Guided by Voices’s album ‘Mag Earwhig’ was released some twenty-one years ago. It was a “lineup change” album that some fans saw as “the end of an era”. Whereas others, like me, saw it as the beginning of something great. This article is an in-depth song-by-song analysis of the sprawling 21-track LP. As I will be making some obscure references to Guided by Voices (GBV) lore throughout, I thought I should start with an overview.
Note – If you are GBV Level 10 and are Sebadoh and Sentridoh Thetan Free (SSTF) you can proceed past the introduction and skip directly to the song reviews.
Part 1) Who is Guided by Voices?
If you’re reading this, you probably know something about Guided by Voices. For instance, that GBV is Dayton, Ohio musician Robert Pollard and any particular musicians he chooses to have around him at any given time. If you ask Pollard what type of music GBV plays, he often refers to what he’s coined as the “Four P’s of Rock”: Pop, Prog, Psych and Punk. And that’s a good start, but it misses classic-rock and a fifth “P”… for Pete. Pete Townshend, that is. The 60s and early 70s Who are clearly one of Pollard’s most fundamental early influences (that and the Beatles). And no current band has been able to carry on, and elaborate on, that primal/essential Who-rock-energy-spark the way Robert Pollard has with GBV.
It is worthy to note that Pollard is an extremely prolific composer who has, over the course of his career, written and published well over 2,000 songs and released over 100 LPs as GBV, Robert Pollard or various side projects…and that doesn’t even count the EPs and singles! He is also a successful visual artist who works exclusively in collage.
Pollard is known for keeping his compositions short and lean, writing creative chord patterns and guitar riffs that are both surprising and accessible, over which he sings catchy melodies that he appears to have no shortage of. He has an innate instinct for finding unforgettable hooks and clever lines that will burrow their way into your brain.
Because Pollard grew up on Prog, he doesn’t necessarily follow standard pop song structural conventions, which in the 90s was a blast of fresh air. The 90s were a time when every major label rock band (in a transparent attempt to try to make a “Radio-freindly” hit and pad out the length of their “10 song” LPs) was slavishly following traditional pop structure (intro/verse/verse/bridge/chorus/verse/bridge/chorus/middle-eight/solo/verse /bridge/chorus/chorus/fade) which would extend out every song to four-and-a-half minutes…when the tunes themselves often wore out their welcome after two. This structural orthodoxy, song-after-song on an LP, could also add to the entire 10 song program feeling redundant and stale.
Pollard, on the other hand, wasn’t afraid to cut out the fat, giving us, for example, an unconventionally stuctured one-and-a-half minute song (verse/chorus/middle-eight/chorus/chorus/fade) that left you wanting more. And because Pollard has so many strong songs at his disposal, he could pack an LP with twenty cuts, easy…and put out ten more new songs on an EP a month later. By mixing varied song structures and recording approaches GBV records could hardly be described as “tired” (unless, that is, you were looking to dismiss his process as a “trope”…haters).
That said, Pollard also has a penchant for quick inspiration, experimentation and direct-to-tape improvisation. I would be remiss if I did not warn newcomers that if they buy a GBV record they will be sitting through “weird stuff” from time to time…as well as recordings where, as my six year old son told me yesterday, it sounds like “they don’t know how to play their guitars”. Yup, that’s Pollard alright…To be clear, he does know how to play guitar. He just likes to mix it up and, ever the collage artist, insists on juxtaposing the sublime with the bizarre.
Part 2) A Brief History
Going way back to its inception and beginnings, GBV was never intended to be a successful endeavor. Instead, it was a personal, lifelong passion-project. Pollard has been compelled, since childhood, to make music and album artwork. He did these things out of love, in his spare time, to please himself. He was an avid and obsessive record collector and became a walking encyclopedia of rock history.
He was a successful school athlete. He graduated college, became an elementary school teacher and started a family. In his early 20’s he played in bands in the local bar scene. He got very little support from his community and family, but he continued to follow his passion. He became disenchanted with the local bar band scene and stopped playing live. He chose instead to record his music with a small rotating group of like-minded musicians and began regularly self-publishing vinyl albums at great personal expense. Showing undeniable talent, in his thirties he was “discovered” by the mainstream music press (based solely on word of mouth), and earned a recording contract.
With that record contract came a return to live performance, which, with label promotion backing him, Pollard was glad to get back to. Out of necessity, Pollard assembled a permanent backing band from some of his most loyal longtime collaborators. These included bassist Mitch Mitchell (who was now “promoted” to rhythm guitar), drummer Kevin Fennell, and lead guitarist Tobin Sprout. This band (with a rotating bassist slot) was the public face of GBV as it rose to a modest level of national attention from 1993-1996. GBV’s 1994 album ‘Bee Thousand’ was given four of five stars in Rolling Stone Magazine, who stated that the album “not only celebrates the power of rock music, it also embodies it.” B1000 became a, if not “thee”, seminal 90s indie-rock album. Robert Pollard had really come a long way. It was around this time that he took an enormous personal risk and quit his teaching position to focus solely on his music career. He was all in.
In 1996, during the tour supporting the record ‘Under the Bushes/Under the Stars’ (UTB/UTS), Pollard’s band started to fall apart. Guitarist Tobin Sprout and his wife had their first child and so he told Pollard he was going to retire from the road when the tour ended. Then later, during the European leg of the tour, drummer Kevin Fennell was fired for exhibiting erratic behavior. And with that, Pollard found himself in need of a new backing band. For the purposes of this article, I will refer to this early era of the band as “GBV Classic”.
Fortunately, Pollard quickly regrouped after the dissolution of GBV Classic and was able to immediately begin collaborating with Cobra Verde, a Cleveland, Ohio band he knew (and GBV had previously toured with). The members of Cobra Verde agreed to join, or become, the “new” Guided by Voices. Cobra Verde was a well establish band in the Cleveland music scene (and a crack group of musicians to boot). In good faith, Pollard did offer to let GBV Classic guitarist Mitch Mitchell stay in the band if he moved back to bass (as Cobra Verde already had two excellent guitarists), but Mitchell declined, seeing the reassignment as a demotion.
