The Sun Also Rises 

The bluest skies you’ve ever seen are in Seattle. So were some of the best bands.

The bluest skies you’ve ever seen are in Seattle. So were some of the best bands.

Mudhoney

Since We’ve Become Translucent (Sub Pop Records)

The rain still makes me smile. Even after five years in Nashville, the cloudless sun here seems harsh, the light so sharp that my eyes flinch. It is raining and gray this morning and, but for the humidity, it briefly feels like the place that once was home.

Sometimes the mail also makes me smile. One day earlier this summer, the postman delivered review copies of the latest Eminem, the new Queens of the Stone Age and a fresh Mudhoney album. The first two remain untouched, for the moment. But I am astonished both by the simple existence of Since We’ve Become Translucent (released Aug. 20 on Sub Pop, the band’s original label) and by the pleasure that Mudhoney’s still blunt, brash—and gloriously loud—music brings.

Eleven years ago, just about today, everybody with the vaguest, tangential connection to the Seattle music scene—there were about 1,000 of us, we guessed—knew something special was happening. Nirvana’s Nevermind would be released Sept. 24, 1991, but tapes of that album, and of Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger (marketed a few weeks later, to avoid comparisons), had been circulating for much of the summer.

Anybody who says they knew what would happen next is lying. What mattered, then and now, was that the music was extraordinary.

For a couple years in the late 1960s, a generation of young Americans—some wielding guitars—imagined that they might change the world. Maybe they did. For a couple years in the early 1990s, a generation of young musicians dared hope they might change their world. Believed it to be possible, and necessary. And then, both times, it all fell apart.

Money changes everything.

What counted, then as much as now, was this: Mudhoney were the best band in the world. This is no idle boast. The term “grunge”—critical misnomer and marketing juggernaut that it became—was first used to describe Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff EP (the name comes from guitar effects boxes; prurient minds thought otherwise), and it was Mudhoney who first attracted Everett True and the rest of the English music press to Seattle. Their summer of 1991 release, Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, did nothing to change certainty, but theirs was principally a live magic. On any given night, for 45 minutes, they could be the best band you ever saw. Or the worst.

Eleven years later, that may still be the case, though it would be a miracle, and hardly anyone would notice. Nevertheless, Since We’ve Become Translucent may signal the rebirth of one of America’s great, forgotten rock ensembles. They no longer write with the precocious irony of (comparatively) innocent youth, but with the muscular bitterness of experience. Witness the central snarl of “In the Winner’s Circle”: “I’ve got nothing left to lose.” Remember all those Sub Pop “Loser” T-shirts?

Not that they really expect that anybody’s listening.

Grunge has gone the way of the hair farmers it thought to exterminate. Most of the great Seattle bands—Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Screaming Trees, another handful nobody else heard of—are only memories. Oddly, Pearl Jam and Mudhoney survive, both outgrowths of Green River, a band named for the preferred dumping ground of a late-’80s serial killer (who was recently captured, so the police say).

Understand: We thousand, at least, were angry and had our reasons. Microsoft and Amazon had not yet created a boom in the Pacific Northwest. AIDS was still almost immediately lethal. It was, until quite recently, illegal to stage all-age music events in Seattle. At any given time before 1992, there were two, maybe three places to play original music. Mainstream culture made it abundantly clear (then as now) that if one chose to create unapproved art, one sacrificed all the comfort, safety and status available to less gifted conformists. And the Republicans had held the White House since 1980.

But we had a secret, for the music we heard every night was just about to tell America, with all the force and passion of unexpected pop prowess, how deeply unhappy its children were. We couldn’t have known, wouldn’t have hoped, did not yet know to fear what success would cost: broken hopes, dead junkies, newly remote millionaire rock stars and a plague of second-rate imitators (Stone Temple Pilots, Live, Bush, et al.).

Sonic Youth and Big Black explored the outer reaches of what a punk rock guitar might do. Mudhoney, two college dropouts and two working-class guys—the perfect embodiment of Seattle’s fusion of urban punk to suburban metal—gave those odd, oddly intellectual East Coast and Midwestern notions a peculiar, distinctly Northwest twist.

“When you start to lose it, hit the box!” Steve Turner recommended in early 1990 in a short profile for Guitar World (my first nationally published writing about music). “Roll around on the floor. Have no idea what you’re playing? Hit the dirt! Stay low. Jump into the crowd. Throw your guitar in the air.”

Doubtless, in a city like Nashville, where guitar players use tuners onstage between every song, that seems like the rabid bleating of an alien being. Todd Snider and John Hiatt both had good fun with the Seattle lads and their shattered instruments.

But Hiatt missed the point. They weren’t playing perfectly good guitars. They were playing the cheapest instruments they could scrounge in pawn shops, or worse. And Mudhoney (among others) found ways to make music, to fashion powerful songs filled with distinct and original sounds (informed, as they were, by Sonic Youth in particular) from instruments that no self-respecting picker would admit to owning. Since they cost almost nothing, there was no harm in yielding to the moment, and much catharsis.

Like early-’60s Northwest garage-rock legends The Sonics, to whom they were often compared (and who they long claimed never to have heard of), Mudhoney were and are a terrific singles band. Their first two 7-inches, “Touch Me, I’m Sick” and “You’ve Got It (Keep It Outta My Face),” cemented their legend. Theirs is a brusque, sarcastic gift, their best songs centered around a single, well-hammered guitar figure. Though bass player Matt Lukin has retired, and they have augmented a few tracks on Since We’ve Become Translucent with saxophones, though the opening cut even sounds kind of like the way Hawkwind reads in the music encyclopedias (nobody really listens to Hawkwind, do they?), even though they are older and wiser, Mudhoney’s gifts remain undiminished.

Even when the bloody sun comes out.

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