Thursday, May 26, 2016

And If You Complain Once More, You'll Meet An Army Of Me

Ok, so sometime last year, I started getting into Björk. And even though I haven't yet picked up a copy of her 1997 album Homogenic, I did read George Starostin's review. What he thinks the album sounds like isn't important right now. No, I'm more concerned with the art. 


Yeah, I have no idea. According to Wikipedia, the cover was designed by one Alexander McQueen, and he obviously was on some very 90's drugs. Björk describes the look she was going for as "a warrior who had to fight not with weapons, but with love." I will take that statement at face value (ba-dum-tish), thank you very much. 

But there was something else that I had gnawing at me when I saw the cover. It seemed (oh no) familiar somehow. And then it hit me like a 110-lb. lightsaber. 

These aren't the Star Wars movies you're looking for. Try 1977.

No less than two years later, the bodacious Natalie Portman would dress Björk-style for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. The similarities are very interesting; one wonders if this was all a late-90's thing. It wasn't something I'd picked up on. The obvious question here is, was Queen Amidala's getup inspired, at least in part, by the Homogenic album cover? Google doesn't seem to have an answer for me, but I do kind of wonder. 

Sunday, May 22, 2016

I Am A Scientist, I Seek To Understand Me, All Of My Impurities And Evils Yet Unknown

GBV! GBV! GBV! Dayton, OH's own indie and lo-fi rock demigods Guided By Voices have racked up quite an impressive tally of albums thanks to lead singer Robert Pollard's inability not to write songs; and the two albums that put them on the map in a big way were the '94 Bee Thousand and '95 Alien Lanes. I really don't think they had any finer documents of their sound besides these two albums - at least until the vaunted original lineup reunited in 2011.

This is where it began for so many music fans and for me as well. Bee Thousand got the band noticed, by an order of magnitude greater than the previous albums Propeller (1991) and Vampire On Titus (1993) had. The lineup isn't quite represented in a solidified form, as some of the tracks are home recordings made years earlier. Really, the group largely worked like a collective before this album, with informal meets to rock out in various members' basements and garages; whoever showed up to play got a chance. The usual suspects are all here: Robert Pollard on vocals and some guitar; Tobin Sprout on vocals, guitar, bass guitar, and piano; Mitch Mitchell on guitar; Greg Demos on bass guitar; and Kevin Fennel on drums. Others, who came and went on the early recordings are Robert's brother Jim Pollard, and also Dan Toohey on bass guitar; Don Thrasher on drums, and Randy Campbell on backing vocals. Funny thing - this album almost didn't get made since Pollard considered breaking up the band after Propeller's middling success; and the disc had several proposed track listings which variously included about 30 additional tracks that largely didn't see the light of day until the 10th anniversary 'Director's Cut' version of the album. The version I own is the recent Scat Records re-pressing of the original track listing, in a very nice gatefold. So how should I try to explain one of the greatest indie rock albums of all time to my readers? Dunno, but I'll attempt to anyway!

What I Liked:
First of all, you have to understand what the lo-fi aesthetic means to certain people. For those making records this way, often it means that the record gets made at all. Others have found that the sound has a certain, unique character. One of the early GBV records (Sandbox, I think) was in fact done clean and polished in a proper studio, and Pollard found the sound far too sterile for his tastes. By comparison, Bee Thousand has a sort of earthy, pleasantly janky honesty to it's weird echoes, unavoidable bits of feedback and distortion, and occasional glitches (e.g. the guitar dropping out on 'Hardcore UFOs'). But all by itself, this vintage home-movie aesthetic wouldn't be enough to lift this record to the prominent position it holds in my collection. Robert Pollard has such a knack for penning wildly out-there lyrics that seem to be an enigma yet to be comprehended or layers to be peeled away (as opposed to a Dylan-esque word salad). He doubles down by pairing that with truly fine power pop (often like The Who or possibly The Rolling Stones; but with a fair amount of post-British Invasion garage and psychedelia blended in) melodies and killer power riffs - e.g. 'Hardcore UFOs', 'Gold Star For Robot Boy'. This is balanced with Tobin Sprout's contributions of more gentle, intimate acoustic-driven tracks with hints of Lennon/McCartney-esque lyrics ('Awful Bliss', Ester's Day). While it's a very garage-rock sounding record, in the end it's the emotional resonance that makes this record work. It's a difficult mood to describe, but the feeling of a complete flight of fancy takes root in a lot of the tracks. It's somehow a very daydreamy, or uplifting record at times! Some of the tracks paint vivid pictures ('Peep-Hole', 'Hot Freaks') while others just beg to be given a meaning or be deciphered (the majority, but especially 'Tractor Rape Chain' and 'The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory'). Even so, king on this record is possibly Pollard's greatest achievement, 'I Am A Scientist'. With echoey guitars, a riff that exudes memorability and coolness, and a delightfully enigmatic set of lyrics that I've always felt to be the definitive statement on the complexity of the human condition. A glowing description, I know; but seriously, just listen to it already and tell me I'm not on to something. When so much of this album is so intriguing and nothing short of a treat for the ears, singling out best songs seems rather unnecessary. 

