Monday, December 23, 2019

Snow & Ice: Ice Cold Ice

Hüsker Dü: Ice Cold Ice

There are many truisms in the world of music fandom, and one of them is that when a “punk” band starts releasing well-produced albums, particularly on a major label, and particularly when the songs and playing show craftsmanship, the band’s early fans scream “sellout.” For example, The Clash were accused of “selling out” at least as early as London Calling, and certainly by the time of Combat Rock. Of course, other critics at the time, and more recently, have pointed out that another word for that is “evolving,” or that it was possible for ambitious, talented bands to want to transcend the purity of punk for a broader artistic vision and, possibly, a larger audience (and yeah, probably more money.)

Hüsker Dü emerged from Minneapolis in the late 1970s-early 1980s, and their initial approach of playing music loud, fast and hard was made clear from the name of their first album, Land Speed Record. But relatively quickly, you could hear through the aural assault (and poor production values) that songwriters Bob Mould and Grant Hart were able to write melodic pop songs. Even if those songs were played at punk rock speeds and volumes, and often dealt with difficult themes.

As their music evolved, their influence increased, and in the mid-80s, Hüsker Dü became the first band of their “scene” to sign with a major label (during a period when major labels were taking risks, looking to find the next big thing(s). Of course, the complaints of "sellout" rang out (as they did years later when Green Day transcended their punk roots and became more mainstream and popular.)  I saw Hüsker Dü tour in support of their first major label album, and it was a great, if incredibly loud show. Their second album for Warner Bros., 1987’s Warehouse:Songs and Stories, was a double album filled with well-produced, well-written songs that still had the energy of punk. It wouldn’t be a stretch at all to say that this album was one of the precursors of the “alternative rock” movement that became popular in the ensuing years. 

However, despite the quality and influence of Warehouse, it was also the end of Hüsker Dü. Over the years, Mould and Hart had developed a rivalry that was both artistic and personal, fueled first by their substance abuse, and later by Mould’s cleaning up and Hart going in the opposite direction.

One of the highlights of Warehouse is Mould’s “Ice Cold Ice,” a typically bleak and depressing but incredibly powerful song that uses cold and ice both metaphorically and literally.

In 2011, Mould was honored with a tribute concert at Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall, mostly featuring Mould and his band playing with a series of guest stars, and it included this great version of “Ice Cold Ice,” featuring Dave Grohl:

The concert was, through a Kickstarter campaign, turned into a movie, but it doesn’t appear to be streamable at this time.

Sunday, December 22, 2019


When I think of snow and ice, I think of Scotland. And when I think of Scotland, I think of Jackie Leven. Yes, I have mentioned him before in these pages, that being no good reason not to bring him back again. His legacy of recorded material is immense, having been so prolific for his record label that he had to seek different contracts under different names to get it all out. Sadly missed, his brand of celtic soul impacts on and draws inspiration from his home and the characteristics that reminded him of it. Kate Bush may have offered 50 Words for Snow, I swear Big Jackie had 50 songs. Here are a few.

Snow in Central Park

From his full length solo debut in 1994, Snow in Central Park is arguably one of his better known songs, if any had a claim to that right, his appeal the epitome of cult, a world famous superstar only to those in the know. Of course, it wasn't even his solo debut, he having had (at least) two careers ahead of this, firstly as late 60s singer-songwriter John St. Field, and in scary punk/new-wave band Doll by Doll. And then there were the two alongside, Fife balladeer, Sir Vincent Lone and the Kirkcaldy David Sedaris, Jackie Balfour.

None of the below are in chronological order, but all display lyrical nods to the snowier, icier aspects of his oeuvre. Don't get me wrong, he could do songs about rain and wind as well, being no one winter pony. (Actually I jest, for although he could and did, he could also sing uplifting and cheerful songs too. Just less often. And not for today.)

Stopped by Woods on a Snowy Evening (A Robert Frost poem set to music by Leven.)

Your Winter Days

The Wanderer

Lammermuir Hills

Kirkconnell Flow

Washing by Hand

Finally, with all the above coming from his 20 odd studio albums, it is worth a mention is how he took his muse out on the on the road, leaving behind the often lush arrangements and instrumentation. Live it was usually just himself, a burly bear of a man, year round shorts, ripped denim shirt and battered guitar. A masterfully inventive player on that instrument, bringing all sorts of percussive textures to bear, tapping the wood and caressing the strings, the high point always his voice, a majestic croon, beauty from the beast. At one foot a pint glass with the vodka and lemonade he would occasionally seek topping up, at the other a microphone, to catch the constant rhythm of his foot. You can't catch him now, dead these 8 years, but there are a celebration of live albums also out there. The song below is typical Leven, describing the fear men hold inside. The fear men have without love, without a mother, a wife, a partner, and the dark places that such solitude leads, and the tragedy of it all. He knows these men and, if we are honest, so do we, all within us, but for better grace and luck.

Fear of Woman