That was one of the first photos I saw when I started lurking this board. It kept me here.
That was one of the first photos I saw when I started lurking this board. It kept me here.
Pemberton (7/18-20) ~ FYF (8/22-23)
#1 - Radiohead - swdshfsk - intro (also see Page 35, Post #1041)
#3 - David Bowie - Courtney - intro
#4 - Boredoms - bmack86 - full
#5 - Can - bmack86 - intro (also see Page 21, Post #619)
#6 - Spiritualized - bmack86 - intro (also see Page 14, Post #419)
#9 - Elvis Costello - TomAz - intro (also see Page 29, Post #868)
#10 - the Wedding Present - roberto73 - intro
#12 - Tom waits - Slushmier - extended intro
#13 - Mogwai - swdshfsk - extended intro
#14 - Hanson - tessa|asset - extended intro
#15 - Guided by Voices - mountmccabe - intro
#23 - the Velvet Underground - PsyGuyRy - extended intro
#24 - Luna - york707 - intro with discog listed
#25 - Jonathan Richman - breakjaw - full
#32 - The Dismemberment Plan - Tylerdurden31 - full
#33 - Bob Dylan - TomAz - extended intro (also see Page 30, Post #871)
#36 - Talking Heads - bballarl - full
#37 - Pink Floyd - PsyGuyRy - very extended intro
#45 - Pearl Jam - Slushmier - full
#51, 53 & 56 - Fugazi - PotVsKtI - ranked list of albums
#65 - the Beatles - TomAZ - full
#101 - the Kinks (early period) - bmack86 - extended intro
#109 - Beethoven's 7th Symphony - mountmccabe - full (selected, incomplete)
#117 - the Cure - bmack86 - full
#118 - the Dandy Warhols - Hannahrain - full
#124 - the Jesus and Mary Chain - mountmccabe - full
#131 - Yo La Tengo - Courtney - full
#132 - the Roots - Slushmier - full
#138 - Sonic Youth - bmack86 - full
#141 - the Rolling Stones (US albums) - sydaud - full
#146 - the White Stripes - bballarl - full
#173 - Faith No More - thinnerair - full
#175 - Failure - thinnerair - full
#176 - Magazine - breakjaw - full
#196 - Creed - bmack86 - full
#200 - Metallica - bmack86 - full
#202 - the Who - sydaud - full
#217 - Massive Attack - Thinnerair - Full
#219 - Elf Power - Bmack86 - Full
#225 - Genesis - Thinnerair - Intro
#232 - Bikini Kill - Mountmccabe - Full
#238 - Muse - Thinnerair -
#241 - Big Black - Bmack86 - Full
#249 - The Arab Strap - Hannahrain - Intro
#253 - The Clash - TomAz - Full
#267 - Nick Cave - roberto73 - Full
#299 - Jeff Buckley - PassiveTheory - Full
#334 - Jawbox - Tylerdurden31 - Full
#338 - Hum - thinnerair - Full
#344 - REM - sydaud - Full
#375 - Depeche Mode - Amyzzz - Extended Intro
#395 - The Replacements - TomAz - Full
#402 - Spinal Tap - Breakjaw - Full
#405 - Cheech and Chong - Anita Bonghit - Discography
#416 - Pixies - Bmack86 - Full
#419 - Spiritualized - Bmack86 - Full
#425 - Rush - MonsoonSeason - intro
#427 - The Orb - Desphrs - full
#446 - Miles Davis - sydaud - full
#455 - Boards of Canada - desphrs - full
#463 - Blur - Slushmier - full
#474 - Serge Gainsbourg - bmack86 - intro
#477 - Beat Happening - bmack86 - full
#479 - Circle Jerks - york707 - full
#504 - Joe Jackson - MsTekno - extended intro
#505 - Oasis - Stefinitely Maybe - full
#518 - The Magnetic Fields - mountmccabe - full
#562 - Wilco - mountmccabe, york707, and TomAz (compiled by Hannahrain) - full
#573 - Spoon - sydaud - full
#580 - Decemberists - Hannahrain - full
#600 - Led Zeppelin - sydaud - full
#616 - Minutemen - sydaud - full
#619 - Can - bmack86 - full (selected, incomplete)
#625 - PJ Harvey - bballarl - full
#635 - Bjork - bmack86 - full
#649 - Cake - PassiveTheory - full
#650 - The Faint - hawkingvsreeve - full
#672 - Death Cab For Cutie - hawkingvsreeve - full
#720 - Leonard Cohen - mountmccabe - incomplete
#735 - Bruce Springsteen - Yablonowitz - first installment
#738 - Arto Lindsay - ragingdave - Solo work only
#757-755 TomAz vs Yablonowitz RE: Springsteen review.
#769 - XTC - Roberto73 - partial (to be continued)
#798 - Cursive - Hawkingvsreeve - full
#800 - XTC (II) - Roberto73 - Continuation
#801 - Joy Division/New Order - sydaud - full
#806 - Springsteen - Yablonowitz - quick overview
#812 - Springsteen (different) - TomAz - full
#820 - Elliott Smith - mountmccabe - full
#837 - Ben Folds - Jenniehoo - full (with mix!)
#842/847 XTC - roberto73 (w/mixes!)
#865 Replacements mix - TomAz
#868 Elvis Costello mix -TomAz
#871 Bob Dylan mixes - TomAz
#881 Animal Collective - BMack86 - complete
#884 The Go-Betweens - Roberto73 - complete (w/mix!)
#887 Tool - Passive Theory - complete
#909 Johnny Cash - Sydaud - incomplete (1957-59)
#945 John Lennon - breakjaw - full (w/mix)
#959 Lucinda Williams - TomAz - full (w/mix)
#976 Pavement - bmack - full
#984 Pavement mix - breakjaw
#988 Underworld - bballarl - intro
#995 The Appleseed Cast - comiddle - full
#996 (summary of rock canon) - C DUB YA
#1024 The Smiths (w/mix here) - Passive Theory
#1029 The Black Keys (w/mix) - Hannahrain
#1041 Radiohead (redux) - Radiohead727
#1043 Midnight Oil (w/2mixes!) - Roberto73
#1049 Eels (w/mix) - Roberto73
#1054 Eels (w/mix) -Roberto73
#1060 Brian Eno -Breakjaw - Mix/w Descriptions
#1061 Roxy Music -Breakjaw - Album Art
#1073 Prodigy - Betao - Complete
#1082 Modest Mouse - Mountmccabe - Complete
#1107 Stephen Malkmus/Jicks - Bmack86 - Complete
#1122 The Chemical Brothers - Bosco - Complete
#1135 Elbow -Stefinitely Maybe - Complete
#1146 Love and Rockets - Roberto73 - Complete
#1158 Megadeth - Cheddar's Cousin - (Almost) Complete
#1179 Super Furry Animals - Clecirclecir@Juno.com - Ranked List
#1184 311 - Apachedine - Ranked List
#1220 Smashing Pumpkins - Hawkingvsreeve - Complete
#1242 Amon Tobin - Denies the Day - Overview
#1248 Butthole Surfers - SoulDischarge - Complete
#1271 Pixies - NicoDread - extended intro (also see Page 14, post #416)
#1281 Boris - bmack86 - complete
#1296 Kraftwerk - bmack86 - complete
#1302 Coldplay - PassiveTheory - incomplete
#1308 Cabaret Voltaire - SoulDischarge - selected, incomplete
#1321 Violent Femmes - jigsaw - intro
#1338 Calexico - hawkingvsreeve - complete
#1340 The Cardigans -hawkingvsreeve
#1361 Fadgadget - SoulDischarge
#1367 Coil - SoulDischarge (incomplete?)
