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)

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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.

Bee Thousand mk. IV

10 Jan

Cover of Bee Thousand: The Director's CutThough it lacks a snazzy alternate title like some other earlier drafts, this is my favorite working-version of Bee Thousand. It’s a great mix, with a handful of Bee Thousand favorites mingling with some of the best forgotten gems from King Shit and The Golden Boys.

Side 1
1. Demons Are Real
2. Echoes Myron
3. Ester’s Day
4. 2nd Moves to Twin
5. Deathtrot and Warlock Riding a Rooster
6. Don’t Stop Now
7. Postal Blowfish
8. The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory
9. Buzzards and Dreadful Crows
10. It’s Like Soul Man
11. Peep-Hole

Side 2
1. Bite
2. Hot Freaks
3. Scissors
4. Indian Was an Angel
5. Awful Bliss
6. Smothered in Hugs
7. Kicker of Elves
8. Queen of Cans and Jars
9. Crayola (AKA Parakeet Troopers)
10. Please Freeze Me
11. Tractor Rape Chain

Like other proto-Bee Thousands, the short “Demons Are Real” is utilized as a pretty effective opener, and I like how it leads into “Echoes Myron” at track two. But the best part of Bee Thousand mk. IV is hearing how strong outtakes like “Postal Blowfish,” “Indian Was an Angel” and “Please Freeze Me” sound next to proper Bee Thousand tunes. Those last two in particular are some of Bob’s best acoustic songs and I love hearing them in the context of an album. Then there are the great early versions of  “Don’t Stop Now” and Sprout’s “It’s Like Soul Man.” Both appeared later re-recorded as Power of Suck/Under the Bushes tunes, but these versions have their own distinct four-tracked charm and sound right at home. “Postal Blowfish” was also re-recorded but sadly never made it to an album.

The flow and sequence of Bee thousand mk. IV is much better than King Shit and the Golden Boys, and I think “Deathtrot and Warlock Riding a Rooster,” “2nd Moves to Twin,” and even “Bite” (never a favorite) really benefit from this context. For instance, on Bee Thousand: The Director’s Cut, “Deathtrot” makes an extremely awkward track 2, and here it is much more welcome. The only part of the sequence that doesn’t really work too well is having “Tractor Rape Chain” as the closer. It’s still a great song of course, but it doesn’t feel like a last track to me.

It’s interesting to note that many King Shit tracks — “Indian Was an Angel,” “2nd Moves to Twin,” “Crayola,” “Bite” and “Postal Blowfish” — had appeared on every Bee Thousand sequence up to that point, but were all dropped from subsequent sequences. Until being cut, they were in the company of “Queen of Cans and Jars,” “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory,” “Smothered in Hugs”  and “Scissors,” which also survived across every sequence but then made it to the final two drafts (with “Scissors” ultimately being replaced by “Mincer Ray”). “Don’t Stop Now” and “Please Freeze Me” make their first and only appearance here as Bee Thousand tracks.

Despite lacking a few of the most beloved songs from this era, i.e. “I Am a Scientist,” “Gold Star for Robot Boy,” and “Hardcore UFOs,”  this draft of Bee Thousand is pure ear-candy from start to finish. The final product is even better, but I think this version would have been a hit too.

Make Your Own!
Bee Thousand
King Shit and the Golden Boys
Not in My Airforce (for “Parakeet Troopers” AKA “Crayola”)
+ “It’s Like Soul Man (four-track version)” which is on the out-of-print Bee Thousand: The Director’s Cut. Track it down! It’s also recommended that you use the version of “Ester’s Day” from this release because it lacks Bee Thousand‘s “At Odds With Dr. Genesis” intro.

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)

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 RobertPollard.net), 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

Do the Collapse/Panic on Landlord Street (1997)

4 Jan

This early version of Mag Earwhig, confusingly titled Do the Collapse, originally had 18 tracks and opened with “The Singing Razorblade.” Later, the newly-written “Sad If I Lost It” was appended to the beginning and the album was re-titled Panic on Landlord Street.

The image on the right (with the tracklist in Bob’s handwriting, including some alternate titles) comes from this interesting (if nearly illegible) blog post I dug up. The author owns a tape of this sequence, given to him by Bob.

Mag Earwhig has a nearly half and half mix of the new band (the “GBVerde” line-up) and some hold-overs from the classic line-up days. This early draft is a little heavier on the GBVerde.

