Compositions for the Young & Old, Pt. 16 | Bob Mould, “The Last Dog and Pony Show” (1998)

Bob decides to (briefly) say farewell to rock music, but not before taking a well-deserved victory lap.

 

 

 
Mike: 1998’s The Last Dog and Pony Show, named so due to Bob’s intention to cease touring as a full-on rock band, leaves behind the darkness of Hubcap and brings Bob back into the light with a less somber and more upbeat album, for sure. The album has received critical praise and was named 1998’s Best Album by the Gay/Lesbian American Music Awards. Similar to Hubcap, Bob played virtually all of the instruments, however he handed drumming over to Matt Hammon. Instantly you can hear and feel the difference with that slight change. Also, ever the re-inventor, Bob starts incorporating elements of electronica into a few songs, beginning a transition he will fully realize later on.
Jason: The general view of The Last Dog and Pony Show is that, eh, it’s a pretty good Bob Mould album. I would argue that it’s a great one.
Mike: It really is a fantastic album, and certainly up there with his work with Sugar and his best works in Hüsker Dü…with the exception of one song.
Jason: To be fair, in the context of his discography, it isn’t particularly “special.” He basically reinvented his way of doing things on seven of his last eight records. Subtle use of electronics aside, LDAPS doesn’t reinvent the wheel. Instead, it summarizes everything he’s done since leaving Hüsker Dü, from the tender folk of Workbook (“Vaporub,” “Along the Way”) and the dirges of Black Sheets of Rain and Beaster (“Skintrade”) to the crunchy power pop of Copper Blue and FU:EL (“Classifieds,” “Sweet Serene”) and the stark emotionalism and adventurous spirit of Hubcap (“New #1,” “First Drag of the Day”). Basically, it’s a victory lap, which I’d say he’d earned at this point in his career. It’s also fitting for an album that he announced as the last he would tour for with a full rock band (a promise he reneged on seven years later, thank God!).
Mike: Some context: since 1982, this is his, what, twelfth LP? Yeah, he deserved that victory lap. And if this was his last ever rock record (as it was intended to be, but thankfully wasn’t) pretty great one to go out on. Typically, this is the solo album I throw on the most. Well, until Silver Age hit. Many of the songs here find Bob moving on, feeling optimistic about his future especially in contrast with Hubcap.
Jason: A few of the songs address the relationship difficulties that birthed Hubcap, but in markedly different ways, the twin attack of “Moving Trucks” and “Taking Everything” being the most obvious. But you’re right, it’s definitely with a more optimistic bent. Here, he’s not singing about being mired in the breakup so much as hopeful that he’s moving on in the right direction (interesting, considering he and his partner had rekindled and would stay together several more years).
Mike: It’s an album that I continuously find bits that I feel a connection too. The sentiment on “Moving Trucks” resonated with me the past two years in my situation. There wasn’t much I wanted to listen to for a while, but that song kept me going. “Today, I am starting the rest of my life/ Today, I can touch the sky/ And I can leave that beeping sound of that truck behind.” This whole song hit so close to home last year.
Jason: Oh, for sure. It’s one of the most moving breakup songs out there. I love the gradual build in the song, both sonically, vocally, and lyrically. It starts out tentatively, but is downright defiant by that last verse that you quote. Bob closes out the song by singing “No moving trucks to hold me down” and you damn well believe him.
Mike: You can feel it by the end. The buildup and crescendo here is just perfect. He’s not going to let the pain and misery get to him anymore, he’s not going to put up with it any more, and you know it by the end of the song. And that defiance carries over into “Taking Everything.”
Jason: This is without a doubt one of Bob’s strongest albums, lyrically. “Vaporub” in particular might be the best written song he’s ever composed, with the same hesitant hopefulness of “Moving Trucks” captured just beautifully. I have to hold myself back from quoting the whole thing, but my favorite passage is probably “Do I want forgiveness, or the thrill of maybe knowing/ That I can change direction, never caring where I’m going?/ Sometimes all the time it takes to make your destination/ Isn’t charted out as clearly as it seems.”
Mike: It really is such a great song. And that buildup throughout leading to a searing solo is tremendous. And knowing Bob’s turbulent upbringing makes lines like this even more powerful: “Never really knew what love was/ Mixed it up with other thoughts/ Growing up alone doesn’t help one sort it out/ Even when you’re here, you’re not.”
