Sugar – Copper Blue (1992; 2012 reissue)

Time was, if you were a real fan, a band’s albums weren’t enough. After burning through the album a million times, you needed more. You turned to singles and EPs, which, at least for good bands, would be populated with something different to listen to – live tracks or, if you were really lucky, brand new songs that didn’t make the albums.

Sugar, Bob Mould’s post-Husker Du project, was one of those bands. Two full length albums and one mini-album (EP, if you insist) and another full-album’s worth of new songs spread over a bunch of singles. Now, that’s how you did it.

It made it fun. You had something to chase and keep up with. More often than not, those singles weren’t going to be released in the U.S., where we had already given up on the single format except for very, very big artists. All those treasures had to be imported by your local record shop, and at prices very near that of the original album. But it didn’t matter. In exchange, you got more of what you craved.

Twenty years later, all that stuff’s been bundled up with every imaginable re-release of those albums. That Sugar’s debut, 1992’s Copper Blue and the rest of their catalog, actually had escaped reissuing until now seems impossible. The wait has worked in their favor, however. In the ensuing years, they’ve watched countless other bands foul up the process, packing in unnecessary extras and ruining the sound of their great music with terrible remasters. Not Sugar.

No, when it comes to the remastered reissues of Copper Blue, “mini-album” Beaster, and File Under: Easy Listening, each comes with exactly what’s needed. But there’s a small bone to pick here: while the albums all arrive this week with their b-sides, and pretty much ALL the b-sides are here (more on that in a moment), only the UK will get some short DVDs with live performances, interviews from the era, and videos. It’s reason enough for a big fan to cough up a bit more to order them from Amazon UK (and besides, you get individual packaging for Copper Blue and Beaster. In the US, the two are packaged together.)

All three albums benefit from a not-insignificant boost in sound quality. This is not your typical “loudness wars” type of altering of the sound. While “louder,” there’s a whole new clarity that reveals new depths to the music. As noted in Beaster’s liner notes by remastering engineer Jim Wilson, there apparently had been some kind of alignment issue with some of the equipment used to record these two (they were recorded during the same sessions), which has now been corrected. I won’t say that they sound like different albums, but they do sound different, and better. Even FU:EL benefits in the same way, with more space developed around all the instruments. I heard more details, for example, to the bass and drums, than I had heard previously. It had been more of a mystery sludge.

Copper Blue boasts all of its b-sides, consisting of four non-album tracks and four BBC radio sessions. While the BBC sessions appear to be identical in every way, including mastering, to those found on the “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” single, the rest of the b-sides get the same great remastering that the album tracks do.

Paired with it is a previously unreleased concert dated July 22, 1992 at the Cabaret Metro in Chicago. Previously unreleased officially, that is. This concert’s been floating around as a bootleg for ages, but it’s nice to have it officially released and, presumably, the very best version of the audio. The DVD for the UK version adds the videos for the singles and a handful of TV appearances, and, for those not in the UK, is NTSC formatted with no regional restrictions. (Same goes for the other two DVDs in the other remastered sets.)

Beaster, being itself a product of the sessions that produced Copper Blue, is the skimpiest. No b-sides, but the DVD that features the one video (for “Tilted” – can’t say I ever recall having seen that) also boasts a short four-song set, unfortunately the only surviving footage from this unsurprisingly fiery performance.

Similar to Copper Blue, the second and final album File Under: Easy Listening finds the original project towing six b-sides behind it. Mould makes a comment in some liner notes (which are lifted from the Besides compilation) about having intentionally gone the more quiet, acoustic-based direction in side two, and the b-sides could easily replace all those tracks to make a much harder, more direct album. He has a point. Would it have saved Sugar? Not likely.

Included as a bonus with FU:EL is the limited edition live disc that accompanied Besides when it initially came out, The Joke Is Always On Us, Sometimes, recorded November 2, 1994 in Minneapolis. This great, incredibly raw set has received the remaster treatment as well, but gains no extras otherwise.

The DVD in the UK version includes the three videos for the singles that accompanied this album, and a feature from MTV on the band along with a fantastic 120 Minutes acoustic performance by Bob Mould and Lou Barlow of “Believe What You’re Saying.” I really wish this had been included as an audio track on the CD.

You’ll be able to ditch your old singles and albums, and even the compilation that originally did what these three albums now do – pull all those errant singles into one place. (Except it didn’t … those BBC sessions slipped through.) There’s one piece of the puzzle still missing, and that’s the TV Mix of “And You Tell Me” found on the Your Favorite Thing single, itself an instrumental version of another b-side. Essential? No, but if you’re a completist, you’re going to need that single alone to have it all, from what my research tells me.

