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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.

 

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)