Jason: Oh, god, yes. Love that verse.
I like the way songs are positioned on this album. It has a great flow and the songs build off each other…until “Megamanic.” For as much as I love the rest of this album, I loathe this song with equal force. I appreciate what he is trying to do, but this song grates on me soooooo much. Sonically, it just doesn’t fit with the rest of the album and it really disrupts the flow of things. Thankfully, Bob has two incredibly strong songs after it to close the album out.
Jason: Did your copy of LDAPS come with the interview disc?
Mike: It probably did when I originally got it. I went digital about six years ago and only ripped the music portion.
Jason: Here’s what he had to say about “Megamanic”: “Who knows if it’s good or bad? Who cares? It was fun. To me, it was fun because it saved the record. I was two weeks into making this record and I was not liking it, I was not enjoying the experience, I was not feeling good about my life or my work. […] I felt lIke I had an obligation to be, like, the best artist in the world and always had to live up to everybody’s expectations, so ‘Megamanic’ was out of the question. To have fun on a record? Oh, god, everybody else can do it. So that song saved this record for me. It’s probably a piece of crap at the end of the day, but I like it.” He also refers to it as “a life preserver” and that recording it broke through his artistic blockage and allowed for the completion of the rest of the record.
Jason: And I actually like it because of its goofiness. It is so out of left field, on an album that’s otherwise filled with ringing 12-strings and loud rock guitars, and all of a sudden there’s bleeping synths and breakbeats and (what I think is) a Mega Man sample and Bob speak-singing weird lyrics like “Mayor McMega with Cheese with the Apaches, who’s the new chief.” Like, what?!
Honestly, if his actual electronica albums (Modulate and Long Playing Grooves, which we’ll cover soon enough) were this confident, this adventurous, and this ridiculous, they’d be a hell of a lot more fun than what we got.
Mike: I appreciate that, him wanting to have fun and do different things. And I’m certainly glad it saved everything, I never begrudge that. It’s just not my thing. That “Mayor McMega with Cheese” line always cracks me up. It really is just totally out of nowhere goofiness
And really, you can say it’s just Bob being Bob. He doesn’t always do what is expected and does things because he wants to and can.
Jason: Now, saying all that, in the context of this album, sandwiched between two crunchy Sugar numbers like “Sweet Serene” and “Reflecting Pool”? Yeah, it doesn’t really fit. The weird “hum-num-na-na” intro to “Reflecting Pool” works as a decent transition back out of the weirdness, but yeah, it sticks out like a sore thumb and is the one thing that keeps you from saying LDAPS is as well sequenced as Copper Blue or Zen Arcade.
Mike: Exactly. Just so…odd.
Jason: In his autobio, Bob also talks about a bunch of interstitial, ambient pieces that he recorded on a whim that “made the record” for him that were supposed to serve as song transitions, but were inadvertently recorded over when they left the tapes on the machine overnight and it was used for an educational demo. That may have been what precipitated the writer’s block that “Megamanic” ultimately broke. That’s kind of an interesting footnote as the album doesn’t really need them, but it’s hard to say what they might have added.
Mike: Hmm. I’d be curious to hear some of them.
Jason: I know, right? Sadly, they’re lost and gone forever.
Mike: Damn shame.
Jason: The other place where electronic elements come into play is on “First Drag of the Day,” which is a fascinating experiment. The song is about how otherworldly the world feels when you’re trying to quit smoking, and it’s an effect that’s captured in the music just as much as in the lyrics. Bob plays with loops here, creating a loop of a repeating, weirdly distorted guitar figure with what sounds like wood block percussion, then plays over the top of that in a more traditional style. What you have is two versions of the exact same guitar melody, one off-putting and alien-sounding and the other a more straightforward repeating riff, capturing that “everything is okay but something doesn’t quite feel right” feeling that he’s going through while trying to quit. That feeling is amplified by the vocals (mostly double-tracked, one sounding a little more unhinged than the other) and punctuated by little stabs of distorted guitar and the occasional swirling circus organ. There’s so much going on in this song, but it never feels fussy or overdone, just elements that add up to the emotional effect Bob was aiming for. And the use of that guitar/percussion sample/loop/whatever you want to call it is a big part of that.
It’s amazing how confident this song sounds in its use of these disparate elements, because on Modulate, Bob’s use of electronica elements isn’t nearly as sure-footed as it is on either “First Drag” or “Megamanic.”