Pollard began recording “Mag Earwhig” in Cleveland with this totally new version of the band (which in this article I will refer to as “GBVerde”) and things went well. Soon, with more than enough material recorded to complete an album, Pollard went back to Dayton to work on making final song selections and sequencing his next release.
Pollard was more than satisfied with the recordings he made with this new band. But, ever the collage artist, inserted other songs into the sequence to break up the flow. To give the record a more varied and eclectic program (which was his wont). To achieve this effect he added several outtakes (or final sessions) recorded by GBV Classic prior to their dissolution. He then added solo songs he’d recorded with engineer John Shough at Cro-Magnon studios in Dayton. Last, he added songs home recorded in collaboration with previous guitarist, Tobin Sprout, who, though he had quit the road, still continued to work and record with Pollard. The tracklist was finalized and the record was released. Rolling Stone gave this new album four of five stars, too (You see? It’s equally as good as B1000. Case closed…I’m just trollin’ ya).
Ultimately, the GBVerde lineup was not long for this world. The band merger started to fray on the road and ultimately fell apart at the end of the tour. But it was not all a loss, GBVerde’s lead guitarist Doug Gillard decided to stay in GBV and remained in the band until 2004, when GBV took a seven year hiatus (At that time, Pollard, feeling trapped by the GBV moniker, endeavored on a solo career). Gillard’s muscular, precise, virtuosic guitar style, which perfectly blends classic rock and new-wave, became a signature, irreplaceable part of the GBV sound during his tenure. Pollard and Gillard’s collaboration pushed GBV to musical rock-God highpoints that could hardly have been imagined in the early Lo-Fi days of the band.
And in recent good news (we all need recent good news, right?), Gillard rejoined GBV in 2016. Earlier this year, GBV released the album ‘Space Gun’ which is a flat-out amazing future classic that can stand toe-to-toe with anything in their extensive catalog. This version of GBV is on tour right now and should not be missed.
Anyway, that gives you enough general information. Congratulations! You are now a GBV expert! Let’s get on with the review…
1. Can’t Hear the Revolution (1:36)
So, we heard about this hot-as-tits new backing band, Cobra Verde [mouth agape and eyebrows raised in an expression of anticipation]…Well, you’re not going to hear them on this opening cut (“WHAT?”). Instead you’re getting a short, somewhat tossed-off home recording Pollard made with “GBV Classic” sideman Tobin Sprout.
The dominant instrument in the mix sounds like a toy keyboard patched through a distortion pedal. Some “loose” guitar and bass lines come in for a bit. Vocals chant out the song title in an opening chorus that doesn’t reprise after the verse (There are some promising “rock” harmonies there). The single verse that follows is a short nursery rhyme/tongue-twister about God as an everyman dealing with “friction” all day long. It quickly fades out into a wash of half hearted drum fills then cross fades into some feedback.
This is not so much a song as it is a “snippet” or “song fragment”. GBV albums often include song fragments, just usually not to “kickoff” the album. Maybe this one is a statement about musical “revolution”s. This is 1997, and art-rock is not what it once was. The kids I knew in 1997 were “raving” to electronic loops and hip-hop. Here was Pollard soberly pinning his hopes of a “lifelong career in music” on a dying Alt-rock “industry” that was trying to drain the last quart of blood out of the Grunge bubble. Rock was on its heels. Pollard was no fool.
Even with that said, I just can’t say that this song makes the case for “rock” better than a really kick-ass rock song from the new lineup would have…which this definitely isn’t. Starting with Propeller, GBV albums always started with undeniably killer songs (to get you pumped up for what was to come), Mag Earwhig starts with filler…but I get it.
I just envision some people who bought this record, back in the day, on the suggestion of a friend to “check out GBV” (who weren’t specifically instructed to start with Bee Thousand or Propeller) might, at this point, be thinking they just threw out $15 and banging the eject button. And that’s a shame, because the album, in total, is a “hidden gem” classic.
2. Sad If I Lost It (3:10)
This is better. For starters, this is something all people, by consensus, would agree is a proper song. Good! This recording, however, is still not featuring the new backing band…Okay?
We see from the liner notes that this recording features Pollard on all instruments excepting newcomer Joe Buben on drums (someone trying out or helping out) and John Shough on bass. GBV fans know John Shough as the engineer/producer at Cro-Magnon Studio in Dayton, OH who recorded much of GBV’s UTB/UTS and most of Pollard’s solo and side project records from this time into the early aughts (when Pollard started recording almost exclusively with multi-instrumentalist and producer Todd Tobias).
So lineup-wise, this song exists in a middle kingdom somewhere between the end of “GBV Classic” and the start of “GBVerde”…and it sounds like it, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s a good song.
It is a slow building unconventional mid-tempo pop-rocker. The tempo feels a little dialed back from your typical GVB mid-tempo song, which adds some dramatic tension to the build up. It starts with a very sparse, atmospheric verse. A strummed (once every other measure) clean-ish guitar, some quiet cymbal sixteenths to keep the beat, a loop with some muted feedback sounds, and some declaratory yet obtuse vocals.
When we get to the chorus we quickly shift into some more familiar sounding Pollard chord changes and catchy vocal melody lines. The tempo is still slow-ish, but the strumming on the clean guitar has moved to chugging power chords that are always walking toward F# minor, adding a bittersweet melancholy to the tone as he sings of being “sad if I lost it”. Specifically what “it” is, is never really made clear, but we believe him anyway. The hook is strong and instantly memorable. The drum skins are still not being hit, just that ticking cymbal.
When we return to the verse, the drums start but just the bass drum with a boom…boom-boom at the start of every measure. See? We’re building up. So now, when we return to the chorus again, BAMM! We are instantly hit with the full rock band sound “on the one”.
