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The Last Days of Pompeii (1991)


8

Introduction / Woton / Getaway (Gateway) in Time / Admiral of the Sea (79 A.D. Version) / Wernher Von Braun / Space Jazz / Where You Gonna Land (Next Time You Fall Off of Your Mountain)? / Over My Head / Admiral of the Sea / Persuaded / Lavender and Grey / The Last Days of Pompeii/Benediction

The Last Days of PompeiiAfter Hüsker Dü broke up, the general opinion was that the main cause of the increased tension and following break-up had always been the incorrigible Hart, with his erratic behaviour and substance abuse. Some people even went as far as to suggest he was a completely helpless musician when left on his own, but they were silenced when Hart, and not the universally lauded Mould, was the first to come up with a solo release (the acoustic live EP 2541), and his first album Intolerance, released a year later, was as good as – if not better, than Mould’s less confusing Workbook. Anyway, a yearning to play in the classic power-trio line-up instigated him to form Nova Mob (no relation to Julian Cope’s early outfit), which should become a vehicle for his ambitious vision. With Tom Merkl (bass) and Michael Crego (drums), he recorded and released The Last Days of Pompeii to very mixed reviews: while some reviewers called it the worst music any of the Hüskers had done since their ultra-violent debut a decade earlier, others just couldn’t make sense out of the confusing rock opera that it was. With its wordy lyrics, including countless references to military history, pop culture, space programs and biblical matter, the album’s indeed a seemingly impenetrable mishmash of thoughts and ideas, but at the core of it, Hart’s melodic gift is still intact.

Musically, it tries to conciliate genres such as folk-rock and neo-psychedelic rock with a few sonic experiments thrown in for eccentricity’s sake. While the infatuation with war and weapons of mass destruction (some sources even suggest Thomas Pynchon’s grandiose, chaotic novel Gravity’s Rainbow was one of the main influences) leads the opening introduction to proceed with a militaristically pronounced backbeat, the following “Woton” already shows off the more experimental side of the album. Enigmatic and repetitive, driven by Crego’s rudimentary drumming (Hart having switched to – nearly inaudible – guitar) and the singer’s distorted vocals, it already points forward to the similar, but more impressive, “Space Jazz” (the only thing ‘jazzy’ about it being Merkl’s fluid bass playing), an extended dirge over which Hart’s spoken ramblings, sounding like a static-polluted broadcast from the moon, mentions 20th century events, quotes from the bible and other assorted oddities. However, besides these fairly morose tracks, things are lightened up by a batch of spunky rock songs. The catchy “Wernher Von Braun” (starting off with the nonsensical “Well her favorite color’s Wernher Von Braun” or something like that) is a swift, jangly ditty that’s a showcase for Hart’s undiminished talent for finding melodies that sound like long-forgotten treasures. Equally accessible are the danceable bounce of “Admiral of the Sea” (also present in a more pensive, ‘slow’ version), that has more in common with Britain’s Madchester-craze of 1990 than Hüsker Dü’s ragged guitar rock, and the excellent album closer “The Last Days of Pompeii/Benediction.” In the meantime, Hart also treads calmer territory with the vibraphone-embellished “Getaway” (until it explodes into rock at the end), the magnificent “Over My Head,” which has to be one of the most magnificent pop songs he’s ever written (that chorus will have you sing along in two seconds flat), and the twosome “Persuaded” and “Lavender and Grey.” Of these two, I’d give the nod to the “Lavender,” not only because it’s the best sounding song on the entire album (the drums finally sound agreeable), but also because it boasts some surprisingly charming whistling (I have no idea at all why some music journalist called it a pathetic “Joe Cocker imitation” – huh?). Anyway, The Last Days of Pompeii ain’t no match for semi-divine trio of Hüsker Dü’s SST-albums, but it doesn’t deserve its obscure status either. In fact, despite the fact that his discography is quite limited (and I’d take Hart eight years to come up with another true winner), it’s a travesty as pure as they come that this album is completely neglected/ignored/forgotten these days. As far as rock operas go, Pompeii simply delivers the goods in its own, unique way.

