New GBV book!

15 Aug

bob

In case you somehow missed the news, my good friend Matthew Cutter has an exciting new book coming out called Closer You Are: The Story of Robert Pollard and Guided by Voices. It’s out August 21st. I’ve had the privilege to read it already, so I can confirm that it is excellent; the definitive book on His Bobness.

More info, ordering links, etc. are found here:

https://www.dacapopress.com/titles/matthew-cutter/closer-you-are/9780306825774/

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Back to Saturn X (1990, alt. version)

19 Mar

I’ve already covered one version of Back to Saturn X, an album that was ready to be put into production before being shit-canned at the last minute. This recently unearthed sequence likely predates that version. The release of Suitcase 4 has filled in some vital gaps, so it’s time to give this album a listen!

The most unusual aspect of this sequence is the presence of a couple songs credited to Sprout-Toohey-Peterson, who comprised the band fig. 4. Despite not featuring a writing credit from Pollard, these songs were recorded entirely by GBV without the fig. 4 guys, with Pollard on lead vocals. Both tracks were unheard until being released on Suitcase 4.

There is also an unknown song, “Directions to the New Appliance,” which may have also been a Sprout composition (Tobin Sprout, who provided the details for this sequence to GBVDB, seemed unsure of this himself).

Here’s the list, including some alternate titles.

Back To Saturn X
1. My Big Day
2. Gurgling Spring Tiger
3. Damn Good Mr. Jam
4. 14 Cheerleader Coldfront
5. Melted Pat
6. Perch Warble
7. The Garden (Sprout, Toohey, Peterson)
8. Tractor Rape Chain (Clean It Up)
9. Fantasy Creeps
10. Lower Lords (AKA Our Value of Luxury)
11. Heartbeat (Sprout, Toohey, Peterson)
12. Directions To The New Appliance (Unavailable, possibly a Sprout song)
13. Dusty Bushworms
14. Soper Joe
15. Back to Saturn X

Note: There are multiple versions of many of these songs, so for my reconstruction I decided to go with full-band recordings as much as possible. For opening track “My Big Day,” I used the third version on Suitcase 1, which is listed as being recorded for Back to Saturn X.

—————–

The album kicks off with a trio of Suitcase 1 tracks. First up is the weird “My Big Day,” a song that has a kind of sinister swing to it. Makes for an interesting opener! It transitions nicely into the much more traditionally catchy, upbeat “Spring Tigers.” From there, it’s another nice segue into the great full-band take on “Damn Good Mr. Jam.” 

Next up is the GBV classic “14 Cheerleader Coldfront,” the only Propeller tune featured on the tracklist. It’s also the only song here to actually end up on a GBV album at all, with the rest of this batch mostly ending up on archival releases.  “14 Cheerleader” did not make the cut for the later Back to Saturn X sequence that was close to being released. 

Oh shit, now it’s “Melted Pat!” It’s always a joy to hear this delightfully weird, catchy tune. It sounds great going into “Perch Warble,” another insidious earworm delivered in the form of a melodic pop-rocker. Energy levels sufficiently raised, the band slams into “The Garden,” a Sprout-penned rocker which they attack with gusto despite it being on loan from another band.  “The Garden” may not be a classic but it’s a must-hear song for fans of GBV’s early, R.E.M. acolyte days.

The “Clean It Up” version of “Tractor Rape Chain” follows, and its drowsy psychedelia makes for a nice coda to the supercharged “The Garden.” Actually, I find this context is the best this song has ever sounded to me. It’s something else when that magical chorus hits (the only feature it shares with its Bee Thousand counterpart). 

“Fantasy Creeps” continues the psychedelic trend with its Beatles-esque chorus. It pairs off nicely with the jangly, lighters aloft ballad “Our Value of Luxury” (here known as “Lower Lords”). 