The blinds are pulled open on the second chorus and we are fully bathed in the rocking light of creamy-GBV-love-land. The distortion pedal is hit on the guitar. The drummer is playing a rock beat on all of the drums (aping classic Fennell-esque snare fills). A bassist shows up. It sounds like every great GBV chorus you ever loved. But there is still restraint. The vocals are EQed to sound megaphone-ish, making them less personal. They are doubled, to thicken the sound, but they are in unison. There are no harmony vocals on this track. Pollard has an uncanny ear for easy close harmonies (that really sell his chorus hooks) and is not afraid to use them. But here he lets the fundamental melody stand on its own, and it does.
Getting back to the sequencing. I still don’t know if this song is the best “start” to the album even if you skip ‘Can’t Hear The Revolution’. It’s very slow building, leaning heavily on the good will/patience of the listener before truly launching.
The thing is, Pollard is an artist and not a pop-star. Starting the album with awkward and spacey songs was a conscious choice he made. He’s playing with his fans expectations a little here, telegraphing that this record will not be like the others. Maybe we’re watching a new alien species slough off its afterbirth and begin to stumble across the floor toward us (too much?). It’s just that when you get to the next track you have to wonder, “Why didn’t we just cut to the chase?”…but it’s no big sin.
3. I Am A Tree (4:40)
Okay. Here we go. We are meeting, for the first time (on this record anyway), the infamous GBVerde!
“Boo! Hiss! You killed our beloved ‘GBV Classic’! Prepare to DIE!”
I’m kidding, but it’s true that parts of the fan base were pissed about the lineup change. You’d think they would respect that this change was forced by circumstances and not a choice of whim. But fans are what they are, and sometimes they are assholes.
I read enough press around that time to know the truth and accept this change with an open mind, but for more casual fans, who didn’t care to understand or accept the deets, well, it is what it is. Fuck ’em.
So with ‘I Am A Tree’ there is another funny turn. It isn’t written by Pollard. It’s a song written by new GBV guitarist Doug Gillard. It’s a song he had recorded, but never released, with a previous band, GEM. So that’s balls.
Here we have Pollard “Mr. Prolific”, “greatest rock songwriter of our time”, and he’s letting some STRANGER, some INTERLOPER, submit a song. LIGHT THE TORCHES!!!
Whoa, slow down. It’s okay, because this song, it turns out, is seen by some as the best GBV song of all time. BOOM! Mind blown.
It’s not my favorite GBV song, but it is up there. It’s close. Top twenty, easy. And that’s saying a lot, because GBV has like a jazzillion songs. In fact, Pollard hand picked this song from demos and recordings he asked Gillard to give him. He knew Gillard was a crack songwriter and wanted to take advantage.
So this song is a pretty good icebreaker to sell the new band. It worked for me. In summation: the new band is clickin’, they’ve brought their own “A+” material, and they can play their asses off (they are session player level musicians). So where’s the rub? Well, some people (i.e., the earlier mentioned assholes) found a rub in there somewhere. God, they must have been looking really hard to look past this.
First, we have a level of “big rock sound” record production heretofore never heard on a GBV recording. This isn’t Ted Templeman or Glyn Johns but it’s pretty close to my deaf ears. The recordings of the GBVerde songs on this album were produced by the new band in their 609 Recording Studio in Cleveland, OH. They brought a pro-level sheen to the material they touched. I like it. Pollard liked it, too. He spent his life listing to the Who and Peter Gabriel era Genesis. He always wanted to make records that sounded like that, with professional studio sound dynamics, with musicians who could play like that, and now, for the first time in his life, he was. It’s actually kind of a sweet story. It didn’t last…but it kind of did…but that’s another story.
‘I Am A Tree’ is a tour de force rock song that mixes a lot of great things. It bridges classic rock and post-punk beautifully. In that way, it is very GBV, even if Pollard didn’t write it. There is a high-pitched one-note guitar phrase that plays through most of the arrangement, which is pretty post-punk. But so much else here evokes the heights of 70s classic rock. We have these tits drums played by Dave Swanson, with fills and rhythms that evoke Bun E. Carlos, Keith Moon, Jody Stephens and Neil Peart. We have a passionate, epic, soaring, virtuosic guitar solo with all these great pull-offs from Doug Gillard. It just screams, “We have a new guitar sheriff in town. Deal with it motherfucker!” The track is chock full o’ tasteful little guitar lead line accents. I mean they just killed it. Period.
The lyrics are fun. Nothing that’s going to change your life. If you’re a Rush fan like me, you will immediately begin to think of ‘Hemispheres’ (anthropomorphic trees). I always had a sneaking suspicion Gillard was making a wry reference here, but I’m probably wrong. Nonetheless, the metaphor reads like a wink to prog-rock whimsical flourish. Once again, very GVB…a perfect style mesh.
The song feels good. The song is good. It is a staple of their live set to this day (so long as Gillard is in the lineup, because nobody else in Pollard’s orbit can play that lead).
4. The Old Grunt (1:28)
Pollard’s always had a penchant to “mix it up” in sequencing, to keep an albums tone jumping so the flow doesn’t get to same-y. He also likes to put short snippet songs before longer songs that thematically jive and serve as unofficial intros. He might say differently, but I know what he’s doing. I see right through this shit. ‘The Old Grunt’ meets both those criteria.
Production wise, it dials everything way back from what we just experienced on the previous track. We’re back at Cro-Magnon Studio. We’ve got a primitive chord pattern being played on a dull sounding acoustic guitar with the scraping sound of the fingers being dragged over the string windings intentionally caught on mic. Typically, a recording engineer would try to minimize this sound, here it is accentuated and made an aesthetic.
The lyric is a character study of the titular old grunt. He’s old. He’s hurt. And, yet, after a louder yelling bit with some distorted electric guitar and feedback, things get a little sunnier. The acoustic guitar returns with a more upbeat primitive pattern. Turns out this old grunt is “Up and coming, but now he’s strumming.” With a reference to the “buzzing one-stringer”, Pollard’s nickname for an old guitar he often uses for composition, the portrait becomes complete. The Old Grunt is Pollard.
