China: 20 Years of Mag Earwhig!

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Guided By Voices – Mag Earwhig!

Released May 20th, 1997 on Matador Records

Guided By Voices was never supposed to be a full-time thing.  Formed in the late 1980s as a real band, it slowly morphed into a revolving door of Dayton, Ohio musicians – basically anyone who would come over and drink with 4th-grade teacher Robert Pollard.  1992’s Propeller caught Pollard by surprise when it found a listener base in the wake of the Alternative Revolution, a base that expanded exponentially with the one-two punch of Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes.  Under The Bushes Under The Stars, a 1996 album recorded with Pixies bassist Kim Deal, solidified that base, but by 1997 Pollard was pushing at the boundaries of what was possible with his new found underground rock star status, a status that had finally allowed him to ditch his day job and pursue his high-kicking rock frontman dreams full-time.  To this end, he got rid of the 1992-1996 Guided By Voices lineup and hired Cleveland garage band Cobra Verde to be his backing band; the first record of this lineup was Mag Earwhig!, the last great Guided By Voices album.

Mag Earwhig! is at once much more professional sounding than previous Guided By Voices efforts (except perhaps for the “sterile-sounding” REM-aping 1986 EP Forever Since Breakfast) and as a result it can be jarring for a listener who has been going through the band’s ridiculously lengthy discography.  The joke of this is encapsulated in the sketch-song “I Am Produced”, which finds Pollard musing on all the prepping and packaging that goes along with bigger recording contracts and studio time.  As a “pro-level” GBV record, it’s still messy and filled with a certain willful need to colour outside of the lines; “The Old Grunt”, “Are You Faster?”, “Choking Tara”, “Hollow Cheek”, and the title track are all barely filled-in sketches in the vein of what studded the length of Bee Thousand.  At the same time, there are any number of songs that point the way toward the rock-melody-genius three-minute British Invasion style tracks that would comprise the band’s output up until 2004; “Bulldog Skin”, “Not Behind The Fighter Jet”, “Portable Men’s Society”, “Jane Of The Waking Universe”, and the utterly sublime “The Colossus Crawls West” are among the best of Pollard’s compositions, overall, but it is interesting that the best track on Mag Earwhig!, the high-energy “I Am A Tree”, is actually a composition by Cobra Verde’s Doug Gillard.

After, GBV would release a major label debut, Do The Collapse, that was a crushing bore, with few exceptions.  They would release some solid albums after that, both before the 2004 breakup and after the 2012 reunion, but none would hold a candle to the classic lineup or to Mag Earwhig!.

 

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With Endurance Like The Liberty Bell: A Guide To Guided By Voices, Part 4 (2012-2014)

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Let’s Go Eat The Factory (2012)

In 2010, Matador Records threw a 21st birthday party for itself in Las Vegas, and it was topped off by a reunion of the classic GBV lineup (the 1992-1996 incarnation, when the real magic occurred).  This was followed by recording sessions and, on New Years Day 2012, a new GBV album.  Like the albums they’d originally done, they recorded on home equipment in garages, living rooms, and basements, and it seems to have given them the impetus to just relax.  While it’s not quite on the level of, say, *Propeller* or *Bee Thousand*, it’s much better than anything made from 1997 onward.  It showed that the band wasn’t quite done yet, although that would of course prove to be something of an understatement.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=975Ml2_Klpk] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vn8z7k-Qqk0] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l6_YAtr0x48]

Class Clown Spots A UFO (2012)

Six months after *Let’s Go Eat The Factory* the band returned with another sprawling album that sounded like a *slightly* less inspired version of the original lineup’s glory days.  Gone were the professional, solid, unexceptional albums of the early 2000s; the band brought back the quick bursts of British Invasion rock ‘n’ roll, the quirky lo-fi recording quality, and the weird song-sketch collages that interspersed their best work.  The off-kilter moments are still there, of course, but the good moments are brilliant, and numerous.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pVF_q1ZbU-4] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nh72hROAzFw] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tiyqCbOSv0w]

The Bears For Lunch (2012)

Then came the *third* reunion album in 12 months, and it became obvious that the band was literally incapable of not writing songs.  *The Bears For Lunch* is arguably the best of the three 2012 albums, although it’s not by much.  The style is the same, though; classic early Who and Kinks type songs filtered through a stormy night when radio signals bounce all over the ionosphere and snatches of great old pop songs can be heard fitfully and from far off.  The hit percentage is, as the others, not as high as it was in the mid-1990s, but it’s close.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DvaHuls6p7c] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Hn0_uFEa5E] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_m1YmrOxv4]

English Little League (2013)

The band’s fourth album in the space of a year finds the third era of Guided By Voices beginning to run out of steam a bit.  When they’re on, they’re **on** (especially on Tobin Sprout’s songs), but when they’re off they seem muddled and distant, like a lover who’s beginning to tire of you.  Time will tell if the relationship will begin to sour, but if it does, this will mark the point where you can look back, broken and alone in a rented efficiency with hotdogs thawing in the sink, and say that it all began here.  The hit-to-miss ratio, always pretty high on even mediocre GBV releases, slips a bit here; it is proof, perhaps, that even a band as fiendishly prolific as Guided By Voices can eventually wind itself down.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79mXK2oFSMc] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vA9W3l11IOM] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amB9S8Z9HY8]

Motivational Jumpsuit (2014)

