I realized I fibbed earlier. I said I would do this series on a weekly basis, but I haven’t kept up with it. I’m going to make a concerted effort to do The Best Band You’ve Never Heard Of more often. As penance, please take this offering of sugar.
Sugar was one of the best alt rock bands in the time of alt rock bands, the early 90’s. It’s a shame that no one remembers them. Sugar was overshadowed by two things in the memories of music fans.
One, like I said, it was the time for alt rock. Some where, Sugar got lost in the wash. The grunge scene was blowing up with Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains; the beginning of the punk and ska boom was happening with Rancid and Green Day; and two LA rock fusion bands, Jane’s Addiction and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, put out hit records.
In addition to those bands, there were a ton of other bands that were similar in spirit, and sound, to Sugar. If, for some insane reason, alt rock was a stock, you would have lost all your money and someone would have been talking you down from the ledge. The market was flooded; that stock would have been worth zilch. Even if you got passed all the big acts, there was still: Pixies, Teenage Fanclub, Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, The Tragically Hip, Guided by Voices, Dinosaur Jr., etc…
Two, Bob Mould (guitar and lead singer), started Sugar after leaving the very influential Husker Du. Sugar also happened to be a three-piece band fronted by Mould, which doomed Sugar to unfair comparisons and heightened expectations. It also forever marked Sugar as Mould’s “follow-up project.”
In spite of VH1’s snubbing of Sugar during their weird, 90’s-nostalgia programming, their debut album, Copper Blue, was pretty damn successful. It was a critical success (it was named best album of 1992 by NME) and almost reached gold. It also scored with some minor alternative radio hits: “Helpless” and “If I Can’t Change Your Mind.” In 1994 their second LP, File Under: Easy Listening, hit number 7 in the U.K. charts.
What I’m saying is: Sugar is good. Really good. It wasn’t just the charts and sales, though. They were successful, and great, because of their immense talent. They had a knack for writing songs that stuck with you but also meant something to you. They’re the opposite of a pop act like Katy Perry; her choruses might get stuck in your head but the lyrics, overall, are bubble gum and pedestrian at best.
The mind behind those songs was Bob Mould.
Mould honed his songwriting skills in Husker Du. There was much drama and controversy in Husker Du because of creative struggles with Gran Hart (drummer). But Mould was the undisputed leader of Sugar, writing all of the songs. He hand-picked his rhythm section, choosing the best musicians who shared his vision. He recruited ex Mercyland member, David Barbe, as the bassist and ex Human Sexual Response member, Malcolm Travis, as drummer.
Sugar moved away from the “wall of sound” and hardcore styles of the members’ former bands in favor of a more upbeat, mainstream sound. That’s not to say they “sold out” or went soft. You can still hear somber and visceral undercurrents on many songs. And for a band labeled alt-rock, Sugar’s catalog of songs is refreshingly diverse.
There are guitar-heavy, simply arranged songs such as “Granny Cool,” which are inspired by Sugar’s punk rock roots. There are bright, uptempo songs such as “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” and “Your Favorite Thing.” And there are introspective, melancholy songs such as “Explode And Make Up.”
Impressively, this diversity isn’t just scattered throughout an entire discography but can be found on a single, 10-track album. Copper Blue goes from the Pixies tribute song “A Good Idea,” to the catchy “Changes,” to the brooding “The Slim,” to the fast and loud “Fortune Teller.” It has everything a music lover could want, and in the span of only 45 minutes.
Similarly to my previous entry on Jawbreaker, some people have a problem with Mould’s voice. It’s a little rough, and he can get pitchy on some of the harmonies, but I don’t want his voice to sound different. Yeah, it’s not perfect, but I don’t think a different front man could convey the emotion behind Sugar’s songs as effectively.
I wish Sugar would have stayed around a little longer. They only existed for three years, 1992 to 1995. In that three-year period they managed to produce some of the best rock music of the 90’s. They released two full length albums, Copper Blue in 1992 and File Under: Easy Listening in 1994, both of which I’ve already covered. In 1993, they released an EP titled Beaster, which was more raw than Blue or Easy Listening. The songs on Beaster seem to rely on the band members’ roots.
In 1995 they released the full-length compilation titled Besides, which consisted of singles b-sides, live songs and remixes. Also, on the initial release, the first 250,000 copies of Besides were packaged with a bonus disc titled The Joke Is Always On Us, Sometimes. It was a live recording of a 1994 concert in Minneapolis. The great thing about Besides is that it’s a microcosm of Sugar’s catalog. You can get a feel for their previous releases by going through Besides‘ 17 songs.
But by 1995, all the members decided to move on. Mould started a solo career (which is still going strong). Barbe went to the other side of the mixer and started producing. His producing credits include the very talented Drive-by Truckers and Son Volt. Eventually, he to, released a solo album, Comet of the Season. Travis went on to other bands including No Man (with Roger Miller from Mission of Burma) and Kustomized (with Peter Prescott from Mission of Burma).
So, in conclusion, give that Nirvana record a break and put on a Sugar album. If you don’t have a Sugar album, buy one. They’re on iTunes, so you don’t have an excuse not to.