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Popcorn for Geronimo
123 · 5 June 97
Guided by Voices / Cobra Verde: Aim Correctly / Orange Jacket / Terrorist
Foreshadowing for the new Guided by Voices album, Mag Earwhig!, although there's something oxymoronic about a vinyl 45 being foreshadowing, came a few weeks in advance in the form of this split GbV/Cobra Verde single, the GbV side of which finds Cleveland band (and old Scat label-mates) Cobra Verde acting as Robert Pollard's new backing group. Especially when heard in retrospect, the partnership here doesn't seem quite settled yet. "Aim Correctly" is reedy and a little bit psychedelic, but Pollard doesn't sound completely comfortable with the band's jangle to me, and although the chorus is able to build up a little momentum, the verses lose it again. "Orange Jacket" is more ambitious, but the music to it sounds so self-sufficient that Pollard's presence feels superfluous. A song needs to need its vocals, and this one merely tolerates them. The band is muscular, and the idea of combining CV's power with Pollard's pop eccentricities seems intriguing, but it's hard for me to tell from this little evidence what I think will come of it. Cobra Verde's own bristly "Terrorist", on the flipside, would never have made it into my record collection any other way.
Guided by Voices: Mag Earwhig!
Ever since Bee Thousand, which is when I first encountered Guided by Voices, I've been waiting for something. As my stock of Guided by Voices songs grew (backwards, first, and then forwards with Alien Lanes, Under the Bushes Under the Stars, Robert Pollard's "solo" album Not in My Airforce, and piles of singles), so did my amazement, but so also did my nervousness. Pollard, it has been established to my satisfaction, possesses a shard of the magic stone from which guitar-pop manna flows. He also has an enviably unself-conscious willingness to share things with the world without fretting about whether they're perfect yet, or even fully-formed, or even necessarily vaguely intelligible. This combination produces, at least for me, the sensation that these songs are not so much being written as they are simply pouring out of Pollard's head, like a mythological mountain stream fed by the fevered creativity of a delirious hero chained to the summit in lieu of the glacier his evil twin melted to woo a maiden (mythological maidens are impressed by the strangest things). And while the unfiltered immediacy of this is reliably bracing, its volume can be its own undoing. I liked Smashing Pumpkins much better before I heard "Pastichio Medley", and Guided by Voices were beginning to run the same risk. It's strange that it should matter; a great song shouldn't become less great because there are other great songs in the world. But I find that it does matter. In revealing how little effort an average Smashing Pumpkins song requires of him, Corgan has led me to totally recalibrate my expectations of him. I won't buy another "Bullet With Butterfly Wings", or "Thirty-Three". Now that I know what he can turn out in his sleep, I won't be satisfied until I hear something that sounds like it was hard for him. If he isn't willing to challenge himself, why should I pay attention? Now, obviously I can only act on what I know, so he might be able to write a dozen songs a day, and then just pick fifteen at random when the label calls asking for a new album (I believe this was Prince's approach for several years), and if he didn't brag about it I might mistake profligacy for judgment, and think that each surviving song was the work of a month, not an hour. Or I might know.
In Pollard's case, I was beginning to think I knew. Not in My Airforce not only didn't grab me, it didn't even paw at me ineffectually. It didn't even react when I tried to grab it. Before it I'd entered Pollard into my roll of pop songwriters who don't seem capable of writing a bad song, but after it I felt a sinking feeling that he had the ability in him after all. There's no shame in that, but the more serious danger I began to fear was that the inexorable flood of songs might end up diluting, for me, the appeal of the GbV albums I'd previously loved. Part of the fervor of my reaction to Bee Thousand had to do with how singular it seemed to me at the time, and each subsequent album in about the same mold makes it less singular, and so less impressive. The first Warhol painting I saw seemed like a paradigm shifting, but the hundredth, after I found out he had a loft full of underlings grinding them out, felt like it was less concerned with shifting paradigms than units.
So I needed a new kind of GbV album for two reasons. First, I wanted to love one again. I liked Alien Lanes and Under the Bushes Under the Stars a lot, and still do, and would gladly take the podium on their sides in a debate, but I do not love them like I love Bee Thousand. And yes, maybe it shows there is too little else in my life that I'd would care, but it hurts me not to love them. I want to believe that my affections are not this fickle. I want to be able, every time I read a review that grumbles about how some band I love only ever made one good album, to know in my heart that this is bad reviewing, and that the review says more about the writer's glib condescension than it does about the artist's inspiration or commitment. The other reason I needed a new kind of GbV album, though, is that I needed to close this age of the band's life, to find an ending to its story before its story stopped being the one I wanted to read. The Castle notwithstanding (or perhaps especially), an artwork is not alive until it is complete, and I was petrified that GbV's wouldn't end soon enough, and so would miss its opportunity to mean what I hoped it could. So I kept buying the singles, but I wished for a new era. Wishing for change, though, is a hazardous enterprise. For every band that metamorphosed, to me, into something wonderful (like Talk Talk, or Runrig, or Marillion) there are at least two who simply lost me (Mark Eitzel, REM, U2, Zap Mama, Josh Clayton-Felt, Paul Weller, Rush). My mixed signals about a) challenging yourself by trying something different, or b) staying true to yourself by resisting irrelevant temptation, would be enough to drive anybody mad, if it weren't for the saving grace that they've no reason to care what I think.