And just like that the pendulum swings back and the band seems on fire once again.  After taking a (relative) break through 2013 the band released *Motivational Jumpsuit* and proved their continued vitality.  If the four albums of 2012-2013 sound like they could be cherry-picked to produced one really stellar album, *Motivational Jumpsuit* sounds like that album.  20 tracks in 40 minutes seems as breezy and concise as it did in the days of *Bee Thousand*, and while the quality is, again, not quite up to the standards of those hoary old days, it’s closer than it’s been at any point during the post-reunion period.  The rockers are chunky, with fat, bottom-scraping guitars playing off of drums that actually sound well produced despite the lo-fi recording.  The ballads are the best part of the album, especially on the joyous singalong of “Some Things Are Big (And Some Things Are Small)” or “Jupiter Spin”, on which the band reprises its love of appropriating Beatles melodies and takes a new look at “Tomorrow Never Knows.”.  It’s a solid album that points the way forward for another busy year of prolific songwriting, and remains as yet another indication of the inhuman creativity of Pollard and Co.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-MioyVHn-8] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NDfI59euLQg] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5oJp6rH798A] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_kIvD2BStU]

 

With Endurance Like The Liberty Bell: A Guide To Guided By Voices, Part 3 (1997-2004)

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File:Mag Earwhig!.jpg

Mag Earwhig! (1997)

Following the demise of the Tobin Sprout era, Pollard hooked up with Cleveland rockers Cobra Verde and recruited them to be his new version of Guided By Voices.  The album is perhaps the most consistently focused album of the post-Scat era; it’s a direct continuation of *Under The Bushes Under The Stars*, with even higher production values.  The songs seem more like the songs of a regular band, only written by a guy that can’t seem to take two steps without writing a pair of knockout pop songs.  The professionalism can be off-putting to fans of the wild, anything-goes era, but those used to mainstream rock will find a lot to love on this one.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZV1fPyh53Ik] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ayd-MIyKerw] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wrn_8JmBJWo] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5cNgnHUevU] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oWje0GJmU8I]

Do The Collapse (1999)

The band’s major label debut (on TVT Records), produced by Ric Ocasek (of The Cars), and honestly not all that remarkable.  Often pointed to as a weak link in the band’s discography, the pressure of being signed to a major label after having spent so many years poor and recording through basement walls seems to have pushed Pollard into writing a really bland group of songs.  There are really only a couple of standouts and the rest can be discarded at will.  Interestingly, both standouts were used in pop culture:  the stellar, misleading lead-off track “Teenage FBI” was used in *Buffy The Vampire Slayer* and super-ballad “Hold On Hope” was used memorably in an episode of *Scrubs*.  At the same time, their live show, a ramshackle affair involving a **LOT** of drinking, kicked into epic mode, with sets often going over the three-hour mark.  Anyone who grew up on modern rock radio will find *something* to like about the album, but in my humble opinion it pales in comparison to what came before or (to a lesser extent) what would come after.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bg6iVqMLOQ] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RY2lSSmKBNk]

Isolation Drills (2001)

A bit of a return to form after the relative snooze-fest of *Do The Collapse*, *Isolation Drills* contains some of the best tracks of the post-*Under The Bushes Under The Stars* era, and puts back the muscle and heft that Ric Ocasek’s glossy production sacrificed.  There’s a lot of love for the Seventies here; while Pollard’s songwriting will always remain anchored in the British Invasion, there’s a sense on *Isolation Drills* that the band set out to make the best Cheap Trick album ever recorded.  In this, they succeed:  the songs sound ready for the arena at first blush, and the fact that radio didn’t immediately pick up on the universal accessibility of the album just goes to show the problems with terrestrial radio right from the beginning of the internet age.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mV4b9SNZkU4] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGwThqr472s] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7KiLRCxt58] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XZsi9uEOJLg]

Universal Truths And Cycles (2002)

Back to Matador they went, and even though they went from a major to an indie they managed to do better, chart-wise, than anything that came before (relax, it was only #160).  It’s a bit tighter than *Isolation Drills*, and the reduction in recording budget actually seems to bring a bit of the old wild Pollard out to play in places.  The magical moments seem a bit forced at times, but it’s a good album – not essential like *Bee Thousand*, or as lifeless as *Do The Collapse*, but it lands somewhere in the middle of their discography.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNuTvWO3rKI] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lw273CvvG5o] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wyJXZJDTm4]

Earthquake Glue (2003)

*Earthquake Glue* was an album that showed a band on a real upswing.  Their previous two albums had shown a willingness to be consistently good, if not great; they were albums you could listen to all the way through a couple of times, and then skip to the good parts thereafter.  *Earthquake Glue* recaptures a bit of that old magic, though, from the 4-track garage recording days; there is a light, mellow groove that permeates the album like a particularly good bag of weed.  It’s still not as consistent as anything from the lo-fi era, but it can be considered as being perhaps the most solidly satisfying of the second part of the band’s career.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NaiQYgaSSw] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wl1965lkmTA] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJdiBIruHUc]

Half Smiles Of The Decomposed (2004)

This was supposed to be the last album – they announced in April of 2004 that it would be, and for a while it was.  It sounds like an attempt at crafting something a bit more wide-screen than anything they’d done before, like an album composed of the last songs of the night at their panoramic live shows.  In this it really only half-succeeds; many of the songs, even though they fall into the usual two-and-a-half minute mould, seem as though they are wearing out their welcome by the end.  It seems a bit tired, more than anything else, and Pollard was more than happy to spend the next several years following his muse through a series of typically ramshackle solo projects and albums with his sometime band Boston Spaceships.  For all intents and purposes, Guided By Voices was put to bed for good.

Standouts:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MTzCxFlT8g] [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3oahhlvwZKk]

Guided By Voices – “Flunky Minnows”

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Speaking of modern-day Robert Pollards:  Robert Pollard.  Does this guy ever stop?  Does he ever run out of classic ideas?  How many GBV albums will 2013 bring us?   This is the lead single from the fourth post-reunion album, the first three having been released just last year.  The quality keeps getting better, at any rate; this track in particular seems to find the ‘classic lineup’ really getting back into its groove like it’s 1994 all over again.