RS 488 – New Day Rising by Husker Du (1985 – review featuring NQ)

Husker Du’s 1985 post-punk classic New Day Rising popped up at #488 in the Rolling Stone 500.  One of the major influences for bands like Nirvana, Husker Du brought a combination of the punk of their youth with some more pop sensibility – and the result is noisy, yes – but also deft songwriting.  Indeed Bob Mould, the Du’s frontman and main songwriter, was back this past year with a critically acclaimed record.

Moreover, this album is the first of its kind to feature a co-review by me and my buddy NQ (and indeed this review is on his site also).  The dialogue is below:

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FROM: NIELS

TO: SRIRAM

Alright, I’ll get this started.  I haven’t listened to the album yet.  First, like any good blogger, I went to the authoritative source of our day to get some background on what we’re getting into.  Wikipedia of course.  All I knew before going to their wikipedia page was that they were from the Midwest, Bob Mould is prominently involved, they are often lumped into the category of “post-punk”, and musicians seem to like them a lot and throw them into conversations about influences.  In fact, in listening to the Nerdist podcast with Henry Rollins, he mentioned them at least once and in glowing terms.

So, here’s what I found out.  They are indeed from the Midwest, St. Paul, Minnesota.  Bob Mould is one of three members of the band, they had a keyboardist originally but they kicked him out.  They apparently weren’t going for this sound.  When I think of three piece 80s rock bands from the Midwest, I think of the Violent Femmes, so it will be interesting to see how Husker Du sounds compared to them.  The story of how they got their name is great, I’ll let you read that yourself. The band was signed during the time of New Day Rising to SST Records.  I’m familiar with some of their other bands and I’m sure you are too:  The Minutemen, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Black Flag.  Given the good taste of label runner Greg Ginn during the early 80s, that makes me more excited about hearing this.

So why haven’t I heard this before?  Well, first thing is that I was only 11 when this came out and I wasn’t cool enough to find this.  Heck, I’m not sure if I even could have found a copy of this in Virginia at the time, pre-interwebs and all.  And even as I grew older and got into most of the bands named above (Black Flag, I heard but never got too into), somehow the Du slipped through the cracks.

FROM: SRIRAM

TO: NIELS

I really wanted to listen to the album a couple of times, just so it did not fade into background noise while I was working or somesuch.  The first time I heard the opening track, I was stricken – as the Rob Reiner character noted in Spinal Tap – by its unusual loudness.  Are there any other lyrics to the title track than “New Day Rising” really?  Of course that was a common theme of the album – lyrics were not precisely intelligible.

On the other hand, while I can have some snark about the lyrics, the Du clearly had to be a kick ass live act.  The energy and force are there throughout – and it was easy to get into, even if it took a few songs to hit its stride.  I certainly found the album uneven, but they definitely have talent.

FROM: NIELS

TO: SRIRAM

I’ve been through the album once and I had a similar reaction. Loud. And fast.  And it’s relentless on both counts throughout.  So, the opener does a great job of setting the tone for the rest of the album.
On this track in particular, as you mentioned, we’re not getting Bob Dylanish lyrical content.  But I’m not a huge lyrics guy, so I was quite happy with the manic drumming and the buzzsaw guitar work.
I’m also with you that live they must have been something else.  You used the word force, I think that’s a great word for them.  As for the album as a whole, there were two songs that if I were doing an iTunes 1-5 rating would get 5s (not this one, we’ll have to cover those in another email), a bunch of 4s, and one that’s a borderline 2/3.  So very good first impression for me.  Snake draft-style, I’ll bounce back with an email on the next few tracks.
FROM: NIELS
TO: SRIRAM
The other word I forgot to include in my last email was tight.  Most of the songs on the album clock in at under 3:30 and they pack a lot into those 180 seconds or so.  The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill is the second song on the album and I liked this song much more than the opener.  This one was written by drummer Grant Hart.  I did notice that my two favorite songs on the album are Hart-written numbers and this is probably my third favorite.  I know Mould is the one who’s gone on to a more successful career, but I’d like to learn more about Hart’s post-Du output given how much I liked his songs on this album.

At the core, this is a love song, as the singer pines for the opportunity to be with the eponymous Girl.  I will admit I had to go to a lyrics site to nail down all the lyrics.  Even without knowing all the words, this song had an anthemic quality to it.  Slowed down a bit and take out some of the biting guitar and you could have an FM radio hit in the early 80s.  Maybe this is just because I’ve been listening to him recently, but I also felt that this could have been an uptempo Neil Young/Crazy Horse song.  Husker Du was supposed to have been influenced by and fans of “classic rock”, which I didn’t really hear the first time around, but I think this song has some nods to that oeuvre.  I also like to think this is a song Kurt Cobain would have been listening to while recording Nevermind.

I Apologize is a good song, not quite on Girl’s level, but has a really catchy chorus.  Veering from the wistfulness of the previous song’s lyrics, this song, as the title implies, is about a not-so happy topic.  The singer is apologizing for something that may be to “my temper too quick/makes me blind” but then is asking for a reciprocal apology from his girl but isn’t getting it.  The chorus kind of made me think this could have been an early REM song with the vocal harmonizing.  This then gave me the mental picture of Michael Stipe playing this song, Bob Mould walking in and punching Stipe in the face, taking the lyrics and then “punking” it up.