He feels old. He feels used up from all the years of bullshit he’s endured. But he made some noise and he broke through. He took something he loved and made it real, made it his life. He still has to look in the mirror though. And when he looks, especially under the harsh fluorescent lights found in dingy rock club bathrooms, he sees…
5. Bulldog Skin (2:59)
Moisturize, Moisturize, Moisturize. It’s the only cure for Bulldog Skin. That and plastic surgery…what they do is pin up the growls. I was looking into it…for a friend. You have to get the incisions behind the ears so they don’t show.
Fortunately for us all, even now, at the ripe old age of 60, Pollard has eschewed cosmetic surgery. We don’t want him looking like Kenny “Fuckin’” Rogers…taxidermied before his time. We like him leathery. We like him real. We like his big beautiful Bulldog Skin face. That said, it still doesn’t hurt to moisturize and regularly apply sunscreen if you are going outdoors.
Oh, the song? Um. It’s a kind of a derivative Stones-y rocker, just with some added un-Stones-y crunch. It’s fun. It’s an anthem to being older and wrinkly and just saying, “Look…fuck… I didn’t choose time, time chose me. But I still know how to rock out with my cock out, so have a beer. Any questions?”
It’s back to the GBVerde lineup. Here they’re playing in that loose Stones/Faces style, so they’re not necessarily showing the virtuosity witnessed on ‘I Am A Tree’. We do get a second hit of Gillard lead smoke. And it is strong. The guy’s a pro…with feel! The solo, note-wise, is simple, but he plays it with fire – just right in your face. It really saves the whole track from coming off a little slight. Also, the lyrics have some corny long-time-fan Easter eggs in them. That’s fun?
Hey, look, it’s no dig! We all need some dumb fun sometimes. Girls just wanna have fun. Maybe old, grizzled guys do, too. Speaking of dumb “fun”, in 1996, Sheryl Crow released ‘If It Makes You Happy’. This song was also a derivative Stones-y rocker, and it was a giant hit. So somehow, in my mind, I always thought this may have influenced why (consciously or unconsciously) ‘Bulldog Skin’ was picked as the lead single. I mean I was horny for Sheryl Crow back then (I probably still am) and I think I have made unconscious decisions based on that truth…just sayin’. Look in your heart, Robert. Tell me I’m wrong. It moved when I started talking about Sheryl Crow! Didn’t it? Didn’t it?!…Did I get weird again?…Moving on.
6. Are You Faster? (1:13)
Okay, GBVerde have left the building for now and we’re back home recording with Tobin Sprout, in the same recording setup that I appeared to have pissed all over in my analysis of ‘Can’t Hear The Revolution’. And I’m going to set something straight right here, right now. I don’t have a problem with that song. I like it. It just, to me, was not the best song, of this batch, to use as the album opener. To be clear, there are no songs that I actively “do not like” on this album… Clear? Good.
That said, ‘Are You Faster?’ is not great…See? I got you.
It’s just kind of a mess of a song sketch. The lyrics are poetic, but musically there just isn’t a lot to latch onto. The best thing I can say about it is that it doesn’t start the album. That, and it’s short?
Jokes, people, jokes. I actually have a soft spot for this tune fragment because the yell at the end reminds me of my old lost buddy Tony (who I wrote about in Part 3 of this piece). It’s very reminiscent of one of Tony’s “signature” screams.
7. I Am Produced (1:06)
We’re still at Tobin’s house. GBVerde are at the spa. This is actually a nice little acoustic “chugger” (in that the guitar goes chug-chug-chug-chug-chug). Its pointed lyrics go to a theme that Pollard often muses over that relates to his discomfort with the idea of “art as commodity”, or “artist as a commodity”, and art becoming depersonalized through mass production. Here, he sings from the perspective of a lump of polyvinyl chloride that is about to get a real painful mammogram.
The repeated refrain at the end “Pressed, printed, stomped, tripped, trapped, tricked, packaged, shipped” will get into your brain, a great hook…with meaning.
8. Knock ’Em Flyin’ (1:52)
Oh boy, this is my emotional jam. You had me at “plough”…
It is the first appearance of “GBV Classic” on this record. Remember, we’re saying goodbye to GBV Classic on this record through some outtakes. After this we are cut off (for 15 years anyway). This is an older recording with Kevin Fennell on drums (Thus making it GBV Classic). The recording appears to be a holdover from the previous album’s (UTB/UTS) sessions at Refraze Studio.
The song, technically, is a minute long space-rock ballad snippet that then breaks into a seemingly unrelated minute long instrumental “improved” rock jam outro. But it’s so much more to me. I’m serious about this song. It went deep into my brain. The chunky chord changes in the ballad and the way the melody slides along them so effortlessly. I love this song like Springsteen fans love ‘Thunder Road’…and I know because I’m a Springsteen fan.
And I bring up Springsteen because Pollard for all his fanciful lyrical high jinks is really just a blue collar songwriter at heart, writing to inspire the common man. This is an unabashed ballad for the common man. Pollard is blue collar stock all the way…he is the common man. He comes from a factory town. You don’t get much more factory town than Dayton, fucking OH (or at least you didn’t before most of the factories moved away). And this song, in a few quick seconds, gives me all those feels.
It says to me:
I’m gonna work hard. I’m gonna “connect” with my wife when I’m home. I’m gonna find the balance or I’m gonna lose it all. And I’m gonna do the same thing tomorrow and the next day and the next day until I die.
It’s the simple messages, simple truths, put to code, that really penetrate; that connect the art to observer. This song gives me chills…and it does it in a literal minute…and then the outro jam seals the deal. Moments like these, that hit deep, are one of the reasons why superfans, like me, won’t stop proselytizing for the guy.
9. Not Behind the Fighter Jet (2:13)
GBVerde have returned rested from their mani-pedi and are ready to rock.
This song, to me, (if it wasn’t going to be ‘I Am A Tree’) could have been the lead single off the record. It is more representative of the traditional GBV oeuvre than ‘Bulldog Skin’, fur sure. It would have been a good signal to the fans that “even though we’ve changed, we’re still gonna be singing about jet fighters, which we know you all love (even more than derivative Stones-y rockers about rhytids)”. Bottom line, flight imagery is a well worn staple of the GVB catalog.
The obtuse lyrics of this song conjure “fighter jets”, “militants”, “bunkers”, a “wounded mercenary”, a “sniper”, “paths of glory”…the metaphor adds up to a whole lot of nothing, but it sounds cool doing it. It sets a tone, a mood. The true statement of purpose comes in the chorus:
“I’m not behind the fighter jet
I’d much rather back a simple girl
I’ve seen your plan and it’s all wet
A noseload of prophecies coming to me”
The chorus, to fans, rings of an Easter Egg referring to the song, ‘Striped White Jets’, off of their album ‘Alien Lanes’, where an ominous Pollard proclaims “Send in striped white jets” and “Don’t let anyone find out, or expose your feelings…Cover your head instead”. With the chorus to this song, two albums later, he seems to be responding to the earlier version of himself. Sending the message that now he’d “rather back a simple girl”. I think I agree (though we still want to sing about jets from time to time, be they threatening or inspirational).
Musically, the song is structurally similar to other Pollard rockers. For example the verse, on the guitar, is built around patterns of arpeggio triplets played on the bottom three strings. Pollard has used this method as a compositional launching point for many of his songs over the years, usually walking a bass note through the pattern. This song is a little more complex though, building more chord changes into the patterns. This illustrates growth within his confines of his self taught musicianship and composition. Also, because the guitar part is being played by, and possibly refined by, Doug Gillard (a more adept guitarist) it really allows the common GBV arpeggio pattern to transmogrify into something greater than what it would have been if played by the previous lineup.
Drummer Swanson (or maybe the band around him) seems a little uneasy at the beginning of the take, finding the pocket on the first repetition of the verse pattern. But once he finds it he never leaves (makes we wish they would have taken another crack at it). He puts a lot of complexity into the rhythm of the song and finds interesting accent points and creative polyrhythmic shifts for fills that are different from the stylings of previous GBV drummers. He doesn’t over or underplay. It’s an interesting performance and take on a song that could have been played in many different ways, like just aping previous drummer Fennell’s strong but simplistic approach. Instead Swanson stretched, which I really appreciate. Swanson wasn’t long for this band, leaving after this record, but in his short tenure he added rhythm vocabulary to the GBV sound that future drummers would continue to evolve on.
I guess what I’m saying is that this new band was really showing a lot of care and professionalism crafting arrangements for Pollard’s material which in turn inspired Pollard to write material that would suit this new, much more musically adept, band. We call that synergy. That’s a lot of work for them…and all I had to do was sit back and enjoy…I’m a lucky bastard.
Oh, yeah, and here we finally have some more of those great GBV close harmonies on the chorus. Took a while to get there, but we made it. I love these, because, when you sing along, you can pick a vocal to follow…What fun!
10. Choking Tara (1:24)
GBVerde you’ve been working hard. Take a break. A short break.
‘Choking Tara’ is a sweet little love song with a misleadingly sinister name.
“LOVE SONG?!” you say. “GBV doesn’t do love songs! No fucking way!”
Well, they did this one.
We’re back at Cro-Magnon studio. This is a genteel chugger/strummer. Single verse, single chorus and we’re out. No band, just a clean-ish electric guitar with some nice creative chord changes floating around a simple but passionate vocal melody where the narrator is singing about his new love quickly going bad. The song features one of my favorite Pollard couplets:
“But I couldn’t catch her and break the falls
I couldn’t snatch her with beaks and claws”
Battered and broken, our Romeo, in the final words, determines not to give up,
“Shove it, ’cus I’ll just stay
Like an ugly unwanted stray
Don’t care what you say”
It’s downtrodden but upbeat. Bittersweet.
There was an outtake version of this song recorded and given the full band treatment by GBVerde. The arrangement leaned toward sunny 60s folk rock, and repeated the verse and chorus a second time to give the song a more traditional pop composition structure. That version was later released on a Matador records compilation ‘Everything Is Nice’. It’s “nice”, but there is something about the stripped down version used on the album that is so much more effective. It’s more vulnerable and intimate.
This illustrates how, as great as the GBVerde lineup was at composing more complex and professional sounding arraignments, they couldn’t necessarily do everything better (at least not in the session time allotted). There were essential colors in Pollard’s paint box they could not readily access. Something essential to the GBV experience would be lost if everything was chrome plated. Robert Pollard knew this and took pains to ensure the essential spark was protected.
11. Hollow Cheek (0:32)
Hollow Cheek falls under the category of “intro song”. This one being the most effective in that category on this record, to the point where I can’t imagine the following tune without this one setting the stage.
It also falls under the very rare category of GBV piano songs. Pollard sometimes likes to “tickle the ivories” as it were. But “tickle” is probably not the verb, “smash” would be more apt. He’s not exactly a concert pianist. But he can pick out a few chords and, if given a few moments to navigate between them, he can get a basic piano track down.
He’s still at Cro-Magnon, in solo mode here, and as stripped down as the piano arrangement is, it is effective at adding a new tonal color to the album, and in pair with the ominous vocal it gives this recording an eerie “hollow” feeling. Given the title, I think they nailed it.
With its lyrics about “We race each new morning” and “Long live the dream” (added to the fact that I often listened to it, back in the day, in my car driving to work) the notion became stuck in my head that this song was an obtuse metaphor about morning commutes. But that would be hard to justify against the rest of the verse. Do me a solid, ask Bob if I’m right and get back to me…
12. Portable Men’s Society (4:16)
This is the album’s “centerpiece” song. Pollard, as a fan of prog-rock and concept albums, always had an understanding that any album’s sequence and flow can benefit from a sort of epic grand gesture somewhere in the middle. He doesn’t do it every album. But he does do it. A centerpiece song is usually the longest song on the album and the musical tone and lyric tend toward the darker, more dramatic. I don’t think he writes any song specifically for this purpose, but if one comes out this way, he might make a mental note, “I know where this is going.”
