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Thinking Man’s Trip to the Zoo (2012)

9 Jan

Striking a perfect balance between weird and accessible, Mouseman Cloud (2012) is like a leaner version of Elephant Jokes (2009). It’s one of the my favorites, so I was happy to come across this earlier sequence with a couple of extra tunes. The extra tracks are outtakes that ended up on the flip-side to Guided by Voices’ White Flag single.

Thinking Man’s Trip To The Zoo
01. Obvious # 1
02. Casino Model
03. Picnic Drums
04. Dr. Time
05. Aspirin Moon
06. Bats Flew Up
07. Smacks of Euphoria
08. Mouseman Cloud
09. Lizard Ladder
10. Continue To Break
11. Zebra Film Negative
12. Human Zoo
13. I Was Silence
14. Mothers Milk And Magnets
15. No Tools
16. Science Magazine
17. Half-Strained
18. Zen Mother Hen
19. Chief Meteorologist

Here, I made a Spotify playlist: Thinking Man’s Trip to the Zoo

Apart from the two extra songs, this version of the album has only minor differences from the released version. The closing trio remains the same, as does song #1 (…obviously). The overall tone and feel of the album remains largely unchanged, but this is a nice way to hear those two non-album in the context of an album rather than isolated on a single. They don’t really sound like GBV tunes — despite being released under that name —  and fit in perfectly with the rest of the Mouseman songs.

Both the outtakes had prominent spots on Thinking Man’s Trip to the Zoo. The minute-long “Casino Model” works great as a segue between the first song and the much longer, heavier “Picnic Drums.” The 40-second “Zebra Film Negative” opens side 2 (assuming “Continue to Break” closes side 1 as it does on the released version) and leads into the equally short “Human Zoo” for a nice one-two shot of awesomely unique Pollard brilliance.

One possible advantage the Thinking Man sequence has over the official Mouseman is the separation of “Mother’s Milk and Magnets” from “Continue to Break.” Both are killer songs, but “Mother’s Milk” has been a divisive track due to its unrelenting repetition of the titular phrase. On Mouseman, it’s followed by the similarly structured “Continue to Break.” Together, those two songs highlight repetition and make it seem as if that quality is a recurring theme throughout the album. Separated, the “theme” of endlessly repeated choruses becomes much less prominent.

I love albums like this that are short, sweet, and cohesive despite being all over the place. Whatever version you listen to, “Science Magazine” is still a huge highlight. It’s a melancholy pop song that is sort of like a sequel to “I am a Scientist.” The heavy sea shanty “Zen Mother Hen” is excellently catchy, and “Chief Meteorologist” closes the album perfectly with a very From a Compound Eye-esque psychedelic chug.


Mouseman Cloud
White Flag single


Standard Gargoyle Decisions Double-LP (2007)

13 Feb

Coast to Coast Carpet of Love and Standard Gargoyle Decisions were recorded simultaneously and released on the same day. Even though they are twins, these two albums have a very strange dichotomy for  me. Coast to Coast is one of my favorites, while Standard Gargoyle sits near the bottom of the pile. I don’t think this speaks of a difference in quality, but rather of a wide divergence in style.

The drastic split between the two was actually a matter of design. Faced with a strong batch of 33 songs, Pollard considered placing them all together as a double-LP. However, he ultimately decided to separate them by the two distinct styles that most of the songs here naturally hew to: Beatles-esque pop or bizarre psychedelic hard rock. Coast to Coast is friendly, bright, and hook-filled, while Standard Gargoyle is thorny, evil and convoluted.

Here’s the double-LP tracklist. Once again, I have guessed where the side breaks would have been. Also note that “Accusations” would have been cut from the CD version, for space reasons.