Speaking of punk, Folklore is probably the most stereotypical punk song on the album.  Short, fierce, angry lyrics.  Not much more I have to say about it.

Back to you.

FROM: SRIRAM
TO: NIELS
Agreed on The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill – both in the lyrics needing some interpretation, as well as it having a much more classic rock tempo.  Songs like this you definitely identify where they could have been serious influences on Nirvana and such.  It is a good song.  I guess when I’ve delved into punk and post punk, what interests me is when bands have been to elevate above simply being pure energy.  I suppose that is a vestige of having been introduced to the form via stuff like The Clash and Ramones – which are much more refined and produced than things like the Germs or Buzzcocks or whomever.  One of the reasons I was so fond of “Los Angeles” was seeing it be more than just John Doe and Xine playing very loudly.  The songs were loud and kickass – sure, but there was some finesse there.
“New Day Rising” I actually appreciate as a tone setter – but it’s not a very good song.  I Apologize and The Girl on Heaven Hill have much more classic rock sort of finesse as you say. But it is very good.  But moving forward on the album – “If I Told You” is another very simple song lyrically – a shout to those who do not believe in the singers angst and problems.  It’s actually almost as spare as the title track, but somehow a much better song and the vocals capture the emotion quite well.
“Celebrated Summer” is of course one of the two “anthems” cited by Rolling Stone in its blurb on this album – I’ll leave “Perfect Example” to you – and it is actually a little shocking to hear a song with a bridge after a few songs with quick entrances and exits.  It is funny how the lyrics juxtapose the music here – Mould is harkening back to summers long ago – frankly, this could be Jan and Dean, well if Jan and Dean could play musical instruments like madmen and didn’t give a shit about harmonizing.  Really, from this song I definitely got a feel for something that The Ramones could have done – there is quite a bit of polish here, for a hardcore song.
Overall, what is interesting about the album for me has been – well, when I was about to dive into it, the blurbs I had read had given me the indication of a much rawer piece of work than I am actually listening to.  Don’t get me wrong – this is kickass, tight stuff.  But after New Day Rising, the album slowly builds into stuff where Mould and Hart’s skill becomes more apparent, and the Du’s songwriting and fairly classic sort of influences are seen.  I was not sure what I was expecting – but it is a much more refined sound than I anticipated – at least as the album builds towards the middle (I find it falls off in this respect near the end).  Anyway, promise to get faster updates – I want to do this with a couple other albums (I’ll pitch the idea later).
FROM: NIELS
TO: SRIRAM
I’m with you on getting past punk’s energy and finding something more.  When I first delved into punk with Fugazi all I noticed was the energy because it was such the antithesis of most of what I was listening to (a lot of Pink Floyd).  They are obviously one of the ones that had musicianship in spades, but some others didn’t offer much beyond that ferocity that is punk’s trademark, and frankly that can get boring after awhile.Another band that I’ve been spending some time with that fits into the post-punk genre (I think) is The Jam and I feel some similarities running between the two: speedy and sharp edged.  I’d think that Husker Du would have been listening to The Jam as they were recording this album.Back to the record at hand, good point about the bridge in Celebrated Summer.  You left “Perfect Example” to me, but not much to say here, it seems like a little bit of a palate cleanser, stepping off the throttle a little bit but keeping the angst up to a 10.Now immediately following, they pick the tempo back up with “Terms of Psychic Warfare” which is my winner for song of the album.  This would be the song that when it came on at a live show, I would be “yes! they played MY song”.  The guitar riff is spectacular, the singing has the right amount of sneer (and is much more front and center than some of the other material) and they even throw in some backing vocals.  Just a great little package of a rock song that’s over before you know it.“59 Times the Pain” kind of sputters along following “Terms” but coalesces in parts with a nice riff and the spoken word portions of the vocals.  “Powerline” is more consistent and straightforward punk with its “powerline” chorus, though they once again throw in a curve with the stripped down, bouncy outro.The other standout track for me is “Books About UFOs”.  We get some piano(!) and a rollicking beat.  The singing here reminds me of Elvis Costello for some reason, with a hint of early Springsteen sprinkled in.  This song definitely shows me that Husker Du had some serious flexibility music-wise when they wanted to stretch.

Which is kinda funny because the rest of the tracks seem to be a FU to anyone who thought “Books About UFOs” was where the album is heading in it’s last quarter.  The remaining songs are pretty much straight-on punk rock.  I think Gibby Haynes built his entire career out of trying to recreate closer “Plans I Make”.    A word about “How To Skin A Cat”.  This song is what I like to call the too smart for their own good song that creep into certain artist’s catalogs.  When I first heard this I thought of another post-punk band, the Minutemen, and the similarly excruciating “Spoken Word Piece”.  It’s something that I think could, at least in my mind, drag the whole album out of a top 500 list.  But, it’s still a really entertaining album, with a lot of very good songs, and two five-star centerpieces.

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