Rare is the musician who leaves two unique and influential legacies with two separate bands. By the 1990s, Bob Mould had already earned his star on the mosh-pit of fame with Hüsker Dü, a punk band that pushed the limits of how simultaneously intense and melodic one trio could possibly be. Yet for all that band’s well-documented lore of legendary performances and offstage behavior, Mould’s second band, Sugar, ended up the more commercially successful of the two, their first album Copper Blue having sold 250,000 copies, considerably more than most SST releases up to that point. And there’s a good reason for that—in the ’90s, Mould had finally garnered a production budget to do justice to his pop sensibility. That and SST had trouble keeping up with demand.
Longtime devotees to the Hüskers already knew that despite the aggression behind songs like “Something I Learned Today” and “Celebrated Summer,” Mould knew his way around a hook better than most punk rockers. With Copper Blue, Sugar’s 1992 debut now reissued in expanded form on Merge Records, Mould’s songwriting reached a level of sophistication and clarity that made the band a natural alt-rock success. Dressed up and polished with grungy power chords and gigantic choruses, Copper Blue launched a long list of impeccable singles, such as the Pixies-nod “A Good Idea,” the hypnotically jangling “Changes,” sprightly strummer “If I Can’t Change Your Mind,” and densely riffing “Helpless,” an alt-rock radio heavy rotator and one of the greatest singles of the era.
So, Sugar had hooks—a band called Sugar should have hooks, frankly. For how much Copper Blue emphasized pop melodies, however, it had a dark side that Mould not only hadn’t shaken since his Hüsker Dü days, but had actually refined into something much more chilling, albeit subtly. The hooky, “Debaser”-isms of “A Good Idea” actually provided an upbeat foil to a narrative about drowning someone (“she didn’t fight it at all“). “The Slim” addressed AIDS in a time when mainstream pop music was only just beginning to do so. And in its churning climax, “Slick” turns from a laid-back rocker to a harrowing descent.
Shortly after Copper Blue, Sugar issued a follow-up EP of material that didn’t quite fit onto the album, and when played back to back as they’re presented here, the differences are stark to say the least. Beaster is a much darker and harsher set of songs, carrying with them a much more aggressive approach and strange religious iconography. The careening punk rocker “Tilted” sounds more Hüsker Dü than Sugar, and “Judas Cradle” is a stomping permutation of shoegaze. And “JC Auto,” the strongest song here, is Mould at his most unhinged, snarling, “I’m your Jesus Christ, I know, I know!”
The live material that accompanies Copper Blue, Beaster and the B-sides in between is not only a fine snapshot of the group in their element, but offers a handful of interesting surprises. The band’s cover of The Who’s “Armenia City in the Sky” is a faithful but hard rocking rendition, while tracks like “Changes” and “Helpless” sound all the more aggressive and vibrant, proving that being radio friendly and intense in a live setting aren’t mutually exclusive ideas. The shame of it is that Sugar only had one more album in them before splitting up, but that also meant they didn’t allow themselves the time and space to lose their focus or half-ass it.