doo-da-doo, doo-doo-da-doo-doo” bit that is repeated until it’s drilled into your head (in a pleasant way, I swear).
And then sandwiched in between them is “Panama City Motel,” which is basically everything “Brasilia Crossed with Trenton” back on Workbook was not. It’s evocative of a time and place that might not quite actually exist, but you feel like you’re walking with Bob through this strange town and having these strange adventures. There’s a beautiful push and pull between the strummed 12-string acoustic that forms the base melody of the song and the arpeggiated electric guitar parts that punctuate the song throughout. And the bass has such a supple groove, too.
Mike: My top three Ponies are “Your Favorite Thing,” “Gee Angel,” and “Believe What You’re Saying.” I do really enjoy the hell out of “Can’t Help You Anymore” as well, and “Panama City Motel.” I like your comparison to “Brasilia”…it really is what he was trying to achieve on Workbook but didn’t quite hit. But he nailed it here.
I really do not have any dogs, per se; however, certain things that we’ve hit on drag some of the songs down for me. The weak sounding vocals on “Company Book” and the repetitive nature of “What You Want It to Be” keep both from being great.
Jason: “Your Favorite Thing” is a wonderful song, as well. It’s another song in the vein of “Gee Angel,” where the lyrics take what’s otherwise a somewhat simple, pleasant pop song and elevate it to another level. “Ooh, the wait is killing me/ I keep waiting, waiting patiently/ What do I need to do?/ I’ll do anything you want me to/ I’ll sit on a bookcase in your room/ Alone with all your other favorite things.” Never has codependence sounded so enticing!
It is a little weird to hear a click track on the song, though. The actual drums are played at a somewhat plodding pace, while that “chakka-chakka-chakka” electronic beat is what’s really driving the pace of the bass, guitars, and vocals. Both “Your Favorite Thing” and “What You Want It to Be” are in the same time signature at pretty close to the same cymbal/snare pacing, but because of the drum machine, “YFT” sounds peppy while “What You Want It To Be” sounds so turgid and slow by comparison.
And, of course,“Believe What You’re Saying” is also a fantastic song, for all the reasons we gave before.
Mike: You know, I’ve never really paid that much attention to that, but now that I’m listening to “Your Favorite Thing” with my headphones around my neck, the click track is very noticeable.
Jason:It’s definitely more noticeable on headphones. In the car, it blends together and sounds a bit more like the live drums. Despite the fact that I like the album a lot as an album, FU:EL is one of the Bob albums that I skip around the most on. Unless I’m purposefully listening to the entire record, I tend to skip “Gift,” “Company Man,” “What You Want It To Be,” and “Granny Cool.” Or, in other words, pretty much all the kind of grinding, plodding songs. But since I’m more of a power pop guy, that’s to be expected, I suppose.
FINAL GRADES
Mike:Overall, I would give it a B+, though a strong B+. It really is a great album but suffers from a couple weakish points…and from following Copper Blue. I can’t imagine trying to follow up that album, creatively.
Jason: I would give it a B+ as well. It’s a worthy follow-up to Copper Blue, but it’s definitely not quite up to that caliber. Also, considering I gave A-minuses to Flip Your Wig and New Day Rising, I would say it’s also a step below those. Definitely one of Bob’s better albums and a definite recommendation for anyone who enjoys Copper Blue and is looking for where to go next, but not as essential as some of the other albums in his discography.

 

Sugar dissolves and Bob returns to his solo roots! Tune in next time for a look at Bob’s 1996 self-titled release.

 

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