Urbana, Illinois’ Mud Records began in the ‘90s as Geoff Merritt’s off-shoot label from his main imprint, the indie-pop focused Parasol Records (which, itself, was an outgrowth of his Parasol mail-order music distribution hub). According to the label bio, Merritt’s Mud “wanted to document the post-Nirvana Urbana-Champaign music scene,” perhaps taking a more ragged and punk-centred look at ‘90s-era guitar music than comparatively more-polished Parasol acts like The Velvet Crush.
Early on, Mud championed local acts that would go on to great acclaim, like with a 7-inch for fuzz-layering, eventual major label signees Hum, or through the landmark The Age of Octeen album from Champaign emo favourites Braid. Amp-cranked rock wasn’t always Mud’s M.O., though, with some of their sweetest releases likewise being their subtlest.
All told, I was generally more aware of the emo-adjacent music on Mud than the power-pop on Parasol (though an electronics-spiked 7-inch from New Jersey’s All Natural Lemon & Lime Flavors is a sick outlier in the latter’s catalogue). While certainly not getting too deep into Mud’s 60-plus releases, these are a few of my favourites.
Braid – The Age of Octeen (1996)
If you’ve got a Mud Records release in your personal stash, I’d wager the odds are good it’s this. The Age of Octeen is Braid’s second album — following the ambitious but spotty, 26-song Frankie Welfare Boy Age 5 — and first to perfectly harness the Champaign quartet’s twitchy, but hooks-heavy emo-pop.
The record starts off strong, with drummer Roy Ewing easing “My Baby Smokes” into a jazzy rumble of toms before the band rise towards a distortion crush of octaves and screams. Next, guitarists Bob Nanna and Chris Broach work hectic, competing guitar rhythms above a deceptively tech-y 13/4 time signature on coming-of-age cut “Nineteen 75”. The album often expertly angles from frantic and discordant punk (“American Typewriter”) towards more slow-dance worthy moments (“The Chandelier Swing”). Either way, Braid deliver this all with a wide-eyed, youthful energy.
Of note: this is the last Braid album to feature the manic snare-papping of Roy Ewing, whom we’ll talk about more in a bit.
Wolfie – Awful Mess Mystery (1998)
Wolfie were apparently a polarizing band for critics—easily in contention for the most consistently worst-reviewed band in Pitchfork history, alongside Joan of Arc—but damned if I don’t love ‘em. 1998’s Awful Mess Mystery is a no-frills bash of post-grunge-era pop-making. Less than half of its 13 songs cross the two-minute mark, though that’s plenty of time for the group to throw in a couple of sugary, bah-bah-bah-driven vocal harmonies.
There’s an oddly shrill and brittle texture to the power chord arrangements on pieces like “I Know I Know I Know” and “Lkat Me”—all treble, no gain—but somehow it sits just right in the mix alongside Amanda Lyons’ Rentals-style synth-bending and Joe Ziemba’s endearingly adenoidal vocal delivery. It may just be his voice, but there’s an echo of super stripped-down, early Elvis Costello to punchier fare like “Subroutine the Reward,” though it likewise kind of reminds me of Newfoundland Sub Pop signees the Hardship Post.
Lyrically, it can get a little cutesy—pseudo ballad “Lifesaver Socks” is seemingly about falling for someone who, just like you, ate cereal while watching Saturday morning cartoons as a kid—but the low-stakes charm works in Wolfie’s favour.
Wolfie graduated to Parasol proper for their 1999 follow-up, Where’s Wolfie. It’s a cool record, arguably deeper through its explorations of Guided By Voices-style lo-fi (“I’m an Engineer”) and vintage bubblegum (“You’re Lucky I’m Skinny”), but the self-produced recording is certainly a rougher, unpolished listen.
Ziemba and Lyons also released records on Parasol as psychedelic twee outfit Busytoby and the surprisingly thick-sounding drum-and-guitar duo the Like Young (Ziemba definitely got the hang of lush and fuzzy guitar tones by the time of 2004’s So Serious). Ziemba would also deliver solo albums for Parasol as Beaujolais.