#1376 Beck - Bmack86
#1391 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - roberto73
#1395 Scott Walker - wmgaretjax
#1419 The Birthday Party (Nick Cave supplement) - Souldischarge (complete)
#1420 Stone Temple Pilots - Backwater (complete)
#1446 Belle and Sebastian - Bmack86 (Complete)
#1456 Jay-Z - Sushov (overview)
#1472 The Mae Shi - Bmack86 (complete)
#1489 Nightmares on Wax - Passivetheory (work in progress)
#1515 Madonna - Hawkingvsreeve (complete)
#1543 Bright Eyes - TheStripe (complete)
#1551 Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat/Fugazi/The Evens) - Bmack86 (complete)
#1560 Merzbow 1979-1983 - wmgaretjax (complete)
#1566 Merzbow 1983-1990 - wmgaretjax (complete)
#1589 Propellorheads - vicviper (complete, even though there's only one album)
#1595 Husker Du - bmack86 (complete)
#1611 Monkees - stuporfly (selected, incomplete)
#1612 Fucked Up - bmack86 (complete)
#1652 Swans - souldischarge (complete)
#1729 Xiu Xiu - involvelemons (complete)
#1790 Dave Matthews Band - alchemy (complete)
#1804 Air - alchemy (complete)
#1827 Delgados - Mountmccabe (Complete)
#1870 David Bowie - Bmack86 (Complete)
#1890 Pere Ubu – Still-ill (Complete)
#1940 The Fall – Roberto73 (complete)
#1966 Ween – zircona1 (complete)
#1999 The Coup – zircona1 (complete)
#2004 Erykah Badu – ods (complete)
#2023 Neil Young – bmack86 (incomplete, but awesome nonetheless)
#2035 Van Morrison – TomAz (incomplete, just a list of albums)
#2103 Black Flag - Bmack86 (Complete)
#2121 Sleater-Kinney - Bmack86 (Complete)
#2127 Gram Parsons - TomAz (Complete, including work with groups)
#2190 Joni Mitchell – Roboticwaltz (Complete)
#2191 Wilco (Take 2) – Knytt (Complete)
#2235 U2 – Miroirnoir (Incomplete, work in progress)
The Police were such a formative band for me growing up that I will probably always rank them as my “favorite” band even if I don’t listen to them all that much anymore. As a kid “Roxanne” and “Every Breath You Take” were some of my favorite songs, but it took my drum teacher to really set my interest in motion. He put together a mixtape of classic drummers and grooves, including Stewart Copeland’s one-of-a-kind rhythms on “Walking on the Moon.” Around the same time my parents got me a book on drumming that listed Copeland as recommended listening, so I purchased their best-of collection and soon became a huge fan of their discography. These days, Stewart is still a massive influence on my drumming style. Their reunion in 2007 was an unexpected dream come true for me and I saw them four times including “dress rehearsal” in Vancouver and the epic Dodger Stadium show with Foo Fighters. In retrospect yeah, it was a major cash grab, but I lived it up in the moment.
Every Breath You Take: The Classics (1995)
I’m starting with this single-disc compilation because it was my entry point and I’m still fond of it. It’s essentially all the radio hits, a “classic rock” remix of “Message in a Bottle” that to my ears always sounded identical to the original, and their 1986 reimagining of “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”. The latter’s fascinating because it’s basically an entirely different arrangement that is about as “1986” as you can get. I like that sort of thing, but your mileage may vary. If you’re looking for a more expansive introduction try the self-titled two-disc set from 2007, which includes their first single “Fall Out” from 1977.
Outlandos D’Amour (1978)
The Police were always a commercial-oriented band despite incorporating elements of punk rock into their sound and style in the late 70’s. Their debut album is naturally their rawest though there’s still plenty of pop and hooks in every song. Punky opener “Next to You” is one of my top 2 or 3 Police numbers. “So Lonely” is infectious, though Sting’s vocals may be an acquired taste here especially. Their reggae influence first shows up on “Roxanne”. (It’s worth noting that the band was far more accomplished musically than their punk peers; Sting came from a jazz background and Stewart previously played in a progressive rock band.) The jazz rears its head slightly on the boozy “Hole in My Life” - not a favorite of mine but I’d bet some of you really dig it. “Peanuts” is fast and dials the punk back up. Really fun. “Can’t Stand Losing You” is the other hit from this album and features surprisingly bleak lyrics with a reggae-tinged groove that perhaps most points towards their next album. “Truth Hits Everybody” is driving and aggressive, one of my favorites on the album and covered by punk and hardcore bands like No Use For A Name and Snapcase. “Born in the 50’s” bored me as a teen but the lyrics are pretty great and a snapshot of a generation. “Be My Girl/Sally” is weird in that a catchy punk-pop riff bookends guitarist Andy Summers’ spoken word piece about a blow-up doll. (You read that correctly.) The album closes with a departure, the hypnotic “Masoko Tanga” that also points to their future incorporation of reggae, ska and other world music styles. Overall I’m pretty damn fond of this album and while I’m somewhat averse to ranking and favoritism, this might have to be my “desert island” pick for The Police.
Regatta de Blanc (1979)
Regarded by some as the best Police album, Regatta de Blanc is neither a retread of their debut nor a significant departure. It refines their sound with better production and increases the reggae influence (as alluded by the title). “Message in a Bottle” is one of their biggest hits, truly a fantastic song with a riff second only to “Every Breath You Take” in their repertoire. The Grammy-winning title track is fascinating in its otherworldly style and unconventional structure; in my top 5 probably. “It’s Alright For You” is a highly underrated pop-rock gem in the vein of Outlandos with an irresistible keyboard solo to boot. “Bring on the Night” is a slightly ominous track that’s entirely in their unique brand of reggae with a great guitar solo at the end. Andy Summers may not rank amongst the upper echelon of rock guitar gods, but he certainly has style. The punky “Deathwish” also harkens back to the first record but never caught on with me. “Walking on the Moon” is dreamy, spacey, and a highlight of the album. “On Any Other Day” is very unique in that Stewart takes the vocal reins with a tale of dysfunctional suburban life; if you like the song you may want to check out his side-project Klark Kent. The last great song is “The Bed’s Too Big With You”, the strongest dose of reggae yet with a nice bass line. The last three tracks have never clicked with me which is why I probably can’t rank this higher than Outlandos. “Contact” contains stylistic elements that don’t really work for the band, “Does Everyone Stare” is too jazzy, and “No Time This Time” puts weird flanger effects on the vocals. Actually the latter is a pretty cool jam aside from that complaint.
Zenyatta Mondatta (1980)
This is where things really started changing. First, the album artwork is just weird (cool, but weird) compared to the first two. There’s a new pop sheen over everything, and Andy rarely uses any fuzz or distortion; even Stewart remarked in an interview that the “heavy metal” (lol) from the first two records was gone. Growing up I kind of neglected this album, in fact I don’t think I ever bought the CD, but it’s grown on me. The focus is on pop hooks, almost jazzy guitar riffs, and worldly beats. Hell, something like “Canary in a Coalmine” sounds right up Vampire Weekend’s alley. The record includes the infamous Lolita-referencing “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”, a fairly dark opener for the album. “Driven to Tears”, “When the World is Running Down”, and “Voices Inside My Head” are all great. Another popular hit “De Do Do Do...” divides the record from a solid first half and a less-than-stellar second act. The best number from the latter is the ska-tinged “Man in a Suitcase”. Overall Zenyatta’s a unique album but lacks the consistency of the earlier records.
Ghost in the Machine (1981)
The band redeem themselves somewhat with their fourth LP, often referred to as cold and dark due to its lyrical themes and increased reliance on synthesizers. The opener “Spirits in the Material World”, for example, is a typical Police groove yet there are no guitars to be found. “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” keeps the energy going and is one of the band’s biggest hits. One of the album’s darkest moments is “Invisible Sun”, featuring a politically-tinged lyric against quasi-industrial verses and a meaty rock chorus. This album features a bevy of horns as evidenced over the next handful of numbers. “Too Much Information” is a personal favorite with its repetitive riffs and lyrical themes of oversaturation. After a strong start and a shaky middle, the album ends superbly, starting with “One World (Not Three)”, essentially an extended vamp on a horn-heavy reggae/ska track with minimal lyrics and some of Stewart’s best drum fills. “Omegaman” is a futuristic-sounding rock song with a cool guitar solo. “Secret Journey” is rather pensive and mysterious with a wash of synths at the start and some nice subtle guitar riffing throughout. “Darkness”, the album’s closer, is odd and fantastic simultaneously. The groove is subtle, and again the guitars are replaced by keys and synths. This brings the album sort of full circle. I think I’ve heard some rank this as their best and I can see that. It’s a great album, but I wouldn’t recommend it as an entry point for The Police; it’s kind of a black sheep (in the most positive sense possible).
