Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Guided By Voices: Selections from Singles and EPs, 1993-95

This is a re-post of blog entry from August of last year. I've never done a re-post before but it seems to be pertinent time to update this one for a couple of reasons:

1. The "classic" GBV lineup which this post covers is reuniting for Matador 21 this weekend in Las Vegas with more dates to come.

2. The fine folks at Decrepit Tapes just put together their own playlist of recordings from GBV's 1992-96 lineup. While theirs is a more extensive overview (covering a slightly larger timeframe and albums while this is strictly non-LP), I thought this would make a nice companion piece, despite an overlap of a few songs.

3. Most importantly, the original divShare playlist has crapped out for whatever reason, rendering most of the songs unplayable. I've re-uploaded to fix this.


As I was putting together my little demi-best of Matador list below, a couple of Guided By Voices 7" releases just missed the cut. During their "lo-fi era," GBV released a steady stream of 7 inches between albums, often containing something like 6 or 7 songs.

One could make the argument that these releases prepped the underground community for the breakthrough of Bee Thousand in a way their prior albums didn't. Guided By Voices may seem like fairly typical indie fare by today's standards but then their sloppy and extremely lo-fi prog-pop was fairly challenging. Indie/punk types may abhor the slick and professional, but GBV seemed to be openly mocking the concept of quality control. New listeners who didn't have the patience or intrepidity to sit through the uneven Vampire on Titus could surely endure a quick spin of a 7" EP and hear the handful of brilliant songs each invariably contained.

These smaller samples were much more digestible examples of the GBV aesthetic: rough fidelity, nonsensical lyrics, brevity, insanely catchy melodies. Of course, there was also the band's, shall we say, idiosyncratic method of choosing songs for release. Wheat and chaff were mixing freely. However, further listens might reveal that Guided By Voices' "throwaway" tunes weren't just filler, but rewarding in their own right. The band may have seemed impenetrable initially, but Pollard and his cohorts' twisted logic soon became readily apparent.

There has yet to be a thorough compilation of all of GBV's 7" material despite that a) they're a band inclined to clear vaults and compile collections and b) those records contained some of their signature songs. The latter assertion is somewhat indisputable as "Shocker In Gloomtown" from the Grand Hour EP and the superior 7" version of "Game of Pricks" are both included on the band's best of collection, Human Amusements at Hourly Rates.

The 15 songs below have been cherry-picked from various GBV 7"s from 1993 to 1995. That Robert Pollard is prolific is no secret but consider this: any artist releasing a batch of songs this strong over a two to three year span would be justly praised as a remarkable talent. Pollard did it while releasing three equally potent full lengths.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Hyperbole Time! The (Actual) Best Song of the 90s!

A coupe of weeks ago, the website devoted making people who don't really care that much about music appear as though they do issued one of their periodic "listicles." Its purpose, as with all their other lists, is to build canon and inspire debate. Whether you agree or disagree (or vehemently disagree), the mere discussion of their lists solidifies the authority of the source.

It's not for no reason that they are one of the few major websites without a comments section. It's as though they're saying:
You're welcome to have issue with our opinions but you can't air your grievances in our house. Feel free to quarrel with our choices in another public space of your choosing so it appears as though we are the center of universe. And if you could link us, that would be great too.
This particular list was "The Top Tracks of the 1990s," a topic I thought VH1 already covered definitively. Still, there was some anticipation for who would get top honors. Bets were made. I lobbied for Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments' "Negative Guest List" via Twitter and figured Nirvana were "too Rolling Stone" to get break the top 10. (And I was right!) Ultimately, the #1 slot went to a band which recently reunited and thus could possibly repeat the feat when the best of the 2010s list is made. Possibly with the same song, Michael Bolton-style.

I was tempted to make my own counter list. I eventually decided against this, partly because it would be hypocritical to decry these kinds of lists as dumb, arbitrary and ultimately meaningless and then make one of my own. (Not that this stopped me from contradicting myself throughout this piece anyway.) It's also because I'm told my lists are often viewed by readers as "bunch of bands I've never heard of," which makes the task of checking out any of said artists to appear more daunting than it actually is.

That being said, why not just give my unequivocal endorsement to one band? Surely, there's one group of the 90s that's both so criminally underappreciated and undeniably awesome that they deserve an unshared spotlight. And if that group isn't Silkworm, it would have to be Prisonshake.

Cleveland's Prisonshake had been around since 1987 and put out a slew of singles, EPs and a box set (no kidding) before releasing their first "proper" album, The Roaring Third, in 1993. This mammoth record got enough notice to receive a positive appraisal from Spin and inclusion in the Trouser Press Record Guide. However, Prisonshake's sound was more (early) Alice Cooper than Alice in Chains and failed to connect with anyone beyond a small percentage of the indie audience (which, as a whole, was much smaller now that it is today).

This was a pity because the record was simply a monster. It has all the strut, gnarl, grit and grandeur one could possibly want from a rock album. If the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion were the 1990s embodiment of rock n roll trash, Prisonshake equally celebrated this aesthetic but without the detachment. They played it straight and their convictions and sincerity granted them a greater power.