Standard Gargoyle Decisions [Original Double-LP Version]
1. Our Gaze
2. Pill Gone Girl
3. Psycho-Inertia
4. Rud Fins
5. Hero Blows The Revolution
6. Exactly What Words Mean
7. Current Desperation (Angels Speak Of Nothing)
8. Dumb Lady

9. Penumbra
10. Slow Hamilton
11. Looks Is What You Have
12. I In The World
13. Butcher Man
14. Life Of A Wife
15. Customer’s Throat
16. Don’t Trust Anybody
17. Nicely Now

18. Spider Eyes
19. I Clap For Strangers
20. Shadow Port
21. Here Comes Garcia
22. The Island Lobby
23. Motion Sickness Ghosts
24. Miles Under The Skin
25. Youth Leagues

26. The Killers
27. Lay Me Down
28. Folded Claws
29. Feel Not Crushed
30. Accusations
31. Come Here Beautiful
32. When We Were Slaves
33. Count Us In

The dual aesthetics here make for a more schizophrenic listen than another scrapped double-LP, 2009’s Elephant Jokes round 1. The Elephant Jokes material was much more consistent in tone, without a striking contrast between the pop and the experimental stuff. Here, the juxtaposition between two styles provides the tension that powers this long album. Of course, since these songs were all recorded at the same time by the same people, there is a certain consistency between them as well (and, of course, there are more than just two styles here).

With the Coast to Coast tracks providing sweetness, Standard Gargoyle songs go down a lot easier. I love hearing them in this context.  “Our Gaze” leading into “Pill Gone Girl” is a nice opening pair. “The Killers” on side four instead of the album opener is a big improvement — it’s a good song, but it was already used as the opening track on Psycho & the Birds’ All That is Holy, and I prefer that lo-fi take on the tune. “I Clap for Strangers,” a sleeper-hit on Coast to Coast, stands out better sandwiched between the pummeling “Spider Eyes” and the darkly chugging “Shadow Port.”

After color-coding the double-LP’s tracklist, it became apparent that the first half is skewed toward Coast to Coast (blue) while the second half is mostly SGD (red). So with the halves already pulling apart a bit, separating them wasn’t a major operation at all.

Want one?
Merge has a bundle of both albums!
Coast to Coast Carpet of Love (digital)
Standard Gargoyle Decisions (digital)

Elephant Jokes Round One (2009)

7 Jan

Elephant Jokes was a landmark album for Pollard (at least for me) because it marked the return to albums with 20+ songs, like in the good ol’ days. Amazingly, the first draft of Elephant Jokes was 10 songs stronger, clocking it at a whopping 32! Although the released version is a surprisingly lean 46 minute single LP, I’m guessing the 32-track version would probably have been considered a double, at 65 minutes.

Here’s what the first draft looked like. I took the liberty of splitting it up evenly into four sides of eight songs each, although that is just a guess on my part.

Elephant Jokes (Round One)

Side A
1. Night Ears
2. Things Have Changed (Down in Mexico City)
3. Tired of Knocking
4. Dropping the Bomb
5. Spectrum Factory
6. Candy Machine
7. Johnny Optimist
8. I Felt Revolved

Side B
9. Symbols and Heads
10. Tattered Lily
11. Parts of Your World
12. Perverted Eyelash
13. Stiff Me
14. I’ll Come (And When It Does It’s Mine)
15. Compound X
16. Pigeon Tripping

Side C
17. Jimmy
18. Epic Heads
19. Newly Selected Dirt Spots
20. Desiring
21. Accident Hero
22. Blind Rifles (Cochise)
23. The Annex
24. Out of the House

Side D
25. Hippsville (Where the Frisbees Fly Forever)
26. 100 Colors
27. Blown Out Man
28. Cosmic Yellow Children
29. When a Man Walks Away
30. (All You Need) To Know
31. Naked Believer (I Am)
32. Architectural Nightmare Man

Wow, what a monster. If not a double-album, this group of songs could easily have been formed into two records (similar to 2007’s Coast to Coast Carpet of Love and Standard Gargoyle Decisions, two albums that were originally considered for one 33-track double LP). Instead, Pollard cut 10 tracks and released the triumphant Elephant Jokes LP that we all know and love. All the outtakes ended up on Suitcase 3.

In any format, Elephant Jokes is a crazy album. The double version just seems like MORE crazy. Even the most sedate, traditional songs have a streak of unpredictability in them. Only a couple songs are mellow. Most careen wildly into memorable hooks as if by accident and then move on to find more. Some songs, like “Jimmy,” “Dropping the Bomb” and “Accident Hero” recall Alien Lanes-style nuggets remarkably well, while other tracks conjure pop songs out of noisy, angular riffs and bizarre imagery (“Hey, perverted eyelash / Come to cyclops”). At least one song, “The Annex,” is destined to become a Halloween classic on par with “The Monster Mash.” Then there’s the killer live-anthem that never was, “Johnny Optimist,” and the gently plodding, almost Airport 5-ish “(All You Need) To Know,” which definitely ranks in my top 10 Pollard solo songs ever.

Elephant Jokes Round One just feels just like what it is — an expanded version of the regular album. The new sequence does not yield many surprises or noticeable differences in tone. Unlike the Coast to Coast/Standard Gargoyle pair, or the more diverse From a Compound Eye, all this material is on exactly the same page — there are no duel aesthetics or split personalities to play off each other, really. It’s just… Elephant Jokes.  There’s an undeniable chemistry between these tracks, but there’s no tension, which is why I think I prefer the single LP version, with its impeccable flow and more manageable length. However, it pairs very nicely with this handy little companion EP (my sequence, although I think it’s basically the order in which they appear on Suitcase 3).

 Elephant Jokes Outtakes EP

  1. Tired of Knocking
  2. Dropping the Bomb
  3. The Annex
  4. Candy Machine
  5. I’ll Come (And When It Does It’s Mine)
  6. Cochise
  7. 100 Colors
  8. Night Ears
  9. Naked Believer (I Am)
  10. Out of the House

It’s the Pipe Dreams of Instant Prince Whippet to Elephant Jokes’ Universal Truths and Cycles. It’s the Hold on Hope EP to its Do the Collapse. Only difference is that it’s not an official release. Oh well. It’s fun hearing these songs together as a little Elephant Jokes appendix, and many of these songs are pretty great. The awkwardly titled “I’ll Come (And When It Does It’s Mine)” is a joyful jangle-pop track that reminds me of early, early GBV, when they were still in their R.E.M. worship phase. “100 Colors” is another cool melodic pop number (and a free mp3 courtesy of, and “Naked Believer (I Am)” is a stunning 40 seconds of mush-mouthed melodic serendipity that goes really well with the hard-rocking “Out of the House” as a closer.

Hey, I want this:
Elephant Jokes CD/LP | Digital
Suitcase 3

Silverfish Trivia (2006)

3 Jan

Silverfish Trivia is a Pollard solo “mini-LP,” released independently while he was on Merge Records. It’s a stately, cinematic-sounding EP, containing three instrumentals and a predominately slow tempo and hazy psychedelic atmosphere. In its earlier incarnations, however, it was a more traditional full-length record, with an emphasis on rock and pop. Although the first working version is not a favorite of mine, the two subsequent sequences (differing from each other by only two tracks) are well worth reconstructing, especially since some of their best songs were never released on a proper album and are thus relatively obscure.

In late 2006, Robert Pollard embarked on a solo tour in support of Normal Happiness, and he introduced a handful of new songs as being from his upcoming album Silverfish Trivia. Of the six Silverfish songs played on tour, only two ultimately made the cut on the album. Around this time, an early version of the album leaked online, as low-quality mp3s:

The Killers (Silverfish Trivia Working Version #1)
1. 3rd Generation Punks (Street Velocity)
2. Met Her At A Seance
3. You’ve Taken Me In
4. The Killers
5. Touched To Be Sure
6. I’m Gonna Miss My Horse
7. Be In The Wild Place
8. Life Of A Wife
9. Circle Saw Boys Club
10. Coast To Coast Carpet Of Love
11. Cats Love a Parade
12. Piss Along You Bird

The first version of the album (called The Killers at this point) is atypically straightforward. Following two ambitious, eclectic albums on Merge, it seems like it would have been considered a step down if it had been released. It lacks the diversity and energy of those other albums; From a Compound Eye was a massive double-album, fully exploring all facets of Pollard’s songwriting (his famous four Ps — pop, punk, prog, and psych), while its follow-up Normal Happiness focused on short, bright pop songs with an experimental twist.

The Killers seems to have no particular focus. Although the songs are good,  the album hangs loosely together, lacking the wholeness that the album-centric Pollard usually goes for. I remember listening to the leaked version — which sounded terrible by the way — and being really impressed by the lovely acoustic numbers “You’ve Taken Me In” and “Life of a Wife,” as well as the poppy, surefire hits “I’m Gonna Miss My Horse” and “Piss Along You Bird,” the latter of which made an excellent final track. However, the mid-tempo rockers that had been played live, like “Met Her at a Seance,” “Coast to Coast Carpet of Love” and the slow, “Touched to Be Sure” didn’t do much for me, and I was already sick of “The Killers,” which had been the opening track on the Psycho & the Birds album All That is Holy. The album’s tracks existed uneasily together and something seemed off.

I believe that most of Pollard’s unreleased albums were aborted because they were flawed in some intangible way, and this is a prime example. The Killers sequence is fairly boring, despite some thrilling numbers like the multi-part opener “3rd Generation Punks” (later re-titled “Street Velocity”) and the short, infectious “Be in the Wild Place.”

The subsequent versions of the album fared much better.

Gratification To Concrete (Silverfish Trivia Working Version #2)
1. Come Outside
2. Street Velocity
3. Circle Saw Boys Club
4. You’ve Taken Me In
5. Coast To Coast Carpet Of Love
6. Life Of A Wife
7. The Killers
8. Touched To Be Sure
9. Piss Along You Bird
10. I’m Gonna Miss My Horse
11. Met Her At A Seance
12. Be In The Wild Place
13. Waves, Etc.
14. Cats Love A Parade
15. Speak In Many Colors

What a difference a few tweaks makes! None of The Killers’ twelve songs were dropped, three instrumentals were added, and the track order was reconfigured. Suddenly, the melancholy, cinematic core of the album comes into focus. After a few more edits, Pollard ultimately jettisoned the rock and pop songs and exposed the core for itself, but this sequence makes the entire set go down smoothly.

At this point, the album’s bookends were firmly in place, a pair of instrumentals written by Pollard but played by a string quartet. “Come Outside” gets its beautiful melody from an old Acid Ranch tune, while “Speak in Many Colors” is a string arrangement of “You’ve Taken Me In,” a melodic folk-pop song that also appears on this sequence.

A key difference from version #1 is that the sweeping, majestic “Circle Saw Boys Club” was moved from being late in the album to a prime number three spot. One of the best of this batch, the song was overshadowed following a series of rockers and ballads. Here, “Circle Saw” is up front, the first ballad after the instrumental intro and the manic “Street Velocity.” This position allows it to stake its claim over the tone of the rest of the material. In an interview with Billboard, Pollard is quoted as describing the album (at the time of the interview it one of its 15-track phases) as “much more somber and strange.” “Circle Saw Boys Club” embodies that description perfectly, and it’s clear that it is the heart of Silverfish Trivia and integral to the finalization of the album.

The album’s other centerpiece is the 8 minute, multi-part “Cats Love a Parade.” Slated as the penultimate track across every sequence, it is now set up by a third instrumental, the guitar and keyboard “Waves, Etc.” “Cats” is a long, lumpy incredibly psychedelic track comprised of three previously-released Psycho & The Birds songs, plus a bridge that doesn’t appear anywhere else. Such an unwieldy tune would be hard to place on most albums; on The Killers, it sat awkwardly between a chugging rocker and jubilant pop song. Here, it is in much better company, the instrumental bookends (mirroring the album itself) somehow enhancing the epic weirdness.

Silverfish Trivia (Silverfish Trivia Working Version #3)
1. Come Outside
2. Street Velocity
3. Circle Saw Boys Club
4. Wickerman Smile
5. Coast To Coast Carpet Of Love
6. Life Of A Wife
7. The Killers
8. Touched To Be Sure
9. Piss Along You Bird
10. Dream Lover 3 (Come Here Beautiful)
11. Met Her At A Seance
12. Be In The Wild Place
13. Waves, Etc.
14. Cats Love A Parade
15. Speak In Many Colors

The third working version makes two substitutions. “You’ve Taken Me In,” a highlight of previous sequences, is dropped, although it still exists in instrumental form as the album closer “Speak in Many Colors.” It is replaced by “Wickerman Smile,” an otherworldly tune built around the slow, deliberate strums of an acoustic guitar and Pollard’s winning melody. “I’m Gonna Miss My Horse” is replaced by a song called “Dream Lover 3,” another haunting acoustic track.

Both of the new songs were recorded on a boombox and then overdubbed with some subtle keyboard to add atmosphere. The simple , intimate arrangements and the tone of Pollard’s voice on these tracks makes them quite remarkable, among the best of this era. Although “Dream Lover” (subsequently re-titled “Come Here Beautiful”) did not make the final cut, these two tracks indicate that Pollard was narrowing down the desired tone of the album, deleting a couple of pop songs to make way some something a bit more mysterious and mystical.

Silverfish Trivia (Final version)
1. Come Outside
2. Circle Saw Boys Club
3. Wickerman Smile
4. Touched To Be Sure
5. Waves, Etc.
6. Cats Love A Parade
7. Speak In Many Colors

Ruthlessly, Pollard makes cuts left and right, whittling the album down to its basic core, using “Circle Saw Boys Club” as a guiding voice. The end result is like a movie soundtrack — indeed, most the songs with vocals follow unusual structures  that make them seem like miniature movies. Although I miss most of the cut songs, the released version of the album stands out in a couple of ways — it’s rare to get a Pollard album that has such a sustained somber tone throughout its duration. Furthermore, the predominance of instrumentals and the running length that places it somewhere between EP and LP makes it a hard release to pin down. It was put out quietly between bigger, flashier albums and occupies its own little corner of the Pollard universe.

When asked about why the full-length Silverfish Trivia was scrapped, Rich Turiel, who ran Pollard’s record label at the time, explained,

I think it was a few things with the biggest one being there was so much time in between the time that it was recorded and it was going to be released that Bob kept writing and kept wondering if the newer stuff he was writing was better than the stuff he recorded. Bob always gets that itch to record something he just wrote that he thinks is great. So when you have songs like Current Desperation and Miles Under The Skin and Rud Fins (you’ll understand this part soon) sitting and waiting to be recorded it is hard to sit on that! (From a post on the Disarm The Settlers message board, 5/17/2007)

In light of that explanation, it is easy to see why Silverfish Trivia the album was canned in favor of a low-key EP. In hindsight, the album tread water a bit, so Pollard made the right choice in keeping the most singular, interesting bits and chucking the rest. Silverfish ceded the spotlight to the newer, better, material that ultimately yielded two albums, Coast To Coast Carpet Of Love and Standard Gargoyle Decisions. These two are bolder and more noteworthy than the underachieving Silverfish Trivia Album.

I’m Gonna Miss My Horse (Crickets)
You’ve Taken Me In (Crickets)

Life Of A Wife (Coast to Coast Carpet of Love)
The Killers (Standard Gargoyle Decisions)
Come Here Beautiful (Standard Gargoyle Decisions)

Piss Along You Bird (Suitcase 3

Released as vinyl-only b-sides on the Happy Jack Rock Records Singles Series:
Street Velocity
Coast To Coast Carpet Of Love
Met Her At A Seance
Be In The Wild Place

The leftover songs were scattered across a variety of releases. Three made it to Pollard’s next two albums, while five more ended up as b-sides to singles released from those albums. “Piss Along You Bird” is the only one of the five b-sides to see release on CD/digital, as part of Suitcase 3.  The two cut from version #2 became bonus tracks on the Crickets compilation.

I highly recommend constructing a playlist of version #3 and appending “I’m Gonna Miss My Horse” and “You’ve Taken Me In,” either to the end or just before the album-closing trifecta.

Stuff to buy

To reconstruct the early versions of Silverfish Trivia, you need:
Silverfish Trivia + 4 HJRR Singles
Coast to Coast Carpet of Love and Standard Gargoyle DecisionsCrickets
Suitcase 3