ALBUM REVIEW: Bob Mould plays with his sound on ‘Sunshine Rock’

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Bob Mould, Sunshine Rock

Listening to Bob Mould‘s latest solo album, Sunshine Rock, during a rainstorm is a strange experience.

Sunshine Rock
Bob Mould
Merge Records, Feb. 8

It’s very much what the title says it is—a rock soundtrack to a warm summer evening. The guitar riffs and the vocals evoke early ’60s beach rock from a Frankie and Annette movie, but the album’s sensibilities are informed by Mould’s previous bands, Hüsker Dü and Sugar. The music paints a picture of gaggles of teenagers carrying surfboards to the beach, regardless of the rain pounding on windows in wintertime, threatening to interrupt the illusion.

Of Mould’s bands, ’90s alternative rock project Sugar comes through most prominently on Sunshine Rock. Thankfully, the trio of musicians—Mould on vocals and guitar, Jason Narducy on bass and Jason Narducy on drums—trend more toward grunge than Sugar’s power pop leanings. Still, the album replaces much of the grunginess with a more airy, beach party vibe.

That’s not to say there’s no punk flavor. The title track is a good example of this more aggressive influence. It has the essence of surf punk, but with the surf turned up a bit and the punk turned slightly down. Sunshine Rock doesn’t have the frenetic speed of early Hüsker Dü, but most of it retains the essence of that band’s punk sensibilities.

“Western Sunset” emphasizes the surf part of the equation the best. It’s essentially a song from the early ’60s with the distortion turned up. Three chords, a simple rhythm, a catchy and repetitive chorus and harmonizing backup vocals cap off the throwback vibe in a way few bands can without sounding tacky.

The quality drops off a bit, unfortunately, as the tempo goes down. With the exception of the standout “Lost Faith,” Mould’s attempts at ballads lack memorability. “The Final Years,” for example, feels like an attempt to fit the Imagine Dragons mold that misses and lands off-center to Morrissey. While these attempts to diversify the sound of Sunshine Rock are welcome, not every band is suited to every style and Mould’s current trio is definitely better suited to the fast stuff.

The real low point is “Camp Sunshine,” a bizarre, nostalgic ode to summer camp that doesn’t fit the sound of any other song on the album. Even the lyrics are written as a long paragraph rather than lines and verses like the rest. It could be metaphoric, ironic or a sincere bit of nostalgia, but it’s difficult to tell which one it is. The song is jarring and confusing, which doesn’t fit the 58-year-old Mould’s m.o.

Despite those flaws, the album’s overall statement is a very compelling reminder of a time before AutoTune and electronic enhancement. The songs cover various bases of late 20th-century rock, with “Send Me a Postcard” heading almost all the way to pure rock and roll. And best of all, on a stormy winter day, it almost makes you think it’s summer.

Follow editor Daniel J. Willis at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.

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