Now based in Austin, Texas, Ziemba self-released License to Dive as Desacatyl on Bandcamp this past spring.
Sarge – The Glass Intact (1998)
Like with any small scene, there’s definitely a lot of band-to-band crossover between the bands on Mud. Sarge’s The Glass Intact could be the Champaign-Urbana scene’s most outwardly interwoven release of the period.
Take, for instance, how vocalist/guitarist Elizabeth Elmore peppers the album with lyrical nods to both Mud labelmates Braid and Chicago emo icons Cap’n Jazz (lovingly referencing the latter’s “like a likable bully” line from “Precious” on Sarge’s own “Beguiling”); Braid bassist Todd Bell also took the band portrait on the back cover.
Sarge bassist Rachel Switsky had previously played in the punkier Corndolly, who’d issued two 7-inches on Mud, as well as in an early version of Busytoby. The latter’s “Put in the Reel,” a quicky piece issued on a 7-inch through Parasol, is reworked for The Glass Intact as a grandscale pop anthem, replete with echo-blown, harmonized “ahhhs” and mirroball-shimmering guitar work.
On the surface, The Glass Intact is a straight-shooting pop-rock record, but there are definitely some wild swings across its 11 songs. “Charms and Feigns” is a serene emo-ballad driven by outstretched chord work and Chad Romanski’s military-issue paradiddles; “Fast Girls” is a punkier outlier that oddly has more in common with the Offspring’s “Come Out and Play” than Sarge’s Champaign-Urbana contemporaries. A strange mix, but Elmore’s effortless exuberance on the mic holds everything together just fine.
Very Secretary – Standing in the Shade (1999)
Around the time drummer Roy Ewing left Braid, he got involved in Days in December, an elegiac chamber-emo band who issued one song, the outstanding “Main In Vine,” on a split 7-inch with Sweater Weather in 1996. The track’s prismatic, clean channel guitar layering and rippled drum crescendos somewhat laid the groundwork for Ewing, classical string player Rachel Dietkus, and guitarist Tim Adamson’s later work in Very Secretary.
Very Secretary’s debut release, 1998’s Best Possible Souvenir, had some inspired moments of piano-heightened indie rock, but the EP didn’t quite stick the landing—singer-guitarist Dave Johnson’s vocals, in particular, are a touch sharp, on the whole. The next year’s Standing in the Shade full-length is a much more confident and ambitious effort, though ironically the key may have been Johnson dialling back the volume of his voice towards a gentler whisper.
Of its many highlights, “Sharp Dressers” seamlessly pivots from the dawn break melancholia of finger-picked acoustics and electric piano towards a concluding burst of brushed drums and lively guitar licks; there’s a subtle, Elliott Smith-like sway to the heartbreaking “Sister Psyche”; I love the light, meowing flanger effect affixed to the guitar solo on “This Lovesick”. My favourite track might not be the most dynamic of the bunch, but it’s still a pleasure to get lost in the enigmatic, conga drum-assisted bossa nova of “Gianni Eyes.”
Castor – Tracking Sounds Alone (1998)
Parallels can be drawn between the dense, American-style shoegazing of Castor’s 1998 swansong, Tracking Sounds Alone, and the Majors-backed boom of fellow locals Hum. To that end, the bands were definitely in each other’s orbit—Hum bassist Jeff Dimpsey and Castor singer/guitarist Jeff Garber would later work together as the National Skyline. While both bands are great, the decidedly more left-field choices of Castor’s Tracking Sounds Alone just slightly eeks out the lead, for me.
Take the sly, poly-rhythmic dovetailing of the guitar lines on “Carnival,” though the players eventually sync up for an explosive, if herky-jerky, finale. The tricky metre-shifting on detuned, melancholy pummelers like “Five Hours Later” still has me thrown, but the complexity is never flashy for-the-sake-of-it. Garber’s vocals, meanwhile, work a unique, western yawl— running smoothest on the epic, concluding title track.
While Tracking Sounds Alone is long out of print, everything Castor released through Mud had been reissued in 2018 as the aptly titled Everything 1994-1998.