Ah yes, their Big Pop album. Also their last LP; like many fast-ascending groups, they did not last long (and perhaps that’s for the best). It’s pretty amazing they were able to churn out five full-lengths in as many years, but it seems things worked a lot faster back then. This is the Police at their most streamlined, sounding virtually nothing like their first record or singles. Almost entirely absent is any reggae influence, though “exotic” elements remain. The record is like a neutered cross between Zenyatta and Ghost with emphasis on giant hits, Carl Jung, and a little absurdity. You want synth horns? Check. You want shimmering guitars? Check. You want lyrics about “spiritus mundi”? Check. You want Andy Summers warbling about his mother? Check. It’s the biggest and best-sounding of their records, a far cry from Outlandos. It also has at least three huge singles but i can’t help but feel like the record a whole feels a little bland, uninspired...maybe overproduced? I still enjoy it because it’s The Police but I would probably have to rank it last among their studio albums, or at least tied with Zenyatta.
Message in a Box: The Complete Recordings (1993)
This a four-CD box set containing all the studio albums plus singles, B-sides, live tracks, etc. It’s a great way to hear some early recordings (“Fall Out”, “Landlord”, “Dead End Job”, etc.) The live tracks show the band MUCH looser than on record, but the Live! double album (see below) does a much more thorough job of that. Some other great B-sides include the rocking “A Sermon” and hypnotic “Someone to Talk To.” “I Burn For You” is essentially a solo Sting song, while “Once Upon A Daydream” would be at home on Ghost in the Machine with its staccato guitars and heavy synths. Overall nonessential, but if you enjoy their style of music you might enjoy some of the rarities here.
This is a fantastic double album that documents the band at two very different points in their career. Disc 1 is taken from a show at the Orpheum Theatre in Boston, 1979 (soon after Reggata de Blanc). Disc 2 features material from their Synchronicity tour stop in Atlanta at the old Omni arena, 1983. While both shows are enjoyable on their own (and I’d suspect most of you will prefer Disc 1), the differences are not surprisingly staggering. Disc 1 is hilariously raw, to the point that the master volume is noticeably increased halfway through the first track. The sound is much edgier than any of their records with no overdubs, timing flubs, faster tempos, crunchier guitar, off-key backup vocals, etc. Songs like “Landlord” almost sound like a different band. One thing I love about their live show is their tendency to completely change arrangements (“Roxanne”) and combine songs (“Can’t Stand Losing You”/”Regatta de Blanc”) - the seven-minute version of “So Lonely” is probably my favorite track off Disc 1. On the other hand, Disc 2 is a snapshot at the height of their success. The crowd has increased at least tenfold, the sound is much cleaner, Sting’s voice sounds aged, they have BACKUP SINGERS...you read that right. That’s my least favorite part of this disc, but at the same time it’s part of the “charm” or whatnot. One thing they’re still good at though is not trying to replicate the records. Most songs are extended or have a distinct live flair - not something I see with many other bands today outside of maybe “jam bands”. Overall one of my favorite live albums and I’d consider this essential listening as it’s a much different side of the band than the studio recordings so many are familiar with. (The ‘83 show is also available on DVD.)
Certifiable: Live in Buenos Aires (2008)
Taken from their 2007-2008 reunion. I’m less familiar with this but it’s a good representation of what they sounded like if you missed the tour. Not essential, but if you’re curious to hear the 20-some year difference by all means it’s a fun listen. I’m glad they decided not to use backup singers or anything silly and I can vouch it was just the three of them on stage on this tour, though you can clearly hear prerecorded backup vocals here. Otherwise surprisingly few bells & whistles, and it’s interesting how Andy Summers tries to play himself up as a “rock guitarist” with several highly overdriven solos that don’t really recall his classic style. Stewart sounds like he hasn’t aged a day - in fact his drumming seems to have increased in ferocity and he’s now incorporated double kick playing. There are a few arrangement & harmonic/chordal changes, tempos are generally slowed down a bit, and there are songs that haven’t been played live much before if at all (like “Every Little Thing”). “Invisible Sun” sounds fresh, and the live timpanis on “Wrapped Around Your Finger” are neat. The recording quality is pristine. There’s undoubtedly some influence from Sting’s solo career, mainly in his vocal timbre and some jazzier or otherwise sedate aspects of the arrangements, but it’s reigned in and thankfully doesn’t detract much. The saddest thing is seeing this go from front endcaps at Best Buy (it was an “exclusive”) to the bargain rack a few years later. I enjoyed every moment of their brief comeback but in the end I had to admit to myself it was a big cash grab by all involved. Which really isn’t a surprise since they never seemed like they wouldn’t do such a thing, as I alluded to earlier. Anyway, a nice companion to the ‘79 and ‘83 recordings.
The ‘08 and ‘83 shows are available on DVD. Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out (2006) is a great collection of home movie footage shot by Stewart Copeland while on the road with the band. Haven’t watched this in a while but would highly recommend it. Outlandos to Synchroniticites: A History of The Police Live! is only available on VHS I think. I haven't watched it in ages but I recall it has lots of live clips from across the years, including several early ones. There’s also a collection of the band’s music videos which, being from the early days of the medium, are mostly very entertaining (ex. “Synchronicity II”). The early pre-MTV ones in particular are very low budget, goofy, and fun to watch. I forget the name but I think its available on DVD as Every Breath You Take: The Videos.
It was fun to go through all these as it’s been a while. Hopefully some of you who aren’t familiar with anything beyond the singles will investigate further, and those that have heard the albums will maybe check out the live stuff and B-sides. I’d recommend just starting with Outlandos and listening to the studio albums in order.
I'd forgotten how much I like the Police. Great write up, I think it's time to break out Message in a Box.
Frank Black write up still coming, there are a lot of albums.
03/13/15 Wolf Alice - the Rickshaw Stop
04/24/15 Polaris - The Chapel
06/11/15 Neutral Milk Hotel - The Phoenix Theatre
Unwound was a band from Tumwater, Washington who played Post-Hardcore music, essentially the stuff you normally associate with Fugazi and Jawbox and Drive Like Jehu and that Cloud Nothings would like to sound like now. They were the first band to release music on Kill Rock Stars, the label that, throughout the 90s and early 00s was primarily associated with them and their sister band, Sleater-Kinney. They started as a loud, aggressive, discordant act, developed this style into an art, and then, in 1998, made enough money and developed enough credibility with their label to build their own studio. For the next three years they worked on their masterpiece, which, for a change, actually turned out to be one. Of course, they broke up soon after it came out.
They were a fiercely independent band, playing guitars in alternate tunings, touring almost exclusively venues that were all-ages, and creating lyrics and artwork that referenced rebellious (frequently communist and futurist) thinkers. They were great. Learn about them.
1. Fake Train (1993) - B
Dragnalus is a monster of a way to introduce a first album: it’s explosively loud, angry and intense. Welcome to the land of Unwound. While the band had been together since 1991 and recorded one album before this (see below for more!), Fake Train was their first release. The reductive line that critics used for years to describe Unwound was Sonic Youth meets Fugazi, and on this album that is an incredibly apt description. They use Fugazi’s punk-speckled blasts of instrumental precision and pepper it with Sonic Youth-y guitar ambience and instrumental passages. Ignored in this grouping, however, is the fact that Unwound were contemporaries of Fugazi, rather than another rip-off group, and even on their early work they show their own unique style. While much of the album grinds, screeches and blasts its way through ferocious cuts, songs like Star Spangled Hell allow for winding instrumental breakdowns that show the band had a grasp on beauty. The biggest complaint I have is that this one is a bit samey: by the end most of the songs have blurred into a ferocious whole rather than differentiating themselves. Regardless, a high-octane and thrilling debut.
