If the prospect of seeing Pearl Jam this weekend fills you with ’90s nostalgia, then listening to Mudhoney, who will be opening for Eddie Vedder and company, will really make you feel like you’re back in the grunge era.
Although Mudhoney never achieved the same mainstream success as Pearl Jam – or their Pacific Northwest brethren Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Nirvana, for that matter – they’re flip sides of the same coin. Both bands were products of the Seattle hard rock scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and both feature gruff lead singers and big, crunchy guitars. But Mudhoney’s music has always favored irreverence over gloss, closer to a garage band than a polished arena rock outfit.
Mudhoney’s origins stretch back to Bellevue in the early ’80s, when lead singer Mark Arm formed a punk group out of high school called Mr. Epp and the Calculations. (There’s an oft-repeated story that a Seattle radio deejay dubbed them “the worst band in the world.”) The Calculations eventually became Green River (featuring future Pearl Jammers Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard), which by 1988 morphed into Mudhoney, with Arm, guitarist Steve Turner and former Melvins bassist Matt Lukin.
Named after a 1965 exploitation movie directed by Russ Meyer, Mudhoney became one of the first bands to sign with Seattle’s Sub Pop Records, and their earliest releases, including the 1988 EP “Superfuzz Bigmuff” and the single “Touch Me I’m Sick,” helped to define the alt-rock sound that would become known as grunge.
But while Pearl Jam and Nirvana were touring the world, filling up airwaves and selling out arenas, Mudhoney remained more obscure. Unlike their mainstream brethren, Mudhoney forged their own ground, unafraid to be sloppy, chaotic, dissonant and sometimes goofy. Even though they were later picked up by Reprise Records, they were never going to be a radio-friendly band: Even their highest-charting single, 1992’s “Suck You Dry,” is an abrasive, ragged, messy burst of a song, with Arm’s wailing vocals buried in guitars that sound like they’re running through a thousand channels of distortion.
Despite a few bumps in the road – they were dropped by Reprise in 1999, at which point Lukin left the group – Mudhoney has remained active, and their latest album, “Vanishing Point,” is their ninth full-length release and has received mostly positive notices from music critics; NME noted that the band is “in total command of their combination of punishing rock and loveable looseness.”
You can hear their punk influences louder and clearer than on previous albums: Tracks like “Chardonnay,” a fast and furious blast of attitude that clocks in at less than two minutes, would be right at home on a Minutemen or Hüsker Dü record; the spacey “The Final Course” sounds like “Daydream Nation”-era Sonic Youth; and Arm’s vocals on “What to Do with the Neutral” combine the deadpan bemusement of Jonathan Richman with the snotty cadence of Johnny Rotten.
After all these years, they haven’t lost their edge.