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Scalping the Guru (1994)

22 Jan

An early version of Alien Lanes. Tapes of Scalping the Guru were sent around to record labels before GBV signed to Matador.

Scalping The Guru
1. Cigarette Tricks
2. My Son Cool
3. Always Crush Me
4. Watch Me Jumpstart
5. They’re Not Witches
6. As We Go Up, We Go Down
7. Hit
8. My Valuable Hunting Knife
9. Big Chief Chinese Restaurant
10. Closer You Are
11. Lariat Man
12. Auditorium
13. A Salty Salute
14. Pimple Zoo
15. Motor Away
16. Ex-Supermodel
17. Strawdogs
18. Striped White Jets
19. My Buddy Bill (A Good Flying Bird)
20. Blimps Go 90
21. Gold Hick
22. King And Caroline
23. Evil Speakers
24. Motor Away (alternate version)
25. Alright

It’s hard for me to listen to Scalping the Guru, because the flow of Alien Lanes is such an integral part of that album. Alien Lanes is perfect, so this just feels like something wrong here, especially with iconic opener “A Salty Salute”  right in the middle (I suppose it could be the start of side 2).

The most interesting thing about this sequence is the couple of songs that didn’t make the cut. One is a Sprout tune called “Lariat Man.” It’s a gorgeous song, but is by far the slowest and most ballad-like song on this set. It’s less than 3 minutes long, but seems much longer. On such a quick-paced album as Alien Lanes, it would seem out of place, and I wonder if that’s why it was cut. Sprout eventually released a single with a re-recording of the track.

The other track exclusive to Scalping the Guru is an alternate version of “Motor Away,” which appears in addition to the normal album version. It’s a stripped-down arrangement (although not “acoustic,” as it is sometimes labeled) with chiming guitars, what sounds like an organ, and no drums. The vocal sounds bit less refined, as if this version were an earlier take than the more familiar rock version. It’s very interesting to hear the song in this way, but I’m glad this “reprise” didn’t make the album.

Here are the Alien Lanes songs not present on Scalping the Guru:

(I Wanna Be A) Dumbcharger
Game Of Pricks
The Ugly Vision
Chicken Blows
Little Whirl

Those first three, including the immortal “Game of Pricks,” appear right in a row on the final tracklisting. It’s like Pollard didn’t just add three songs, he added a block of songs (if you compare Guru to Alien Lanes you’ll see a few such mini-sequences that were not changed between the two). “Chicken Blows” (originally from Back to Saturn X) is dug up, and Sprout’s “Little Whirl” makes a fine replacement for “Lariat Man.”

Alien Lanes is a masterpiece not only of inspired songwriting, but also of sequencing. Scalping the Guru has the songs, for the most part, but is a few tweaks away from attaining perfection.

But don’t take my word for it:
Alien Lanes
Seek out “Lariat Man” and “Motor Away (alt.) on some rarity bootlegs floating around.

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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)