2. New Plastic Ideas (1994) – B+
Much like Fake Train, New Plastic Ideas sprints right out of the gate. Both Entirely Different Matters and What Was Sound are hard, loud, fast rockers. This time they owe more of a debt to Jawbox circa For Your Special Sweetheart, with driving guitars and rhythms set to screamed vocals that nod to melody without ever actually getting there. It wouldn’t be fair to call anything on this album catchy or poppy in a general sense, but there is more a sense of dynamics on this one than Fake Train, and they sound MUCH more in control of their fury and craft, creating songs that do more than just bleed into one another. Envelope and [BI]Hexenzsene[/I], for example, have verses that are sung rather than screamed. And then there’s Abstraktions, a 7+ minute instrumental that shows they’ve delved into Slint and early post-rock and can pull off a similar sound with ease. The back half, with the exception of All Souls Day, incorporates this influence into their larger sound. All Souls Day, on the other hand, is the highlight of the album, a near-melodic grinder that, at the end, locks into a single note pulse for nearly a minute before exploding to an end. Pound for pound, New Plastic Ideas is just below Repetition as the highlight of their early career, but it nevertheless is a bracingly great post-hardcore record from one of the best bands of the genre.
3. The Future of What (1995) – C
They go for ugly here, and they go for it hard. New Energy starts the album with a driving grind, setting the stage for the relative fury that would follow. Unfortunately, the grind tends to envelop most of the steps they had taken on New Plastic Ideas and obscures even the nuance that existed on Fake Train. Like that album, the songs bleed into each other due to a lack of change, but here it becomes more of a drain. Swan, the obligatory long song, drones on for 8 plodding minutes without much to show for it. After the developments of New Plastic Ideas, this can be viewed as nothing other than a disappointment. While it’s not bad, that doesn’t mean it’s good. (Note: there are quite a few Unwound fans who will insist this is a great album, so maybe I’m missing something. But, to me it is their least varied, least developed album outside of the first recording. Segue!)
4. Unwound (1995) – C-
Although not released until 1995, this was their first recording. The only release to feature Brandt Sardeno on drums rather than Sara Lund (he came back to play second guitar on the final album), it is the one to most clearly show their debt to Fugazi. Justin Trosper sings like a brutalized Guy Picciotto and his guitar parts are meatier and less jazz-influenced here than on anything they recorded afterward. A few songs (Understand and Forget and You Bite My Tongue) stand out due to more jaunty rhythms but otherwise the bulk of the release is a bit same-y, with the grind and scream of The Future of What overtaking the atmosphere. A blueprint, but not a terribly essential one.
5. Repetition (1996) – A
And oh, how different. Every previous release immediately started with a grinding guitar and pummeling drums: here, there’s electronic interference into guitars that chime, drums that almost swing and a near-funky bassline. Sure, Trosper screams his ass off a minute into Message Received, but the sound here is fuller, cleaner and just BETTER. Repetition tends to be the go-to early Unwound album for a very simple reason: it has the best songwriting and playing of their early career. Corpse Pose musically anticipates At The Drive-In’s best work, with a guitar line that blends post-hardcore guitar lines with blasts of pure, controlled noise over the suddenly-masterful rhythm section. And Trosper never screams, instead intoning the lyrics in a deadly monotone and reaching a strained near-falsetto for the bridge. It’s fantastic. Where before the grind and noise was an end unto itself, here they use these approaches as textural elements to build fuller songs, incorporating more nuanced guitars and vocals. However, the real stars of the show are Sara Lund and Vern Rumsey, who have developed into a precise, meaty and powerful rhythm section, which frees Trosper’s guitar up to more adventuresome approaches. He plays less here than on any previous album, and the space does their music wonders. Space is a good word for Sensible, where they create an honest-to-god good dub song that doesn’t sound out of place with the rest of the record. Go To Dallas And Take A Left, the penultimate track, veers from their prior instrumentals in that is a fairly successful attempt at free jazz/rock, with Lund’s drums propelling the band as Trosper and producer Steve Fisk battle on guitar and keys. A bleating sax jumps into the maelstrom at the end just to add to the fun. For Your Entertainment is the ideal closer, their most melodic track thus far, and one that builds to a big, almost-prog-like finale. A huge achievement.
6. Challenge For A Civilized Society (1998) – B+
Here, Unwound takes the progress from Repetition and applies it both to their older style and to new formats. Data opens the album like something that would have fit in on New Plastic Ideas, angular and grinding, but with the new-found space and rhythmic intensity that the band perfected on Repetition. Towards the end, however, the song dives head first into melody and pretty yet discordant guitar lines. Sonata For Loudspeakers is, far and away, their most successful and fully realized instrumental. They develop it from a quiet head to a thick, horn-filled climax as if they were a jazz band, circa ragtime. Not an era I would ever have expected to reference in regard to a post-punk band, but they exude the combination of joy and anxiety that pervades the best of that genre. Following the track with No Tech!, a short, angular yet tuneful rock track that would have fit on a Sleater-Kinney album is just perfect. The only problem I have with Sonata is that, two tracks later, they honestly create something more worthy of the name. Side Effects of Being Tired starts as a rock song then evolves into echoed, effects laden guitars, a propulsive bass-and-drum combo, and a plethora of other effects that create a noise symphony. They keep the work in control the whole time, even as it rages into discordant noises and electronic free-for –all. It’s a highly impressive piece. The last tracks reach for, and achieve a level of quiet beauty that early Unwound could never have thought to achieve. The only thing that holds this album backs is an early trio of songs that don’t reach to the same height-everything between Data and Sonata is good, but far too reductive and old-sounding to complement the strong growth shown on the rest of the album. Still a highly enjoyable listen and a step towards maturity for the band.
7. A Single History (1999) – B
In case you didn’t gather from the name, this is a singles collection. While not complete, it gathers a majority of the singles that Unwound released during their career, arranged in an order that makes sense musically rather than chronologically. This makes a certain degree of sense, as, while the band progressed greatly from their initial formation in 1991 to the date of the last single on this comp, 1997 (Mile Me Deaf/The Light At the End of the Tunnel Is A Train,) they maintained a unity of vision amongst their work. It also shows that Unwound was a very strong singles band, as many of the songs are highlights of their career even if they would not have fit in on the albums from their respective release dates. Opener Mile Me Deaf sounds like a progression of the melodic material on Repetition, with solid singing and a great beat. After that, they retreat to a series of more noisy, grinding tracks that would nevertheless have improved the thin, discordant The Future of What. MKUltra, in particular, shows a level of restraint they never approached on that album, and would have been a highly welcome breather track. Seen Not Heard, from the Repetition era, revs with a single-minded intensity while retaining the relative melodic developments from that album. That said, there are just as many duds here as there are hits. The early material (Caterpillar, Miserific Condition, Stumbling Block, and Crab Nebula) from 1991 suffers from a lack of development relative to later work. It’s also sorely missing Lund’s deft drumming. Said Serial may have the most annoying keyboard sound ever, and it just never develops into something worth listening to. That they follow it with Census, a short dub jazz instrumental that rivals their best work, is perverse and genius. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Plight is a cover of a Minutemen track, possibly the best band that’s ever existed-instant respect for the fact that they do it great justice.
