Although punk was the salvation of '70s rock, for the most part because it shattered the complacency of what had come before, within 10 years it had become just another stylistic catechism. At first, the slogan "Hard Fast Rules!" championed the virtues of speed and aggression, but as the punk form broke down into the stylistic ghettos of hardcore and thrash, those principles became little more than hard-and-fast rules, effectively limiting the music's potential for most bands.
Hu sker Du was never quite so easily trapped. Granted, the trio's earliest evasion of hardcore cliche's wasn't especially imaginative, offering ferocious speed and little else. But beginning with 1984's epic "Zen Arcade," the Hu skers began radically rethinking punk rock song structure. It isn't an obvious process, and although the band is remarkably prolific, having released four albums over the last two years, there is still a fair bit of work left for them to do. But "Candy Apple Grey" (Warner Brothers 9 25385-1), Hu sker Du 's latest release, shows that the band is closer than ever to bridging the gap between punk alienation and mainstream accessibility.
That may seem a bit of a conundrum, but rock visionaries from Elvis Presley on have made their greatest impact by singing about alienation of one sort or another. Still, the trick in triumphing over that seeming contradiction lies with letting the music tap into the listeners' common background, and that's something punk and its antecedents have been loath to do. After all, how can you renounce the past and embrace it at the same time?
For Hu sker Du , that answer lies with learning the music's language and its limits. Part of that involves a rediscovery of the way '60s rock used the melodic potential of rhythm guitar parts, most notably expressed on the band's version of "Eight Miles High" two years ago. On this album, though, the Hu skers have moved well beyond simply playing '60s riffs at contemporary tempi; indeed, some of the most affecting tunes here hardly sound hardcore at all.
Guitarist Bob Mould's "Hardly Getting Over It," for example, layers a simple piano pulse under blurred acoustic guitar for a sound that, combined with Mould's casual vocal and Grant Hart's jazzy drumming, can only be described as post-Beatlesque. Yet the air of disquietude the song conveys is truer to the spirit of, say, "For No One" than anything that overt Beatle imitators have produced.
Some of the ideas here offer only slight refinement of earlier material, as is the case with Hart's "Don't Want to Know If You Are Lonely," an update of the hard-driving, intensely melodic approach taken by last year's single "Makes No Sense at All." Most tracks, though, find the Hu skers striking out in bold new directions, from the keyboard-driven hyperpop of Hart's "Sorry Somehow" to the acoustic guitar angst of Mould's "Too Far Down." In fact, "Crystal," the guitarist's opaque depiction of nuclear holocaust, is in some ways Husker Du's finest achievement to date, thanks to the eerie disparity between Mould's jazzy harmonies and the intensity with which he pounds them out.
Despite all that, "Candy Apple Grey" has been viewed with suspicion in punk quarters because it marks Husker Du's transition from the defiantly independent SST label to the corporate corridors of Warner Communications. Not that anyone thinks the band has sold out as such -- "Candy Apple Grey" may be more accessible than its predecessors, but "5150" it isn't. Rather, any hint of excess gloss is seen as an ostentatious aesthetic compromise. Which, in much the same way, explains why such a jaundiced eye has been cast upon the Del-Lords' "Johnny Comes Marching Home" (EMI America/Enigma ST-17183-1).
The Del-Lords, it should be remembered, were once seen as the ideal compromise between punk idealism and bar-band utility. Part of that had to do with the band's unabashed reverence for rock 'n' roll's past, part with guitarist-vocalist Scott Kempner's tenure with the Dictators. But where the band's debut featured a tough, stripped-down sound suitable to such expectations, "Johnny Comes Marching Home" is padded with exactly the same sort of glossy production from Neil Geraldo, Pat Benatar's husband/producer.
Still, class tells, and the Del-Lords come through in spite of the album's slick sound. Some of the credit belongs with Kempner's writing, which manages to be both hard-nosed and sentimental without ever seeming overblown. But the bottom line here is a matter of heart, and no amount of production finesse can disguise the genuine affection this band feels for its music.