214 · 4 March 99
Guided by Voices: Tonics and Twisted Chasers
"Put a song on a mix tape!", suggest Sarge in the credits to The Glass Intact, condensing into a single imperative almost every important principle of indie pop, or at least most of the ones I've figured out so far. A major-label release would never tolerate this cheerful suggestion. It weakens the claim to copyright, some lawyer would doubtlessly point out, and the accountants would arrive with ornate pie-charts that could only come from bringing thousands of dollars of state-of-the-art software to bear on the timid conjecture that an epidemic of mix-tape makers would undermine the vast bureaucratic apparatus designed to convince impressionable teenagers to buy, and then throw away as soon as possible, mediocre name-brand audio entertainment products. (This idea is simultaneously paranoid, since mix-tape trading occurs on much too small a scale to perturb the music industry, and pitiful, since I feel certain that mix tapes help record sales, even of bad records, much more than they hurt them.) When your record's print run is only a thousand or two, though, and you expect to live with boxes of them in a hall closet indefinitely, neither copyright security nor profit maximization are particularly pressing issues. All these bands you've never heard of, releasing split singles on Parasol and Darla and Papercut and Magic Marker, some of them may harbor secret dreams of stardom, but none of them expect that this single, the one they're sitting at a friend's kitchen table putting into sleeves and numbering by hand because it's their first one and the fun of doing that hasn't worn off yet, is going to turn them into rock stars. They have the usual spectrum of motivations, I expect, for writing songs to begin with, but the journey towards wherever they hope to go always starts with somehow, against daunting odds, getting a few people to hear what they've done. Mix tapes are endorsements, in a genre that rarely gets them any other way; and immortality, because even with limited editions that probably won't quite have sold out by the heat-death of the universe, records can be forgotten far faster than they can be sold; and a massively distributed secondary distribution network, which emphasizes, not coincidentally, the peer relationship between players and listeners, rather than the vendor/customer dynamic of the serious music business. As the 45s have piled up around me, I've started feeling self-conscious that I don't have one to offer in return. It seems like I should, like the community tolerates unidirectional participation only reluctantly. For such a miniscule group, the indie underground has a remarkable appetite for new material. Pop should be ephemeral, Sarah Records claimed, and although I disagree vehemently on one level (the collectors' level, which results in my paying twenty dollars each for Gentle Despite singles, and yes, I know that people like me are to blame for that phenomenon in both directions), as a listener I agree whole-heartedly. You're supposed to buy lots of singles, that's why they're cheap, and of course many of them will make no impression, but a few will. One six-minute single isn't going to sustain you very long, no matter how great it is, but the accumulation of three-minute song epiphanies, and ten-minute EP epiphanies, and half-hour album epiphanies, just might. Making a life out of these scattered sparkles is an epic labor, like decorating a planet with pebbles, but then we're living on a planet decorated with pebbles, aren't we?
And one of the unexpected beneficiaries of this realization, if we assume that records want to be taken back off my shelf and played again, instead of just being left quietly alone, is Guided by Voices. The reason I was on the verge of giving up on them, it suddenly occurs to me, is that I was asking them to serve the wrong function. I was treating GbV records like Rush albums, expecting epics I'd want to cherish and scrutinize for a year, and although some GbV albums can support that kind of obsession, taken one at a time, the endless parade of them makes each one less precious. But I think, now, that this is partly the point. Robert Pollard would probably put out an album every month, if people would let him, and that's the frame of mind in which to listen to them. They're uneven and half-formed, sometimes, but if you get tired of the last one, the next one will be out before long, and in the meantime, listen to something else. Between this insight and my renewed fascination with low-fi pop, my backlog of GbV miscellanea, which had become wearying enough to contemplate that I'd half abandoned the attempt, suddenly looks like a noisy, pleasant evening. There's only one official GbV album in my catch-up survey, Tonics and Twisted Chasers, the belated public release of a fan-club-only compilation from a couple years ago, and given the haphazard nature of Pollard's "real" records, one that amounts to an outtakes collection is perhaps not the most auspicious place to begin a reconciliation, but if this relationship is going to work again, I'm going to have to get to everything, eventually, and if the order makes much difference, the cause is probably lost.