And then there’s The Light At the End of the Tunnel is A Train, the longest song in their whole catalog. While it doesn’t actually close out the album (that is left to one of the lackluster 1991 tracks) it might as well have. It starts with a calm ambient opening before delving into electronic manipulations the drums and guitars from All Souls Day. They quiet down before ramping back into another Unwound sample, this time the drums and guitars and effects from No Tech!, with a really ridiculous answering message track from a dude describing a horrible-sounding aerobic workout music. It's a great, expansive track, totally unlike anything else Unwound did and completley worth listening to at least once. I wish I could bump the grade up for the inclusion of this track, but about half the album is faceless post-hardcore grinding that they did better elsewhere, while the rest trumps some of their best work. A mixed bag, as with pretty much all singles compilations, but worth hearing.
8. Leaves Turn Inside You (2001) – Grade: A+
There is nothing in Unwound’s catalog (really, in the KRS catalog or much in the post-punk/post-hardcore catalog) that will prepare you for this album. After years of matching abrasion with moments of sheer beauty, Unwound took the time to carefully craft a song cycle that truly shines, radiating craft, precision and gorgeous, developed textures. Right from the start, this album declares that it will be neither an easy listen nor a traditional punk offering, opening with individual organ tones that combine into a drone that lasts for near on two minutes (Fun fact: Brandt Sardeno, their original drummer, is playing the organ, the first sound you hear on the album.) As the actual song section of We Invent You takes hold, it becomes immediately apparent that the band is stepping out from its previous attack of vicious tones. In its place is an austere, nearly catchy vocal drone that swims in and out of the guitar tones. The band is completely together and the song is an ocean of tones. Look A Ghost follows with chiming, quickly arpeggiated guitar tones that fight with the syncopated vocals and Lund’s shifting drums to create a rhythmic beast of a track. While a track like this one would have, on previous releases, burst into grating guitars and pummeling drums, here they reach a point where the song has a near-Beatles instrumental tone, chiming with light drums and a bouncy bass. In the middle of a dark, post-hardcore track. Suffice to say, Unwound have grown up.
While the majority of the album finds them stretching their craft in as many ways as it can go, incorporating strings, synths and whatever else they can find, they also perfect the styles they’d worked with previously. December or Scarlette may nominally have fit in on past albums, but there is such a depth to the tone of the guitars, such a respect for space, and such a huge leap in Trosper’s vocal delivery that these songs are heads and tails above what they’d done before (Scarlette is the only song with Trosper screeching like he used to.) The middle section continually approaches and expands the post-hardcore tropes (angular guitars, driving rhythms, melodic basslines) into fully-formed expressions that nobody else in the genre ever truly approached. That they also reincorporate the shoegaze (One Lick Less), post-rock (Terminus) and free jazz/musique concrete (Summer Freeze) influences from prior records only elevates the whole album.
At 74 minutes, it is a daunting experience. However, there were few other punk bands working at this level: only Fugazi was able to come up with something similarly melodic, dense and affecting in the Argument. It’s fitting that, for both bands, these albums were their swan songs. They operate both as their definitive statements and the furthest stretches of their artistic reaches. The Argument is one of the more important albums in my development. I heard it first of all Fugazi albums, bought it completely without any outside influence and have adored it for ten years. That I prefer Leaves Turn Inside You should be a testament to the incredible work that Unwound achieved with this album. It deserves every bit of praise I have given it: an A+ is nothing but recognition that, by the end of their career, Unwound had achieved perfection. That it is prohibitively expensive as a physical product now is ludicrous. Despite the fact that I own a vinyl copy, I have petitioned Kill Rock Stars for years to repress this classic, to no avail.
I feel conflicted suggesting this as the ideal starting point for Unwound. It is, without a doubt, the highlight of their career, their most accessible and successful recording, a highlight of any genre you wish to include them in, and one of the most impressive albums of the 2000s. However, to listen to this first will forever spoil the rest of the fantastically enjoyable Unwound catalog. They worked towards such a phenomenal success, and perhaps you should too.
Edit: I reviewed every release bar A Single History based on its vinyl release.
Hell yeah! I've always wanted to listen to them. The Leaves Turn Inside You write-up is beautiful
4/8 Drive Like Jehu @ The Glass House
5/1 Sleater-Kinney @ The Palladium
5/8 Stephin Merritt @ The Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetary
Pretty Lights? What's the shortest but best ep/album to get a general idea?
Just cuz ..........cr****
Have Another Hit Of Colorado Sunshine
Fancy some reading material? Take a gander at ... Guided by Voices.
I grew up near Dayton, OH, in the 1980's, which means I had the good fortune to grow up with Guided by Voices. Their first albums were released when I was in high school, and I discovered them at the time I was discovering all the other music that was formative to me: R.E.M., The Replacements, Elvis Costello, Pixies, Hüsker Dü, etc., etc. The bonus was that these guys were virtually living right around the corner, and once I was in college I frequently got to see them in crappy bars and clubs throughout the early 90’s. They always had something of a mystique, with singer/songwriter and lone constant member Robert Pollard gaining notoriety around Dayton as a 4th-grade teacher by day, a hard-drinking frontman by night, and one of the most prolific songwriters of his generation. I still feel kinda possessive of these guys, and it's been fun watching their recent reunion. What follows are the band's main albums, which doesn't include the plethora of singles, EP's, and compilations that have also been released over the years.
Devil Between My Toes (1987)
Guided by Voices have never been long-winded. Even on their debut, all but one song is wrapped up in less than three minutes. But this alone is the one characteristic that latter-day GBV listeners might recognize on their debut. It is, in most other respects, a fairly conventional late 80’s college rock album, hewn from the same material as R.E.M.’s Document and The Replacements’ Let it Be. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Opener “Old Battery” jangles merrily, as does “Cyclops” two songs later, only over a martial drumbeat this time. Elsewhere, songs like “Dog’s Out” find Pollard embracing his love of (and penchant for) 70’s-style power pop. Interestingly, the centerpiece of the album is the five-minute “A Portrait Destroyed by Fire,” sort of a free-form meander, complete with menacing bassline and call-and-response vocals that remind me of no one as much as Mission of Burma. Throw in a few random instrumentals and you’ve got an odd, schizophrenic debut from a band whose talent is apparent but who hadn’t quite figured out what they wanted to be. Grade: B-
Pollard and Co. still flirt with conventionality on their second album in a year. Several of the songs are concentrated bursts of energy: “Lips of Steel” and “A Visit to the Creep Doctor” careen out of control in a hail of serrated guitars, over and done in three minutes total. But, as with their debut, a good number of them are slower tempo variations on late 80’s jingle-jangle: “Get to Know the Ropes” and “Can’t Stop,” fr’instance, wouldn’t sound out of place on R.E.M.’s 1986 album Lifes Rich Pageant. Despite the fact that the band didn’t resemble itself yet, there are still hints of what was to come. Some songs are mere sketches (“Trap Soul Door” clocks in at an epic 1:13), while others (“The Drinking Jim Crow”) dip a toe into the lyrical surrealism Pollard would get so good at. And then there’s closer “Adverse Wind,” the kind of quasi-anthem the band would patent on later albums. They weren’t there yet, but a template was forming. Grade: B
Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia (1989)
The genesis of the GBV we now know can be traced in a straight line to their third album. The songs – even the short ones – are more fully formed, and opener “The Future Is in Eggs” is their first stone-cold classic. “The Great Blake Street Canoe Race” is even better, harmony vocals floating on top of the guitars with a jarring tempo shift in the closing seconds. Despite the frankly astonishing evolution in Pollard’s songwriting and sense of melody, there are still some songs that come out of left field, not least of which is “Earful o’ Wax.” At first it hearkens back to the R.E.M.isms of the first two albums, but halfway through we suddenly get some weird underwater vocals and then the whole thing outros on a blistering (and heretofore unheard of) guitar solo. The whole album is pretty remarkable, but to really appreciate it you have to be able to place it in the context of their other work. Taken on its own terms you’ll likely think, “Oh. Another cool GBV record.” But listened to after their first two albums and it’s clear that Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia is modern GBV’s Year Zero. Grade: A-