“Heartbeat” comes next, another storming rocker from Sprout. Why did Pollard and co. decide to record this and “The Garden,” only to cast them into obscurity until Suitcase 4?  We’ll probably never know, but shit yeah it’s cool to hear. 

The mystery track “Directions To The New Appliance” is next, sadly omitted here since it’s lost to the sands of time. Speculated to be another Sprout song, but it’s interesting to note the similarity of the title to the Pollardian phrase instructions to the rusty time machine, as bellowed on “Lethargy” (and at one point a working title to Bee Thousand).

But there’s no use on dwelling on what is most likely a minor omission, considering one of Pollard’s greatest songs kicks off the closing trio. “Dusty Bushworms” is such a beauty, you guys. I love the full-band take here from Suitcase 2, with Jim Pollard conjuring the strange chirping sounds (the bushworms?). Easter egg: The coda melody unique to this version was recycled in the Power of Suck outtake “Are You Faster?”

Back to Saturn X Radio Report classic “Sopor Joe” is slotted in the penultimate spot. I love this song (and even bizarrely shouted requests for it during my first GBV concert) but it’s a relatively minor cut on this particular LP, sandwiched between two superior tunes. Speaking of which, the title track closes things out on an excellently rousing note. It’s a fun singalong rocker that never got its due until it was dusted off as a live favorite in the 2000s and eventually released on the Hardcore UFOs boxset. It works great as an album closer and actually brings to mind the more recent GBV closing track “W/ Glass in Foot.”

This Back to Saturn X sequence is a fascinating snapshot of a transitional period in GBV’s early days, as Pollard inched closer to finding his artistic voice. Although they have only one song in common, Back to Saturn X is an important chapter in the history of Bob creating Propeller; they are ineffably connected. Historical significance aside, this is a cool, weird album that’s worth assembling! Do it!

You’ll need these releases to recreate this shit-canned album:

Suitcase 1
Suitcase 2
King Shit & the Golden Boys
Suitcase 4
Get Out of My Stations

Propeller
Darla 100 compilation
Delicious Pie & Thank You for Calling

 

 

The Happy Sounds of the Crowd (1983)

16 Nov
The Happy Sounds of the Crowd

The Happy Sounds of the Crowd

The release of the fourth incredible installment of Suitcase has illuminated a previously un-mined chapter in Pollard’s musical development — A proto-GBV group called The Crowd, dating all the way back to 1983! The cassette that was unearthed contains an album’s worth of material, much of it unreleased in this embryonic form, but a handful of the songs here went on to serve as source material for tracks on later Pollard albums. Seven songs from this tape are on Suitcase 4, and one additional track was released as a Guided By Voices B-side in 2013.

So here’s what’s been released so far:
1. Murphy Had A Birthday (AKA Today You’re 82) (Parts recycled in “Birds” and “Take Me to Yolita“)
2. Eloise (recycled in “Wrinkled Ghost“)
3. Time Will Destroy You
4. Then Again (acoustic)
5. Linda’’s Lottery (bit of melody here was borrowed for Keene Brothers’ “Island of Lost Lucys“)
6. Thick And Thin
7. Disappearing Act
8. Little Jimmy the Giant (b-side to Xeno Pariah)
Here’s what’s left:
1. Double Standards
2. Tell Me (also appears on Pissing in the Canal, later recycled as verse of “Tractor Rape Chain“)
3. Cardio-Combustion (melody that became “Hank’s Little Fingers“)
4. Hold Me
5. It’s a Matter of Time
6. Tamara
7. Magic Horses (early version of the still unreleased Power of Suck outtake “Sweeping Bones“)
8. Bom Bom
9. Wolves Among the Grave
10. I Won’t Be the Foolish One (mentioned in Beautiful Plastic as becoming “Gelatin Ice Cream Plum“)
11. Then Again (full band)

 

The eight tracks currently available showcase a band that has already mastered the art of writing songs, from a melodic standpoint. The arrangements are basic garage rock, but the structures are fussy and formal, with verses, choruses, and bridges, etc. in exactly the right places. In GBV’s typically off-kilter fashion, it wasn’t until Pollard unlearned some of the songwriting conventions on display here that he really found his artistic voice. But The Crowd material does not suffer for its youthful naivete — far from it. The band attack their songs with a punkish urgency that serves them well and sells the occasionally on-the-nose lyrics. The song structures may be fussy, but the live-sounding, no overdubs recordings certainly are not. Also of note is that the jangly, R.E.M. derived sound featured heavily on GBV’s early albums is mostly absent here in favor of power-pop/British invasion-inspired nuggets. 