Examples of centerpiece songs would include:
- An Earful O’ Wax
- Local Mix-Up / Murder Charge
- The Enemy (my personal favorite GBV centerpiece song ever)
- Storm Vibrations…
…and this one. These centerpiece songs add a sort of gravitas to the “album”, and make it feel more consequential. It acts as a thematic center to which you can connect the other songs as you wish.
I’m really big on this song, and I could probably write several pages on it alone, so I’m going to try and exhibit some restraint here. Pollard is back at 609 Recording with GBVerde. There are a few things to note about the arrangement of the verse. Starting with the synths. It starts with the howling high pitched drone of a synthesizer that slowly lowers and rises in pitch, simulating a slow siren. The siren drone plays, with some dropouts, throughout the entire song. This “siren in a song” deal (i.e., sustained high pitch synth drones), it’s been done before and since by other bands, and I usually HATE it…like it gives me a headache. Here they seem to have found the sweet spot for it in the mix so that it irritates (which is the desired effect) without becoming irritating. So, in this instance I FUCKING LOVE IT!
The drum pattern used on the verse is what I used to refer to (when trying to communicate drum patterns to drummers I was teaching a song to) as the “army boot in a dryer” pattern. Kind of a stumbling shuffle beat with a hard snare hit at the end of the measure. It gives a loosely militant feel.
Then distorted guitars come in across this beat in a scratchy staccato pattern, playing a repeating riff that never quite resolves. A riff that, dare I say, borders on slow-Sabbath-esque. This song is about as “metal” as this record gets.
But this verse, with its building dread tension and non-resolving riff, is really just a pressure cooker with a faulty regulator getting ready to BLOW. But just before total explosion, we get treated to a very nice melodic cool down bridge and then WHAM the “channel changes” and we launch into a smoking hard-rock chorus. Power chords are flying. The tempo picks up. And when Pollard, one of the great rock vocalists of ALL time, hits the word “RAW!” in a unabashed rock yell…well, you just got your money’s worth, bitches.
The song also features another really interesting and creative wiry guitar solo from Gillard. Who somehow splices metal and new-wave into something totally unique. As much as I loved his solo on ‘I Am A Tree’, this is the solo I gushed at him about when I had a chance to talk to him after a show years ago. He said, “Thanks.” as he was trying to get away from me.
The music, the performance, is great, but the lyrics, the conceptual theme, this is what makes the song really stick out in my mind. It paints a picture of a dystopian now. Of society, culture, technology outsized and out of control. A runaway train of a world, that we just have to live through. What happens to the communities in a factory town when all the factories close up and move away? Do “vandals come for rummage”? This is where I could go on for pages, because there is a lot of symbolism to interpret, for example:
“Mysterious engines run
To keep the dream from ending
The cloak obscures the gun
To keep what’s worth defending”
I know I have a healthy imagination and my analysis often falls into interpolation. In fact, I could probably write a series of self-published junior fiction novels about a dystopian world solely based on what this song does to my brain. Keep an eye out for it on AMAZON KINDLE!
What is the ‘Portable Men’s Society’? I don’t know and I don’t want to know. I like the not knowing.
This is one of my favorite GBV songs of all time, hands down.
13. Little Lines (2:02)
But wait, this is another one of my favorite GBV songs of all time…seems like there are a lot of these lying around. Hmm. Kind of makes me seem hyperbolic. Tough SHIT!
We’re still listening to GBVerde. This song is a great example of the kind of perfect pop-rock power cord nuggets, loaded with catchy melodic vocal hooks, that Pollard seems to casually toss onto every album he puts out. It is one of the funnest songs on the album to play on guitar and sing. Pollard also gives us some cool and creative harmonies at the end of the chorus on the “Change now”.
On this one song, lead guitar duties were handed over to GBVerde’s other guitarist John Petkovic who (less technical than Gillard) is more of what musicians refer to as a feel player (that translates to “he’s okay, but plays with passion!”). To be fair, John Petkovic was the front man for Cobra Verde, the backing band Pollard was “borrowing” for this record, so we have to weigh this into the “critique” equation. Petkovic does play with a lot of feel, he adds some welcome chaos to the song and sloppily stumbles into some interesting improvisations on his lead ascents and during his guitar solo. GBV has a long history of loose improvised feel solos (usually played by Pollard himself) so this feels right at home. I used to think Petkovic was a tad loud in the mix here, but I’ve become used to it over the years and actually like it more now than ever.
Just a good clean rocker, notable for featuring this classic critic fuckoff,
“Philosophers and critics of the play
Listen hard to every word we say
Especially when it makes us laugh”
He’s not talking about guys like me, is he?…Fuck…
14. Learning To Hunt (2:24)
We’ll call this ‘Emotional Soul Jam #2’.
This is a song that somehow is inexplicably not used in the end credits of every indie movie where two people fail to fall in love. Somehow, the Hollywood assholes that find and license these types of songs missed this one. I don’t know how. Even better, I want them to put this song in an episode of “This is Us”, during the emotional montage at the end of the episode. I don’t watch the show, but I’d like to see my wife cry to a GVB song just once. Just ONCE!
This is solo acoustic Pollard at Cro-Magnon, capturing, quite possibly, the most tender, emotional and vulnerable performance of his recording career. There is actually another song and performance right on this level coming up later on the record, which is crazy because GBV records are not often known for delving into these levels of emotionality. So this is quite a treat.
Pollard is seen by many as a goof or a clown, because of his drunken onstage antics. He is a really funny guy. And you know a lot of funny guys have big hearts. He’s no exception. He has some deep feelings and some deep reflections and they’re artfully laid bare here. A killer track.
To me, the lyric is a reflection on parenthood. I’m “learning to hunt” so my child doesn’t starve to death. It’s that simple. And when I listen to this song…and I’m thinking about my son…and a little dust mote happens to float into the corner of my eye at just the right moment…I might cry. FUCK YOU! DON’T JUDGE ME! I’M IN TOUCH WITH MY EMOTIONS! CAN’T YOU TELL FROM THE ALL CAPS?!