Same Place the Fly Got Smashed (1990)
Correction: Year Zero is actually probably a combination of the songcraft of Album Three with the shitty recording quality of Album Four. Fly Got Smashed opens with Pollard howling incoherently over tuneless guitar that sounds like it was recorded in a public restroom, and this defiantly anti-spit-and-polish stance returns throughout the album (“Drinker’s Peace,” a quiet acoustic number, and “Club Molluska,” a virtual carbon copy of opener “Airshow ‘88”). I always thought the whole “lo-fi” thing that GBV spearheaded was always the least interesting aspect about them, and this album does a good job of illustrating why. The songs that see a little more polish are absolutely the best here. “Order for the New Slave Trade” and “Pendulum” are power pop gems, and neither of them subscribe to the less-is-more aesthetic that sort of became the band’s selling point for a while. This schizophrenia – which worked on their first couple albums and which they would perfect later – just doesn’t click here. Late in the album we get the near-perfect “Blatant Doom Trip,” but it’s hamstrung by the song previous: “Starboy,” a meandering little sketch that adds nothing to the album. After the success of Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia, this one seems like a step in the wrong direction. Grade: C
From the first bars of “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox,” all is forgiven. We get charging, roughhouse guitars; a Pollard melody that seems instantly familiar in the way that all classic melodies do; and, at the three-minute mark, a clever little segue into what amounts to a completely different song. If this is what the unsatisfying Fly Got Smashed was building up to, I’m cool with that. What really sets Propeller apart from its predecessor, however, is the fact that while there’s a handful of seriously classic songs here (the opener, the Beatle-esque 1-2 punch of “Quality of Armor” and “Metal Mothers”), it’s the experiments that really pay off. “Particular Damaged,” with its stuttering guitars and distorted vocals, has the potential to be another tuneless letdown, but this time there’s a melody to anchor it, and it’s all the better for it. “14 Cheerleader Coldfront” works in a similar way, its tinny vocals and wiry acoustic guitar sounding like it was beamed from some distant planet to be captured on a crappy transistor radio. The standout, though, is “Exit Flagger,” two minutes of power chords, crashing cymbals, and one of Pollard’s best-ever choruses. The best thing, though, is that it turns out this excellent record was only a harbinger of things to come. Grade: A-
Vampire on Titus (1993)
While Propeller is certainly a good album, it’s with Vampire on Titus that GBV truly began one of the strongest runs of any 90’s band. Even though they went all-in with the scuzzy low-fi sound, each and every song here is a winner. By this time Pollard had figured out how to turn even the barest of sketches into finely-honed melody-delivery systems, so even something like the 56-second “World of Fun” sticks with the listener. But for many of the songs it’s all crunchy, roiling guitars and hummable melodies. And this works even when you can’t make out the lyrics, as on “Sot,” where Pollard sounds like he’s singing from the bottom a well. In other places, though, we catch glimpses of the polished pop songs the band would explore in a few years, like opener “Wished I Was a Giant” and “Unstable Journey,” both mini-power pop masterpieces. And while Pollard often gets all the credit for the band’s success, it’s guitarist Tobin Sprout who co-wrote two of the album’s best (and gentlest) songs, “Gleemer (The Deeds of Fertile Jim)” and “Wondering Boy Poet.” There’s no standout here, a la “Exit Flagger” from Propeller, but this is absolutely the band’s strongest collection of songs to date. Grade: A
Bee Thousand (1994)
My feelings for this album are all mixed up in personal experience. As I mentioned at the top, I knew GBV from the band’s early days, and I watched them grow. This is the album I knew they had in them, and for all these reasons it’s tough to review objectively. It’s a classic in its own right, but it also speaks strongly to me of a particular time and place. Even taking that admitted bias into account, it’s still a monster of an album, twenty tracks that zip by in under forty minutes, each one fairly bursting with melody and inventiveness. It’s the focus that’s most impressive, sub-two-minute songs like “Hardcore UFO’s” and “Buzzards and Dreadful Crows” being pared back to razor-sharp bursts of melody. And while, yeah, the low-fi fuzz and grot is still present, it’s not as obtrusive as on earlier records, allowing Pollard’s voice (an underrated instrument) to shine through on songs like the howling, minimalist “Hot Freaks” and the delicate “Awful Bliss.” The added clarity also reveals more of the surrealism and absurdity in Pollard’s lyrics … for better or worse. I mean, I can appreciate the nonsense of a lyric like “Jimmy was a fly/Got sucked in by an actor/And wrapped in a cocoon/And skin-tight buffoonery/Now here's the plan…” (from “Ester’s Day”), but no one’s going to mistake Pollard for Nick Cave. In the end, however, it all comes back to those power pop melodies. “Echos Myron,” “Queen of Cans and Jars,” and the triumphant “I Am a Scientist” – Bee Thousand is forty minutes of nonstop hooks, and it’s the first unqualified masterpiece in the band’s catalog. Grade: A+
Alien Lanes (1995)
Alien Lanes is Bee Thousand on steroids: 28 songs, none topping three minutes, most under two, and all of them featuring melodies that bore strain into your brain. Pollard issues a rare mission statement in opener “A Salty Salute,” exhorting listeners to “C’mon, c’mon, the club is open.” And from there the rest of the album whistles by in an exhilarating rush, a master class in 20th Century rock and roll. All their musical styles are here: thrumming, menacing rock (“Watch Me Jumpstart,” “Striped White Jets”), Lennon/MCartney-style pop songcraft (“As We Go Up, We Go Down,” “Closer You Are”), power pop (“Motor Away,” “Little Whirl”), folk (“The Ugly Vision”), and surreal excursions into “What the fuck was that?!” that are just as much a band trademark as their lo-fi recording techniques (“Big Chief Chinese Restaurant,” “Gold Hick”). The argument has been made that Pollard needs better quality control, that the sheer volume of his work means that some of it is necessarily underdeveloped. I suppose that’s true. But listen to Alien Lanes and just consider how many truly killer melodies are on this album. Most bands would kill to have one good song. Here we get, oh, at least 25. The fact that some of them are under two minutes in length seems a small price to pay for such riches. Grade: A
Under the Bushes Under the Stars (1996)
By this point the band had pushed their less-is-more aesthetic about as far as it could take them without becoming parody. So, rather than reinvent the wheel or embark on an experimental jazz-funk odyssey, they tried the revolutionary technique of developing their songs past the sketch stage. Et voila – their third classic album in a row. “Man Called Aerodynamics” comes barreling out of the gate, a juggernaut that sets the tone for the rest of the album. The high point (for me, at least) comes early in the slow-building “Cut Out Witch.” The song starts hesitantly, tentatively-strummed guitar rapidly picking up speed before exploding into a euphoric chorus. It’s a song like this that’s indicative of the band’s sorta-kinda new approach. The experimentation exists in service of developing the song, rather than just being noodly for noodly’s sake as on some of their earliest albums. This approach yields positive results throughout the album, from the Kim Deal-produced “The Official Ironmen Rally Song” (one of their best pure pop moments to date) to “No Sky,” which starts as a gentle acoustic ballad before turning itself over to Pollard howling, “Could you keep a secret from me?” over ominous guitar. This isn’t to say the band has entirely left the past behind. The center of the album is a gorgeous power pop triptych – “Lords of Overstock,” “Your Name Is Wild,” “Ghosts of a Different Dream” – that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on Propeller or Vampire on Titus, and “Big Boring Wedding” is a late-in-the-album winner with the simple (and simply catchy) chorus, “Pass the word/the chicks are back!” It’s worth mentioning, too, despite my emphasis on power pop (feel free to take a drink each time I use that term), that by this point the band had become equally adept at acoustic ballads. On this album we get songs like “Bright Paper Werewolves” and “Acorns & Orioles,” beautiful little numbers that prove the band isn’t all about loud and catchy (although we get plenty of that, too). If I’ve written more about this album than I have about their one inarguable classic, it’s because I actually think this one is, in some ways, more important. Bee Thousand is just a dynamite collection of songs; Under the Bushes Under the Stars is a dynamite collection of songs where the band really figured out what they were capable of. So of course Pollard’s next step was to break up the band. Grade: A+