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Shoot (1992)


7

Shoot Your Way to Freedom / Ballad No. Nineteen / Oh! To Behold / Children in the Streets

cover art not availableOriginally released as a 12” that added two songs to the “Shoot Your Way to Freedom”-single, the Shoot EP is another one of those releases that stayed under the radar, making it pretty hard to find these days, which is – need I say more? - a crying shame. Recorded in the year of The Last Days of Pompeii, the EP shows an almost entirely different band (even though only drummer Crego was replaced by the much more versatile Mark Retish). Instead of the jangly, neo-psychedelic pop or the ambitious/pretentious dirges of the debut album, the four songs gathered here show a slightly noisier incarnation of the band at work. “Shoot Your Way to Freedom” was the deserved single that could’ve been a Hüsker Dü-song as well: while Hart’s vocals are hidden way in the back, the guitar sounds like a broken vacuum cleaner. The slower “Ballad No. Nineteen” isn’t particularly interesting musically, but the laidback pace that suddenly accelerates towards the end was a good find, and Hart delivers some impressively passionate vocals. During the next two songs, Merkl’s bass steals the show, despite that typically ‘80’s sound (*PLENK PLONK*- does that ring a bell?). Throughout the 2-minute “Oh! To Behold” this results in some cool abrasive punk/funk-passages, while Hart’s theatrical, yearning vocals, the ethereal/jangly guitar sound and clean, pronounced bass-lines of “Childhood in the Streets” nearly make the trio sound like ‘The Smiths-go-jazz’ (I’m NOT kidding), with Retish putting the icing on the cake with a rhythmic flair Crego never even suggested he was capable of. A bit of an awkward, schizophrenic EP with an equally awkward sound (there’s not one song on which they seem to have found the right balance), Shoot’s ungenerous 15 minutes suggested that Nova Mob had a bright future ahead of them.

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Nova Mob (1994)


6

Old Empire / Shoot Your Way to Freedom / Puzzles / Buddy / See and Feel and Know / Little Miss Information / I Won’t Be There Anymore / Please Don’t Ask / The Sins of Their Sons / Beyond a Reasonable Doubt / If I Was Afraid/Coda

Sixteen HorsepowerA second album, a third line-up and – again - a new direction. After the promising single “Shoot Your Way to the Stars,” Mark Retish left the band and was replaced by Steve Sutherland, while also a new guitarist (Chris Hesler) was added. Whether it’s a result of this change or not, Nova Mob once again shows a “different” band at work. While the previous two releases were both healthily out of step – because of their baroque approach or unconventional sonic palette – Nova Mob finds the quartet at work in more conventional territory, which I’d call “your standard guitar-oriented rock” for convenience’s sake. Devoid of all the experiments of the previous releases, it situates itself somewhere in between efforts by The Lemonheads, R.E.M. and the later Hüsker Dü … it’s the kind of music the average college student probably got a kick out of at the time: recognizable, but still original because of Hart’s presence. Unfortunately, this time around the band doesn’t make much of an impression. While the excellent “Shoot Your Way to the Stars” returns in a more polished version with horn arrangements, it lacks the charming ruggedness and energy of the single version. Luckily, the album started off with the enjoyable “Old Empire” and a sound similar to that of Warehouse: ringing guitars, a fairly thin basis, an enchantingly melancholic melody and nice backing vocals.

But then … you’re confronted with the rest of the album, and while you’re expecting a thoroughly satisfying/consistent product, or at least a handful of gems, you’ll be waiting for a pay-off that never arrives. It’s not that these songs are inept rehashes or palpable attempts at reaching a broader audience, but very few of them will make a lasting impression. While “See and Feel and Know,” “Little Miss Information,” and the opening tracks are proof that Hart’s still most comfortable in the “classic-pop-with-catchy-hooks-and-melodies”-format, they’re simply no match for earlier triumphs such as “Pink Turns to Blue,” “Don’t Wanna Know If You Are Lonely,” “Green Eyes” or “Wernher Von Braun.” Almost as “successful” is the short, galloping punch of “Buddy,” which makes it once again obvious that Hart allegiances are probably to be found in late ‘60’s rock. Besides these tracks, Hart & Co. also stretch out a few times, and usually to much lesser results. “Puzzles” has a nice, semi-messy solo, but is otherwise a fairly unremarkable dirge, while “I Won’t Be There Anymore” and “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” boast nifty riffs that simply can’t support six long, time-consuming minutes. Slower, atmospheric songs such as “Please Don’t Ask” and album closer “If I Was Afraid” are decent showcases for Hart’s passion and dedicated performance, but they’re nothing more than a stroke of paint on an old, rusty car. For the first time in his recording career, Hart is neither a fearless innovator nor a quirky - but interesting - outcast. With Nova Mob, he’s created a painfully conventional album that in the hands of a trendier band and a major label could’ve become a minor hit like many other average guitar albums in the early nineties. All this amounts to a fairly sore conclusion: whereas the album contains no embarrassing moments, it repeatedly sounds uninspired and rather stale, and that’s really disappointing in Hart’s case. Nova Mob was the band’s last release and - a live album excepted (Ecce Homo – what a subtle pun!) - Hart would keep silent for five long years.

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