“Murphy Had a Birthday” is the highlight for me, a relentlessly catchy song with a magnificent chorus. You might recognize part of the bridge (and a variation of its chorus) on English Little League‘s “Birds,” or the full bridge section on recent Pollard solo single “Take Me to Yolita” (from Faulty Superheroes), but the original track more than stands up on its own.

It’s also quite interesting to hear how the relentlessly energetic earworm of “Eloise” was re-written by an older, wiser Pollard to make one of my all-time favorite songs of his, the beautiful “Wrinkled Ghost” from Waved Out.

Would love to see the entirety of this Crowd session released as its own standalone LP! Based on what we have of it already, it’s a strong collection of tunes as well as an intriguing glimpse at a young songwriter learning his craft.

The Crowd featured Jimmy Davidson on guitar, Mitch Mitchell on bass, Kevin Fennell on drums, and Robert Pollard on vocals. Thanks to The Heed for providing the image and info on unreleased songs.

Hope to have some more Suitcase 4 inspired posts up soon!

The Flying Party is Here (version 2)*

3 Oct

*Don’t look for version 1 because I didn’t write about it (yet).

The Flying Party is Here is what came in-between The Power of Suck and Under the Bushes, Under the Stars. There are a couple versions floating about, and apparently both were close enough for release that some promo tapes exist. Here’s a handy guide to help you keep this craziness straight… and the great thing about this version of the album is that an owner of an original tape copy has digitized it and made it available here.

The Flying Party is Here (version 2)
alt. titles in red, released titles in blue

  1. Fireball (Big Boring Wedding)
  2. Ex-Aviator (Why Did You Land)
  3. Unbeknown Meters (A Life in Finer Clothing)
  4. He’s the Uncle
  5. Deaf Ears
  6. The Official Ironman Rally Song
  7. Cocksoldiers (Sheetkickers)
  8. Systems Crash
  9. Post-Everlasting (Beneath a Festering Moon)
  10. June Salutes You
  11. Drag Days
  12. Bender’s Bluffing Muscles (unreleased)
  13. Delayed Reaction Brats
  14. It’s Like Soul Man
  15. The Key Losers
  16. Redmen and Their Wives
  17. Newton’s Hopeless Marriage (Take to the Sky)
  18. Don’t Stop Now
  19. Stingy Queens (The Ash Gray Proclamation)

Flying Party, much like Not in My Airforce, is a hodgepodge of studio-recorded tracks and some lo-fi home-recordings. The album hues slightly closer to the spirit of Alien Lanes than Under the Bushes does, thanks to short, punchy tunes like “Systems Crash,” “June Salutes You” and “Delayed Reaction Brats.” Power of Suck holdovers like “Redmen and Their Wives” and “Official Ironman Rally Song” supply a dose of melancholy beauty.

A big chunk of the album is made up of the songs that comprise the final six tracks of Under the Bushes. These are the songs that were released as a separate disc on the vinyl version, and unceremoniously tacked on to the end of the CD version. The story is, apparently, that Matador was so disappointed that these Flying Party tunes didn’t make the final cut on UTBUTS that they insisted on adding them to the album.

Most of the other songs ended up as b-sides or EP tracks, with only one remaining officially unreleased: the brief Tobin Sprout tune “Bender’s Bluffing Muscles.” “Beneath a Festering Moon” (which is a slowed-down version of “Pink Drink”) was released on a compilation, and “The Ash Gray Proclamation” ended up on Not in My Airforce.

