Compositions for the Young & Old, Pt. 17 | Bob Mould, “Modulate” (2002)

Bob returns from a four-year hiatus by going full-on techno on his electronica/rock hybrid LP Modulate, but does he succeed?

 

 

 

Jason: And now for something completely different! Making good on his promise to retire from the loud rock lifestyle, Bob receded from his musical life after the close of the Last Dog and Pony Tour in 1998. Having come out of the closet a few years before, he began immersing himself in the gay culture of his new home, New York City. He took a nine-month tour as a writer for WCW wrestling, of all things. And he discovered a newfound love for electronica music.
Diving head first into the electronica pool, Bob started composing electronica songs and trying them out in public by performing guitar and vocals over prerecorded backing tracks. As time went on, he slowly began to develop three distinct groups of songs: some mixed electronica with more traditional rock elements, some were pure electronica, and some were his traditional acoustic singer-songwriter material. The plan was hatched to unleash this torrent of new activity as three albums, all to be released in the year 2002: the mixture, dubbed Modulate, arrived first. The pure electronica album, named Long Playing Grooves and released under the pseudonym Loudbomb, came next. And the “Workbook 2” material was intended for an album called Body of Song, which ended up ultimately being delayed until 2005.
As I said, Modulate is the one that mixes in rock elements, but make no mistake: this album bears little resemblance to anything Bob had done before. This is an electronica album, through and through.
Mike: Well said. I can appreciate what he was trying to accomplish here and certainly want to see any artist grow, but for me this is just as off-putting as Copper Blue is wonderful. I’m not an electronica/techno fan by any stretch of the imagination, but do know a thing or two. This album, as a whole, just doesn’t jive well with me. Every time I try to get through it, I just can’t. It’s not even the lyrics, which sadly I know so little of, because the music drives me away running and screaming.
Jason: I do find it interesting that he packed the most techno-y tracks up front. An electric guitar doesn’t really show up until track 7.
Mike: I do love it when bands can effectively blend guitar and electronica together and make it a great listen; anything from God Lives Underwater would be great examples of that. When this originally hit, I had hopes that we would get something like that.
Jason: The key to good electronic music is simplicity, and the songs here aren’t simple at all. They’re overly fussy. Take a song like the opener, “180 Rain.” There are just way too many elements going on at once and they’re all there at full blast, competing for your attention but actively working against each other. And the main element, the one that kind of sounds like the sound of rain falling filtered through an old video game sound card, feels off, like it’s one beat short of what it’s supposed to be.
Mike: That’s it! That is exactly what I’ve been trying to come up with why I don’t feel things work that great. It’s just very VERY busy sounding. And simplicity is exactly why a song like “Slay/Sway” works. It’s not just crowded with as many little techno-y sounds that he can cram into it.
Jason: The few songs where he does simplify the beats work a lot better, like “Lost Zoloft” and “Trade.”
Mike: Yes. The songs that are listenable here are ones where he just chills out a bit and gives you a groove to enjoy, not just 10,000 beeps and whistles. “ComeOnStrong” is another one where he simplifies things a bit and it’s a bit of better song for it.
Jason: “Lost Zoloft” isn’t perfect, either: the music is much better as it’s pared down to mostly just a clacking drum machine and piano notes that are drenched in reverb, but the lyric are as clumsy and overly fussy as the music is on “180 Rain.” For a guy who was being so poetic just four years earlier on songs like “Vaporub,” you hear lines like “A latent homosex become so violent when provoked and now obscured” and wonder what the hell happened. “Lost” and “Zoloft” may sort of rhyme, but that doesn’t mean that makes a good hook for a song.
“Trade” is an interesting one. Did you know that’s a Hüsker Dü-era song?
Mike: Trade is? Really? I’m listening to it right now and it is a decent track.
Jason: Yeah, they debuted it on the Warehouse tour (but, of course, never got around to recording it). And it wouldn’t have fit on Workbook, so he set it aside for aside for 15 years.
Mike: Wow. You know, listening to the original, I actually like the Modulate version better. What the hell?!
Jason: [laughs]
Mike: I was in abike accident earlier this week. Must have knocked something loose in my head.
In reading Bob’s book, he goes into great detail about Modulate. He knows it’s not a great album, but to him it is highly important because it was a time where he was discovering who he truly was (I believe it was around this time he identified himself as a bear) and it was then he started finding personal happiness.
Jason: I get that, and that makes it hard to be hard on the album. But it’s just not up to his usual standards.
Mike: Precisely. Plus since 1982, he hadn’t done anything that I would consider awful. Someone who has been in the biz for 20 years is allowed a misstep or two.
Jason: There are two little interstitial, ambient pieces on Modulate (“Homecoming Parade” and “Without?”) that are quite pretty. Ambient’s not really my jam so I don’t know that I would want a whole album of the stuff, but it seems much more confident in its use of electronic elements than the songs that are aiming for dance floor glory.
Mike: “Without?” is the better of the two for me.It’s almost industrial in nature.
Goodness, overall this is just a giant, odd, misstep. I just can’t be kind to this. Maybe it really is a masterpiece, but because this isn’t the kind of music I listen to, I’m missing out on something. It’s just not something I’m going to seek out and listen.
Jason: Nah, even by electronica standards, this is no masterpiece. As I said, the beats are overly fussy, and they drown out the simple drive that all good dance music should have.
After the pure electronica of the first half of the album, Bob’s electric guitar finally comes flying back for the album’s back half, but the results are mixed, to say the least.
Mike: Yeah, really the only one that I feel they work the best is “Slay/Sway.”
