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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)

The Corpse-Like Sleep of Stupidity (1992)

10 Jan

A mysterious album from the early 90s that contains tracks from Propeller as well as from an earlier aborted album, Back to Saturn X. I would consider it an embryonic version of Propeller, likely a transitional step between Back to Saturn X and the final product. It also contains a handful of songs that ended up on other albums or EPs, Suitcase, or were never officially released.

The Corpse-Like Sleep Of Stupidity
1. #2 In The Model Home Series (Instrumental)
2. Mr. Japan
3. Some Drilling Implied
4. Buzzards And Dreadful Crows (Suitcase version)
5. Red Gas Circle
6. Damn Good Mr. Jam
7. Trashed Canned Goods
8. Unleashed! The Large-Hearted Boy
9. Tractor Rape Chain (Clean It Up)
10. 14 Cheerleader Coldfront
11. My Big Day
12. Kisses To The Crying Cooks
13. Dusty Bushworms
14. Bottoms Up! (You Fantastic Bastard)
15. Melted Pat
16. Separation Of Church And State
17. (untitled) (AKA “Earnest Strumming”)
18. Particular Damaged
19. Good Old Mr. Expendable
20. Spring Tigers
21. Scalding Creek
22. Lethargy
23. The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory (alt. mix)

No doubt Propeller boats a tighter, stronger sequence, but listening to Corpse-like Sleep of Stupidity I can already hear that special “classic” GBV spark running through it. The band had a way of making the grittiest four-track recording seem like peering into another world, and in many ways this is where they laid the foundation for Vampire on Titus, Bee Thousand, and everything that followed. Having said that, this is isn’t a long-lost classic, but it’s a prototype for one. Guided by Voices’ excellent new album Let’s Go Eat the Factory captures a lot of the same spirit too. What Corpse-Like really lacks are some of Propeller‘s big standouts like “Exit Flagger,” “Weed King,” On the Tundra,” and “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox.”

Opening with an instrumental version of a Vampire on Titus track and closing with a slightly more stripped-down mix of Bee Thousand‘s “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory,” Corpse-Like is a time-capsule, providing a glimpse of some future classics at an early stage in their development. Apart from “Goldheart,” a few other Bee Thousand seeds are here too: A shouty and noisy early take on “Buzzards and Dreadful Crows” leftover from the Same Place the Fly Got Smashed sessions, and a weird, slow song that eventually builds to the familiar chorus of “Tractor Rape Chain.” Additionally, “Kisses to the Crying Cooks,” from Fast Japanese Spin Cycle, appears here. Imagine if Propeller really was the last GBV album, and these songs were left to languish in obscurity! Finally, “My Big Day” was recorded at least a couple more times. Pollard eventually got it right, but that version is not well-known.

One unusual feature of Corpse-like is the prevalence of what I’d describe as groove-oriented jams:

Mr. Japan (Suitcase)
Bottoms Up! (You Fantastic Bastard)  (Suitcase)
Particular Damaged (Propeller)
Trashed Canned Goods (truncated version on In Shop We Build Electric Chairs, long version unreleased)
Separation Of Church And State (unreleased)

Only one of these tunes ended up on an album, but two ended up on Suitcase, one on Nightwalker’s In Shop We Build Electric Chairs, and one remains totally unreleased. Thanks to the detailed writing and performance credits in Suitcase, we know that the music for these was done by Tobin Sprout and bassist Dan Toohey. Both musically and vocally, these tracks are pretty different from GBV’s usual style. I particularly like the cool, beat poetry sort of vibe from Pollard on a couple of these and I wonder whether or not the vocals were spontaneously created at the same time as the music, or if they were overdubbed onto already-recorded jams. Either way, these types of songs are not what I think of when I think of GBV. It was an interesting alley to explore that ultimately went nowhere… although a part of “Trashed Canned Goods” was eventually recycled into a Boston Spaceships song!

Apart from “Separation of Church and State,” two other Corpse-Like tracks remain totally unreleased. None of these three are particularly noteworthy.”Good Old Mr. Expendable” is less than a minute of ominously ringing chords (I think maybe just one chord, actually) and a half-muttered vocal incantation. Then there’s a 30-second track of earnest acoustic guitar strumming, often apocryphally titled “Earnest Strumming” on bootlegs. It sounds like it could be a Sprout instrumental, and it’s too bad there’s no vocal on it because it has potential for a great melody in the “Indian Fables” or “Wondering Boy Poet” vein.

Here’s the final breakdown for the songs that comprise The Corpse-Like Sleep of Stupidity:

Propeller
Some Drilling Implied
Red Gas Circle
Unleashed! The Large-Hearted Boy
14 Cheerleader Coldfront
Particular Damaged
Lethargy

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

Suitcase
Mr. Japan
Buzzards And Dreadful Crows
My Big Day
Bottoms Up! (You Fantastic Bastard)

Fast Japanese Spin Cycle
Kisses to the Crying Cooks

Static Airplane Jive (is this out of print too?)
Damn Good Mr. Jam

Darla 100 compilation
 Tractor Rape Chain (Clean It Up)

Unreleased
#2 In The Model Home Series (Instrumental)
Trashed Canned Goods (long version, released version on Nightwalker)
Separation Of Church And State
(untitled) (AKA “Earnest Strumming”)
Good Old Mr. Expendable
The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory (early mix, released version on Bee Thousand)