Friday, January 23, 2009

Not very new music at the Fuhrerbunker

NOTE: These reviews got started almost two months ago. I need to get them out so I can review other things I've bought since then.

Brand New by Tomorrow
- Money Mark

I think Money Mark is very responsive to whichever musical environment he happens to be in at the time. Example: in the mid-90s, he's hanging out with the Beastie Boys every day, shooting hoops and helping them make some of the best music they ever released. At night, he goes home to make Mark's Keyboard Repair, which, next to Bee Thousand, is the best "lo-fi" home-recorded album of that decade - funky, playful, funny, and fun; it still sounds just as fresh and exciting today as the day I bought it.

Flash forward to the mid-aughts, when he's hanging out with Jack Johnson, signed to his label...yeah, "Bubble Toes" or whatever it is...and then he goes home to demo (twice) Brand New by Tomorrow. Sadly, it sounds a bit like his current label boss' work.

I guess I shouldn't go too hard on Mssr. Johnson - he did co-write the album's strongest track, "Pick Up The Pieces." In fact, the biggest problem here is Mark's continued reliance on chutzpah and a general vibe to carry his music through. He's never been the most ingenious songwriter (in fact he's just kind of an endearing softee) or producer, even though he is a fantastic musician. Trouble is, on Brand New, the vibe just isn't there most of the time. True, his passion for music and old records is still evident with the occasional flash of an inspired sound, such as the sterling session work of legends Carol Kaye and Jim Keltner or the blast of one of Mark's famous McGyver-esque feedback loops. Less frequently, Mark can throw himself into the material to make it just charming enough to warrant another listen, like on opener "Color of Your Blues." But more often than not, he's just churning out pedestrian, same-y songwriting with one foot in the 70s and another one in drek; ironically, at its worst, Brand New comes off sounding like a bad demo. No instrumentals this time - he keeps that separate now (see 2001's so-so collection Change is Coming), so the album's that less diverse and engaging. Sad to see that someone who once opened the possibilities of what an "album" could be as late as the 90's has since opted to just make "pleasant" sounding music. (EDIT: Sold back to store w/o uploading songs)

Earthquake Glue - Guided by Voices

I'm thinking that one of these days, I need to put up a "GBV in review" post. Perhaps after I purchase Isolation Drills.

Yes folks, Earthquake Glue is the penultimate step to me owning every single fucking Guided by Voices album - shucks, I don't have Forever Since Breakfast, but it's an EP so I won't sweat it. Yet. How did it happen? Sometimes things just get away from you, I guess. Plus, I own the "Director's Cut" of Bee Thousand, which swallowed up the Grand Hour and I Am A Scientist EPs on disc 3 with even MORE bonus tracks. I rule.

The matter on hand. Earthquake Glue. That fucking Jim Greer wrote that goddamn fucking really good book Hunting Accidents on GBV that I've reread (pointlessly) about three times because I wish it was 1000 pages long. UGH! Anyway, somewhere near the book's end he declares the band's last three albums to be "quite possibly the best the band ever recorded." I believe that with Universal Cycles; that album is years and years ahead of its time. Half Smiles, though, for all its wonderful opening tracks, is pretty mediocre (I'll be willing to expand this review in my GBV survey, stay tuned). So Jimmy's 1 for 2.

It's too early for me to call Earthquake Glue. Strange? Nah, many of the best GBV albums take a lot of listens to make their intended impact, such as Propeller (especially side 2), Vampire on Titus, Under the Bushes and even Do the Collapse (don't let anyone tell you otherwise, there are some amazing tracks beneath that compressed murk Ric Ocasek buried the band under). More and more toward the end of GBV, Pollard's non-single writing got increasingly chunky, taking his version of the super-compressed pop song into new realms. In Bobworld, simple songs often seem more complex than they ever were and vice versa; he probably doesn't even know how he does it due to the breakneck speed with which he writes. One almost feels they have to pull the song apart to enjoy fully. But this is part of the beauty of Bob/GBV/whatever - it really is thinking people's music as much as it is drinking people's music - you can just as easily chug a beer to this stuff.

One thing I can say is that Earthquake Glue isn't short on standout tracks. Highlights include the see-saw melody of "Beat Your Wings," the jerky prog of "Dead Cloud" (most likely the album's best song) and cheeky rock album closer "Of Mites and Men" plus the album's two singles, "Best of Jill Hives" (which is orgasmically sublime) and "My Kind of Soldier," which you already knew were great if you bought greatest hits collection Human Amusement at Hourly Rates like I did in 2003.

But GBV is a very serious addiction. Albums like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes are just gateway drugs. You get the jones for more Bob, so you fill out the albums. Then you get the EPs. All of 'em. Then it's on to the solo albums and side projects. Don't forget Toby's stuff. Or Doug's. Once you've bought your first Acid Ranch record or something you know you've reached the point of no return. When Pollard dies, I fear that a couple thousand people around the world might pass away with him from withdrawal symptoms. (By the way, I'm thinking about buying that new Boston Spaceships album, like, every day. This is not good.) (EDIT: Purchased, see below)

Brown Submarine - Boston Spaceships

Forgive the perhaps over-excited nature with which I mentioned this album earlier.

Robert Pollard has been failing to deliver on promises he made before GBV officially split in 2004, which is, basically, to return to a more raw, ragged, fun way of making music. I was especially concerned for the future of his music when I read a recent Chickfactor article in which he seemed overwhelmingly complacent with his current method of making records, which is basically to send demos to others (80% of the time producer Todd Tobias), let them record all the music, come in and do vocals. Ironic, as right before the split, Pollard had lamented how he had become "too complacent" in the studio, needed to be more involved, perhaps play some more guitar.

No snippet of anything I'd heard since the breakup really measured up to what I know Pollard is capable of, and frankly, the man is often satisfied with very forced-sounding songwriting. I love GBV and defend quite a lot of his work, but I was willing to give following his career a rest around 2005 and find out if I was wrong later, even though I was sure he was still writing great songs and putting them...somewhere. In the infamous suitcase, maybe.

Consider Brown Submarine, then, to be a step in the right direction. The album's opening defies anybody who has written Pollard off with basically, three perfect songs. "Winston's Atomic Bird" reintroduces Bob's Who obsession with an epic that clocks, naturally, under 2 minutes. Stretching out genre-wise, the acoustic title track follows, which is about as beautiful and dark Pollard can get, with multi-instrumentalist (and former GBV bassist) Chris Slusarenko supplying plaintive strings in the song's last 10 seconds. Arguably one of his best ever, it's ironic the song's name is a dumb shit joke - which, by the way, plays no part in the song's actual content. Then there's "You Satisfy Me," where any GBV fan will officially stand up and cheer. Pollard pulls out all the stops and just lets the melodic hooks sink in. It still sounds like him, which means it sounds like GBV, but Submarine's opening suggest a more relaxed, perhaps even mature form of adolescent rocking. If such a thing is possible.

From there, it's hit or miss. Generally, Pollard sounds engaged and the backing is in fine form, enabling Bob's Beatle dreams with the occasional horn or string section. Not too much envelope-pushing comes into play, however, and either some of the later tracks are devoid of the melodic brilliance I'm listening for and expecting, or they require further examination.

EDIT: This is a frivolous record that uses its frivolity as a strength. Really, a good 75% of the material is very strong, but mostly slight. And I can't say I love Chris Slusarenko's clean channel power-chord-happy playing, but I can live with it.

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