Pollard in an interview, said the song was about him learning to hunt for himself…That lying sack of shit…He can’t fool me. He was probably pissed at his kids for skipping their chores when he said that.
15. The Finest Joke Is Upon Us (3:08)
This is the second of the three recordings on this record taken from UTB/UTS outtakes recorder by “GVB Classic” with Kevin Fennell on drums. In fact, this exact recording was previously released as a bonus cut on the Japanese CD version of UTB/UTS. Somehow, Pollard saw fit to use it again in the official sequence of this record, and I’m glad he did. It really is an exceptional song and recording, and one of the album’s key highlights.
Here we get a very clear view of what we lost when Kevin Fennell imploded and was fired. First, his irreplaceable caveman snare hit. Fennell’s approach to drumming was pretty barebones so far as technique, but he had a undeniable feel for Pollard’s compositions built over more than a decade of playing together and a sort of God-like sense of timing on just when to hit the snare and bass drum. Also, in Fennell’s bag of tricks and, really pivotal to the classic GBV drum sound, was his unique approach to the use of high-hat sizzle (riding on a partially open high-hat). Fennell liked to leave that sizzle very dirty and rattly and would often sustain it through most of or all of a song. It really created an unsettled air in the mix and he used it so much that I have a Pavlovian impression of it. I’m conditioned to the point where when I hear that high-hat sizzle, I thrust for beer…or some kind of smoke.
This is a spooky mid-tempo song. It’s not metal, but I could see early-Sabbath taking a crack at it, as a candidate for a “cool down” number. The lyrics start with Pollard talking (technically sing) directly to “Mother” (this, to my interpretation, carries on the familial theme started in the previous song). That approach, this idea of the song being a communication from son to mother, gives what follows additional weight. Particularly, as what he is talking about is not all great. A “cold”, “distorted” and “broken” world, obscured with “smoke” (confusion), from where he can see “paradise”, but just can’t get there because he “choked”.
I, as general rule, try not to bum my mother out with my darkest reflections…as comforting as that download may be for me (she’s a sweet lady who’s been through enough), but, honestly, sometimes even I can’t help myself and lay my shit on my mother. Sorry, Mom. But you can see how all these connections create a very effective emotional space for the song, if you’re in the right head for it.
At the end of the chorus (and song) he is resigned to the fact that,
“One of these days when I see through the smoke
That’ll be the day I get the joke”
I think we all know the moment he is talking about. It’s the moment right before death. That moment when you can finally relax and say to yourself in all honesty, “Oh, okay. We’re done here. It’s alright. It’s good.” At that moment, so long as it isn’t taken from you, you can feel that sentiment in a way you never could before, when deep down you knew that tomorrow was always around the corner. Deep shit. Deep song.
This tune also features one of Pollard’s all time best melodist/vocalist moments when he tunefully bellows “Words of smoke” (which I, for years, heard as “Worlds of smoke”…I like my version better). When he sings that part…it’s goosebumps every time, baby.
16. Mag Earwhig! (0:39)
This is another very short Cro-Magnon solo acoustic snippet. I’m not sure why it goes here. It’s a bit tuneless. Is it intended as an aperitif? It goes by so quick. It’s like you’re tuning past in on the radio. Jokes aside, it’s comes across like the reading of a poem fragment. As poetry, it does have a bit that always stuck in my mind.
“But the bastard of an ex-warhorse kicks
And I smiled like an electric child”
That image of the “electric child”. That smile. That goofy, full-hearted, high-watt smile only children have. The smile lost after so many years of plodding through this murky, smoky reality we call life. It literally carries into the next tune…So I guess this “song” does earn it’s place. Oh, Pollard, you’re so clever.
17. Now to War (2:44)
This is another song based around familial communication. Here it’s a husband talking to his wife. The return to this theme makes the last so-many songs a sort of loose suite. And although you have to kind of think about it to get there, even if you don’t, I think the emotional impact is going to catch up to you. You are going to see a full portrait of the modern American family life from the perspective of a common middle-aged man leaving his thirties…which Pollard definitely was.
We know Pollard was married young to his highschool girlfriend. At the time of this recording they were still married raising two kids in their teens. It seems clear now that the changes in Pollard’s life, regarding his full time pursuit of musical ambitions (which started in his mid-thirties), caused challenges and stress in his home. In a few years, this would eventually lead to a painful divorce…a broken family. But I know, just from the music, there was a lot of love and life between them…and hopefully forgiveness and redemption as they both moved forward.
The song is another acoustic ballad. This one very much in the style of ‘Automatic for the People’ era R.E.M.. I can really see Michael Stipe making a meal out of this (it could be a track on that solo covers album he always teased).
Here, for the first time on this record, an acoustic ballad is recorded by the GBVerde lineup in their studio, giving it an R.E.M. level polish. They show their non-rock side, and create a very tender track with some subtle, almost subliminal, percussion and a beautiful acoustic guitar solo by Gillard.
The song opens with the chilling line that calls back to the “electric smile”s of youth. He mourns, “There is no boy in me now.” I, as a middle-aged man, who shaves everyday in the mirror (making serious eye contact with his dead eyes), know exactly what he is talking about. It’s a fact of life. That boy is gone. You can remember him. You can commune with him, say like when you hold a childhood toy, or item that floods you with nostalgia…but the boy is gone. When he left, we don’t know. But we mourn for him, and we just want the world and our wife to understand…So, yeah, we’re only one line in and I’m already falling apart. But wait! There’s more!
So the “war” in the title is the fights we have with our spouses. And he gets downright honest and direct on this cut, in a way we rarely see in his song catalog. In the chorus Pollard writes easily some of the best lyrics of his career,
“But this is you and this is war
It makes me drink even more
And I’ll have fun then I’ll make a mark on you
I’ll tell you all that I am
A simple feat, we’ll walk for free
Until you injure me again”
We’re talking about getting drunk at home, arguing with your wife, leaving her with a bruise, making up and knowing it’s a cycle. This is a portrait of my childhood. This is serious stuff, and he paints it in a very serious, honest, respectful light. A master painter. A masterpiece.