Yearn for change or dread it, though, Mag Earwhig! does find Guided by Voices having undergone their most significant restructuring. Although Tobin Sprout, Jim Pollard, Mitch Mitchell, Kevin Fennell and John Shough all appear in the credits, they're relegated to a colorless section labeled "With:". GbV proper, for this album, consists of Robert Pollard, Doug Gillard, John Petkovic, Don Depew and Dave Swanson, which, if you take Pollard out, is the entire staff of Cobra Verde. The balance of power varies by song, but the overall result of the personnel change is, perhaps unsurprisingly, that this album sounds less like one made by a bunch of old friends goofing around in one of their garages, and more like one made by a professional rock band. Opinion will be divided, undoubtably, on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Cobra Verde aren't humorless, but I would certainly never call them impish, and they give this album a firm shove along the slider from pop to rock. With twenty-one songs in forty-six minutes, this album is still resolutely fragmentary, but where Bee Thousand was, to me, an album made of fragments, Mag Earwhig! is an album made of songs, which only happens to have fragments interspersed. Half the songs were recorded by Shough in Dayton, and three are from Sprout's four-track, but this, too, feels like a flavor this time around, not the album's essential personality, and for all the returning elements, the album actually does feel like a new era beginning, to me. This is convenient wish-fulfillment, perhaps, but if so I see no reason to undermine the efforts of my own hopefulness. Whether you'll hear the change as clearly as I do, I don't know. Whether you'll like it, if you hear it, I don't know. West, Mark Eitzel's collaboration with Peter Buck, makes my skin crawl. I loved Eitzel's harrowing intensity so much in American Music Club, and on his first live solo album, that hearing his voice over Buck's languid guitar jangle induces severe cognitive dissonance and aesthetic nausea. Yet I've read several reviews that contend West is Eitzel's best album. So I know that some people will feel about Pollard what I feel about Eitzel, and blanch at the sound of Cobra Verde prodding Pollard through songs at such an even keel, not derailed by his trademark structural perversity. They will miss Sprout's Beatlesque harmonies, the welcoming expanses of tape hiss, the erratic stop-start informality, and think that there were too many post-Nirvana guitar-rock albums already, and GbV need no more have contributed to the glut than Rush and Queensryche. And maybe you will be among them. This album could make you angry and sad, and I have no wish to bring those emotions on you unnecessarily.
But GbV isn't big enough to have that many casual fans, so if you care about them you're probably going to buy this album anyway. And I have five reasons to hope that you won't resent doing so. One is that you might agree with me that this is GbV's second great album. The second is that even if you don't, and hate this, it will give you license to complain about how much better GbV were before, and if there's one thing even more satisfying than following a band nobody's ever heard of, it's being able to gripe about how much better they used to be, even though the people you're griping to still haven't heard of them. The third is that Pollard's gift for surreally evocative lyrics is undiminished. As always, his songs often have the uneven cadences and puzzling word-associations that suggest close derivation from something a million-monkey typing-pool was particularly proud of, but I find that even when they are apparently most random, Pollard's lines have an internal logic that is more arresting for seeming accidental, like finding a sandstone outcropping shaped like Tecumseh's ear is cooler than finding a postcard of it in the gift shop. I believe he's the only lyricist in the world who could use the phrase "noseload of prophecies" in a song without it seeming undignified or clumsily topical. The fourth is that, as different as this record is, its tone is not without precedent in GbV's corpus. In a way it seems to me that this album has been coming ever since "I Am a Scientist". Even on the album version, and definitely on the remixed single, "I Am a Scientist" managed to hold back the band's tendency to abandon solid rock hooks mid-arc, and Alien Lanes and Under the Bushes Under the Stars inched still further away from mosaic toward a collage made up of larger individual pieces. Much of what could be this album's betrayal of principle, then, can be seen instead as an expansion on the idea that sometimes even GbV songs can be followed to their logical conclusions. If some of the genius of Bee Thousand was how it jettisoned the boring parts of songs and just kept the glittering hooks, then Mag Earwhig! can be heard as an attempt to prove that Pollard can write the other parts of the songs, too, and they don't have to be boring.
