Back to Saturn X (1991)

19 Jan

Pollard’s approach to visual art is very similar to his approach to music. Both his collages and his albums are comprised of many disparate elements that he is able to blend together in a way that looks or sounds great, even when it’s a bit rough around the edges.  In the audio realm, he’ll sometimes punctuate a song with a fragment of another recording, blurring the distinction between carefully considered transition and happy accident. Sometimes these fragments are used as intros (“Paper Girl,” “Psychic Pilot Clocks Out”) and in some cases they become essential parts of a song — see Bee Thousand‘s “Ester’s Day” which is nearly inseparable from the bit that prefaces it (“Jimmy was a fly…”).

Whether previewing something new (the “Hot Freaks” intro on The Grand Hour) or looking back to the past (the “Broadcaster House” snippet on Isolation Drills), these collage-like fragments briefly tune you in to the cosmic radio station of the GBV universe. And the premiere program on that station is “Back to Saturn X Radio Report,” a tantalizing sound collage on Propeller comprised of bits and pieces of an unreleased album. Thanks to subsequent releases, we can reconstruct Back to Saturn X and ponder why it was shit-canned in the first place.

Note: A handful of these songs exist in multiple versions, and I’m not sure which would have appeared on the album. Let me know if you have any strong opinions on different versions.

Back To Saturn X
1. Fantasy Creeps (KS)
2. Perch Warble (SC1, SC2)
3. Dusty Bushworms (GOOMS, SC2)
4. Squirmish Frontal Room (KS)
5. Scalding Creek (GOOMS)
6. Melted Pat (GOOMS)
7. Spring Tiger (GOOMS, SC1)
8. Tractor Rape Chain (Clean It Up) (Magnet Magazine single)
9. Crutch Came Slinking (KS)
10. Mallard Smoke (SC1)
11. Sopor Joe (KS)
12. Chicken Blows (Alien Lanes)
13. Tricyclic Looper (KS)
14. Scissors And The Clay Ox (In) (SC1)
15. Damn Good Mr. Jam (SAJ, SC1)

KS = King Shit and the Golden Boys
GOOMS = Get Out of My Stations
SC = Suitcase
SAJ = Static Airplane Jive 

Back to Saturn X is similar to the two albums that preceded it (Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia and Same Place the Fly Got Smashed), finding the band honing their style, branching out creatively, and shedding the obvious R.E.M. influence of their first two LPs. Back to Saturn X is looser and more carefree than previous albums, however — especially compared to 1990’s dark tale of alcoholism Same Place the Fly Got Smashed. There’s a fun, kind of silly vibe to songs like “Fantasy Creeps,” “Sopor Joe” and “Melted Pat” that never really popped up on an earlier album, and “Scissors and the Clay Ox (In)” is downright jaunty. None of the songs are particularly dark, and though there are some heavy, punkish moments, it lacks the band’s noisier/experimental tendencies.

The guitar on Back to Saturn X has a distinct sound to it. It’s bright, yet raggedly distorted, and quite different from the clean arpeggios and leads often employed on earlier albums. The guitar sound on “Scalding Creek” and “Chicken Blows” is particularly awesome, and I can’t really tell if it’s acoustic or electric.

Another sonic hallmark of the Saturn tunes is a pronounced use of harmonies and backing vocals. They’re all over this record, from the very Beatles-esque harmonies of “Crutch Came Slinking” and “Chicken Blows” to the funny twittering at the end of “Sopor Joe.” “Fantasy Creeps” has an almost “Nowhere Man” thing going on during the chorus, and both “Scissors and the Clay Ox” and “Tractor Rape Chain (Clean it Up)” end with a group sing-along.

