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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!

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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

Learning to Hunt (1988)

23 Oct

Learning to Hunt, an album that was mixed, mastered and ready to go into production before being cancelled, would have been Guided by Voices’ third album (it’s kind of funny for me to imagine a time when GBV had only three albums). Five of its tracks ultimately made it to Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia, the rest mostly ended up on Suitcase 1 or King Shit and the Golden Boys.

1. Taco, Buffalo, Birddog And Jesus
2. Blue Gil
3. Slopes Of Big Ugly
4. Paper Girl
5. Turbo Boy
6. Soul Flyers
7. Let’s Go Vike
8. Dust Devil
9. Uncle Dave
10. Settlement Down
11. The Qualifying Remainder
12. Liar’s Tale
13. We’ve Got Airplanes
14. Short On Posters

As it stands, the band’s pre-Propeller albums are overshadowed by their more famous work from the 90s and onward. It makes sense, of course — Propeller is the album where the band’s own unique aesthetic solidified into something truly great — but I can’t help thinking of the minds that would have been blown to discover this completely unknown band from Ohio making records like Self-inflicted Aerial Nostalgia back in the 80s. Even the long-lost Learning to Hunt, left to gather dust in some Dayton schoolteacher’s closest for 20 years, is a remarkable work, charming for its flaws and mesmerizing for its strengths. Music that strives to escape its modest means, made by a band with talent, enthusiasm… and not much else.

Learning to Hunt is less darkly psychedelic than GBV’s first two albums, opening with the easy-going and whimsical “Taco, Buffalo, Birddog and Jesus” which immediately washes away the serious tone of their first couple of records. It’s not an overly silly or very playful record, but Learning to Hunt does seem more natural, like the band has dropped some of its previous affectations and is finally cutting loose. Pollard lets his his mid-western accent assert itself slightly, and there’s less post-punk/British invasion influence in favor of a more “classic rock” feel to some tracks (an influence that was mostly jettisoned for the more psych/post-punk Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia).

“Taco, Buffalo, Birddog and Jesus” was always a highlight on Suitcase 1, and it makes for a great opening song. The melody is irresistible, and it just has a welcoming feel. Even the spoken word bridge is catchy and cool. It’s long one, at almost 3.5 minutes, so it’s not as quick or punchy as many Pollard opening songs. It’s one of the better songs from this period to never make it to an album, although the recording sounds a bit muffled.

Track two is a treat as well. “Blue Gil” is so good that the Boston Spaceships dug it out for their 2008 tour. A slow, gorgeous verse gives way to a indelible, singalong chorus. Lots of atmosphere of this one. Has a tad more 60s to it than the previous tune.

Tracks two and three were carried over to Self-Inflicted: the weird slow-burner “Slopes of Big Ugly” (which sounds better in this context because there’s more contrast with the previous tunes) into the perfect acoustic pop of “Paper Girl.”

“Turbo Boy” really shows the classic rock influence — something to do with Greg Demos sneering guest vocals on the bridge. The song really takes off on the chorus, which was later re-used in the great Power of Suck anthem “Pantherz.” “Soul Flyers” has a nice soaring melody and an even more soaring guitar solo courtesy of Steve Wilbur, who’d also go on to play the legendary solo on Self-Inflicted‘s “An Earful o’ Wax.”

The first half closes with the catchy, jaunty “Let’s Go Vike,” and the second half dips into darker territory. Tracks 8 through 11 have a harder, weirder edge. I love the riffs that open “Dust Devil,” “Uncle Dave,” and “Settlement Down.” Each has a different character, but they work well together. “Uncle Dave,” probably the rarest track on this set (only released on a split single with the Grifters), is one of the better post-punk songs from this era.

The King Shit opener “We’ve Got Airplanes” is a great pop song in the penultimate slot, and the amazing “Short on Posters” closes the album on a memorable note — the shortest song on the album, and one of the catchiest.

Learning to Hunt reminds me of the kind of albums Boston Spaceships made. To me, most GBV albums have an overall unified feel to them, in both sound and songwriting. The Spaceships were much looser; they took more detours on their albums, exploring more facets of Pollard’s songwriting and experimenting more with styles and arrangements. The young incarnation of GBV, casting about for a style to call their own, created albums that have a similar effect.

Make it your own
Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia – Slopes of the Big Ugly, Paper Girl, The Qualifying Remainder, Liar’s Tale, Short on Posters
Suitcase 1 – Taco, Buffalo, Birddog, and Jesus, Blue Gil, Turbo Boy, Let’s Go Vike, Settlement Down
Suitcase 2 – Soul Flyers, Paper Girl (alt. version)
King Shit & the Golden Boys – Dust Devil, We’ve Got Airplanes
“Uncle Dave” – I’m not sure if you can buy this digitally anywhere, but I have the mp3!

Notes: You may want to try the full-band version of “Paper Girl” from Suitcase 2, though I prefer the harmonies on the acoustic album version.

 

The Power of Suck pt. 1 – The demos

6 Feb

The most legendary unreleased Guided by Voices album is surely The Power of Suck, a proposed double-album that would have been the follow-up to Alien Lanes. Its story is only the first chapter in the convoluted history leading up to the eventual release of Under the Bushes Under the Stars.

There’s been some speculation that this album may one day get a proper release. Made during the peak of the classic line-up days, fans would certainly love to have it set in stone and enter the official canon. However, it’s unclear what form an official version would take. Many of the songs intended for the earliest version never made it beyond the demo stage, yet most of the album’s key tracks DID see the light of day on high-profile releases such as Under the Bushes, Under the Stars and Sunfish Holy Breakfast. Ultimately, there is no one clear way to resurrect the album with the known recordings that exist, and there’s no ONE track sequence that covers everything. I can’t even cover it all in one post! (For proof, here’s a handy chart put together by Jeff from GBVDB.com.)

Now that the classic line-up is back together and making records, there is hope that some crucial steps required to complete the album — i.e. finalizing the tracklist, finding lost recordings, or even making new recordings —  can be made.  As excited as I am about new GBV material, I would certainly welcome a re-visitation of The Power of Suck era, due to the wealth of high-quality songs that never got wide exposure. However, due to some overlap between The Power of Suck and Under the Bushes, I hope care is taken not to overwrite or undermine the latter album’s place in GBV history. Besides, it will be far more interesting to dredge up the past if most of it is fresh and new. Fortunately, there exists enough non-album material that, if it is allowed to diverge from known working sequences, a satisfying, complete, finished Power of Suck (or reasonable facsimile) can be created. I can’t wait to see what Pollard comes up with (if anything) but until then I’ve been tinkering with my own sequence — more on that later.

The earliest known incarnation of PoS is a partial reconstruction of Pollard’s  first demo tape, published in James Greer’s book Hunting Accidents. According to Greer, it contained 10-12 songs, including:
1. Pantherz
2. Debbie X (I Am Decided)
3. Drag Days
4. Trader Vic
5. Bughouse
6. He’s The Uncle
7. Sheetkickers
8. Pink Drink
9. Why Did You Land?
10. Don’t Stop Now
Soon thereafter, the number of songs doubled and a second demo was made, with all of the above songs still included (come to think of it, maybe the new songs were just appended to the 10-12 earlier demos). According to owner Rich T., this second Power of Suck demo tape (made late 94 or early 95) consists of guitar and vocal versions of each track.
1. Pantherz
2. In Previous Trials (AKA Stingy Queens)
3. Trader Vic
4. Bug House
5. Drag Days
6. Sheetkickers
7. I Am Decided
8. Pink Drink
9. He’s The Uncle
10. Speak Like Men
11. Sweeping Bones
12. Don’t Stop Now
13. Why Did You Land?
14. Superwhore
15. Redmen And Their Wives
16. Color Of My Blade
17. Are You Faster?
18. My Feet’s Trustworthy Existence
19. Cocksoldiers And Their Postwar Stubble
20. The Official Ironmen Rally Song
21. Amazed
22. Pluto The Skate
The titles in bold are recordings from this tape that have either been officially released or are circulating as bootlegs. Although we have all these songs in one form or another, we don’t have all the Bob-and-guitar demo versions, some of which may be quite different from their released counterparts. For example, owner of this tape Rich Turiel has stated that the demo of “Why Did You Land?” contains a “killer middle part with a completely different melody.” And it has been confirmed that “Amazed” is a faster version of a song that appears on the Nightwalker album In Shop We Build Electric Chairs. Also, I speculate that those are new versions of “My Feet’s Trustworthy Existence” and “Pluto the Skate,” since the Suitcase versions are allegedly from 1992.Having the complete set of these demos would be great, and provide some missing pieces of the puzzle, but it wouldn’t really be The Power of Suck. These are just the demos — a pool of songs to choose from, but not an album sequence. It’s the unreleased, unrealized songs make this list most interesting.

Stingy Queens
Trader Vic
Speak Like Men
Sweeping Bones
My Feet’s Trustworthy Existence
Amazed

None of these six survived to the next known sequence, which still predates any actual full-band recording sessions. “Speak Like Men” does appear on Suitcase 3 in full-band form, but it seems to be an earlier, pre-PoS recording (no date is given). No band recordings of any other of these tracks have surfaced.

“Stingy Queens” is a standout of these “lost” tracks. A dark, yearning ballad, it’s quite different in style and tone from anything on Bee Thousand or Alien Lanes. It’s too bad it never got the full-band treatment, because with some drums to help emphasize the shifting dynamics and some crunchy guitar to give the coda some added heft, it would be even better. It’s quite good in demo form, however, even when Pollard forgets the lyrics at one point.

“Sweeping Bones” is another epic song, though maybe a bit more rockin’ that “Stingy Queens.” This tune would have really benefited from a full-band arrangement because the main riff strongly recalls “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory.” I imagine with some bass, drums, and a second guitar in there it wouldn’t recall “Goldheart” quite so much.

“Trader Vic” is a joy, a pure Alien Lanes-style pop song with an incredibly catchy verse and a soaring chorus. The lyrics even reference a certain Ironman rally song: “We are the ironmen and we now command you to sing.”

“Speak Like Men” is another great pop song. It’s a casual, breezy rocker with a great chorus hook, and would have sounded right at home on Under the Bushes.

“My Feet’s Trustworthy Existence” and “Amazed” are more of a mystery, since we haven’t heard the PoS demos. The former is a mid-tempo acoustic number on Suitcase and it doesn’t seem to fit stylistically with the other PoS songs. I’d guess the demo version is reworked in some way to make it more in step with the others. It may be a new composition that incorporates elements of the older song. “Amazed” is another older song (the title of the Nightwalker album indicates it’s from 1993 or earlier). The Nightwalker version is also a mid-tempo acoustic song, but unlike the melodic folk of  “Feet’s,” “Amazed” is more experimental. The arrangement is heavy on droning keyboard and drum machine, and vocally it’s kind of a ramble, lacking a chorus but not without some appealing melodic elements. According to a post on the Disarm the Settlers message board, the demo version lacks the keyboard/drum machine and is guitar-based like the other demos. It’s the same basic song, but faster, and there’s a riff not present in the Nightwalker recording. It will be interesting to finally hear these if they turn up someday.

Ultimately, there’s too much Suck to be contained in one post. More will follow. Thanks to GBVDB’s Jeff for the help and resource material.

Track down the demos:

Suitcase 1
Pantherz, Bug House, Pink Drink (plus the older “My Feet’s Trustworthy Existence” and “Pluto the Skate”)

Suitcase 2
Stingy Queens, Are You Faster? (plus full-band “I Am Decided”)

Suitcase 3
Trader Vic (plus full-band “Speak Like Men”)

The Official Ironman Rally song — Free at robertpollard.net

Carefree Kitchens bootleg
I Am Decided, Speak Like Men, Sweeping Bones, Stingy Queens (all those plus Sheetkickers are also on 30 Songs)

Nightwalker – In Shop We Build Electric Chairs
(For non-PoS version of “Amazed”). Available on CD for $5 at The Factory and totally worth it!

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.

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)

Not In My Airforce (Working Version) (1996)

16 Jan

This earlier draft of Bob’s first solo album is mostly comprised of studio-recorded tracks, while the released version drops some of these and sprinkles the album with a handful of boombox and four-track recordings. Some of the songs cut from this early sequence ended up on Mag Earwhig. There’s an image of the lyric sheet for this version, complete with alternate titles, in the Suitcase booklet.

Not In My Airforce (Working Version)
1. I’ve Owned You For Centuries
2. The Finest Joke Is Upon Us
3. Get Under It
4. Gods Of Richard
5. Accountant’s Wife (Maggie Turns to Flies)
6. Girl Named Captain
7. Chance To Buy An Island
8. Flat Beauty
9. Finks
10. Learning To Hunt
11. On The Ashes (Release the Sunbird)
12. The Colossus Crawls West
13. God Bless The Monument Club (Psychic Pilot Clocks Out)
14. King Of Arthur Avenue
15. Applehead (The Ash Gray Proclamation)

I enjoy this sequence quite a bit, more than I thought I would. As a big fan of the official version, I thought I’d miss lo-fi songs like “Quicksilver” and “Parakeet Troopers” breaking up the big studio tracks.  However, these songs flow together remarkably well on their own, and the album as a whole lacks the darker, moodier tone of the proper album. Although I don’t think there’s a huge distinction between the two, this working version feels more like a Guided by Voices album to me than a solo album.

After the quick opening blast of “I’ve Owned You for Centuries,” the stately “The Final Joke is Upon Us” makes a brilliant second track. It sounds great with such a prominent spot on an album, in contrast to its “deep cut” status on Mag Earwhig. Much like “Finest Joke,” the other two future Mag Earwhig tracks — “Learning to Hunt” and “The Colossus Crawls West” — fit perfectly with the Airforce tunes.

Album-highlight “Get Under It” rounds out this opening trio nicely. Next, “Gods of Richard” is the most obscure song on this sequence, having been unheard/unreleased until Suitcase 2 came out in 2005. It’s not a long-lost classic, however: it’s a fairly unremarkable guitar instrumental that bears a slight resemblance to the opening chords of “Psychic Pilot Clocks Out.” In the context of the album it works well.

The only other song that never found a home on either Not in My Airforce or Mag Earwhig is the outstanding “Finks.” Until it was reissued on the Hardcore UFOs box, it was only ever released as a bonus track on a Japanese issue of Under the Bushes Under the Stars. It would have surely become a fan favorite on any album, as it’s a catchy-as-hell blast that actually briefly entered the band’s live set in 2003. I enjoy how the unlikely vocal melody skips across the simple riff, demonstrating Pollard’s knack for not being boring or obvious. Too bad it never made it to Mag Earwhig with the other Airforce orphans, but it is definitely a nice treat for anyone who tracks it down.

As on the final version, “Psychic Pilot” (here titled “God Bless the Monument Club”) is the late-album “hit,” and “Applehead” (AKA “The Ash Gray Proclamation”) makes a great closing track. “Applehead” is the only lo-fi recording on the NiMA Working Version, and is a holdover from some early Under the Bushes drafts, where it was also used as the closer.

With its impeccable flow and song selection, it’s well worth giving the working version a listen! Here’s what you need:

Not in My Airforce
Mag Earwhig!
Suitcase 2 (“Gods of Richard”)
Hardcore UFOs (“Finks”)

Incidentally, here are the tracks from the final album that don’t appear on the early draft:

Quicksilver
John Strange School (this is the only studio-recorded track that is NOT on the working version)
Parakeet Troopers (a Bee Thousand outtake formerly known as “Crayola”)
One Clear Minute
Roofer’s Union Fight Song
Prom is Coming
Party
Did it Play?
Double Standards Inc.
Punk Rock Gods
Meet My Team
Good Luck Sailor

It’s also interesting to note that the final six tracks on Not in My Airforce (starting with “Party”) don’t appear on early Matador promo copies. In fact, they were intended to be their own little EP, and were tacked onto the album at the last minute. That means “Prom is Coming” was the original closer, and “Psychic Pilot” was the penultimate track. The presence of those final six acoustic snippets somewhat diminishes the impact of that 1-2 punch.