The Decade When Mudhoney Rode the Major Label Gravy Train

The new box set, Real Low Vibe: The Reprise Recordings 1992-1998, focuses on an overlooked era of the veteran Seattle band’s rich history

Mudhoney ’95 (Art: Ron Hart)

Once Nirvana powered up the charts in 1991 with Nevermind–soon to be followed by Pearl Jam’s Ten, Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger and Alice in Chains’ Dirt–record company honchos headed north to Seattle to see what other possibilities remained to be mined from the Pacific Northwest’s rock firmament.

This is how Mudhoney managed to get scooped up in the Warner Bros. net, ending up on Reprise for most of the 1990s. 

“I assumed they would forever be on Sub Pop,” David Katznelson, the Warner’s A&R rep who signed Mudhoney, told Keith Cameron in Mudhoney: The Sound and the Fury From Seattle. The band had similar expectations, but Sub Pop’s precarious financial state at the time had encouraged them to jump ship (though they left a parting gift, the album Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, which helped shore up the label’s finances). Warners seemed like good bet, known for allowing their artists artistic freedom, and having released records ranging from Captain Beefheart and Black Sabbath to Randy Newman and the Sex Pistols. Why shouldn’t Mudhoney aim for acquiring some major label spoils?

Mudhoney Real Low Vibe: The Reprise Recordings 1992-1998, Cherry Red Records 2020

And that’s the focus of the new retrospective of the band, Real Low Vibe: The Reprise Recordings 1992-1998 (Cherry Red Records). It’s a period that’s often overlooked in the band’s story, which tends to concentrate on their years as Sub Pop’s definitive grunge act, or their return to Sub Pop’s fold in the new century, where they happily remain today. But Mudhoney’s Reprise years produced their own pleasures, and this set further enlivens the proceedings by stuffing it with plenty of bonus material (you never knew you needed a copy of “Mudhoney Funky Butt,” did you?).

And the fact is, Mudhoney has a trademark sound, and being on a major label wasn’t going to change that one iota. “Suck You Dry” (1992’s Piece of Cake), “Into Yer Shtik” (1995’s My Brother the Cow), and “Poisoned Water” (1998’s Tomorrow Hit Today) are just as raw and snarly as any Sub Pop track. And the band wouldn’t have it any other way. “It just wasn’t in our nature to try and compete with the rock mainstream,” Mark Arm, the band’s lead singer, explains in the set’s liner notes, and to that end they continued to use the same Seattle recording studios they always had.

That said, Piece of Cake is the most idiosyncratic of the lot, opening with a 40 second clip of Arm vamping on an organ, before getting into a more expected groove as the band segues into the garage-psychedelia of “No End in Sight” (each of the band’s four members got to contribute a similarly brief musical joke). Arm later conceded that the band was “a little cavalier” about the making of the album, and certainly My Brother the Cow is a more potent record, featuring songs with decidedly pointed lyrics. 

From Top Left: Piece of Cake (1992), Five Dollar Bob’s Mock Cooter Stew (1993), My Brother The Cow (1995), Tomorrow Hit Today (1998)

Even before the album’s release, Courtney Love was complaining that “Into Yer Shtik” was directed at her. Arm contended that the song wasn’t about her specifically, but attacked the artifice that those in the music biz fall prey to, as seen in a series of searing portraits of its denizens: a rock star, his model girlfriend, and a publicist. “Generation Spokesmodel” also sends up the industry, as Arm chortles “Twenty percent of the gross goes straight to the man!” Also lurking among the tracks is the abrasive “F.D.K. (Fearless Doctor Killers),” a spirited attack on religious hypocrisy. Veering into politics was an unexpected step for the band, but it was a sign of things to come.

By the time of Tomorrow Hit Today, the band was on the verge of being dropped from Reprise, when David Kahne, then Warner’s vice president of A&R, decided he liked the band’s demo of “Oblivion.” So they decided to take advantage of the label’s last gasp of largesse, and recorded both in Seattle and out of town, working with legendary producer/musician Jim Dickinson in Memphis, chiefly at Ardent Studios (Dickinson also dragged guitarist Steve Turner to Sun Studio to cut a few guitar parts). Unsurprisingly, there’s a stronger blues feel to the record, percolating from the opening drone of “A Thousand Forms of Mind,” through the loopy “Real Low Vibe” to the slow burning closer “Beneath the Valley of the Underdog.” The poorest selling of the Reprise efforts, it’s the most underrated record in the band’s catalogue, a stirring, mature work that lays in wait to be rediscovered.

Mudhoney was always most in their element when they performed live, and Real Low Vibe serves up one CD of the stuff, mostly drawn from a 1993 promo album, which features an especially raucous rendition of “Suck You Dry.” Rounding out the set are bonus tracks drawn from B-sides, promo releases, some dipped-in-black Tomorrow Hit Today outtakes (e.g. “Drinking for Two”), and the excellent Five Dollar Bob’s Mock Cooter Stew EP (the delightfully poppy “Deception Pass” is one of the most upbeat songs about loss you’ll ever hear), among other goodies. Give thanks.

 

VIDEO: Mudhoney “Blinding Sun” on Bohemia After Dark

Post-Tomorrow Hit Today, Reprise did drop the band, and bassist Matt Lukin promptly quit. But there’s no need to fret. Lukin was soon replaced by ex-Lubricated Goat’s Guy Maddison and the band found their way back to Sub Pop, for whom they’ve since released five well-regarded albums; check out their response to the Trump era, 2018’s Digital Garbage, expressing their discontent in numbers like “21st Century Pharisees,” “Next Mass Extinction,” and “Kill Yourself Live.”

Real Low Vibe shows how Mudhoney rode the major label gravy train in their own inimitable style and still managed to get out alive. And that’s something to celebrate.

 

 

 

 

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Gillian G. Gaar

Seattle-based writer Gillian G. Gaar covers the arts, entertainment, and travel.

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