Mike: Agreed. The effect he’s using adds to the song and it almost sounds mechanical, robotic really. What he does here is so much more effective than going full tilt into an electronica album, in my opinion.
DOGS & PONIES
Jason: Alright, Dogs & Ponies? Astute readers will notice we stole that title from this album’s title, which is a pretty great title for what was intended to be a farewell album of sorts.
Mike: I’ll start with the bad….Really the only dog for me is “Megamanic.” It just doesn’t fit the album, even considering the story you previously mentioned. It disrupts the flow of the album and is so totally out of nowhere. I have never been able to like it and rarely do I even make it through a full listen. The “Mayor McMega” line is pretty hilarious, though. Just so odd hearing that from the same guy that gave us “Celebrated Summer” and “If I Can’t Change Your Mind.”
Jason: Yeah, the disruption to the album flow is that song’s cardinal sin. Otherwise, the songs feed into each other so perfectly that having that needle scratch three quarters of the way through the record is pretty jarring.
Otherwise, like FU:EL, there are a handful of songs I don’t listen to quite as much others, songs that aren’t so much Dogs as “songs I wouldn’t consider if I were making a ‘Best of Bob Mould’ mixtape for somebody.
“New #1” is one of those. When I first got LDAPS, it felt like it was trying too hard to be a “sensitive singer-songwriter” song, and that opening “Oooooh, yeah” just irked me. I think that was just the 19-year-old metalhead in me asserting his dominance. As time has gone on, I enjoy it quite a bit more, but there are better Bob acoustic songs out there, even on this album.
Mike: Good point, it is a decent song, but not his strongest acoustic one. But it’s good and doesn’t derail the rest of the album by being a seven-minute dirge, nor is it so strong that the rest of the album never lives up to it.
Jason: “Taking Everything” is another one that skates by without making too much of an impression. It solidly rocks at a mid-tempo, and it’s got decent lyrics but they aren’t delivered with any particular passion to draw attention to them. Not a bad song, but again, there are better songs in that vein here with “Sweet Serene” and “Reflecting Pool.”
Mike: Both of which are extra great. I used to feel that way about “Who Was Around?” but it’s such a great song to me know.
Jason: “Who Was Around?” nicely splits the difference between the acoustic and electric sides of Bob’s personality, as he basically does the verses on acoustic guitar and the chorus on electric. That said, it was a weird choice as the single for this album. I would think “Moving Trucks” or “Classifieds” would have been a more logical choice.
Mike: “Moving Trucks” would have made a better choice, thanks to the build up and explosion and the overall sentiment of the song. “Classifieds” has that upbeat, Sugaresque pop feel to it and would have made a good choice, too. Plus it’s a nice witty little song.
Jason: Again, this album has some of Bob’s best lyrics, and “Classifieds” is a perfect example. The idea is a simple one, basically a thought experiment about the kind of people who use classified ads to date and what their thought process would be while doing it.
But the lyrics are so finely tuned, and so perfectly put. It’s a mix of both insight and getting the details right. There’s no more insightful thought one could make on the subject than the perfectly worded couplet “How can anyone describe who they are in a page or less?/ Desperately looking for someone, I guess.” But then come the details: “But when the morning comes, both of you will be scratching your heads/ In the aftermath, head to the bathroom to straighten up, and then/ You realize you forgot your toothbrush again”
I also adore the parallelism where one verse ends with “Now I know the reason why these ads all look alike” and the last verse ends with “Now you know the reason why that one’s in there every time.”
Mike: For Ponies, there are many here. “Moving Trucks” is my favorite on the album. It hits me emotionally as I know exactly what he’s feeling. “Sweet Serene” and “Reflecting Pool” are just incredible. Whereas Hubcap was a breakup album, or the album of your dying relationship, LDAPS is the album of you recovering and moving on and growing.
Jason: In addition to everything we said before, “Moving Trucks” is great for the same reasons “Classifieds” is, that mix of general emotion and getting the tiny details right. (“The 411 in my area code has got no listing for me/ All my mail sits there in the post box/ It seems I’ve lost the key”) And all of that pent-up emotion is wrapped up in a nice power pop song full of crunchy guitars and a beautifully epic solo. It makes the bitter pill much easier to swallow.