Tonics and Twisted Chasers (1996)
But first this odd little throwback, originally released only on vinyl to fanclub members. In an apparent attempt to pretend the last five albums never happened, Tonics and Twisted Chasers at first appears to be nothing as much as a sequel to Same Place the Fly Got Smashed. We’re back to lots of one-minute-long song fragments and lo-fi scuzz, without much of the invention and polish the last few albums have trained us to expect. That’s not to imply this is a total loss. GBV at their ramshackle best is still pretty damn good, and fully-formed songs like the spiky “Key Losers” and off-kilter pop of “Unbaited Vicar of Scorched Earth” mesh well with left-field excursions like the droning guitars and distorted vocals of “Reptilian Beauty Secrets,” or “Wingtip Repair”’s barroom piano. The danger of increased expectations, I s’pose, is that it renders albums like this one – solid but unremarkable – as somehow (and unfairly) worse than they are. Grade: C+
Mag Earwhig! (1997)
Pollard split with songwriting partner Tobin Sprout after Under the Bushes Under the Stars and fired the rest of the group, hiring the Cleveland-based Cobra Verde as his backing band. This album therefore became a pivotal moment for Pollard because for the first time he had sole songwriting credit on all but two songs: “I Am a Tree,” written by Cobra Verde’s Doug Gillard and “Are You Faster?,” a remnant from the Tobin Sprout-era band. Pollard continues to straddle the line between the fully-formed guitar pop songs that have increasingly yielded the best results and the oddball experimental doodles that obviously still fascinate him. And, to their credit, his new backing band seems up to the task. “Sad if I Lost It” roils and churns impressively, and Gillard’s euphoric “I Am a Tree” would, in a perfect world, be stadium-bound. “Bulldog Skin” is another Pollard winner, one of those songs where you don’t have any idea what he’s singing about, but the guitars are so insistent and the chorus so catchy that it doesn’t even matter. But I have to admit to growing a little weary of the attention-deficit-disorder-nature of the tracklist. For every “I Am Produced” – one sublime minute of hushed acoustic guitar and delicate vocals – we have a couple songs like the thirty-three-second-long “Hollow Cheek” which isn’t substantial enough to do much more than interrupt the album’s flow. And it’s a shame, because some of the tunes here are as good as ever. “Now to War” might be the most beautiful of the band’s acoustic numbers, and both “Portable Men’s Society” and the propulsive “Jane of the Waking Universe” benefit immensely from the overall tightness of Pollard’s new musicians. Even considering the sloppiness of GBV’s early albums, this is honestly the first time it seems like Pollard needs a better editor, which doesn’t speak well of his decision to sack his old bandmates. Grade: B-
Do the Collapse (1999)
I know I’m out of step with GBV die-hards on this one because it’s all clean and shiny and produced by Ric Ocasek, but I kinda love the sound of Pollard making a clear grab for pop greatness. At first it seems like a rousing success. “Teenage FBI” has one of those insistent Pollard choruses floating atop some fairly cheeseball (but still charming) keyboards, and “Zoo Pie”’s grungy guitar and distorted vocals are pushed along by clattering drums. Two songs later, “Hold on Hope” is a power ballad that shoulda been a contender, building through the verses to a soaring chorus. After that, though, the whole thing sort of collapses like someone kicked the back of its knee. The problem seems to be that as Ocasek polished the band’s sound he also sanded off the rough edges that gave the band its personality. “Dragons Awake!” probably would have been one of those perfect little acoustic numbers so abundant on earlier albums; here it’s saturated with strings and schmaltz. And elsewhere too many of the songs settle into a chugging, midtempo rut that’s pleasant but not particularly memorable. There are still high points – “Surgical Focus” sports a euphoric chorus every bit as razor-sharp as its title implies, and “Liquid Indian” slithers in on a vertiginous guitar line that sounds like a new weapon in GBV’s armory – but in general the album just doesn’t work. Grade: C+
Isolation Drills (2001)
And bam! All is forgiven. Isolation Drills succeeds in every way that Do the Collapse fell flat. It’s the GBV formula polished to a high sheen, the band’s idiosyncrasies honed to perfection. Even if the album only contained the ebullient “Glad Girls” (for my money, the best of GBV condensed into four glorious minutes) it would still be worth a listen. The good news is the rest of the album is no slouch either. The opening trio of “Fair Touching,” “Skills Like This,” and “Chasing Heather Crazy” is probably the strongest opening to any of the band's albums since Bee Thousand – each one roughly three exhilarating minutes of power pop splendor. Eh, I’ll actually go ahead and say it. This is their best album since Bee Thousand, and at its heights Isolation Drills actually – whisper it – surpasses it. Pollard’s songwriting has finally reached harmonic convergence with Cobra Verde’s instrumental backing: from the swirling guitars of the anthemic “Twilight Campfighter” to the joyous “Run Wild” to the chiming, ringing “The Brides Have Hit Glass,” virtually every song here is a winner, a serious master class in how you do this kind of thing. Hell, there’s even time for a throwback to old-school GBV in the 56-second oddity “Frostman.” This is arguably the high point of the band’s career, and probably the best entry point for a novice listener. Grade: A+
Universal Truths and Cycles (2002)
Opening with the racing, 35-second “Wire Greyhounds” and seguing into the boozy intro to “Skin Parade” (complete with clinking glasses in the background), Universal Truths and Cycles seems at first like a step backward into the band’s oddball beginnings. But give it a minute (or, okay, roughly 45 seconds). The band kicks in with a pulsing backbeat, and “Skin Parade” turns into a bona fide stomper. And that tension between familiarity and keeping it fresh is what’s at stake here. This album – their 14th, if you’ve lost count – sounds like the work of a band not sure what to do next. There are some half-hearted attempts at pushing the envelope – keening vocals and a fiddly guitar solo on love song “Cheyenne,” a string section on “Pretty Bombs,” stuttering buzzsaw guitars and a circular piano melody on “Back to the Lake,” and a carpet-bomb guitar attack on “Everywhere With Helicopter” – but in most places Pollard sounds a little tired. A power pop number like “Christian Animation Torch Carriers” (or “Storm Vibrations”) is very nice, but it’s also very GBV-by-numbers. Similarly, “The Weeping Bogeyman” or “Factory of Raw Essentials” could be just about any minimalist acoustic number from Bee Thousand or Alien Lanes. It feels a little churlish to expect a band to do more than just write really great pop songs, especially a band like GBV that A) had been churning out really great pop songs for fifteen years by this point, and B) has never been afraid of trying new things. But this is as unsatisfying an album as Do the Collapse. There are too many good songs here to say the album doesn’t entirely work – I haven’t even talked about the title track, which is a nifty thing built on jangly guitars and a surprisingly funky bassline – but the band seems to be back in the same sort of identity crisis mode they were in round about Same Place the Fly Got Smashed. Do they rest on their laurels or keep trying new things? If it’s the latter, what’s left to do? Grade: B-
Earthquake Glue (2003)
Maybe Pollard & Co. felt the slight stagnation in their last album, because Earthquake Glue certainly begins assertively. “My Kind of Soldier” barrels out of the gate unfurling chiming guitars in brightly-colored streamers. They briefly dial things back for the quiet acoustics of “My Son, My Secretary, and My Country,” and charge them right back up with the throbbing and oddly funky “I’ll Replace You With Machines.” GBV haven’t reinvented the wheel on this album, but in answer to my above question, they clearly haven’t expended their creativity yet. It’s most obvious on songs that hew close to their previous formula but manage to sidestep overt repetition. “Beat Your Wings” is an excellent example. It doesn’t exactly give us anything new: revved-up guitars, propulsive drums, a catchy chorus. But halfway through the song, guitarist Nate Farley floats some cloudbursts of distortion over the top of things, and that relatively minor touch casts an interesting shadow over the proceedings. “Mix up the Satellite” goes one step further, setting Pollard’s wistful vocal against a wall of shimmering keyboards. It’s a trick so good they try it again on the very next song, “The Main Street Wizards,” and against all odds it works again. The effect of these new touches is that now the more straightforward Guided by Voices Songs™ seem like something of a revelation. Where a song like “Dirty Water” might have been just another “song with guitars” on the last album, here it comes swaggering in like an old friend. This is the first GBV album to sound truly different since Do the Collapse. And this time it works. Grade: A