Jason: The rock tracks, to my eye, have two major weaknesses. First, the drum machines, much as they did on Hubcap, rob the tracks of their immediacy. “Slay/Sway” is the most obvious victim here, though it otherwise has some decent rock n’ roll chug. It’s also a nice story song, although what story it’s telling isn’t exactly clear from the lyrics, other than being caught by one’s parents doing…something. Nice dig on the Sex Pistols, though. (“Terribly lame in a predictable way,” quoth Bob.)
Second, Bob’s vocals have a flat affect to match what he was trying on the electronica stuff, but again, it sucks out all the energy. “The Receipt” is basically the first straight-up “Fuck you, Grant Hart” song Bob ever wrote, and he sounds like he couldn’t be less interested in telling him off. It’s weird.
Mike: Yeah, now that you mention it the vocals are really flat/uninterested. I don’t know if he was trying to go for something ethereal or wispy, but they just fall way flat.
Jason: The only song where the old, passionate Bob comes back to the fore is easily the best song on the album, “SoundOnSound.” And with its acoustic guitar and (mostly) lack of electronics, this seems like an odd fit for the Modulate concept. Why wasn’t this song saved or Body of Song?
Mike: It’s possible he wasn’t sure he would do another album, or at least another non-electronic album?
Jason: Nah, he was pretty clear that he always intended to do three albums, with Body of Song being material more like Workbook. Body of Song ended up getting pushed back because he didn’t have enough songs in that vein to fill it (he replaced it with the live album LoveDog98 so he still released three albums in 2002), but he had it on the radar to do an album of mostly acoustic songs before Modulate recording started.
Mike: Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s review on www.allmusic.com says it best: “It’s possible to understand, sympathize, and agree with every one of Bob Mould’s reasons for making Modulate, without liking it all that much.”
Jason: That is a fantastic quote, and sums up my feelings on the album perfectly.
DOGS & PONIES
Mike: These are the tiniest ponies here, but the two strongest tracks for me are “Slay/Sway” and “Trade.” I actually do not mind either, but I’m not going to go out specifically looking for them. Nor is anything here on any Bob playlist I make.
The rest falls into Dogs for me. I just cannot like this album. I appreciate that he want to change things and I applaud him for take a HUGE risk here, but this is just not executed well.
Jason: “SoundOnSound” is the cream of the crop for me. The lyrics tell the story of a couple falling back in love with each other; it’s surprisingly sweet for a Bob song, and he made an even sweeter music video for it for the Carnival of Light and Sound tour that accompanied the album (where Bob sang and played guitar along to backing tracks, flanked on either side by video screens).
Of the dance tracks, I like “Trade” and “Quasar,” both of which show a sturdier use of electronic elements and better, more memorable hooks than the earlier tracks on the album. And as I mentioned before, I think a couple of the interstitial pieces are nice for what they are. I could imagine these interstitial pieces and “Trade” and “Quasar” being moved onto the (much, much better) Long Playing Grooves album that we’ll be discussing next.
The dogs for me start with “Semper Fi.” When I first got the album, I tried to convince myself that I liked it, because how could I not like a Bob Mould album? But even in the heights of my delusions, I never liked that song. The music is just atonal noises lumped on each other, the vocals sound constipated, and the lyrics (about Bob’s fascination with military porn…did we mention this was the album where he fully embraced his homosexuality?) are just terribad.
Mike: In my best Charles Barkley voice: “Turrible.”
Jason: A lot of others are near the bottom of the stack. “180 Rain,” with its clumsy, fussy beats. “ComeOnStrong,” which has the cardinal sin of having both chintzy Hubcap drums and bland vocals. (I actually would have listed that one as a Pony prior to our experiment here, but it’s just so bland when listened to in the context of Bob’s entire discography.)
And then he ends the album with “Author’s Lament,” a cheap bit of preemptive sniping at people who won’t appreciate the album. The sentiment is off-putting—let me judge your work for myself, man!—and the music is plodding and alienating.
Mike: I rarely even make it that far in the album to hear it!
FINAL GRADES
Jason: Final grade? Oof…man, I hate to say it, but if I’m downgrading the likes of FU:EL to a mere B+, then Modulate is easily an F. Musically, it’s overthought and fussy. The electronic and rock elements fight against each other rather than complement each other. (Which is a shame, because there’s already a genre where electronics and loud rock guitars work together wonderfully: industrial. Could you imagine Bob trying to make a KMFDM album? Now that I’d like to hear!) The lyrics are often nonsensical. The vocals lack passion. For being such a personal project for Bob, it’s bizarre how emotionally distant the whole thing.
Mike: Yeah, F is where this album is parked for me, as well. Hell yeah to the KMFDM idea. I would love to hear him do something along those lines. Or something like God Lives Underwater. Something where huge crunchy guitar meets big beat.
Jason: Most importantly, when it comes down to exploring the man’s discography, if you bought every single thing he ever put out except this album, you really wouldn’t be missing out on anything. Except maybe “SoundOnSound,” which I do have a soft spot for.
Mike: I agree, if you skip this you really are not missing anything at all. It’s strictly for people serious about listening to everything, but well after you’ve explored the rest of his catalog.
Jason: What’s funny is, maaaan, did I want to like this album when it came out. I wish I could find it, but back when this came out, I was going to Washington University and had a show on their radio station, KWUR. Each CD had a little 3” x 3” sticker on it with a review from one of the DJs, basically a “this is what this sounds like, it’s for fans of X & Y, I recommend these tracks, and these tracks have naughty words in them.” You’d normally put, like, three lines of text on them. I filled up two entire stickers, trying to justify which tracks to play and why. It was delusional.
Mike: I know right?! I wanted something like industrial…and instead we got this.
Next time: In conjunction with Modulate, Bob unleashes an album of more traditional electronica called Long Playing Grooves under the nom de DJ LoudBomb.

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