And my fifth reason for hope is that this album has, I think, nine songs as good as any GbV have done, which is as many as I would cite on any other individual album (though again, judging Bee Thousand song-by-song to me misses its point), and while there's no real reason to be more confident about my song predictions than my assessment of the whole record, the statistics, at least, are encouraging. "Sad If I Lost It" is kind of a transition from the old GbV to this one, as it starts out compressed, fuzzy and distant, with a guitar tone made up more of wires than electricity, but halfway through it lurches into motion, the drums and guitar distortion revving up to near rock levels. "Bulldog Skin", the first single, is measurably blunter than "Motor Away" or "The Official Ironmen Rally Song", but for me the backing-vocal whoops, whirring cricket noises and Chad Stanisic's warbling organ keep it afloat. The uneasy "Portable Men's Society", choppily Fugazi-ish in parts, turns unexpectedly tender in between the jagged verses, and then explodes into a roar underpinned by Mitchell's distinctive growling bass. "Little Lines" would be an uncanny Sugar pastiche if Pollard's melodic idioms and vocal style weren't so unlike Bob Mould's. "Jane of the Waking Universe" is sunny and old-fashioned, "Mute Superstar" jumps from repetitive stridency to a lilting lullaby, and "Bomb in the Bee-Hive" grinds its gears gleefully, as if Luka Bloom has joined a punk band. The one non-Pollard song here, Gillard's soaring, harmonic-drenched "I Am a Tree", something like a fast, happy Buffalo Tom, is a notable drop-off in lyric complexity when you read it, but Pollard's delivery garbles the words enough to restore some inviting ambiguity.
The song that defines the album for me, though, and probably does most of the work of determining my reaction, is "Not Behind the Fighter Jet", which sits in its center in both time and spirit. Its structure should be familiar, since it's basically the same one they used for "I Am a Scientist", "Motor Away" and a bunch of others: a steady rhythm stomp (Mitchell on bass, again), guitar edging along beside Pollard's vocal as if watching him warily for clues, background harmonies joining him for the lines that end neatly but leaving him alone for the ones that seem to have a beat too many, or too few. Where many of my other favorite GbV songs, though, sound like pulverized fugitives from an alternate-universe's Beatles' demo vault, which may be Pollard's musical heritage but isn't mine, this one seems to me to draw a host of closer influences into its embrace. Mould is there, again. A little Social Distortion swagger, maybe. A less-frothy "Radiation Vibe". A little Soul Asylum strain, some Posies lilt, the Connells' ring, Low Pop Suicide's surge, a passing chill from Kurt's ghost, with some of Matthew Sweet's warmth to dispel it, and even an organ sigh from one of Boston's instrumental prologues. With the older songs, even as I love them, a part of me wonders if I have imposed on them by making them mine. Does not having made the pilgrimage from Please Please Me to Abbey Road mean that I haven't earned "Tractor Rape Chain", "Goldheart Mountain Top Queen Directory" or "My Valuable Hunting Knife"? Does the fact that I don't really know in a way answer the question even as it's asked? Maybe. Maybe. But if so, then perhaps "Not Behind the Fighter Jet" can be my rejoinder, the one you can't understand without all the things I do know. And so I offer a truce, or a sheaf of them, with my past, music's, GbV's, everyone's. Maybe there are too many fuzzbox bands, really, but there are never too many truces, and never too many sutures sewn across the rifts in everything.
Guided by Voices: Bulldog Skin
The single for "Bulldog Skin" adds two more songs. Actually, there's an imported CD-single version that adds three, but I bought the 45 weeks before I discovered it, and in a rare flash of anti-completist fiscal propriety decided not to spend another $10 for "Mannequin's Complaint (Wax Dummy Meltdown)" (and to show you how ruthless I was feeling, this week, I also didn't buy Boston's Greatest Hits ("three new tracks!", as if there's such a thing as a "new" Boston song) or Pat Benatar's new album; but we both know I'll probably recant and buy them over the weekend). The 45's two b-sides are a dour, desultory Pollard/Sprout out-take called "The Singing Razorblade", and an electrified version of Mag Earwhig!'s "Now to War". The latter is sturdy and concussive, but it's sturdy and concussive in the same way several other past and present GbV songs have been, so my guess is that the album's sketchy, acoustic version was chosen in the interest of varying pace.
If there's a casualty, for me, in Guided by Voices' transition to their new selves, it might well be their singles. When their albums were short and kaleidoscopic, like Bee Thousand, and their singles, like the eight-song, ten-minute Fast Japanese Spin Cycle, were like miniature replicas of the albums cunningly reconstructed inside a hollowed human hair, I collected them with something of the bemused obsessiveness that, when Trekkies and Civil-War buffs display it, I assume the Franklin Mint has to thank for their continued existence. The synapses responsible, when I was eight, for the hours I spent scrutinizing Dinky and Matchbox catalogs are probably also involved in the quizzical smile that comes over me as I listen to The Grand Hour (you may have to play it six times to understand the title) or Get Out of My Stations. Bulldog Skin doesn't produce that smile. This doesn't seem like another little artwork, to me, it seems like two songs Pollard decided he could live without, which we probably could have, too. If the Faustian bargain he struck to make a solid rock album is that he can't make any more singles that play like GbV for doll houses or sea horses, though, then Satan is getting soft in his old age, and this might be a really good time to negotiate for a superpower.