Though it seems unlikely due to the volatile and intense nature of the band, Hüsker Dü somehow lasted around twice as long as Bob Mould‘s second, more commercially successful band, Sugar. At their points of expiration, however, the two bands couldn’t have been in much different shape. Hüsker Dü were fraught with internal drama and drug abuse, with Mould and bandmate Grant Hart reaching peak hostility toward one another when the trio decided to call it quits. Sugar’s end, however, was much less ceremonious, and more amicable, bassist David Barbe moving on to spend more time with his family, and Mould and drummer Malcolm Travis moving on to other musical projects. And in four years, with only two albums and one EP, Sugar’s book closed quietly but permanently.
Perhaps Sugar’s catalog doesn’t run terribly deep in volume, but what’s there is outstanding. Their debut, 1992’s Copper Blue, is an alt-rock classic, teeming with manic energy and soaring melodies — crisp, crunchy and loaded with hooks. Its successor, the cheekily titled and retro-designed File Under: Easy Listening, is likewise made of the same great stuff as its predecessor, though often gets mentioned only in the shadow of its older brother. Granted, there’s no blockbuster single on the level of “Helpless,” though “Gee Angel” comes pretty close, and it doesn’t carry the same undercurrent of menace that Copper Blue packs in, yet song for song, File Under: Easy Listening is yet another shining example of some of the best sounds of the alternative rock `90s.
Where Copper Blue had more of its roots in post-punk, FU: EL was almost more of a power pop album treated with some shoegazer production flourishes. There are times on the album, such as on the thickly distorted riffs of opener “Gift,” in which the band could be mistaken for Swervedriver or Ride, though by and large it’s the sunny, melodic sounds of tracks like “Your Favorite Thing” that most strongly characterize the album. Barbe’s sole songwriting and singing contribution, “Company Book,” is a notable highlight, his own choirboy vocals a much softer foil to Mould’s commanding baritone. The gentle twang of “Believe in What Your Saying” revealed a prettier side of the group, but undoubtedly the strongest track here is the fired-up rocker “Gee Angel,” which churns and scorches with the best of any of Mould’s prior material.
Much like the Copper Blue reissue released in conjunction with this deluxe package from Merge, File Under: Easy Listening comes loaded with its share of bonus material. The b-sides are uniformly top notch, including the My Bloody Valentine-like “Frustration,” the four-on-the-floor punk rocker “Mind is an Island,” and the stripped-down alternate mix of “Believe In What You’re Saying.” Yet the disc of live material seems a lot more raw than that which accompanies Copper Blue. It all rocks, and most of the tracks move a lot faster than their studio counterparts, though that works better in some instances than others. “Changes,” for instance, loses none of its melodic power, but rocks all the harder, and “Gee Angel,” even when it gets a little messy, still kicks ass. “Hoover Dam,” however, feels ready to fall apart at any moment, which is part of the fun of a band who deals in as much visceral energy. Still, the true highlight of the live material is the slower, more subdued eight-minute version of “The Slim,” which builds up into a dark and haunting dirge.
Only one year after File Under: Easy Listening was released, the three members of Sugar parted ways. Malcolm Travis joined Kustomized. David Barbe opened a studio and began a long career in engineering and production. And Mould continued to perform his solo material, and during two gigs more than 10 years later, was even joined by Barbe onstage. There’s nothing sensational to report about Sugar’s end — their timeline just happened to be limited. Their music, however, contained all the harsh energy and volatility they needed, and if they were looking for a strong exit, File Under: Easy Listening is a pretty damn good one.
Video: Sugar – “Gee Angel”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.