The booklets for all three are packed with insightful commentary from a wide variety of those involved in and around Sugar at the time. Not just the trio itself (guitarist/vocalist Mould, bassist David Barbe, and drummer Malcolm Travis) but producer Lou Giordano, Creation records president Alan McGee, Creation press officer Andy Saunders, and the previously mentioned engineer Jim Wilson. Through their words, they weave a pretty fascinating story of how this short-lived band came together and quickly unraveled.

Try not to be frustrated, even just a little bit, at reading about Mould erasing an entire early version of FU:EL, or about the intricate demoes he provided to Barbe and Travis to learn the songs … and we don’t get to hear them. But I trust that what we get here in these packages is the best representation of what Sugar could be. If there’s one message that comes through loud and clear, it’s that Bob Mould had a vision of what he wanted Sugar to represent, and there were no compromises taken in achieving that.

Mould should be applauded for not only being so open about his own shortcomings in these liner notes but letting others chime in on why Sugar fell apart. It completes the story for those of us who felt like so much more was left to be said from this great little band.

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Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson has contributed to Blogcritics, and maintained a series of stand-alone sites including Known Johnson, Everything is a Mess and others. He studied both creative writing and then studio art at Arizona State. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.

6 Comments

  1. It’s not complete, sadly. The ’95 b-side collection, Besides, contains a number of live versions of tracks that aren’t on the new reissues. I know this because my iTunes is in a right mess, since I had to keep a little bit of Besides hanging around when I upgraded my original issues to the remixes :-)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Besides_(Sugar_album)

    Specifically:

    “Where Diamonds Are Halos” (Barbe) – 4:17 (live version, B-side of “A Good Idea”)
    “Armenia City in the Sky” (Keene) – 3:26 (live version, B-side of “A Good Idea”)
    “Anyone” (Barbe) – 2:43 (live version, B-side of “If I Can’t Change Your Mind”)
    “JC Auto” – 6:02 (live version, B-side of “JC Auto”)
    “After All the Roads Have Led to Nowhere” – 3:21 (live version, B-side of “Gee Angel”)
    “Explode and Make Up” – 4:41 (live version, B-side of “Gee Angel”)
    “The Slim” – 6:26 (live version, B-side of “Gee Angel”)

    • Ugly Red Honda says:

      The first four are from the Cabaret Metro performance. They’re edited slightly differently (with fades, for example), but are otherwise identical mixes to what’s on the Copper Blue bonus disc.

      The last three are the same performances / recording as the FU:EL bonus disc. However, they’re actually different mixes, made specifically for Besides. I personally prefer those mixes to the ones on the complete live disc, which has always sounded a bit dry to me.

      • Tom Johnson says:

        I probably could have cleared that up a little better in my review, but I guess I figured for most people, having all of those songs was the more important issue, especially having them in context of the concert rather than as stand-alone songs. Thanks for straightening that out Ugly Red Honda (you’re beautiful *inside*).

        Still, I keep Besides for sentimental reasons. It’s simply a great, great collection of songs. (I’m also never letting go of my Copper Blue/Life Before Sugar promo. I mention that simply to sound cool.)

        • John King says:

          I have that Copper Blue/Life Before Sugar promo as well! It was a nice find. Lost and replaced the case ages ago, though.

          I’ve been pretty lucky at finding the rare Bob stuff. The Copper Blue that’s actually made from copper, the Beaster red book, etc. I have a Copper Blue promo poster framed and hanging in my house. The wife abides it. :)

    • Gaz Evans says:

      Hey Richard,

      All the live b-sides you mention were taken from the two live shows that come packaged with Copper Blie and FU:EL. These reissues look awesome and I can’t wait to pick them up. My only disapointment is the lack of live footage, the four tracks from the Finsbury Park show aside.

  2. PIcked up the UK versions a few weeks back when I was on vacation over there. Not only do you get more content, but you also get them at a decent price even with the exchange rate.

    Agree that Copper Blue and Beaster sound great — way more depth than before. I’m keeping at least one copy (probably the limited edition versions) of each original version.

    FU:EL, however, has some peaking and clipping, especially in “Gift.” To my ears, FU:EL sounds a bit brick-walled in a way the others don’t. Yeah, the remastering process brought up a lot of stuff that didn’t have much detail before, but the clipping is an issue. Overall, though, I’m pleased with the job they’ve done here.

    The UK version is on Edsel — the same label that did all the great T.Rex reissues several years ago, as well as the definitive From Genesis to Revelation, among other great releases. Worth the splurge, definitely.

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