Neither the things I love about GbV nor the things that I find maddening take long to rediscover. "Satellite", the opening track, is a shameless wreck, no rhythm or melody to speak of, guitar spasms with all the grace of an asthmatic tuning a kazoo, Pollard wheezing in a directionless stream of what can only loosely be termed consciousness, elements coexisting by virtue of simultaneity and little else. If this song was produced by any method more premeditated than assigning a title to a minute and a half, clipped at random, out of the footage from a rehearsal that never quite got underway, I can't tell by listening. It doesn't last long, though, and when the level of the ever-present background hiss jumps frighteningly for the beginning of track two, I lean forward in stubborn anticipation, and sure enough, the next song is flawless. The difference between grievous and flawless may be subtle enough to raise doubts about my sanity, but I can only report my experiences. While "Dayton, Ohio - 19 Something and 5" uses almost all the same noises as "Satellite", this time they've been organized. The guitars appear to have been introduced to each other prior to the track's onset, as one of them grinds along a dense three-chord rhythm line while the other spirals through a persistent matched arpeggio that has begun to succumb to encroaching fuzziness, but must have been stunning in its youth. An unassuming drum-machine loop thumps patiently in the background, Pollard brushes off a melody somebody discarded that, at least from this distance, appears to have nothing wrong with it, and the lyrics oscillate amiably between sunny "children in the sprinkler" placidity and sinister "the smell of fried food and pure hot tar" doubts, ending with the title's appealing certainty that it knows the year, but isn't sure about the decade. A minute and forty seconds, and this one, too, is done. I'm not sure it'll linger in my mind much more than twice that, but that's four and a half minutes of smiling at something simple, and I wasted a lot more than four and half minutes on less nourishing expressions today.
There are two dozen songs on this album, most of them about the same length and demeanor as the first two, and I find that about half of them make me quite happy, happy enough that I'm willing to just laugh at the half that don't. "Is She Ever?" sounds like a bad Billy Bragg parody, and "My Thoughts Are a Gas" is lost somewhere between Devo and the Shaggs, but the bluntly suggestive "Knock 'Em Flyin'" could be a fragment from the director's cut of Tommy, and Pollard's swooping vocals redeem the droning, skeletal accompaniment of "The Top Chick's Silver Chord". A few purring lines of surprise harmony sneak into the spare "Key Losers", in which pick noise nearly drowns out the guitar the pick is supposed to be strumming, but then the forty-second shard "Ha Ha Man" is a single buzzsaw electric-guitar under breathtaking vocal pirouettes, "Wingtip Repair" finds Pollard singing over a piano part that could, until its disastrous failure of composure late in the song, have been borrowed from Steve Reich, and the becalmed "At the Farms" sounds like it's on the wrong speed. "Unbaited Vicar of Scorched Earth" (I defy you to parody Pollard's song titles) used to be an arena-rock power-ballad before it fell on hard times, "Optional Bases Opposed" can't decide whether to be metal sturm or pop candy, and "Look, It's Baseball", except for the weird lyrics, could be one of the sensitive acoustic lullabies in Still Crazy. "Maxwell" is just frayed, "The Stir Crazy Pornographer" expended all its inspiration on its title, and "158 Years of Beautiful Sex"'s drum machine is oppressively cheesy even for GbV. But then somebody applies a wrenching falsetto to the Nyman-esque piano clang of "Universal Nurse Finger", and the lyrics threaten to make sense (something like The Red Badge of Courage rewritten as a sympathetic portrait of Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer; OK, maybe the threat is a bluff). I suspect "Sadness to the End" is an in-joke I'm not getting, but "Reptilian Beauty Secrets" could give Trent Reznor lessons in distorted menace on shoestring budgets. "Long as a Block Is Black" dreams of being a teen-heartthrob torch-song, but "Jellyfish Reflector" is lost in some nightmare of squawking Seventies funk. "The Kite Surfer" sounds to me like random power chords and muttering (and I swear Pollard only half-smothers an enormous yawn in the middle of it), but "Girl From the Sun" has an irresistible "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" stomp (although I think I've heard its best joke, "People who live in glass houses should get stoned", somewhere before). And "The Candyland Riots", the last song, ends the record in appropriate confusion, borderline out-of-tune guitar twinges scattered around a melody wrapped up in fantasies of Joe Cocker. As with eating lobsters, extracting the good parts of GbV records without making too much of a mess can require special tools and a lot of patience. But if you forget about "without making too much of a mess" both activities are more fun.