Though it’s a very strong album (one of the best shit-canned albums, in my opinion), Under the Bushes still wins in terms of consistency, quality, and freshness. I imagine the leftover Power of Suck tracks seemed mighty stale at this point, especially to someone who had just written “Cut-out Witch” and “Underwater Explosions.” Though I would have shared Matador’s concern when he cut songs like “Drag Days” from the album, it’s understandable that Pollard decided to farm this batch of songs out to smaller releases and let his new stuff take center stage.

It’s interesting to consider how ill-suited Pollard was, even back then, to be beholden to a record label’s schedule of one album a year. Suddenly, GBV was a hot band, and Pollard is officially a full-time musician. As an artist, he’s constantly moving forward, pushing out new product to make room for something new. He had time to write and record a ton of songs, but couldn’t release it all in a timely fashion. Who knows what would have happened if he’d been able to self-release records at that point… maybe The Power of Suck, The Flying Party is Here, AND Under the Bushes would have all come out in some form, in the same year! But it just so happened that he had a long delay in which to endlessly tinker with the the follow-up to Alien Lanes, leaving behind a long trail of shit-canned goodness. 

Flying Party version #2 Track breakdown

Under the Bushes, Under the Stars
The Official Ironmen Rally Song
Don’t Stop Now

Under the Bushes bonus tracks
Big Boring Wedding
Sheetkickers
Drag Days
It’s Like Soul Man
Redmen and Their Wives
Take to the Sky

Plantations of Pale Pink
Systems Crash
A Life in Finer Clothing

Split with Superchunk
Delayed Reaction Brats
He’s the Uncle
Key Losers

The Official Ironmen Rally Song single
Deaf Ears
Why Did You Land?
June Salutes You

Compilation
Beneath a Festering Moon

Not in My Airforce
The Ash Gray Proclamation

Unreleased
Bender’s Bluffing Muscles

Isolation Drills appendix: The Saga of Frostman

31 Jan

I had a lot of fun writing about Isolation Drills yesterday, and it got me thinking about the songs leftover from those sessions. In particular is a favorite of mine that could use some attention, and it’s sort of related to “Frostman.”

The simple lo-fi charm of “Frostman” makes it a stand out track on Isolation Drills. It’s one of Bob’s great sub-minute acoustic ditties, a lineage that also includes such gems as “Tropical Robots” and “Indian Fables.”


In 2008, an alternate version of “Frostman” was released as a b-side to Pollard’s “Miles Under the Skin” single. This recording, dubbed the “long version,” is presumably a demo that predates the album version. Here, the song is fleshed out with a second verse and signature riff in the form of an overdubbed lead guitar.

It’s that guitar riff that connects “Frostman” to another song. Released on Suitcase 2 in 2005, “Color Coat Drawing” is labeled as an Isolation Drills demo outtake. It seems that perhaps it never made it out of the demo stage, instead donating its riff and maybe some chords to the long version of “Frostman” that was subsequently shortened into the album track.

Whatever the case may, “Color Coat Drawing” is a breathtaking song, one of Bob’s sad-but-uplifting numbers.  While it does not have a melody as instantly appealing as “Frostman,” its slow, deliberate pace makes every chord change or melodic twist count. Totally engrossing. Bob’s delivery and the enigmatic lyrics make it surprisingly emotional. The chugging riff would sound right at home with the other Isolation Drills songs, but this spare demo has a undefinable hypnotic beauty to it that maybe would not translate to a full band arrangement — although I for one was hoping for a Boston Spaceships remake. But at the very least, I’m grateful to have this demo to listen to and ponder its place in Pollard’s canon. Another great tune that fell through the cracks.

