Every so often in the music world, an artist veers off into a different direction, making an album that will confound many of his fans. Todd Rundgren did this many years ago by following up his likable pop album, Something/Anything?, with the experimental A Wizard / A True Star. Not long ago, Radiohead did the same by following up their rock album OK Computer with the ambient electronica of Kid A.
So, if you are a Bob Mould fan, fasten your seatbelts because he has just delivered his Kid A.
Four years ago, Mould expressed a desire to take his music in a different direction, indicating that it was time to retire the punk influenced rock sound that was his trademark. His last album, The Last Dog And Pony Show, was meant to be the swan song to that phase of his career. The new CD, appropriately called Modulate, is Mould's foray into the genre of music known as electronica. So the question is: has he successfully made the transition from rock to electronica? The answer is almost, but not quite.
There are times on Modulate where Mould is able to create interesting music in this setting. The dizzying neo-psychedelia of "Sunset Safety Glass" is an exciting piece, sounding nothing like his previous work and at the same time showing confidence in his grasp of electronica.
The distortion drenched "Semper Fi" builds on that dizzying sound of "Sunset Safety Glass", but improves on it by incorporating Mould's distinctive songwriting in the mix. And this is where Modulate is most successful. "Author's Lament" and "Comeonstrong" are among the songs where Mould manages to make a nice tradeoff between good songwriting and intriguing effects.
However, there are some missteps here. The opening song, "180 Rain", sounds more like Mould is playing with the techno effects like a toddler in a toy store, and the effects end up getting in the way of the song instead of enhancing them.
And then there are the songs that actually cheat on the format. "Slay/Sway" and "The Receipt" sound like they could have been on any of Mould's previous albums. Normally, that would be good news for the fans, except they are not strong songs, sounding more like rejects from those albums. They only manage to prove that Mould was right to go in another direction.
Rounding things off are numbers that sound like typical electronica dance numbers. The best of them is "Trade", which sounds like it could be a dance pop hit. I have mixed feelings about this. Yes, it is a nice song, but somehow I find it somewhat disturbing that a rock icon like Mould could produce such a satisfying piece of dance pop. Imagine your favorite rock hero, whether it's Bruce Springsteen, the Ramones, Metallica or whoever going disco AND doing it very well.
The end result is that Modulate doesn't remind me so much of A Wizard / A True Star as it does No World Order, a later Rundgren album where he tackles rap with equally mixed results. Mould is definitely showing growth here but also showing some growing pains as well. There are hints on Modulate that he may someday make a killer electronica album. But for now, we will have to settle for just an OK one.