Monday, December 5, 2011

Husker Du - New Day Rising

Husker Du - New Day Rising
Download -
Release - 1985

Story by Jude Miller, Quiet Arcs guitarist and creator of the Slow Learner blog.

I’ve always felt that I had sufficiently eclectic musical sensibilities and that I listened to a wide variety of stuff.  Yet for some reason I would compartmentalize these various musical interests in my head.

The most serious band ever I played in, however, was quite easily categorizable.  We were a Straight Edge, Youth Crew Hardcore band called One Up, and it formed in the wake of two other fairly straight-forward, Straight Edge bands (Go Time and Straight To the Point).  With One Up, our initial intentions were to deliberately fit neatly into a particular sub-node (Youth Crew) of a sub-node (Straight Edge) of a subculture (Hardcore).  No moodiness, no punches pulled, no sobby lyrics about heartbreak, and no crossing over into other styles or genres.  If you told us that our influences were transparent and quite narrow—ranging from Floorpunch to Youth of Today—we probably would have appreciated what we just perceived to be a complement.  (In fact, I remember playing at least one show at the Pi Lam in West Philadelphia where our set was comprised of about a 50/50 split of our material and a mix of Youth of Today and Floorpunch covers.)  I was 18, loved Straight Edge hardcore, and was thrilled to be playing it with my friends.

When I say One Up was “serious,” of course, I mean, primarily, that we toured, in addition to dealing with (very, very small) independent record labels, having multiple t-shirt designs, and having a fan base of people other than our immediate family and friends.

And tour we did, in a series of horrifyingly unequipped vehicles, from June of 2002 until about New Years of 2005.   In that time period, I spent two weekends a month and every winter and summer break with my best friends, eating peanut butter sandwiches in an un-air-conditioned van with poor ventilation and no stereo, getting out of the van to play straight-forward hardcore shows with straight-forward hardcore bands at straight-forward hardcore venues all around the country, and I loved every minute of it.

I still look back on those days as some of the fondest moments of my youth.  Despite occasional bickering matches, everyone in the van on those often very long trips was so happy to be in that death-trap of a vehicle with everyone else.

Somewhere in the middle of that period of intense touring, however, my faith in hardcore began to secretly waver—or maybe I just needed a break.  I was running out of steam, and my desire to play exclusively simplistic hardcore was waning, love hardcore as I did (and still do; I still listen to Youth of Today and Floorpunch at least once a week, often while doing categorically “adult” things like grading papers or cooking dinner.  Not to digress too much here, but I’ll argue that songs like “Changes,” “Wake Up And Live,” and, especially, “Positive Outlook” have so much more significance for me now that I am a depression-prone adult than they did when I was an excited but very naive teenager.)  I wanted to drastically evolve past power chords, stage dives, and sing-a-longs.  I wanted to draw on some of my other musical interests.  Unfortunately, I didn’t understand what that evolution could even sound like, much less where it would fit in the context of the hardcore scene that I was now an active member in.  (Of course, this yearning to “branch out” after you’ve established yourself within a specific sub-aesthetic is an archetypal portion of virtually every serious hardcore band’s trajectory from Minor Threat to Agnostic Front to Gorilla Biscuits to Count Me Out to Carry On to Blacklisted to Ceremony, and the list goes on.  Sometimes this musical evolution works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but what’s interesting to me is that each time a hardcore kid goes through this natural step, they’re treated like they’re the first 22-year old who grew tired of imitating the Cro-Mags or Madball or Black Flag or Chain of Strength or Poison Idea or whatever they were initially trying to sound like.)

At some indeterminate time after that last summer tour, I was shopping at my local music store, Full Circle Records, and I saw an LP that would later have near-religious significance for me—Husker Du’s New Day Rising.  It was affordably priced at $8.00 US used, so I couldn’t resist.  Of course I was familiar with the label it was on, SST Records, and I had heard plenty of people talk about this band, but I was not familiar with their actual material.

I’ll be perfectly honest here: when I first pulled the vinyl out of the jacket and hit play on my record player, I couldn’t really get it.  I was obviously into Black Flag and Bad Brains (duh!) as any self-respecting hardcore kid should be, and I was into Neil Young and R.E.M. because that’s the stuff my parents played for me when I was growing up.  But this record was not squarely either of those extremes.  It was genre-crossing in a way I acknowledged, but didn’t quite understand.  Even the cover art—what were they going for?  Those dogs playing in the water?  I didn’t wholly feel like I wasted my money, but certainly I didn’t wear down the record the first week I got it.

Nonetheless, I was intrigued by this album, perhaps largely because I didn’t know what to do with it.  Do I play this record for my parents, or do I play this record for my friends?  Is it for Beatles’ fans or is it for T.S.O.L. fans?  There were both melody and aggression in doses I was, frankly, confused by.  That song “Celebrated Summer,” for example, oscillated schizophrenically between a fast-paced punk song and a mid-tempo, twelve-string ballad.   What was up with that?  And that song “Books About UFOs” had a really cool title, but it sounded like Springsteen meets the Beatles with the most overdriven, but still present, guitar sound.

When I found pictures of the band members, my confusion was not transformed into clarity, by any stretch. “The dude has a mustache?”

Something that did immediately stick with me, however, was that guitar tone.  The first time I heard New Day Rising, I was professionally employed as a guitar teacher and playing quite regularly in a band, and I had never heard anyone make a guitar sound like that.  Underneath the pounding drums and melodic semi-chanting of the first song was the hottest, fuzziest (yet still extremely distinguishable) guitar sound I’d ever heard.

My interest was peaked just enough that I kept letting the needle drop, and I think now that I was so weirdly fascinated with this record because I knew subconsciously it was exactly the mix of what I wanted to play, but was incapable of articulating at that time.  It was informed equally by After the Gold Rush and Reckoning as it was by London Calling or Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables and unabashedly so.

These guys clearly loved hardcore to some extent, which was evident not only in their being on SST, but also in the urgency and fast tempo of tracks like “Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” and “I Apologize.”  Yet they also had obviously studied their rock and roll history and listened to The Beach Boys, evident in the gorgeous vocal harmonies on every song.  It took some time, but I soon came to realize how perfect—how intelligent, witty, catchy, subtle, and even aggressive—The Huskers were.

Around early 2006, as it became clear that the end was in sight for my straight-forward, Youth Crew Hardcore band, I began listening to New Day Rising with increased frequency, and I began to feel that this mustachioed trio was not only brilliant, but that they were capable of loving hardcore in a way that was not as narrow minded as how I had when One Up began.

In a sense, Husker Du’s kept me interested in hardcore at the exact moment when I was getting fed up with it.  And in that regard, I view my finding New Day Rising as a cosmic gift.  When I was convinced that hardcore was too simplistic, too immature, too repetitive, I found Husker Du, and they showed me that it was me (not hardcore) that was too simplistic and immature.  There were still cool bands out there; I just needed to stop being so cynical as to not even bother looking for them.  Not only were Husker Du a legendary group of musicians, but they taught me a new kind of positivity—the mental health exercise of finding yourself in a sea of sameness and searching for the worthwhile elements.

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