Do The Collapse/Panic on Landlord Street
(1). Sad If I Lost It
2. The Singing Razorblade
3. Not Behind The Fighter Jet
4. Do They Teach You The Chase?
5. I Am A Tree
6. Choking Tara
7. Cherub Blown Apart (AKA I’ll Name You The Flame That Cries, fades out after a minute)
8. Fairy Wings Are Green (AKA Mute Superstar )
9. The Old Grunt
10. Bulldog Skin
11. Now To War
12. Knock ‘Em Flyin’
13. Mag Earwhig!
14. Little Lines
15. Mannequin’s Complaint (Wax Dummy Meltdown)
16. Hollow Cheek
17. Portable Men’s Society
18. The Ascended Master’s Grogshop
19. Jane Of The Waking Universe

This alternate sequence compares rather well to the final product, Mag Earwhig. Pollard was on a hot songwriting streak during this time, so almost any combination of songs would yield something good. One really enjoyable aspect of this sequence are the opening and closing tracks. “The Singing Razorblade” has a really inviting intro, with chopped up vocal loops before launching into the ragged, dirty yet amiable guitar riff of the proper song. And it’s a “classic” line-up track (well, Tobin Sprout on drums, anyway… I think that counts as classic). The song ended up as a b-side, yet it does really well as a track number one. And “Sad If I Lost It,” opening draft 2, is a great slow builder and a good choice for this slot as well (I’d say it basically opens Mag Earwhig as it is, with “Can’t Hear the Revolution” acting more as an intro track).

On the other end, “Jane of the Waking Universe” (a legitimate classic line-up track, with Sprout’s angelic harmonies and bass line) closes the album on a high note. The fading into infinity chorus of “Jane” makes it a superb final song. Mag‘s official closer, “Bomb the Bee-Hive,” is a solid but unremarkable rocker that I’d characterize as one of Pollard’s trademark “anti-closers;” that is, a brief, rocking song that casually shrugs off the weight of the preceding album (see also “An Unmarketed Product,” “Of Mites and Men,” and maybe “Father Sgt. Christmas Card”). On Mag Earwhig, “Jane” is used to kick off an extended denouement. It’ll always be a standout song, but giving it the important final slot would have been a real boon to its legacy. Additionally, “The Ascended Master’s Grogshop,” a Sprout co-write that recalls “You’re Not an Airplane,” is a nice set-up for the big “Jane” payoff.

Some other things to really like about this sequence: the up-front placement of “Not Behind the Fighter Jet” and the longer gap separating “I Am a Tree” and “Bulldog Skin.” Those two big hits are always the first two that wear out their welcome, and they sit uncomfortably close on Mag.

A handful of eventual b-sides also make the cut here, like the twisted waltz of “Mannequin’s Complaint” which holds down the second half, and the somewhat Syd Barrett-like “Do They Teach You the Chase?” The latter song, snippet-like in quality, introduces the Big Rock of “I Am a Tree” very well.

As fine a follow-up to Under the Bushes as Do the Collapse or Panic on Landlord Street would have been, it lacks a handful of excellent, distinct songs that ended up on the finalized version. Here are the Mag Earwhig songs that don’t make the cut on the early draft:

Learning to Hunt
The Finest Joke is Upon Us
The Colossus Crawls West
I Am Produced
Can’t Hear the Revolution
Are You Faster?
Bomb In The Bee-Hive

The first three of this lot are all, interestingly enough, outtakes from Pollard’s solo LP Not in My Airforce (look forward to the inevitable post about that later on!). He must have held on to them for a special occasion, and I gotta say they do just fine on a GBV album. “Learning to Hunt,” especially, is an all-time great, but “Finest Joke” is no slouch either.

The next three of that batch are four-track songs on which Tobin Sprout and Jimmy Pollard make appearances. Just like the Not in My Airforce outtakes, these tunes provide a sweet and essential contrast to the big rock songs recorded by the new band. Although they are short and perhaps could considered slight, they showcase the off-hand charm off Pollard at his weird/experimental best. “I Am Produced,” co-written by Sprout, is definitely a signature tune from this album. “Can’t Hear the Revolution” is an inspired intro tune (though I don’t know if it’d work anywhere else) and believe it or not, “Are You Faster?” is one of the songs that sold me on GBV in the first place. It’s a brilliant and brief psychedelic journey that ends abruptly right when you think it’s going to take off. Wonderful.

Build Your Own!
Mag Earwhig! (is this out of print? Couldn’t find it on Matador’s site. These are all GBV Digital links, by the way)
Bulldog Skin single
I Am a Tree single

or get all the b-sides here on this incredible box set:
Hardcore UFOs

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.

Leftovers
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