Half Smiles of the Decomposed (2004)
The last album before Pollard would shelve the band for eight years is not only a worthy extension of Earthquake Glue’s considerable successes, it also works as a summary of everything the band has accomplished in the last 17 years. Songs like “Everybody Thinks I’m a Raincloud” are polished to a fine power pop gloss, but there are also interesting detours like “Sleep Over Jack,” which finds Pollard howling over a serpentine bassline, pummeling drums, and what sounds like – perish the thought – a flute. The album doesn’t scale the same heights as latter-day successes like Isolation Drills or Earthquake Glue, but what really sets this album apart – and again, this is an extension of the last album – is that the experiments are finally developed to the point where they seem like real songs instead of being either Pollard’s dashed-off fancies (as they seemed on Universal Truths) or inflated but empty fragments (as they seemed on Do the Collapse). In addition to “Sleep Over Jack,” we also have songs like “Sons of Apollo,” which starts off with simple tribal drumming and spare guitar before exploding into widescreen Technicolor at the two-minute mark. But by and large Half Smiles finds the band making the case for its legacy, and in that regard it’s wall to wall melodies. “Girls of Wild Strawberries,” “Asphyxiated Circle,” and “(S)mothering and Coaching” are all top-shelf Pollard. And then there’s album closer “Huffman Prairie Flying Field”: three minutes of soaring melody over chiming guitars. As a supposed exit, this was quite a note to go out on. Grade: A-
Let’s Go Eat the Factory (2012)
I’ve always been a stick in the mud when it comes to reunions, preferring bands to release new material even if it’s not very good (like The Verve) rather than just play the hits ad nauseam (like Pixies or Rage Against the Machine). Robert Pollard apparently heard me when he decided to reform the “classic” Bee Thousand-era lineup (welcome back, Tobin Sprout!) and said, “Well, hell. Let’s go ahead and release three albums in a year.” Let’s Go Eat the Factory is the first to see the light of day, and it was worth the wait. Opening with a drone of feedback, shards of guitar, and Pollard’s distorted vocals, the song eventually surges off its leash, and it’s like the break never happened. Perhaps appropriately, Factory seems like an attempt to revisit the style of Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, because for the first time in a while we have more fully-formed songs sharing space with barely minute-long doodles (as on the aimless, distortion-heavy “The Head”). But there’s also a lot of classic Pollard/Sprout songwriting here, whether it be the lovely acoustic “Doughnut for a Snowman,” Pollard’s menacing, brass-laced “Imperial Racehorsing,” or the buzzing, galloping “Waves.” One thing that’s obvious is how the band members grew in the time off. Tobin Sprout’s “Spiderfighter” (surly, supercharged guitars eventually giving way to a delicate piano figure) is more ambitious than anything he wrote in the 80’s or 90’s and it never would have found a place on GBV’s earlier records, but it sounds perfectly at home here. As good as most of the album is, though, it wouldn’t be the classic GBV lineup without some filler. I’m pretty sure we don’t need “The Big Hat and Toy Show” (two minutes of tuneless meandering) or the abstract goof “The Things That Never Need.” Still, it’s a strong return that’s better than it has any right to be. Grade: B+
Class Clown Spots a UFO (2012)
Released five months after the last album, Class Clown saunters in on the roaring guitar of “He Rises! Our Union Bellboy,” confidently reminding us that not only is GBV still here, they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. If anything, this album is even more of a throwback to the 90’s albums, with a decrease in song length and an increase in the number of songs that appear to be little more than works in progress. The fully-developed songs are as sharp and polished as you’d expect, especially the sprightly title track (all that’s missing are jaunty hand claps and some ba-ba-ba’s on the chorus), the rapidfire (is that a drum machine?) “Keep it in Motion,” and the catchiest song on the album, the wiry closer “No Transmission.” The short sketches, on the other hand, run the gamut from the wistful (and really quite beautiful) “Chain to the Moon” to the completely superfluous “Fighter Pilot.” It probably speaks well of the album, though, that there are actually some shorter songs here that I’d love to hear expanded into something longer. “Blue Babbleships Bay” (1:18) comes across like a great lost Who song, and “Roll of the Dice, Kick in the Head” has all the trappings of one of the band’s best slices of power pop, but at only 47 seconds it doesn’t really reach its potential. Something else stands out about this second comeback album: the band’s way with an acoustic number. I first wrote about this way back in Under the Bushes Under the Stars, and that proficiency really returns here. Aside from the already-mentioned “Chain to the Moon,” we also have quiet, reflective moments like “All of This Will Go,” “Be Impeccable,” and “Lost in Spaces,” gentle songs anchored by little more than a quiet guitar. This is an album that sees the band moving from strength to strength, and it’s becoming clear that the reunion invigorated everyone involved. Grade: A-
The Bears for Lunch (2012)
The third album of the reunion (for now – there’s a fourth due this spring) shows no signs of letting up, but that doesn’t mean it’s an unqualified success. We’ve got four-to-the-floor power pop rockers (opener “King Arthur the Red,” the roaring “Finger Gang”), successful experiments (“Smoggy Boy”), dopey experiments that probably should’ve been left off the album (“Have a Jug”), and delicate acoustic numbers (“Waking up the Stars”). In short, it’s a GBV album. And maybe that’s why this one feels unsatisfying in comparison to the other two reunion albums. Sixty songs in less than twelve months, presumably written at roughly the same time. There isn’t quite enough to distinguish this one from the other two, even if Pollard and Sprout still have a knack for writing the kind of melodies most musicians would kill for. This isn’t to diminish the pleasure of quality songs like “Skin to Skin Combat” or “She Lives in an Airport.” They’re both seriously great, and I feel like an idiot saying, “Stop writing so many amazing songs.” But there’s something workmanlike and perfunctory to the current pace; I think I would have been more satisfied with a single album that culled the twenty best songs from their current sessions than three albums that resulted in one that seems really, really pedestrian and unsatisfying. Because I hope if I’ve shown anything here, it’s that across their career Guided by Voices have been anything but unsatisfying. Grade: B
Where to go next if you like Guided by Voices? Well, Pollard has certainly given you enough choices. He's released 20ish solo albums under his own name, and he's also got several other side projects going, among them Boston Spaceships, The Takeovers, Lifeguards, and Circus Devils. Like I said at the top, prolific, pretty much to the point where it's impossible to keep up with him. But man: the guy can write a song.
yeah, seriously good stuff! thank you
Bryan, if I were going to dabble with a five-album sampler, I'd first check out that amazing four album sequence from the 90's: Vampire on Titus, Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, and Under the Bushes Under the Stars. Then skip forward a few years to Isolation Drills. That'll give you a pretty good idea of not just what they can do, but how their sound evolved. From there you can move backward and forward if you're still interested.
P.S. I just realized that one of my favorite skateboarding videos of all time uses Valentine Card off Fake Train in it. I used to watch the video just to listen to that song a lot (before I knew how to download music) when I was a kid. Oh man, nostalgia
Last edited by FEELS; 10-11-2013 at 06:34 AM.
4/8 Drive Like Jehu @ The Glass House
5/1 Sleater-Kinney @ The Palladium
5/8 Stephin Merritt @ The Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetary
How has no one done Outkast?
Someone should... (not me) and give praise to the oft-ignored Southernplayalisticadillacmusik.
4/8 Drive Like Jehu @ The Glass House
5/1 Sleater-Kinney @ The Palladium
5/8 Stephin Merritt @ The Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetary