Following the massive success of Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ album at the end of 1991, the major labels turned their attention to Seattle and the surrounding areas hoping to sign “the next big thing”. Bands that’d been working hard on an underground scene suddenly found themselves thrown in the spotlight as the musical tide turned. Screaming Trees signed a deal with Epic Records and subsequently released their three finest albums (including the career defining ‘Sweet Oblivion’); Tad moved up the ranks from Sub Pop to the East/West label and even Melvins – previously considered an almost unmarketable commodity – struck a three album deal with Ahmet Ertegun’s legendary Atlantic Records.
In 1992, Mudhoney – one of the Seattle’s hardest working bands – were snapped up by Reprise Records. Having already achieved some commercial success with their ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge’ LP (Sub Pop, 1991) and their ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’ single gaining classic status among alternative club goers, Mudhoney were a sure thing with regards to commercial success…and, indeed, their four releases for the label eventually represented their commercial peak.
‘Real Low Vibe’ – the first ever Mudhoney box set – is very much a celebration of that important part of their career. Its packaging is a no-frills affair, a small clam shell box with a short booklet, but most of the music contained within remains an essential part of the “Seattle Scene”.
The first disc includes the ‘Piece of Cake’ album, the subsequent ‘Five Dollar Bob’s Mock Cooter Stew’ EP and a couple of other bonus cuts. Upon release in 1992, ‘Piece of Cake’ seemed…disappointing. Some of the album sounded like Mudhoney on autopilot, attempting to remake the previous year’s ‘Every Good Boy…’ while cynically taking a bigger paycheck. Some of it, like the semi acoustic bluesy dirge ‘Acetone’, seemed genuinely bad. The fact that the album was derailed by weird instrumental interludes really didn’t help matters in terms of momentum. Nevertheless, it became a massive success, eventually becoming the band’s second UK top 40 album and a top ten hit on the US Heatseekers chart.
In a 2008 interview with Mojo magazine, Steve Turner himself proclaimed the album “half-baked”. Despite this, and those initial disappointments, with even more years behind it, ‘Piece of Cake’ sounds like a much stronger effort. Yes, those interludes are still bloody annoying and ‘Acetone’ should have been consigned to a b-side, but the rest of the album has plenty of charm. ‘When In Rome’ is a heavily rhythmic garage rocker where Dan Peters smashes the hell out of his drum kit while the rest of the band revisits moody, sneering sounds first heard on tracks like ‘You Got It’; the single ‘Suck You Dry’ captures vocalist Mark Arm in timeless throat-caning sneer and during the relatively lo-fi ‘Make It Now, with its combination of echoing production, angry slide guitar sounds and Iggy-esque vocal, Mudhoney can barely contain their long-held desire to be The Stooges. Combine that with the band’s simmering contempt for everyone going Seattle crazy and their new found status as major label artistes, it becomes a very potent mix.
There’s time enough for a couple of great deviations, too: ‘Youth Body Expression Explosion’ is a superb instrumental cut where the sound is fuzzed up to epic proportions while Turner and bassist Matt Lukin churn out the cheekiest of pogo-worthy riffs over a carny-esque keyboard sound. Another album standout, ‘Living Wreck’ sounds like Mudhoney’s own take on a great 60s band, driven by a pulsing rhythm and a more spacious arrangement than their garage rock norm. Best of all, ‘Deception Pass’ assaults fans with three minutes’ worth of careening garage rock, where Turner’s constantly whirring guitar sounds capture the purest essence of garage punk, both past and present. Even if you don’t always take to ‘Piece of Cake’ as a whole, moments like this remind you that there’s potential greatness around the corner.
The material from ‘Five Dollar Bob’s Mock Cooter Stew’ (originally released in 1993) are a little more inspired. Among the seven cuts, you’ll find a couple of genuine classics. ‘In The Blood’ takes Arm’s distinctive drawl and places it against some defiantly 60s grooves where Mudhoney trade in their Stooges core for something that sounds like a blend of Velvet Underground and The Byrds mixed with a little Camper Van Beethoven and ‘Six Two One’ is a straight up, no nonsense slab of garage rock that’s subjected to a wall of distortion, as if to play up to the grungier aesthetics of the era. ‘Between You & Me Kid’ adds extra interest by mixing Mudhoney’s treble-edged garage rock chops with a ragged country edge, bringing out the best in the band’s collective talents. The rest of the tracks are solid but predictable, but all worth hearing, especially ‘Deception Pass’ (a speedy workout that harks back to the band’s earlier years by injecting a little punky spirit) and a re-recorded ‘Make It Now’ (‘Make It Now Again’) which runs rings around its ‘Cake’ sessions counterpart by cranking up the distortion throughout and flaunting a multi-layered guitar and vocal effects that make Mudhoney seem as if they could turn into a 60s freakbeat band at any moment.
Rounding out the rest of the first disc are a couple of great compilation cuts. ‘King Sandbox’ rattles along at breakneck speed as a sharp rhythm careens under a two note fuzz lead – more than enough to evoke prime Sub Pop era Mudhoney – before a shouty chorus throws listeners straight back to Seattle’s frenzied peak (two or three listens are enough to have you reaching for that much loved Mudhoney self-titled vinyl) and ‘Baby O Baby’ goes deep into a world of repetition, echo and all round spookiness to pay homage to Suicide. Almost everything about this track – from the way it slowly unfolds to the layers of threatening reverb – is faithful to the Vega/Rev composition, so in terms of cover, it’s almost perfectly reimagined.
Disc two features the classic ‘My Brother The Cow’ album and various period extras. Without putting too fine a point on it, ‘Cow’ is one of the essential Mudhoney albums. Upon release in 1995, it sounded like a blistering return to form. Decades on, it’s lost almost none of its power and in some ways, its first half plays like the ultimate Mudhoney primer. Between ‘Judgement, Rage, Retribution & Thyme’ and ‘Generation Spokesmodel’, the album begins with a brilliant one-two punch. ‘Judgement’ whips up its audience via some fantastic circular riffs, all ugly slide guitar and sharp edges; ‘Spokesmodel’ reinstates some classic Mudhoney garage rock riffs, taking the bones of the previous album and toughening them up. After adding a classic Arm lyric taking a side-swipe at fame, it becomes one of the archetypal Mudhoney tracks. Moving through the ugly blues of ‘What Moves The Heart’ and reverting to Mudhoney-by-numbers with the shout-along ‘Today, Is A Good Day’, the album gets off to a perfect start. Finally, unleashing the unrelenting garage punk of ‘Into Yer Schtik’, ‘My Brother The Cow’ confirms it is, indeed, a record that captures an era almost perfectly. Aside from showing that the band’s punkier chops can still be called upon effectively, the number’s sniping lyric creates one the angriest songs of the 90s. Hotly rumoured at the time to be about a famous female grunge star, it was clearly loaded with a topical spite. The person in question’s exploits were a weekly press fixture, so it makes sense that a band with a satirical eye would pounce on that. However, if the rumours were true, the pay-off line “why don’t you blow your brains out too?!” certainly comes across as nasty. That’s not enough to spoil a fantastic garage punk banger, of course…
The album’s second half continues in similarly edgy form, with the bluesy ‘In My Finest Suit’ allowing the band to stretch out, two more punk-edged numbers (‘FDK’ and ‘Execution Style’) providing more than enough entertainment, especially with the heavy fuzz bass on the latter showing how the band hadn’t forgotten their roots and ‘Orange Ball Peen Hammer’ proving that swampy blues was beginning to really make a mark on the Mudhoney sound. Even at the points where ‘Cow’ almost goes onto autopilot, ‘Crankcase Blues’ and ‘Dissolve’ bring something to the table, whether its further confirmation that Turner’s abilities with a menacing riff have grown with every passing year, or that the entire band are entirely capable of reverting back to the ‘Every Good Boy…’ era sound at the drop of a hat. Rounding out the original LP, the dark and brooding ‘1995’ is huge, but almost anti-anthemic. “It’s 1995 all right, and they say I’m lucky to be alive” opines Arm, possibly referencing the still semi-recent news coverage of Cobain’s suicide and how it reverberated through the entire scene. Against a slow, dirty groove, he throws out other barbed remarks, all of which seem to peek with a howl of “What the fuck are you…looking at?”; retrospectively, this is almost certainly a suggestion that the media should move on and that the Seattle scene is dead. If that is the case – and Arm’s lyrics aren’t always entirely linear – it closes a chapter that began three years earlier with the assertion that “everybody loves our town” (1992’s ‘Overblown’, as featured on the Singles soundtrack) where he seemed bemused by new found attention. Hearing this decades on, it – along with the rest of ‘My Brother The Cow’ – it’s as fantastically barbed as ever.
While the ‘Cow’ album itself is almost beyond criticism, the bonus tracks tell a very different story. The first six numbers were first issued on a bonus 7” with the original vinyl LP. Almost all of them are pointless novelties. ‘Mudhoney Funky Butt’ mixes sped up chipmunk voices, children’s TV synthesizers and a backhanded homage to The Wizard of Oz’s ‘Lollipop Guild’; ‘West Coast Seattle Hardcore’ replays a hardcore punk riff in an electronica fashion…with more annoying sped up voices; ‘Sissy Bar’ at least has the benefit of some good fuzz bass, but more plinking sounds and sped up voices quickly render it redundant. …And so it continues through ‘Carjack 94’, into ‘Sailor’ and, finally, into ‘Small Animals’ where the sped up voices are replaced by slowed down, demonic growls. Bonus tracks have rarely been any more pointless than this. It could be argued that these are even more pointless than the original CD’s ‘Woc Eht Rehtorb Ym’ which played the entire album backwards.
Luckily, some salvation finally comes with the last few numbers. The mid-tempo ‘Not Goin’ Down That Road Again’ sees Turner offering some fine guitar work against a grubby harmonica, while Lukin rings his bass to add a pleasingly meaty sound. A different take on Mudhoney’s garage blues, it is too good to be pugged away on a b-side, but it doesn’t quite fit with the main album, stylistically speaking. If you’ve never heard it before, it’s a gem, and it’s great that fans will be able to reacquaint themselves with this overlooked number. It would have been even better had this been placed after the album and before those irritating novelties.
Digging a little deeper into the era’s rarities, ‘Run Shithead Run’ presents some great 60s influenced twangy guitars atop a heavily rhythmic old style garage sound. It’s such a great homage to an era, it could even pass as a cover tune, and especially so given that the performance is fleshed out with the kind of organ beloved by Question Mark & The Mysterians. Elsewhere, you’ll encounter a couple of really rough rehearsal jams (‘Welcome To Dawn’, ‘Please Don’t Forget About Us’) which although aren’t terrible, are certainly for fans only, as well as an unwelcome return to synth based and mangled novelties (‘Trademark of Quality’). Thankfully, there are a couple of other worthy extras when two Jimmie Dale Gilmore covers (‘Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown’ and ‘Holden’) make good on the country influences first hinted at on ‘Five Dollar Bob’s Mock Cooter Stew’. Even though they might never be your favourite Mudhoney tunes, it’s hard to fault the performances themselves. It might all be a little out of step with what you’d expect, but they actually sound inspired, which is more than can be said for about a third of ‘Piece of Cake’. In some ways, the bonus materials on this disc add weight to an argument that extra tracks are unnecessary, but big fans will welcome a few of these as collection fillers.
By the time Mudhoney released ‘Tomorrow Hit Today’ in 1998 (presented on disc three, along with associated bonus cuts), the world had changed. By that time, the music press had become far less obsessed with Seattle and the rainy North West. The hype surrounding Nirvana and Kurt Cobain had faded (although a future generation would subsequently hold him up as a martyr, this is probably not what Cobain – a reluctant star at best – would have wanted); Soundgarden had split up somewhat acrimoniously, and Screaming Trees had long faded from view. The Seattle scene was being propped up by Pearl Jam, Dave Grohl – whose small DIY project, Foo Fighters, had somehow become an arena filling phenomenon – and Mudhoney, a band that’d always seemed indestructible. The fact that they had outlasted most of their peers only proved it, but by this time, even Mudhoney had…changed.
‘Tomorrow Hits Today’ features several tracks that appear slower and more menacing than many of their previous works. The slow bass grumble and pessimistic lyric throughout ‘Oblivion’ has almost nothing in common with the sharpest moments of ‘Cow’ and any negative vibes are further reinforced by some weird, out of tune guitar fills. It always feels like the kind of number only the most hardcore Mudhoney fan could love. The slow blues of ‘Move With The Wind’ sounds more like a Jon Spencer experiment than an old Mudhoney thrill ride with its lolloping groove and steady beats topped by angry lead guitar; the haze and distortion masking ‘I Will Fight No More Forever’ owes more to a Josh Homme Desert Session than the band’s usual sound and although everything is well played, it never feels entirely natural, while the relatively lengthy ‘A Thousand Forms of Mind’ never really rises above sounding like a weird, moody rehash of ‘Make It Now’ with a bunch of keyboard amendments.
Perhaps its the fact that ‘A Thousand Forms of Mind’ is used as an opening track that all so often makes ‘Tomorrow Hit Today’ feel like such a hard sell. Between the troublesome tunes, though, you’ll find more than a share of decent Mudhoney fare. ‘Ghost’, in particular, sounds like a throwback to 1995 with Lukin chugging out a muscular bassline while Turner gleefully cranks a barrage of thin sounding chords. It’s one of the tunes that really grabs the typical Mudhoney sound, and as such, Arm puts in a very natural performance. Following a very similar blueprint, ‘Poisoned Water’ fills three minutes with some fine, high octane garage rock and ‘This Is The Life’ reverts to an ‘Every Good Boy’ sound, making a much bigger feature of Dan’s taut drumming skills. If ‘This Is The Life’ proved the old Mudhoney were still hanging in there, then the album’s lead single would more than confirm it. There’s nothing flashy about ‘Night of The Hunted’ – in fact, it makes no attempt at originality at all. It settles for a straight up Stooges homage as tried and tested as that may have been, its sheer energy and lo fi sounds absolutely tear through one of the band’s greatest ever recordings. [Although exactly the same recording, ‘Night of The Hunted’ is best heard on the 7” single release. The slightly more brittle sound and retro format just gives it an edgier quality all round.]
Upon original release, ‘Tomorrow Hit Today’ bombed. It would be easy to point a finger of blame at a fickle press, but the album isn’t an easy one to love, even so many years later. There’s a killer mini album to rival ‘Five Dollar Bob’s Mock Cooter Stew’ in there, but it’s up to the listener to spend the necessary time discovering it. Luckily, this expanded edition includes a slew of bonus materials, most of which are better than the core of the original album. ‘Brand New Face’ showcases a simple garage rock banger that harks back to ‘Good Enough’ and other ‘EGBDF’ material; ‘Drinking For Two’ offers another of Mudhoney’s country oddities which laughs in the face of the genre’s trailer trash stereotype via a really crass lyric and ‘Butterfly Stroke’ could easily have been a ‘Piece of Cake’ b-side, if not for the occasional organ sounds and slightly punkier edge. How this track didn’t actually make the cut for the album is anyone’s guess; it would have improved it no end. A cover of The Crucifucks’ ‘You Give Me The Creeps’ (originally issued on the ‘Volume 14: Reading 95’ compilation) yields a terrific fuzz bass and distorted vocals aplenty, harking back to Mudhoney’s rough and ready origins. Even better is the chance to experience Roxy Music’s ‘Editions of You’ torn through in the manner of an old Dead Boys recording. Roxy’s glam sounds and warbling vocals don’t especially suggest garage punk at any point, but it all works perfectly. A single edit of ‘Ghost’ is nice to have for completeness’s sake, but not entirely necessary and demos of ‘Real Low Vibe’ and ‘Poisoned Water’ (in a much rougher, punkier arrangement) round everything out with a brief look at works in progress. The demo of ‘Poisoned Water’ absolutely smashes the final version into oblivion, making it an essential listen. In fact, despite any misgivings you may have about ‘Tomorrow Hit Today’ as an album in its own right, in terms of bonus materials, this disc is a genuine winner.
For the fans who’ve previously bought those albums on vinyl and CD and probably invested in the expanded editions, this ‘Real Low Vibe’ box has one final ace up its sleeve to ensure every fan will want it. Disc four brings together various live performances, all of which are previously unavailable or hard to find. The disc’s main feature, ‘On Tour Now’ was previously only a promotional item and its eight tracks – recorded in Seattle, February 1993 (no venue info given) – capture the band in absolutely visceral form. ‘Suck You Dry’ emerges from a wall of feedback, with Turner’s fuzz guitar hammering the riffs in a way the studio variant barely hinted at, while Arm shouts his way through the vocal performance in the manner of a man who knows speed is of the essence. …And so it continues, with an especially angular performance of ‘You Got It’ where the guitars battle against the drums for dominance, ‘Dead Love’ taking the form of an epic ten minute blues/fuzz jam that would make the Stooges seem non-committal and a cover of Angry Samoans’ ‘You Stupid Asshole’ bringing out the very best in Mudhoney’s garage punk anger. It’s only really with ‘Make It Now’ that there’s any real kind of performance lag, and even then, it still sounds like Mudhoney approaching their art at somewhere near full pelt.
Another welcome addition to the compiled live material comes in the shape of two rare b-sides from the ‘My Brother’ era. The recordings of ‘What Moves The Heart’ and ‘Judgement…’ really give an insight as to how much rage and power the Mudhoney live set contained at the time. As anyone who caught the band at the Reading Festival that year will attest, the then new material had such a sharpness straight off the bat and that really comes across in the recordings included here. Overall, the live disc is great, even though something more in-depth would have been preferred.
Bringing together pretty much everything Mudhoney recorded for Reprise, ‘Real Low Vibe: 1992-1998’ is a handy set for anyone with the vaguest interest in one of Seattle’s best bands. It isn’t perfect – bits of ‘Tomorrow Hit Today’ aren’t exactly essential and a bit more unreleased live material would have been nice, assuming it’s hiding away somewhere – but, overall, it’s a decent and reasonably priced box. Fans are able to re-evaluate a couple of classic releases in period context, as well as revisiting a couple of trickier works, and the chance to expand their collections with some decent live material will surely be welcome. For the Mudhoney novice, it serves a purpose, too, as some of the album tracks recorded between 1992-95 are more far more interesting than some of the “hits” on the ‘March To Fuzz’ comp. If you think this box set might be for you, you really shouldn’t hesitate in picking up a copy as soon as possible.