Robert Pollard: Kid Marine
Any lingering suspicions that Pollard isn't in control of whether his songs sound like they were produced at the bottom of a mineshaft during an underground electromagnetic storm or not should be efficiently dispelled by juxtaposing Tonics and Twisted Chasers with Pollard's third nominal solo album, Kid Marine, whose personnel, once again, just happens to coincide with that of GbV at the time of its recording. Not in My Airforce and Waved Out, the first two to bear Pollard's name, not the band's, weren't high on my list of his finest accomplishments, as they both had a few songs I thought were decent, and a lot of filler that seemed beneath even GbV's malleable standards. Kid Marine adds a few more of each type. The acoustic "Flings of the Waistcoat Crowd" is slight, musically, but the harmonies are earnest, and I can put up with a lot from a song with the word "insectrocutioner" in it. "The Big Make-Over" is solid, unhurried, mid-tempo rock. The droning "Strictly Comedy" staggers into one great surging rock chorus in the middle, and then out the other side again. "Far-Out Crops" remembers the lessons in rock intensity from Cobra Verde's tenure as the rest of GbV. "Living Upside Down" is an extended intro that never manages to evolve into anything. The lamentably-titled "Snatch Candy" sounds to me like Pollard's not-especially-convincing impression of Radiohead, or maybe Jeff Buckley, or perhaps only Journey. "White Gloves Come Off" is lurching and unattractive, to me, and "Enjoy Jerusalem!" seems to groan under its own weight, but on "You Can't Hold Your Women", which is no more supple or quick, Pollard's quieter vocal delivery lends the music a different hue, and the song ends up sounding to me like a distant cousin of one of Marillion's abstract dirges.
The most exciting moments on Kid Marine, though, for me, are the ones that spin off on un-GbV-like digressions. "Submarine Teams", the opener, at five minutes a virtual epic for Pollard, is partly an infectious rock song, but a bizarre glossolalian sample loop runs through almost all of it, a strange production touch from way outside Pollard's usual spectrum of strange production touches. The first minute of "Men Who Create Fright" is all slap-back vocal treatment and a chattering violin like the first few seconds of the chorus of the Tubes' "She's a Beauty" stuck on repeat, but the second minute is churning rock drive. "Television Prison" falls somewhere between the John Spencer Blues Explosion, the Fall and Romeo Void's "Never Say Never". "Town of Mirrors" wants to be a folk song, but other than the idea that its guitars should sound more like banjos, isn't sure what that entails, and after a while gives up and blasts into a coda half borrowed from U2's "Bad". "Powerblessings" finds Pollard's usual wiry guitar on a first-date with some shimmery keyboard hum. And "Island Crimes", easily the most substantial song of this set, is an embryonic Who rock-opera that would surely explode into windmilling splendor if it went on longer. If the Beatles and the Who represent the poles of Pollard's musical universe, Kid Marine is nearly as far towards Townshend's dramatic flair as Bee Thousand was towards Lennon and McCartney's buoyant lilt. I do miss the impish glee of songs like "Kicker of Elves" and "My Valuable Hunting Knife", when I stop and think about them, but the old records still work, and Pollard seems like he's inching towards something new, and I'll try my best to follow along without scaring him away.
Tobin Sprout: Moonflower Plastic
And if you pine for GbV's pop days but insist on moving forward at all times, there are also now three solo albums and some other assorted oddities from ex-co-songwriter and occasional GbV vocalist Tobin Sprout. Moonflower Plastic, the second album, came out back in 1997, and I vividly remember listening to it a couple times and surmising that all the songwriting acumen in GbV was Pollard's. Listening to it again now, however, I haven't the slightest idea what I was thinking. Sprout's chronically unsteady voice has a sort of blurry sheen to it that I've only recently overcome an aversion to, thanks mostly to the Field Mice and the Orchids, but that can't explain why I thought these eminently accessible pop songs lacked melodies. I'm going to pretend my old CD player was the problem, which is also nonsensical, but less embarrassing. At most, a few of these songs are noisy and textural, like the buzzy "Get Out of My Throat", the decelerated Social Distortion clomp of "Paper Cut", the strained four-track hiss of "A Little Odd", and the growling "Curious Things". But the title track is gorgeous piano pop on the order of "Let It Be" crossed with Randy Newman, the beatbox-driven "Beast of Soul" is a throwback to when GbV sounded like REM without access to Mitch Easter's gear, and the starlight choruses of "Angels Hang Their Socks on the Moon" sound like avatars of the same eternal impulse that has animated half the pop songs in recorded history, from Poco to the Dream Academy to the Goo Goo Dolls. The swirly "Exit Planes" proves that with a little reverb you can build a song around Casio's Rock 2 setting, sputtering flams and all. "Little Bit of Dread" narrowly avoids getting derailed by the questionable decision to run the rhythm-guitar part through an Auto-Wah patch never intended for anything but an effects-box demo. "Water on the Boater's Back" wouldn't have been out of place in Grace of My Heart. And my favorite track, "All Used Up", which I'm dumbfounded I ever heard without melting, is effortless Beatles-lineage jangle, and belongs in the public-school music curriculum, if only as a demonstration of proper splash-cymbal technique, which is surely as important for children to learn as the difference between a compass and a protractor. (A compass tells you which direction you would have to walk to get to the Pragmatic North Pole; a protractor is a machine for wasting time.) I have to believe that with a few more songs like this, and a few less like "Frère Jacques" and "Michael Row Your Boat Ashore", and we wouldn't produce so many adults who think accounting and corporate litigation are acceptable ways to expend their life-forces.