—-

I was going to place these songs earlier in the post, but didn’t want to detract from the main subject matter. Here they are:

Buy ’em
Frostman – Isolation Drills
Frostman (long version) – Miles Under the Skin single
Color Coat Drawing – Suitcase 2
Indian Fables – Fast Japanese Spin Cycle
Tropical Robots – Hold on Hope EP

Broadcaster House (Isolation Drills 1st Edition)

30 Jan


Isolation Drills is one of Pollard’s most consistent records, at least in terms of sound/style. It’s all HUGE, produced in such a way that ballads like “Fine to See You” and “How’s My Drinking?” sound as big and bombastic as rockers like “The Enemy” and “Skills Like This.” Even the pop songs like “Glad Girls” and “Chasing Heather Crazy” are crunchy and powerful. Only “Frostman” — a four-track recording — and the acoustic “Sister I Need Wine” offer something delicate and fairly low-key.

Due to Isolation Drill‘s sonic consistency, I didn’t expect this earlier draft, called Broadcaster House, to be a very different listen from the released album:

Broadcaster House

01. Skills Like This
02. Fair Touching
03. The Enemy
04. Glad Girls
05. Sister I Need Wine
06. Twilight Campfighter
07. How’s My Drinking?
08. Frostman
09. Unspirited
10. Chasing Heather Crazy
11. The Brides Have Hit Glass
12. Run Wild
13. Fine To See You
14. Privately
15. Pivotal Film

Wow, I was wrong! I thought that no matter the sequence, the album would flow about the same way. Not to mention that, there weren’t any non-album songs here to mix it up (only one missing, as “Want One?” is not here).

In fact, I found this sequence to have a distinct feel and flow. It was a fantastic listen that revitalized the album for me.

First of all, I don’t miss “Want One?” It’s a good song and I enjoy it (I even recorded a cover of it once), but the album is stronger with a slightly shorter running time, and “Want One” is the obvious choice to be cut. It would make a great b-side (and Isolation Drills yielded a lot of great b-sides).

I thought “Fair Touching” would be hard to top as an opening song, but “Skills Like This” shines in this spot. Something about that first riff and Pollard’s “ooooh” sets the tone perfectly and draws me in. And in turn, “Fair Touching” benefits in the way it storms out of the gate right behind “Skills,” picking up the tempo and kicking the album into gear.

In turn, the up-tempo pop of “Fair Touching” sets up the mid-tempo hard rocker ‘The Enemy” much better than I expected. “The Enemy” is a highlight of this set of songs, but is a bit buried on Isolation Drills, resting in that zone where a relatively long, sludgy song might not work as well. Putting it toward the beginning, sandwiched by two pop songs, is just a good idea.

The last half of Broadcaster House‘s side A slows things down a bit with a string of beautiful songs, “Sister I Need Wine” through “Frostman.”  In particular, I like having “How’s My Drinking?” pulled up from Isolation Drills‘ side B. It has a kind of slow-motion majesty that benefits surrounded by other melancholy laments. I love how the incredibly dense, layered sound of “Drinking” (featuring piano by Tobin Sprout and a great organ drone played by Elliot Smith) suddenly opens up into the clear, minimal acoustic plucking of “Frostman.” Those two songs would be an excellent way to close the first half, but I’m guessing that “Unspirited” was probably intended to close this side, as it does on the finalized album.

“Chasing Heather Crazy” kicks off side B with a surefire hit. It has basically swapped places with “Glad Girls” on this version of the album, and I might prefer it this way. That sunny opening riff is just the thing you need after that string of melancholy preceding it. Following “Heather” with another indelible pop song, “The Brides Have Hit Glass,” is a second case of sequencing that highlights the strengths of two similar songs by contrasting their differences.

“Run Wild” is up next. I think it’d be a hard song to fit on any album, maybe because it feels longer than its 3:48 running time. In any case, it sounds good here. Incidentally, it took a while for this song to grow on me, but I love it now. Great vocals on those soaring choruses!