According to Robert Griffin from Scat Records, Back to Saturn X was  “totally ready to be put into production — edited master tapes, completed artwork…” before Bob decided it was ” fatally flawed” and shit-canned it. I think I can see why. The band is really finding its footing here, and it’s not as ambitious an album (for better or worse) as their previous four were. It’s a good album, but it seems more like a transitional recording that paved the way for their artistic breakthrough Propeller. Nevertheless, these were rich sessions that yielded some great tunes. The bulk of Get Out of My Stations, one of GBV’s best EPs in my opinion, is comprised of Back to Saturn X songs, and King Shit and the Golden Boys is also an essential listen.

Stray observations:

–Based on the notes in King Shit, Suitcase, and other sources, it would appear that the band at this time was Robert Pollard, Tobin Sprout, Dan Toohey (bass) and Larry Keller (drums).

–“Spring Tigers,” “Dusty Bushworms” and “Damn Good Mr. Jam” have full band takes on Suitcase (all featuring Mitchell and Fennel), while their EP versions are comparatively stripped-down and have a more home-recorded feel.

–The Suitcase liner notes list a few songs that aren’t on this tracklist as being from the aborted Back to Saturn X LP. Robert Griffin thinks these may have actually been outtakes. Maybe these are hints of a different, working version. More info over at GBVDB.

–Pollard off-handedly sings “damn good Mr. Jam” (the title of the album’s closing song) at the beginning of “Melted Pat.”

–It’s pretty neat that “Chicken Blows” eventually ended up, three albums and numerous EPs later, on Alien Lanes. Such a great song.

–Tobin Sprout sings backing vocals on “Scissors And The Clay Ox (In).” He also co-wrote “Damn Good Mr. Jam.”

–Despite yielding one of the most transcendent choruses of all-time, “Tractor Rape Chain (Clean it Up)” is kind of a bore at such a languid tempo. Maybe Pollard agreed, because there’s a faster demo version of this song floating around with some other Propeller tracks.

–A few songs heard in “Back to Saturn X Radio Report” do not appear on this album: the nasty early version of “Buzzards and Dreadful Crows,” “Back to Saturn X” (the song), and “Mr. Japan.” Also the bit where Pollard can be heard saying “off and onward” has never been found or identified.

MAKE IT SO:
King Shit & the Golden Boys
Fantasy Creeps
Squirmish Frontal Room
Crutch Came Slinking
Sopor Joe
Tricyclic Looper

Get Out of My Stations
Scalding Creek
Melted Pat
Dusty Bushworms
Spring Tiger

Alien Lanes
Chicken Blows

Suitcase 1
Spring Tigers (full-band version)
Damn Good Mr. Jam (full-band version)
Mallard Smoke
Scissors and the Clay Ox (In)
Perch Warble

Suitcase 2
Dusty Bushworms (full-band version)
Perch Warble (alt.)

Static Airplane Jive (out of print, download it here though)
Damn Good Mr. Jam

Darla 100 Compilation
Tractor Rape Chain (Clean it Up)

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4 Responses to “Back to Saturn X (1991)”

  1. Follower January 19, 2012 at 8:48 pm #

    Opinions on different versions: I’m torn between using the full-band versions on the Suitcases (which I’ve listened to less) versus the tracks from “Get Out Of My Stations” etc. All of the former seem to have a cleaner guitar sound (plus a few of them are faster tempo takes) that doesn’t fit in as well with the other tracks. Most of the lower-fi, stripped-down versions fit in better with the crunchier guitar sound you mention.

    I’m not _quite_ anal-retentive enough to make two different playlists in iTunes to evaluate both. At least not today.

  2. Craig January 19, 2012 at 9:15 pm #

    Damn Good Mr. Jam is one of my favorite GBV tracks of all-ever.

  3. Joe January 22, 2012 at 9:57 pm #

    Wanted to tip my hat to your efforts here on this blog! Most impressive, sir…you are doing a wonderful job.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. On Robert Pollard: “Chicken Blows” | ROUGH TYPE - July 24, 2017

    […] to be on the aborted 1991 Guided by Voices album Back to Saturn X, which Robert Pollard “shitcanned” just as it was going into production. It was then held in suspended animation for a few […]

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