Tuesday, November 9, 2010

GBV Classic Years #2: Vampire On Titus (1993)

And onward we march, we Marchers in Orange.

The dismal failure of Propeller in propelling the band into some kind of recognition nearly broke up Guided By Voices, leaving the band short a drummer and bassist. What remained kept recording in Toby's garage on his 4-track Portastudio, with Bob Pollard occasionally laying down his own drum lines for the tracks he felt needed drums. As a result of the band fractures, nearly half the tracks that ended up on Vampire On Titus are drumless. Bob, his brother Jim, and Toby Sprout handled guitars, with Toby also supplying basslines.

It was this fractured lineup that conceived and released perhaps the most low-fi record of this low-fi band's career. Vocals often sound like they're recorded through a transistor radio set to "distortion +", and then routed through a shitty guitar amp, itself located down the carpeted hall with a cheap wire mic hanging from the ceiling. The drums, or what passes for drums, are more often slurred thwacks than booms. Tape speeds stretch and skew (sometimes mid-song!), a cacophony of hiss predominates, older tracks bleed through, it's a mess. Yet behind all this are more of the best tracks of this band's career.

For such a terribly-recorded record, it was this album that began to get GBV wider notice. With no drummer and bassist, and sudden interest nationwide (when you only have 500 fans for 8 years, another 500 constitutes "sudden interest") thrust upon Pollard and co., they quickly get a band back together and start that slow crawl from basement legends on their city block to a critically-acclaimed indie rock powerhouse.

Cleveland, OH's Scat Records was the first label to give creedence to this band. A tiny label in and of itself, it at least reached beyond central Ohio, and with this record, began drumming the GBV rhythm.

As a brief aside, fans curious to get into GBV, but not familiar with their music, should probably wait until satisfied by their "classic" records Bee Thousand / Alien Lanes / etc. before trying this. Or rather, don't let this be your sole intro to the band: it's a great companion to the classics, and it IS a classic, but its raw nature makes it harder to appreciate without some grounding.

This record was easier at times, and then harder, to pin down 5 key/favorite tracks. It really depends on my mood. Do I want rockers? Do I want chaos? Do I want the more gentle acoustics? There is such a diversity of sound - backing out the seeming sameness the record carries solely due to recording circumstances - across these tracks you really have to pick your poison. As I'm now in a period of loving this record, there are no limitations, just my (current) five favorites. And I suspect these will remain basic canon pieces in my GBV songbook.

OK, so I lied. I've been iPodding this record all day, trying to cull out 5 tracks, and I can't be merciless. It's just un-possible.  There were three tracks that no matter how much culling I did, absolutely had to remain. That left two more spots - and 4 more critical songs. I tried. I cried. It just wasn't going to happen.

The problem is, so many of the roots of the key GBV sound lie in this album. And there are a few moments that sound completely unlike anything else in their catalog, moments - that for the sake of an overview - had to be included in any critical appraisal of this album. So, damn the torpedoes, as the Fading Captain might say, and let's roll with it.

Vampire On Titus
originally released in 1993 on Scat Records

1) Wished I Was A Giant
Horrible, horrible recording - of perhaps one of the top 5 songs in the band's entire gazillion-song catalog. I can't imagine a much worse recording released in any capacity on any label, except as a stylistic exercise, but it's what it is. Had this been a better recording, this song - already one giant melody blast - would be massive. I'm certain I'm being too harsh on the recording - it's really not THAT bad - but if you're looking for something even comparable to what we heard on Propeller, this isn't it.

2) Expecting Brainchild
A goofy song that has an even goofier intro. Well reminiscent of the Who, if you can imagine the Who as a garage band brought up on punk.

3) Dusted
If this were more of a classic 4-track sound, it would fit just swell-like on Bee Thousand. As it were, it's again one of their more hard rockers (not "hard rock"), marred only by the vocals-from-the-can-and-a-wire-mic recording.

4) Marchers In Orange
One of their key early sound collage songs. Not much in the way of musical melody from the toy synths building up the musical bed, though Bob lays down a terrific vocal line on top. Arguably one of only a couple true "classics" from this LP, "classics" in the sense that they remained in the GBV collective memory well past the record's shelf life.

5) Sot
See #2 and #3. Another in the same superbly melodic line, excellent guitars too.

6) Jar Of Cardinals
One of the best ballads in their catalog, just Bob and a guitar, with melody just dripping all over the place. 

7) Gleemer (The Deeds Of Fertile Jim)
The second classic Tobin Sprout ballad in their catalog to date. I might even rate this higher than Propeller's "14 Cheerleader Coldfront". Tobin channels some Sebadoh ("Brand New Love") with great effect, and I'd have to say this is probably in my all-time Top Ten GBV tracks.

8) Non-Absorbing
"Do you see me like I see you?" The first really true CLASSIC! CLASSIC! CLASSIC! track on this record, unmarred by shitty recording, a song that has no temporal fixation anywhere in their catalog. Home on this record, could be home on any of the following LPs, and with a proper studio recording, could have been home on any of their late 90s albums (and any way you shake it, a classic). I can't musically describe this track at all, it's just nearly perfect. Top Ten, nay, it's in my all-time Top 5 GBV set. It really was the perfect bridge to the near perfection of the following LP, Bee Thousand.

Get them all here.

Next up, perhaps the most difficult of all to cull out 5 tracks from, Bee Thousand. A classic album in every/any sense of the word.

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