Friday, November 26, 2010

GBV detour 01: Back to Saturn X (unreleased LP)

I know I owe the world the next post in the GBV 5 Songs saga (scheduled: Bee Thousand), but I haven't felt the crushing desire to eliminate 4/5 of the album from contention yet - as I love nearly each and every track on that record.

So as to not completely spoil the GBV anticipation, here's their unreleased 1991 LP Back To Saturn X.

We only know the tracklist because the fellow behind their early-mid 90s label Scat received a copy of the album in preparation for the 1995 box set compiling the band's pre-1992 records. The band had this album recorded, sequenced and "mastered" in 1991, only for Bob Pollard to decide not to release it. The tracks were (somewhat) farmed out to other projects instead, and snippets of (some) of the tracks were jammed together to form the track "Back To Saturn X Radio Report" on 1992's Propeller LP.

It's really not a bad album! There are really only a few tracks that would fit in the "classic" canon of GBV works, but that said, it does make a good listen as a complete work.

The version posted here was compiled from the multitude of releases Bob farmed these tracks out to over the years. I have no idea if the *recordings* are what were to be used on the withdrawn LP, though I'm nearly certain they are. I've taken the liberty to add on two tracks to the end, which may have been recorded at the same time, but not on the final track list. Why? Because I can...

As this actual record only exists in the hands of Scat and Bob Pollard, no cover art (if it even got that far in the release process) is known to exist in the wild. So, I used one of my favorites from the following LP Propeller's set of 500 unique sleeves.


Back To Saturn X
(unreleased 1991 LP)

01 Fantasy Creeps
02 Perch Warble
03 Dusty Bushworms
04 Squirmish Frontal Room
05 Scalding Creek
06 Melted Pat
07 Spring Tiger
08 Tractor Rape Chain (Clean It Up)
09 Crutch Came Slinking
10 Mallard Smoke
11 Sopor Joe
12 Chicken Blows
13 Tricyclic Looper
14 Scissors And The Clay Ox (In)
15 Damn Good Mr. Jam
----- bonus trax -----
16 Buzzards And Dreadful Crows
17 Mr. Japan

Box CD5: King Shit And The Golden Boys: 01, 03, 09, 11, 13
Suitcase: Failed Experiments And Trashed Aircraft: 02, 10, 14, 15, 16, 17
Get Out Of My Stations EP: 03, 05, 06, 07
Darla 100 - Sixth Year Anniversary Compilation CD: 08
Alien Lanes: 12

Grab it here!

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.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

GBV Classic Years #1: Propeller (1992)

As discussed earlier, I was (and maybe still am) on a big Guided By Voices kick a few weeks back. I've long been a fan, and still remember fondly their gig at Chicago's legendary Lounge Ax on my birthday in 1995, just two days after the release of their first "major league" LP Alien Lanes. Of course the phrase "Guided by Beer" was kicked around a few times, once by none other than Bob Pollard himself. Somewhere I used to have a tape of this show that I picked up years later; and the gig was as sloppily fun as I remembered it. I seem to recall that after 38 songs, they easily could have drunkenly stumbled through another 38.

My GBV journey began on a tip from none other than Bob Mould. Oh, I'd read about them, been intrigued, and in fact I may had even purchased a CD of theirs by the time I met Bob Mould at a Sugar gig in December 1994 (though I really think I didn't own anything until early '95, honestly). But what really got me into the band was Bob's enthusing about them to me and a couple other people while chatting with him for nearly an hour before the Sugar gig that night. At the time, Bob was still in the thick of the alternative scene, not yet having gone the dance route, so anything tipped by him was assumed to be golden. And of course they were.

So, on Bob Mould's tip and then being absorbed by the utter wonderfulness of GBV's (seventh full length LP!) Bee Thousand, I went back and picked up the then-available back catalog, which at the time consisted of probably 3 CDs: Vampire on Titus / Propeller (both albums on one CD), and maybe a couple 8-song, 12-minute-long EPs. I didn't really take to any of it bar the odd song or two on any of the pre-B1000 material, but I was head-over-heels in love with B1000. And I've always remained so, this record's songs are always ranked in the higher reaches of my most-played tracks in iTunes. Nevertheless, with me needing either smokes, beer, or both, and not being completely floored by the VoT / Propeller CD, it got sold back not long after purchase in 1995. And I never really heard it, or (m)any of its tracks, again.

So I can't come to explain why several weeks back I got my hands on both Vampire on Titus, and Propeller, again. It might have been the few tracks from it coming up on the Matador-era best-of CD that I have on my iPod, or it might have just been something I saw on a (shhhh) torrent site and said, well, why not?

I should never have sold the VoT / Propeller combo CD back. First of all, they now are two separate CDs, so you pay more. Second, the records are amazing. I don't know where my head was at, I don't know WHY I didn't like these albums, and while I can't regain those years lost, I can enjoy them now.

So we begin my GBV series of postings with my top 5 tracks from their 1992 LP Propeller, so named because after 4 LPs that barely sold out their 500 or 1000-run pressings in Dayton, OH, the band figured it would be the record that finally propelled them out of the middle of Ohio. Sadly, it didn't, but it's certainly not for the lack of quality songs. I think they needed a bigger label or distributor, with this same record, to make it out of the indie circuit minor league's minor league, which they didn't have for a couple more records.

Several of their all-time classic tracks come from this record, and it's absolutely essential any reasonable GBV fan must own this. It's really their first record featuring what became GBV trademarks, of a sort: massive singalong choruses, "anthems" even, walled guitars. An interesting factoid about this record is that its original vinyl-only release in 1992 was limited to 500 copies, each one hand-designed by a band member or friends. So each original copy is unique. Of course, I don't own one, but the folks behind GBVDB - Guided By Voices Database have done yeoman's work in cataloging a huge proportion of the 500 unique copies. For this blog post, I've chosen as cover art one of my favorites from the original LP run - an actual Natural Light 6-pack box shrinkwrapped into the record!

So without further ado, and with a LOT of playlist mucking-about, here's my Top Five selections from Propeller.

originally released in 1992 on their own Rockathon Records

1) Over The Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox
Yes, this counts as one track, since it's tracked as one. It's a two-song suite that, in tandem with the following track "Weed King", sums up GBV pretty much in a nutshell. Neo-psychedelic, reaching beyond post-British Invasion (think the Who), garage rock, with 80s American college rock influences, it's all in these two (three?) songs. 

2) Weed King
See above. 

3) Quality Of Armor
The worst defense is intelligence, the best defense is belligerence. And oh yea, I'm to drive my car, go really far. 

4) Exit Flagger
One of their first garage 4-track Portastudio recordings that belies the recording methodology. It just sounds HUGE, and it's a song the band remained fond of (and well they should!) for years to come. Probably the first "classic" GBV track. It could have sat on any of their mid-90s records, easily, and had it been more widely available, it'd be even more well known. 

5) 14 Cheerleader Coldfront
The first classic Tobin Sprout (guitarist, and alternate songwriter/vocalist) track of many to come in later years. Gently acoustic, the recording sounds almost like it was recorded in a cardboard box - but don't let that fool you. It's a beautiful song that would sound even more amazing recorded in a proper studio.

Grab them all here.

Honorable mentions, or tracks that floated in and out of consideration for this post: "Unleashed! The Large-Hearted Boy" (though see a future post), "Metal Mothers" ("you find time to get laid, you find ways to get paid"), "Circus World".