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!


When I Go North (1998)

16 Feb

So here’s another alternate look at Do the Collapse. I assume this tracklist is earlier in the album’s development than Human Amusements, so I’ve built this playlist almost entirely out of demos. Lo-fi!

1. Zoo Pie
2. Underground Initiations
3. Dragons Awake!
4. Surgical Focus
5. Shrine To The Dynamic Years (Athens Time Change Riots)
6. Strumpet Eye
7. The Kissing Life
8. Powerblessings
9. Fly Into Ashes
10. James Riot
11. Trashed Aircraft
12. Things I Will Keep
13. When I Go North (aka Vibrations in the Woods)
14. An Unmarketed Product
15. Wormhole
16. Pick Seeds From My Skull
17. Picture Me Big Time
18. Teenage FBI
19. Catfood On The Earwig

As I mentioned, all the DTC songs on this list can be swapped with demo versions. Although I believe these demos were recorded at Cro Magnon studio, the bootlegged copies sound pretty rough.  The shoddy sound and lack of long songs give this set a kind of Alien Lanes feel, like a glimpse into an alternate reality where GBV decided to return to the basement after Mag Earwhig. So, although one could also swap in the album versions of most of these songs, I recommend the lo-fi route. It also helps the three Suitcase tracks blend in, since they’re from the same demo sessions.

In addition to the DTC tracks, there are four tracks from Suitcase and three from solo albums Kid Marine and Waved Out. Lastly, the album ends with “Catfood on the Earwig,” originally from Plantations of Pale Pink — Pollard mentioned around this time that they were going to record a new version of it, but that never materialized. Instead, I’ve swapped in a nice live version from the bootleg King’s Ransom.

“Zoo Pie” makes for an odd, interesting opener. The demo version lacks the distorted vocal effect of the album version, so it feels a little lighter, while still retaining the song’s essential grittiness. The awesomeness of the drums stands out a little more too. This isn’t always the case, but for me the demo sells the song a little better. A faster version of “Underground Initiations” is a nice, energetic track two, and a spirited lo-fi take of “Dragons Awake!” rounds out the opening trio. Unlike the album version, it features drums and bass throughout the entire song.

“Surgical Focus,” the album’s “Smothered in Hugs,” comes next. The demo version offers no major change, and it leads nicely into the non-album “Shrine to the Dynamic Years.” “Shrine” is an odd, angular song that matches the gritty prog tendencies of Do the Collapse with a more energetic, dynamic arrangement. Though the bludgeoning chorus dominates the song, the real highlight is the verse, which feature a nice build-up. Sludgy without being turgid, this song would have sounded GREAT given the big production of the album. It kicks “Optical Hopscotch” to the curb.

The transition from “Shrine” to “Strumpet Eye” is another good one. The demo “Strumpet Eye” opens at full-blast with a brief guitar solo — a vast improvement over the album version, which has a subdued opening verse and feels less rollicking overall. Next is another non-album gem from Suitcase, “The Kissing Life.” It’s a wonderful song with an appealing two-note riff and great vocal melody, culminating in a haunting, triumphant “la la, la LA!” One of the most “classic” sounding songs from this era — it would have fit nicely on Under the Bushes, Under the Stars — I guess it just came along at the wrong time. I doubt Ocasek’s production would have done it any favors, and though it sounds great in this sequence, it doesn’t fit the tone of the final album.

“Powerblessings” is next, the demo version possessing a particularly striking beauty, leading into another favorite of mine, “Fly Into Ashes” (from the Hold on Hope EP). Finishing off this quartet of great non-album songs is the hard-rocker with a soft melodic core “James Riot.” A powerful song hampered by a muddy recording, “James” was made for Ocasek’s production, but apparently Ocasek didn’t dig it. Another loss for Do the Collapse.

Future Boston Spaceships track “Trashed Aircraft” makes an appearance after “James.” There are two pretty similar demo versions of this to choose from, on Suitcase and Delicious Pie & Thank You for Calling.

The back half of this sequence is centered around the hit singles “Things I Will Keep” and “Teenage FBI” and scattered with some minute-long songs (“An Unmarketed Product” and the two from Waved Out). “Picture Me Big Time” is a full minute shorter in demo form, which helps keep it from dragging. “Wormhole” is another song that works better with a lighter touch, and I like the riff during the verse that echoes the vocal melody, not present in the album version.

Finally, the live version of “Catfood on the Earwig” is quite  a different beast than the noise-drenched, drumless EP version. It rocks, and the vocal isn’t buried. I can see how it’d fit well with the TVT era tunes, so it’s too bad there’s no studio version of this arrangement (that we know of).

When I Go North is a rewarding alternate history GBV album, and could even be a gateway into a better appreciation of Do the Collapse. This era has a lot of potential for making your own mix of personal favorites. Just look at all the Do the Collapse/Hold on Hope songs NOT on this sequence:

Hold On Hope
In Stitches
Optical Hopscotch
Mushroom Art
Much Better Mr. Buckles
Liquid Indian
Wrecking Now
Interest Position
Tropical Robots
A Crick Uphill
Idiot Princess
Avalanche Aminos
Do The Collapse

+ other B-Sides
Sucker of Pistol City (which is actually a classic line-up recording!)
Perfect This Time 

Incidentally, there are also a couple more DTC demos on the Hardcore UFOs boxset:
I Invented the Moonwalk (and the Pencil Sharpener), AKA Whiskey Ships
Various Vaults of Convenience

Whew! OK, so I definitely recommend tracking down the DTC demos and giving the lo-fi When I Go North a shot. They are all over Soulseek. You can also hear most of them on this Grooveshark page (maybe one can make a playlist?).

Martketed Products
Do the Collapse
Hold on Hope
The Kissing Life, Shrine to the Dynamic Years, James Riot and Trashed Aircraft on Suitcase.
Boston Spaceships version of Trashed Aircraft on Zero to 99.
Catfood on the Earwig on Plantation of Pale Pink.
Vibrations in the Woods and Picking Seeds from My Skull from Waved Out.
Powerblessings from Kid Marine.
Other DTC demos/live versions on Hardcore UFOs box. (I used this version of “Trashed Aircraft” for my mix)

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)

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

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!

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.

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.

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)