18. Jane of the Waking Universe (2:25)
Okay…Are you bummed out yet?…Me to. Fortunately, we are now getting on the train out of Sadtown, or maybe we’re getting on a space rocket. See? Things aren’t so bad, when you have MAGIC! …Pollard lets his thoughts get fanciful.
This is the third and final “GBV Classic” UTB/UTS left over and it is a revelation. A beautiful sunny 60s psychedelic pop song (as channeled through some super-inspired middle-aged blue collar drunkards from Ohio). It really is a beautiful send off to the previous version of the band that allows then lead guitarist, Tobin Sprout, to lay down one of the greatest slide wah-wah solos Syd Barrett never recorded. The creative harmonies on the chorus are ear candy, as they repeat over and over “Jane of the Waking Universe”. Jane, of course, being a close friend and neighbor of Lucy…You know, that Lucy, right?…The one with the sky, and the diamonds.
Coming right after the emotional desolation of the previous cut this song is like a rebirth. It’s just fun. It’s big as the sky. It’s epic. There’s a universe being born right here and you feel it. It’s the kind of song the Flaming Lips wish they could carry off (BOOM! LIPS DISS!).
I’ve heard it said the album should have ended after ‘Jane of the Waking Universe’. There’s a GBV podcast by a writer Jeff Gomez who makes this point pretty convincingly. But even Gomez accepts and is resigned to the fact the Pollard gets to make the call as to when to stroke the final brush.
I think Pollard’s decision to keep going was influenced by a desire to ensure that the album wasn’t ending on a farewell to the last version of the band. A self-conscious decision to be sure (even if it’s unconscious), but I think a healthy choice. He’s got to keep moving forward…or maybe crawling forward.
19. The Colossus Crawls West (2:13)
This is another somewhat psychedelic song, but closer to a post-Floyd Syd Barrett rambler. It’s in a genre I coined “psychedelic campfire songs”. This is solo Pollard at Cro-Magnon accompanied by a single strumming electric guitar. Compared to the high points of the record it is a bit of a throw away, but has some really nice moments and the lyrics are creative. My favorite bit is the punchline,
“And when the colossus crawls west
Jazz bastards will fall and confess
We all love you so and
Your rock is paradise plastic
It’s cheap and fantastic!”
It’s the bit about “jazz bastards” prostrating themselves before “rock” that cracks me up. A sort of passing of the torch of popular affinity…I guess us rockers will now have to bow before EDM DJs. I’ll die first! That SHIT isn’t music.
20. Mute Superstar (1:24)
When I hear this song, I always have one thought… Billy Corgan. And I don’t like to think about Billy Corgan unless I absolutely have to. He’s okay, but I was never a Pumpkinhead (as I assume that is what their fans are called). This is a GBVerde rocker. The repeating 90s alt-hard-rock riff, the drums and the sound effects that start the song just really put me in the mind that I’m listening to a Smashing Pumpkins song, period.
However, when the vocals start the illusion is shattered. I mean, this singer isn’t nearly screetchy enough to be Corgan, right? Yet the opening lyrics could be Pumpkins…
“I see them in the dark
Fairy wings are green”
But after this…things get more GBV-ish. It goes on. Lyrics are obscure, something about the truth not being for sale…I can respect that. It has a clever short little middle eight bit…it gets back to the riff…no guitar solo…no big outro, then it just stops flat, early-Wire-style. And we’re done.
It’s a short fun listen but I’d be hard pressed to say much about it…
Maybe “Wire Pumpkins”?
I’ll get back to you on that.
21. Bomb in the Bee-Hive (2:02)
Here we are. The final song. We’ve come a long way, baby.
This is GBVerde. We’re closing on GBVerde. This makes sense, since this is the band you would have seen if you had gone out to see GBV on tour supporting this record. And GBVerde did tour. You definitely weren’t going to see GBV Classic…at least not for another 15 years, when they reunited, but that’s another story.
I did see this band tour back in ’97 and I remembered liking it. Sure, I missed the old band…and I cringed every time John Petkovic “hit a clam” singing backup vocals. But, on the whole, the band was tight. The band rocked and the band was good.
I mention this also because ‘Bomb in the Bee-Hive’ is, in many ways, in the general category of an infamous and oft maligned category… the “road song”. This is where musicians break the fourth wall and tell their hard luck story about “life on the road”, with all its hardships. They make themselves out to be antiheros…you know…all that bullshit…“Turn the Page” (but we like that one, sometimes, when we’re feeling moody). In their gritty tales of road life, its all mythology, they never get to the truth. They never put in the part about jerking off in the motel room bathroom just after the bassist took a dump…now that’s pathos.
That said, finding himself in the midst of a road song, Pollard, being the master songwriter he is, manages to stay away from the tropes and gets through this exercise unscathed. He just makes some allusions to a rock show, a rock performance, the pressure, “Get on the floor at nine o’clock”.
It’s a rocker. It’s a stomper. It has some nice Keith Moon drum fills like any good GBV song should. It’s got some pretty cool guitar licks and riffs, no big guitar solo histrionics, just a straight ahead hard rock boogie. I genuinely like this song. It’s a good farewell for the album and leaves you on an up note.
The room lights go up. The ushers come in to start folding up the chairs. They sweep up the confetti and balloons and plastic beer cups.
I stumble out to the street to orient myself. I take a good hard pull on the crisp city air. I reach into my pocket and feel my keys. Where did I park again? Should I call a cab?
Postscript – note from the author
In my previous post (Part3), I mentioned I would be reviewing b-sides and outtakes along with the album tracks in this review. However, due to the length of this review, I have decided to move the b-side reviews to a separate article, entitled ‘Mag Earwhig: Apocrypha’, to be published at a later date. That will put this baby to bed. Thank you for reading.