“Run Wild” sets up the closing trio. “Fine to See You” always felt like the FINAL song on Isolation Drills, and sometimes I felt like it should have been. It does sound really good coming after “Run Wild,” and with two more tracks following it, it no longer has that sense of finality. Just a nice, late album ballad.

As of late, “Privately” has been my favorite song on the album. It’s one that never really got its due, only being played live ten times. It’s a good song to go out on, but I like the Broadcaster House method of following a more emotional, powerful song with a swaggering rocker. It’s a good trick (see Earthquake Glue or even Under the Bushes for a similar closing pair) and “Pivotal Film” sounds right at home as the final song on the album. Contrasts with the previous two nicely.

In conclusion, why do I always think of Isolation Drills being overly “sludgy?” Is it that thick guitar tone on many of the songs? Or is just because of the Do The Collapse-style riffage of “The Enemy” and “Run Wild?” Listening to Broadcaster House reminded me how classic this album is, and that there really isn’t a lot of sludge at all. Broadcaster House successfully re-contextualizes a handful of songs that, for at least, tend to fall through the cracks on the album proper, and some of my old favorite shine in a different light. Recommended!

Buy Isolation Drills, you idiot

Broadcaster House playlist on Spotify

Thinking Man’s Trip to the Zoo (2012)

9 Jan

Striking a perfect balance between weird and accessible, Mouseman Cloud (2012) is like a leaner version of Elephant Jokes (2009). It’s one of the my favorites, so I was happy to come across this earlier sequence with a couple of extra tunes. The extra tracks are outtakes that ended up on the flip-side to Guided by Voices’ White Flag single.

Thinking Man’s Trip To The Zoo
01. Obvious # 1
02. Casino Model
03. Picnic Drums
04. Dr. Time
05. Aspirin Moon
06. Bats Flew Up
07. Smacks of Euphoria
08. Mouseman Cloud
09. Lizard Ladder
10. Continue To Break
11. Zebra Film Negative
12. Human Zoo
13. I Was Silence
14. Mothers Milk And Magnets
15. No Tools
16. Science Magazine
17. Half-Strained
18. Zen Mother Hen
19. Chief Meteorologist

Here, I made a Spotify playlist: Thinking Man’s Trip to the Zoo

Apart from the two extra songs, this version of the album has only minor differences from the released version. The closing trio remains the same, as does song #1 (…obviously). The overall tone and feel of the album remains largely unchanged, but this is a nice way to hear those two non-album in the context of an album rather than isolated on a single. They don’t really sound like GBV tunes — despite being released under that name —  and fit in perfectly with the rest of the Mouseman songs.

Both the outtakes had prominent spots on Thinking Man’s Trip to the Zoo. The minute-long “Casino Model” works great as a segue between the first song and the much longer, heavier “Picnic Drums.” The 40-second “Zebra Film Negative” opens side 2 (assuming “Continue to Break” closes side 1 as it does on the released version) and leads into the equally short “Human Zoo” for a nice one-two shot of awesomely unique Pollard brilliance.

One possible advantage the Thinking Man sequence has over the official Mouseman is the separation of “Mother’s Milk and Magnets” from “Continue to Break.” Both are killer songs, but “Mother’s Milk” has been a divisive track due to its unrelenting repetition of the titular phrase. On Mouseman, it’s followed by the similarly structured “Continue to Break.” Together, those two songs highlight repetition and make it seem as if that quality is a recurring theme throughout the album. Separated, the “theme” of endlessly repeated choruses becomes much less prominent.

I love albums like this that are short, sweet, and cohesive despite being all over the place. Whatever version you listen to, “Science Magazine” is still a huge highlight. It’s a melancholy pop song that is sort of like a sequel to “I am a Scientist.” The heavy sea shanty “Zen Mother Hen” is excellently catchy, and “Chief Meteorologist” closes the album perfectly with a very From a Compound Eye-esque psychedelic chug.

BUY IT

Mouseman Cloud
White Flag single