An you don't have to take my word for it. Here's Dusted's Nate Knabel on Prisonshake:
I think Prisonshake is like the axis around which all conversations about rock music should rotate. Like planet earth spinning far and wide in its revolution around the sun (that's what it does, right?), our conversations about rock music can pretty distant from the source. And it's winter right now. Really, I'd just like to tell every band begining with like Arcade Fire (who are just fine I guess) and extending to like Wilco, MGMT, I don't know, the Delta Sprit (and deifnitely Chromeo) to go get fucked. But it's okay, because Prisonshake remains a fixed inextinguishable source of heat. The Roaring Third is the best record of the 1990s.
The Roaring Third's "hit" was "2 Sisters," released separately as a 45. Was it the best song of the 1990s? Well, it was one of the best songs from one of the best albums of the 90s. And it definitely rocks harder than "Gold Soundz."

Now that your appetite is whetted, you can go purchase The Roaring Third from the Scat Records website for mere $10. It's a bargain at twice the price. Prisonshake have many other records available from Scat as well. If you want a quick sample of the rest of their work, Brushback at On Base On An Overthrow is a big Prisonshake fan and has posted many MP3 from their various releases.

But first and foremost, get yourself a copy of The Roaring Third. Your record collection is not of museum quality without it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Unblinking Ear Podcast: The Autumnal Punkquinox

What better time for another of our semi-annual all punk rock podcasts than the first day of fall?

Just imagine the sound of those crisp, newly fallen leaves crunching beneath your Doc Martens or Converse brand "anarchy" high tops.

Or trying to balance an egg on its end, then smashing it in the name of "controlled chaos."

Or prepping yourself for Hallowe'en by getting out those old Misfits records. (Please keep in mind that when I write "old," I don't mean from the 90s.)

Yes, Autumn and punk rock go together like Social Distortion fans and bad tattoos. Or Social Distortion fans and chain wallets. Or Social Distortion fans and the presumption that this guy was "totally punk" for some reason.

Earlier installments of our series are available here, here, here and here.

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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

New Release: The Thermals

I've written previously on the tendency to overvalue records that seem to be bold statements on the zeitgeist at the time of their release. The 2006 album by the Thermals, The Body, The Blood, The Machine, was certainly an example of this. Songs like "Here's Your Future" and "Power Doesn't Run On Nothing" perfectly surmised the frustration and anger of living in George W. Bush's America.

Luckily, it was also the band's strongest musical statement to date. And while the album was justly praised, one couldn't help but feel that this had as much, if not more, to do with its politics as its music.

Rock critics tend to be left-leaning, amateur sociologist types. This has been the case since rockwrite began proper in the 1960s. Most of its proponents were baby boomers suffering from Dylanitis and "committed" to the revolution (man). Far too often, they've been too quick to praise artists who merely reaffirmed their beliefs. Remember when socially conscious, afrocentric minded and rhythmically flaccid hip hop group Arrested Development topped the Pazz & Jop Poll?

The point is that political partisanship is fairly useless in evaluating music and ultimately does listeners a disservice. One need not share Johnny Ramone's worldview to be thrilled by his guitar playing.

In any event, the Thermals' less explicitly political followup, Now We Can See, garnered far less attention. The lack of easy rock crit copy may have been the cause of this but it probably didn't help that it was a noticeably weaker record than its predecessor. The true test comes now with the release of Personal Life. As one might presume from the title, the album stays away from social commentary altogether, focusing instead on introspective themes. Regardless of lyrical content, it's arguably a stronger and more consistent album than The Body, The Blood, The Machine. If Personal Life is not deemed to be of equal value, it may force one to wonder if the Tea Partiers are right about the liberal media.*

While the Thermals don't reinvent the wheel (nor do they attempt it), I wonder if listeners truly appreciate how difficult it is to create their brand of melodic punk without descending into cliché. Pop punk and emo have been commonplace in literal and figurative malls for so long that most of the true punk believers have retreated into noise, where the pop marketplace fears to tread. The Thermals' punk is (relatively) clean and catchy but with nary a whiff of commercialism. It's also heartfelt and earnest without ever approaching emo histrionics. The Thermals reclaim the stolen weapons from the enemy, showing them to be far more effective when used by those who understand their power.

Personal Life is streaming in its entirety at the NPR website. (More of that darn liberal media!) You should give it a listen. You should also check out this video the band made for "I Don't Believe You" which stars Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein. I believe it's a tribute to the final scene in Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation. If you haven't seen that fine film, I apologize for the semi-spoiler.

*For the record, they're not right about anything.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Unblinking Ear Podcast: I Can't Compete

(Look at this guy! He's a dynamo!)

This podcast was more or less ready to be posted yesterday. However, yesterday was the first of the month. In addition to me scrambling to make the rent, it was the designating release date for the Pod F. Tompkast, which, as the more clever among you may have deduced, is the new podcast from comedian Paul F. Tompkins.

Mr. Tompkins has produced two podcasts thus far. He already has, at press time, 363 ratings and 18 pages worth of reviews. Meanwhile, I've done about 45 podcasts and have 7 ratings and exactly one review. On the other hand, my ratings average out to a perfect score of 5 five stars, whereas Mr. Tompkins' average rating is a measly 4 and a half. Take that, infinitely more successful person!