The buddy that reintroduced me to Bob didn’t like “Sweet Serene”…he thought it was boring. I think he’s out of his mind. It and “Reflecting Pool” are the Sugariest songs here: they’re faster and more energetic, which nicely breaks up the large number of mid-tempo songs found elsewhere.
Mike: They are really fantastic late-on-the-album songs and brings such a great energy when needed.
And I really love “Along The Way.” It’s great lyrically, but it’s Bob’s incredibly impassioned delivery that nails it for me. When he does acoustic songs like “Along The Way” and he’s so into it and just belting it out and feeling every emotion, he reminds me a bit of Pete Townshend. Both are incredible acoustic rockers.
Jason: “Along the Way” is a fantastic song, and battles “Man on the Moon” for the title for Best Bob Album Closer. It’s interesting in that Bob’s passion is clearly evident here, but it’s directed at something even more universal than the relationship issues he sings about regularly: it’s simply about how hard it is to be yourself and be understood by others. The gentle acoustic strum and expert use of cello (courtesy of Alison Chesley of Verbow—Bob produced Verbow’s debut LP, and their singer/guitarist Jason Narducy is now Bob’s bass player) make this basically Workbook on steroids. It’s the culmination of what that album was working toward and one of Bob’s absolute finest acoustic songs.
I spoke about the glories of “Vaporub” earlier, but one of its other primary virtues is the bass. Bob tends to be fairly basic as a bassist, but here, there’s a nice little bit of bobbing going on that accentuates the acoustic guitar to brilliant effect. And those little “ba-wooo” finger slides he throws in are just great. (The bridge on “Sweet Serene” has a nice little bass lick, as well.)
Oh, and you mentioned him at the very beginning, but I totally spaced on mentioning Matt Hammon. Agreed: his presence is a HUGE improvement over what we had on Hubcap. (Even though, crazily, Bob had him record his parts last, and the entire album was recorded to a drum machine. Somehow, the “swing of a live drummer” (as Jack Rabid puts it in the interview featured on the album’s bonus disc) really comes through and adds to the energy of the songs. You have to wonder if Bob encouraged him to play like Malcolm Travis, because Malcolm’s energy, intensity, and infectious little drum fills are all over this album, even on songs like “New #1” whose styles aren’t particularly Sugary.
LDAPS is such a perfect album for me that it’s hard to single out Ponies because I love so much of this record. I suppose to extend the mixtape analogy, if those three songs are the ones I wouldn’t put on a “Best of Bob” mixtape, the ones here I’d fight tooth and nail to make sure I made room for would be “Moving Trucks,” “Classifieds,” “Vaporub,” and “Along the Way.” But man, I’d also try my damnedest to save “First Drag of the Day,” “Sweet Serene,” and “Reflecting Pool.” My god, this is a great album.
FINAL GRADES
Mike: Overall, I give LDAPS an B+. It really is a great collection of songs and sequenced great with just the one misstep. Meant to be a swan song of sorts, it succeeds on so many levels. And thankfully it wasn’t. I almost went with an A- but is this as great as Zen Arcade or New Day Rising? Not quite, but that doesn’t mean that it’s bad, far from it.
Jason: LDAPS is, without a hesitation, an A album for me. Some of that may be nostalgia—it is the second album of Bob’s I ever got, after Copper Blue—but listening to it as part of this project, within the context of is entire discography, has only driven home everything I love about it even more. The individual songs are great, the styles are varied, the lyrics are poetic, the performances are heartfelt, the acoustic guitars shimmer, the electric guitars crunch, the drums drive the whole thing along, and (outside of a certain three-and-a-half minutes) it’s a perfect summary of all of the best parts of Bob’s repertoire, which makes it easy to recommend as to any newcomers curious about Bob’s solo efforts. Absolutely, an A all the way.
Mike: It really is a fantastic LP, and a case can easily be made for a rating of an A. I even toyed with that. This and Copper Blue are go-to albums for me when I need my Bob fix. I gladly can also now add in his last two albums, but LDAPS is such a fantastic album in his catalog. Also keep in mind the musical landscape in 1998: there wasn’t a lot of great caliber stuff in the world of boy bands, pop divas, and nu metal tripe. The late ‘90s were a crappy time for me musically, so the fact we got this incredible of an album is such a huge blessing.
Bob returns from a four-year hiatus by going full-on techno on his electronica/rock hybrid LP Modulate, but does he succeed? Tune in next time to find out!

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