What I Didn't Like:
There's so little, but in a few spots, anarchy seems a bit dominant; see 'A Big Fan Of The Pigpen', 'Her Psychology Today', and the slide whistle (or something) that disrupts 'Demons Are Real'. Besides that, things that would detract from the sound for almost any other band manage to add to the charm of this disc, as I described above. It's very counterintuitive.

In Conclusion:
Look, it's high on lists of great albums for a reason. The title of this post uses lyrics from 'I Am A Scientist' because I couldn't think of anything more fitting. It's a fantastic listen, and unless you end up with more than one GBV album in your possession, you'll never hear anything like it. Everyone, and I mean everyone, should hear this once. 

One year later, GBV found themselves in a contract with Matador Records for the follow-up to Bee Thousand. With the lineup consisting primarily of Pollard, Sprout, and Fennel, and partially of Demos, Mitchell, Toohey, Jim Pollard, Larry Keller, Gary Phillips and (future rock critic) Jim Greer, the band (such as it was!) delivered Alien Lanes, a more consistent record with a little bit more to chew on - both in length and depth of ideas. Greer would report in his GBV biography that the advance Matador gave the band was close to the six-figure mark, while the cost to actually record Alien Lanes was about ten bucks (beer doesn't count). So how does $99,990 worth of PBR sound What do I think of it? Read on! For reference, this is the Matador 20th anniversary release, and I suspect it may now be out of print.

What I Liked:
Still utilizing the same weatherbeaten sound, GBV puts out a record with more consistency, and Robert Pollard brings his songwriting to a more mature and complex level with this album - as far as iI know, none of these recordings are rescued from ten-year-old tapes; Alien Lanes was the first major GBV album to be recorded in one go. And I mean that literally - most of GBV's tracks are first or second takes. One of the advantages of this approach is that earnest undercurrent that much of their best material possesses. Moving from Bee Thousand to Alien Lanes, the boys bring out a blend of harder rock and far more jangly power pop that's unmistakable. It's probably best exemplified by 'Motor Away', the hard-rocking super-upbeat linchpin of the album; immediately preceding is 'Auditorium', which presents a nice lead-in and the change between the two is delightful mood whiplash. 'Blimps Go 90', 'Closer You Are', 'A Good Flying Bird' and probably 'Little Whirl' are some of the most pleasant pop gems I've ever heard - perhaps a bit fluffy, but decidedly nice. The epic 'King And Caroline' and loomingly martial 'Striped White Jets' provide some depth and danger. Meanwhile, 'Game Of Pricks' and 'My Valuable Hunting Knife' hits some of the relatability and vulnerability of 'I Am A Scientist' on the last disc. Pollard begins to assemble a real collection of mature and insightful lyrics. Opener 'A Salty Salute' and closing quasi-instrumental 'Alright' make nice bookends for the experience with very similar sounds (and the former being a legit tribute to the drunks of the world!). It's certainly the equal of Bee Thousand, and taking the two together is probably the best introduction to GBV possible.

What I Didn't Like:
'They're Not Witches' and "Chicken Blows' don't sound finished (always a danger with GBV) and 'The Ugly Vision' (how apt) sounds too slow for this disc. And the two real shorties, 'Hit' and 'Gold Hick' are both rather bizarre, even thought they're listenable. Oh, and whoever slept through 'Ex-Supermodel' should drink more coffee.

In Conclusion:
A second fantastic album from the Dayton boys and a most worthy follow-up to Bee Thousand. If you're going to listen to one, there's no reason not to hear the other. What more can I say about Alien Lanes that I haven't already said about Bee Thousand?