Warehouse of wonder

With the band on so-called hiatus--recent word comes from Austin that Bob Mould has actually dissolved Sugar--Ryko cleans out the warehouse of songs and stories for good: 17 tracks of odds and sods, plus a "bonus" live disc for the first 25,000 who show up early to the ballpark. And if Besides is nearly twice as long as any of Sugar's three studio albums, it's because this is the fat trimmed away to make those works (save Beaster) leaner, meaner, mostly prettier and catchier. This is not a collection of filler or leftovers, though, but the excesses of a songwriter (Mould) whose best can be terrifying and whose worst can be accidentally, brilliantly profound.

If HYsker DY was a punk band trafficking in pop, Sugar approaches the music from the ass-end: whether performed solo (as it is here) or with the band (on Copper Blue). "If I Can't Change Your Mind" is a total pop song--clean and sparkling like a perfect diamond, a sad song sung with a blissful smile. No matter how loud and distorted the music on Besides becomes, no matter how chaotic the guitar or how buried the vocals or how grinding the melody, Sugar is a band that always acknowledges power is wasted and irrelevant without a good song to back up the punch.

And so Besides is a collection on which no one song is more "important" (meaning noticeable) than any other, one blurring into the next until it all becomes a giant buzz. Some songs--like "Try Again" and "And You Tell Me"--open with grand, sweeping strokes of an acoustic guitar, then close out with squeaking and squalling feedback; others, like "After All the Roads Have Led to Nowhere" and "JC Auto" ("JC" being Jesus Christ, a rare religious metaphor for a band so infatuated with the personal), roar from beginning to end.

But even the softer moments howl with a haunting unexpectedness: The live version of "Explode and Make Up" literally lives up to its title, Mould's hoarse whisper giving way to a guitar break that literally seems to fall apart, with that eventually giving way to the singer's screaming his words--"I hate you/I need you"--until they become indecipherable blurts of pain and ecstasy.

Then comes the live closer, a wrenching take of "The Slim" on which Mould finally sounds so worn out he can barely mumble his words about slim chances and what's been left behind. And then he screams some more. Appropriately, both songs close out the rarities album and the companion live disc because you can never get too much of a good bad thing.

--Robert Wilonsky

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky