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Isolation Drills appendix: The Saga of Frostman

31 Jan

I had a lot of fun writing about Isolation Drills yesterday, and it got me thinking about the songs leftover from those sessions. In particular is a favorite of mine that could use some attention, and it’s sort of related to “Frostman.”

The simple lo-fi charm of “Frostman” makes it a stand out track on Isolation Drills. It’s one of Bob’s great sub-minute acoustic ditties, a lineage that also includes such gems as “Tropical Robots” and “Indian Fables.”

In 2008, an alternate version of “Frostman” was released as a b-side to Pollard’s “Miles Under the Skin” single. This recording, dubbed the “long version,” is presumably a demo that predates the album version. Here, the song is fleshed out with a second verse and signature riff in the form of an overdubbed lead guitar.

It’s that guitar riff that connects “Frostman” to another song. Released on Suitcase 2 in 2005, “Color Coat Drawing” is labeled as an Isolation Drills demo outtake. It seems that perhaps it never made it out of the demo stage, instead donating its riff and maybe some chords to the long version of “Frostman” that was subsequently shortened into the album track.

Whatever the case may, “Color Coat Drawing” is a breathtaking song, one of Bob’s sad-but-uplifting numbers.  While it does not have a melody as instantly appealing as “Frostman,” its slow, deliberate pace makes every chord change or melodic twist count. Totally engrossing. Bob’s delivery and the enigmatic lyrics make it surprisingly emotional. The chugging riff would sound right at home with the other Isolation Drills songs, but this spare demo has a undefinable hypnotic beauty to it that maybe would not translate to a full band arrangement — although I for one was hoping for a Boston Spaceships remake. But at the very least, I’m grateful to have this demo to listen to and ponder its place in Pollard’s canon. Another great tune that fell through the cracks.

—-

I was going to place these songs earlier in the post, but didn’t want to detract from the main subject matter. Here they are:

Buy ’em
Frostman – Isolation Drills
Frostman (long version) – Miles Under the Skin single
Color Coat Drawing – Suitcase 2
Indian Fables – Fast Japanese Spin Cycle
Tropical Robots – Hold on Hope EP

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Mustard Man & Mother Monkey (Power of Suck pt. 2)

18 Jun

The next chapter in the Power of Suck saga is this big ol’ double-LP.

According to James Greer, this is an early version of Power of Suck, “after it was already not Power of Suck but before we’d started recording – this was during the rehearsal stage in Kim [Deal]’s basement.”

This would place it at around February 1995. The great thing about this sequence is that we have a complete handwritten tracklist with lyrics!

Seen at the top of the lyrics sheet is a list of possible titles. In my opinion, the Mustard Man one suits this sequence best, because I like it the best.

Mustard Man & Mother Monkey
Titles in bold are songs carried over from the original demos. Titles in red are newly added Pollard-Sprout co-writes.

A
1. Pantherz
2. Imperial Racehorsing
3. Color Of My Blade
(snippet) No title/Is She Ever?
4. Redmen And Their Wives 
5. Sheetkickers
6. Beekeeper Seeks Ruth

B
1. Drag Days
2. Cocksoldiers And Their Postwar Stubble
3. The Winter Cows
4. Bug House
5. Key Losers
6. Big Boring Wedding

C
1. Pink Drink
2. Pluto The Skate
3. Are You Faster?
4. He’s The Uncle
(snippet) No title/Drag Me Down
5. Universal Nurse Finger
6. I Am Decided

D
1. Not Good For The Mechanism
2. The Official Ironmen Rally Song
3. Why Did You Land?
4. I Saw The Jackrabbit (formerly “Superwhore”)
5. Don’t Stop Now

Most of the new songs added here are Sprout/Pollard compositions that later ended up on either Sunfish Holy Breakfast or Tonics and Twisted Chasers. It seems reasonable to surmise that other Sunfish and Tonics recordings were made during four-track sessions with Sprout around this time. Interestingly, there are no Pollard/Sprout co-writes on Under the Bushes, Under the Stars. At this point, there are no songs on the album solely credited to Sprout.

Looking at this sequence, the first striking thing is track two. “Imperial Racehorsing” is the name of a song on Let’s Go Eat the Factory, GBV’s first album of 2012. However, the Power of Suck song by that name appears to bear no relation to the newer song. In fact, this version is noted to be an instrumental on the lyrics sheet. It’s unknown what this song was, or if it was ever released under a different name. It has been confirmed by Greer that it is not “Do the Collapse” AKA “Girl from the Sun,” an instrumental written and recorded during the Albini sessions, which this tracklist predates.

The next unusual feature is the “Drag Me Down” snippet on side C. This is probably the future Tonics track “The Stir-Crazy Pornographer,” which prominently features the phrase “drag me down” in the lyrics. The earlier “Is She Ever?” snippet on side A is also a Tonics tune. I imagine these snippets would have been quite similar to the “At Odds With Dr. Genesis” snippet attached to “Ester’s Day” on Bee Thousand.

“Pluto the Skate” makes its final appearance on a potential GBV sequence before bizarrely showing up (in original demo form, even, although augmented by additional overdubs) in 2009 on Boston Spaceship’s Zero to 99In the meantime, its signature riff was recycled into “Catfood on the Earwig,” a song briefly in the running for Under the Bushes and later considered for Isolation Drills!

Looking at the lyrics sheet, one of the most interesting things is a previously unknown section in “Why Did You Land?” Some history: In 1993, “Why Did You Land?” was a slow, beautiful tune that was considered for Bee Thousand. After being passed over for that album, the song was reconfigured for The Power of Suck. The Suck version, also passed over for the album but eventually released as a b-side, is more of a rocker, and it has a chorus not present in the early version. This PoS lyrics sheet reveals that the chorus wasn’t the only new part added to the song. At this point in time there was also a bridge that does not appear in any released version:

Explain to me the big blue sea
Or the place where certain stars collapse
The singer’s song is always too long
Like everything we taught you
To all Tarzans of rock & industry Janes
The song has been written & yes perhaps
The lucky pimps shall have the best
& let imagination rock you
Why did you land?

Owner of the original PoS demo tape, RichT, has described it as a “killer middle part with a completely different melody.” He also stated that this demo version was for Suitcase 3, although sadly it did not appear on that release. As it stands, this is still an unheard piece of The Power of Suck puzzle.

The case of “Why Did You Land?” also illustrates how, like Bee Thousand, much of The Power of Suck was comprised of bits and pieces of older songs. Not only was the original “Why Did You Land?” a Bee Thousand leftover, but the “new” chorus (“look at the photograph / nothing is real” ) was taken from an even older song: “Perhaps We Were Swinging,” a folky tune recorded in the late 80s (found on Matador’s Hardcore UFOs boxset). “Don’t Stop Now” was also a Bee Thousand leftover (as was “Postal Blowfish” and Sprout’s “It’s Like Soul Man,” although those songs are not yet a part of this album).

Some more examples: “Are You Faster?” seems to take its verse melody from a bit at the end of the Suitcase 2 version of “Dusty Bushworms.” “I Am Decided” is based on an older song known as “Whiskey on Your Breath.” “Sheetkickers” is based an an old instrumental called “Lion w/ Thorn in Paw” (heard on Briefcase 2). “Pink Drink” is taken from a Propeller-era tune called “Song of Below,” the same song that spawned “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory.” “Pantherz” borrows from an 80s composition called “Turbo Boy.”

Of course, this technique is not at all unusual for Pollard, and many of his albums are peppered with instances of “recycling.” It just seems that we have more pieces than usual for this particular album. The songs from this era are rich with connections and discoveries to make.

Mustard Man & Mother Monkey is a great listen, one of my favorite shit-canned albums out there. The four-track recordings have the warm, welcoming sound of Bee Thousand, while the Albini tunes sound like a more muscular take on the Alien Lanes style. The songs only available in demo form (“Are You Faster?,” “Pink Drink”) have a unique and pleasing quality about them as well. Although a finalized version of the album would lack these unpolished demos, they don’t sound terribly out of place of my reconstructed version.

For my version, I stick to the released versions of tracks when available. The mysterious “Imperial Racehorsing” is the only glaring hole. The Albini versions of “Pantherz” and “Bughouse,” are somewhat harder to track down, being released only on the vinyl bootleg Jellyfish Reflector. Though, I think it’s the same version of “Bughouse” on Suitcase 1, but you might want to separate it from the demo version that precedes it on the same track. “Superwhore” was only ever officially released on Briefcase 2. You can download these three hard-to-find tracks here.

Whew! OK. In the next installment of the Power of Suck tale, most of these songs get cut, and a bunch of new songs are added. And it stops being The Power of Suck.

In the meantime, make your own Mustard Man:

Sunfish Holy Breakfast – Beekeeper Seeks Ruth, The Winter Cows, Cocksoldiers
Tonics & Twisted Chasers – Is She Ever?, The Key Losers, The Stir-Crazy Pornographer, Universal Nurse Finger
Suitcase 1 – Pink Drink, Pluto the Skate, Bughouse, Pantherz (demo version)
Suitcase 2 – I Am Decided, Are You Faster?,
Motor Away single – Color of My Blade
Tigerbomb – Not Good for the Mechanism
The Official Ironman Rally Song single – Why Did You Land?
He’s the Uncle available on Amazon MP3 or on Matador’s Hardcore UFOs box.
Under the Bushes, Under the Stars – Redmen and Their Wives, Sheetkickers, Drag Days, Big Boring Wedding, Don’t Stop Now, The Official Ironman Rally Song

Update

30 Mar

Hey all,
I have not abandoned this project, just took a little break to focus on some other things and recharge. Got some good stuff in the works, including an interview with Chris from Boston Spaceships!

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)

Human Amusements (1999)

26 Jan

Do the Collapse may have the worst reputation of any GBV album, but it’s about due for re-evaluation. It’s certainly not a bad album, but it is flawed. For me, the slick production isn’t really the problem — though it does get a bit sterile over the course of the LP, I actually enjoy hearing Doug Gillard’s excellent guitar work in perfect clarity. It’s the song selection and sequence that knock Do the Collapse down a notch for me. There were a lot of killer songs in the running, and not all of them made the cut. This is perhaps due to the influence of producer Ric Ocasek, who, so the story goes, dissuaded the band from recording fan favorites like “James Riot” for the album. Indeed, the Hold on Hope EP is full of great songs that maybe deserved a spot on the album.

I guess this is one album where the what-could-have-been scenario is more appealing than the real thing.

This early tracklist known as Human Amusements uses mostly the same songs as DTC, but is a better album, I think!

Human Amusements (1999)
1. Dragons Awake!
2. Surgical Focus
3. Optical Hopscotch
4. Teenage FBI
5. Avalanche Aminos (Hold on Hope EP)
6. Hold On Hope
7. Much Better Mr. Buckles
8. Zoo Pie
9. Things I Will Keep
10. Picture Me Big Time
11. Strumpet Eye
12. Liquid Indian
13. Underground Initiations (Hold on Hope EP)
14. Mushroom Art
15. Wrecking Now
16. Wormhole

My argument for this being better than DTC mostly hinges on the incredible “Avalanche Aminos,” a Pollard-Gillard co-write. The song flat-out RULES. It would improve any album, but it sounds especially great here after “Teenage FBI.” The only other non-DTC song is “Underground Initiations,” which is also a quintessential GBV rocker. Both songs are highly appealing, brimming with perfect melodies and excellent guitar work. They have a big positive impact on the overall energy of the album, and are some of the best and most noteworthy songs from this period. In short, they are exactly what I’d want from a “mainstream” GBV album. They were both dropped and replaced with “In Stitches” and “An Unmarketed Product” for the final version. While I like those songs, especially the turgid, pummeling “In Stitches,” they aren’t appealing in the same way.

Human Amusements boasts other improvements with regard to Do the Collapse. “Dragon’s Awake!” is an excellent opening song, with the brightly strummed acoustic guitar slowly being joined by other instruments. It’s a twisty, weird song, but is highly successful in drawing a listener in. Again, thinking of this in the context of being GBV’s big mainstream bid, I like this mysterious, intriguing opener more than the standard “hit single as track one” approach. After all, by simple virtue of being an album by Robert Pollard, it already flouts a number of rock music conventions.

“Dragons Awake!” leads beautifully into a true gem of the album, “Surgical Focus.” This is a strong yet not very flashy song that benefits greatly from the emphasis of an up-front placement. On DTC, “Zoo Pie” makes a strange choice for second track. It sounds more at home on Human Amusements as a deep album cut (not sure where the side breaks are, but assuming “Things I Will Keep” would have opened side two, “Zoo Pie” would close side 1).

“Optical Hopscotch,” one of the weaker songs on the album, sounds surprisingly good at track three. It’s a slow song that comes a little late on DTC, when the album needs something livelier. On Human Amusements it works very well as a bridge between “Surgical Focus” and “Teenage FBI.”

“Wormhole” does not make for the perfect closing song, but it does sound good in that position. I’m not a huge fan of the song, but coupled with the beautiful “Wrecking Now” at the end, it’s a nice closing pair. On DTC, “An Unmarketed Product” is a great closing song — a snappy exclamation point at the end of the album — but it is somewhat dwarfed by the long, languid “Picture Me Big Time.”

A thoroughly weird album, Do the Collapse may have been a misguided stab at mainstream success, but it is far from an artistic failure. I think Human Amusements puts its successes in a better light.

Try it.
Do the Collapse
Hold on Hope

And stay tuned for another, quite different version Do the Collapse that I will write about eventually!

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.

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.