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May 27, 2008

Still sweet and dirty, Mudhoney resurfaces

Sweet as honey, dirty as mud. The name just epitomizes grunge, the Seattle sound that captivated the world’s attention in the early ‘90s with its voluminous angst, layers of distortion, mounds of aggression and a good deal of volume... followed by a quiet part, and then yes, more volume. Oh, and flannel. It was the last great movement in American music. And Mudhoney was there from the beginning. Yet, for the last twenty years, these godfathers of grunge have pretty much skirted under the radar.This year, however, to celebrate their vigentennial, Mudhoney released two collections of froth and fury on the same day: a deluxe reissue of their debut EP Superfuzz Bigmuff that includes two discs of remastered singles, demos and live material, as well as The Lucky Ones, an album of new material, both on Sub Pop, the seminal Seattle label that, back in the day, seemed to have launched everything that was anything (Nirvana, Soundgarden, Sunny Day Real Estate, Tad.) Mudhoney: Mudhoney plays Saturday at Headliners with Phantom Family Halo and Easy Action. Photo by Shawn BrackbillIn fact, Mudhoney singer and sometime guitarist Mark Arm is oft credited with coining the term ‘grunge,’ an acknowledgement he refuses to accept. “That word was already kicking around,” he explained to LEO over the phone. “There was an add on television in the mid/late ‘80s that talked about some shower cleaning liquid or whatever that would ‘take the grunge off your shower curtain and your tiles.’ In terms of music, it was meant to be a description of dirty, ugly sounds, right? And I know Steve Turner, our guitar player, had this record of Johnny Burnett and the Rock and Roll Trio; it was a ‘70s compilation of Johnny Burnett stuff. In the liner notes—that were written in the 1970s, long before we were going—whoever wrote the liner notes, referred to Paul Burlison’s guitar sound as being ‘grungy.’ ”Well, there’s one rumor dispelled.But the history surrounding this band isn’t all smoke and mirrors. Green River, a punk-influenced rock band that disbanded before it really got going, yet, to this day is commonly referred to as ‘the first grunge band’ spilt only to give birth to Mother Love Bone, Pearl Jam and Mudhoney. This is not to suggest that Mudhoney is a novelty act. Oh-no, quite the contrary.As The Lucky Ones clearly demonstrates, Mudhoney’s still got it. The opening track “I’m Now,” may even be the best Mudhoney song ever recorded. “The way that track turned out took us all by surprise” Arm admits. “Because it was sort of a fresh one and it wasn’t really that rehearsed. And I think that the looseness of the song, there’s kind of a looseness and a tightness at the same time, if that makes any sense. And there’s an immediacy to it, which is fitting to the title and it seemed like a good way to start off the record.”What he forgot to mention was the Zen philosophy deeply—though not quietly—embedded in the song as Arm repeats “the past makes no sense/ the future looks tense” before exploding with a few shouts “I’m now!” Never before has such a peaceful, in-the-moment message been delivered with such distortion-rich intensity. It may not work in yoga class as a means to propel one’s self into that serene state of blissful now-ness but it will certainly vocalize the frustration in trying to get there.If Arm has his way, the Headliners audience will too get that raw ache to be in the now. How will he know if they get there?“I would love to see people dancing,” he admits in a rather serious tone. Arm goes on to explain that rock and roll music was rooted in rhythm, specifically rhythms that made the body want to move in new, exciting and suggestive ways. The same salacious ways that made parents in the ‘50s condemn Elvis Presley’s hips as being dangerous to national security. Even Sinatra, the so-called Chairman of the Board declared "His kind of music is deplorable, a rancid smelling aphrodisiac. It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people.” Despite these kinds of warnings, rock ‘n’ roll blasted through an unstoppable trajectory that by sheer volume alone should have been enough to propel it across the universe, though eventually, it’s come back to its essence: dance music.“When we were starting up, people would dance at our shows all the time,” he recalls fondly of his concerts throughout the ‘80s. “Then somewhere in the ‘90s the mosh pit came around and people started slam dancing or stage diving. Kids started, here in Mudhoney: Mudhoney plays Saturday at Headliners with Phantom Family Halo and Easy Action. Photo by Shawn Brackbill at least, reacting to that. You know the indie, hip kids or whatever, would respond by going to shows and not moving at all.”After a beat, Arm concludes “There’s two things I really do not enjoy, in terms of an audience: an audience that acts too cool for school or an audience that is beating the shit out of each other. There’s a happy middle ground in there.”Dancing shouldn’t be a problem. That new album, their eighth LP by the way, was created from the rhythm up. “2/3 of the songs were probably written with either a drumbeat in mind or a bass riff” he confesses, “we wanted to highlight the rhythm.”This isn’t a new idea. Iggy and the Stooges, T-Rex, the White Stripes and many others have garnered mass appeal by stripping the icing off the cake and letting the cake be, well, just a cake.For Mudhoney, the simple recipe of swampy rock songs powered by fuzzed-out guitar forays and foot stomping, meat-pounding tempos has been their template all along. The strategy goes all the way back to their very first recording, the ’88 single “Touch Me I’m Sick” with the delicious b-side “Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More” and even the punkish two-minute ode to law enforcement “Hate the Police.”“We’re not extremely prolific, but we aren’t totally lazy. That might have something to do with why we’ve lasted 20 years.” True, two decades later, Mudhoney is still a band that is defiant and yet demanding to be heard. More deft than deaf, they deliver what rock ’n’ roll should: freedom of expression, even our ugliest, most carnal, negative urges and emotions. And they do so as loud as possible. Mudhoney w/ Phantom Family Halo & Easy ActionSaturday May 31Headliners Music Hall1386 Lexington Road, 584-8088www.headlinerslouisville.com$15, 9 p.m.