Tobin Sprout: Wax Nails
Tobin hooks up different toys for the six-song, fifteen-minute 1998 EP Wax Nails, but the spirit is little altered. The square-wave bleat of "Get Your Calcium" yields to the rolling, elegiac sway of "Cereal Killer", organ chirp and warmly overdriven guitar filling in over Jim Eno's square drumming. The short "Seed" could probably pass for Richard Shindell if Tobin's voice was an octave lower, and "In Good Hands" sounds like an attempt to perform "Bridge Over Troubled Water" using They Might Be Giants' equipment. The frazzled demo of "How's Your House" sounds like it came out a little more Wall-of-Voodoo-ish than would be ideal. The prize of this set, for me, is "The Crawling Backward Man", another pop/rock song in the unmistakable old GbV pop idiom, inexorable drumming, fuzzy, pealing guitar, a plaintive melody and a cryptic chorus, with the added asset of lasting nearly three minutes, which GbV songs often didn't, albeit with an abrupt mid-beat ending that makes me glance over at the stereo to be sure this isn't one of those 45s whose music-bearing grooves extended farther into the disk than my auto-return turntable arm is willing to venture.
Tobin Sprout: Let's Welcome the Circus People
As Robert Pollard slides further into rock blare, Tobin Sprout seems to be following a mirror trajectory into an endearingly anachronistic "Cruel to Be Kind" conception of pop. Let's Welcome the Circus People, solo album number three, seems reluctant to let a downbeat go unremarked upon, and I spend much of this album mentally adding the doot-doot-doot backing-vocalist peeps these songs seem to plead for. "And So On" and "Maid to Order" are elegant low-fi Byrds homages, though, "Making a Garden" is a sort of psychedelic robot waltz, and "Liquor Bag" sounds like Bob Dylan backed up by some mixture of the English Beat and Yo La Tengo. "Who's Adolescence" is marred, for me, by the spelling error in the title, although, to be fair, the omission of apostrophes in pronoun possessives is one of English's particularly obtuse practices. The pastoral "100% Delay" reminds me of Winter Hours. "Vertical Insect (The Lights Are On)" sounds like the closest thing to an heir to "Angels Hang Their Socks on the Moon", but if you had to find an old-GbV-style single hiding in these dozen songs, I think the best bet would be the chiming "Lucifer's Flaming Hour", with its "Motor Away"-ish chorus, as the a-side, and the gauzy, methodical "And Then the Crowd Showed Up" as the reverse. It seems to me, however, like Tobin is deliberately, if slowly, stripping the most obtrusive elements of Guided by Voices out of his sound, in search of what's left when you eliminate everything but his own urges.
Fig. 4: Fig. 4
I haven't developed a taste for former GbV bassist/guitarist Mitch Mitchell's new band, Terrifying Experience, whose corpus now includes an EP and a full album, so my et al survey concludes with this recent reissue of the one self-titled 1986 album by Fig. 4, Tobin Sprout's pre-GbV band, accompanied by a handful of bonus tracks from later in Tobin's career (notably the wonderful "Sadder Than You", from the Popstram EP). The musical logic for Pollard and Sprout joining forces is pretty plainly evident in their early records. If Guided by Voices sounded like REM, then Fig. 4 sound even more like peripheral Southern-axis players Winter Hours and the Primitons. In 1986 GbV made the debut EP that Pollard refuses to reissue, Fig. 4 did this, REM made Life's Rich Pageant, Winter Hours were working on "Hyacinth Girl" and "Wail Till the Morning", and the Primitons were in between their EP and their album. For a few months, it seemed like the Byrds were more important than the Beatles, Peter Buck's dulcimer-ish guitar line on REM's "Seven Chinese Brothers" was all you really needed to know to start a band (although in polite society it was considered uncouth to illustrate this idea with the Cult's decidedly un-Athenian "She Sells Sanctuary"), and three chords were plenty as long as one of them was a suspended fourth. If subsequent research has uncovered flaws in these theories, I missed the journal articles. Fig. 4's breathy harmonies (Pollard, in fact, on several of these songs) and ebullient guitars sound just as unassailable to me now as they did the first time I heard the Plimsouls' "A Million Miles Away", and why everybody doesn't still play like this, I'm hard pressed to imagine. There's nothing slick about Sprout's straightforward eight-track production, but GbV's intentional low-fi distortions are still comfortably in the future. I was nineteen, when all this was happening, and maybe anything that happens when you're nineteen acquires some of your glow. But putting on these songs I'd never heard before, and instantly knowing when they were made, is one of those experiences that keep horoscope-writers in business. They never get mine right, though, and it's simple enough that there's no excuse: You will buy lots of records. Periodically, one of them will convince you that humans are good animals.