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29 April 2016

Guided by Voices - 'Vampire on Titus' (Scat)

Out of the frying pan and into the fire! I don't know a lot of other obsessive GbV-heads but I would guess that Vampire on Titus shares the same status in their minds as in mine: simultaneously their best and least essential of the golden period; an exercise in contradictions and paradox. This is where they took the 'lo-fi' thing as far as it could be taken while still resembling a rock band, by intentionally distorting & muddying most of the songs, needlessly so (some would say). And I'm not sure, still, how I feel about these choices in obfuscation. I can't imagine 'Perhaps Now the Vultures' or 'Sot' any other way, but it seems to hurt other songs - two of which appear in superior, and more clear forms on Fast Japanese Spin Cycle. In many ways this is my favourite GbV album because it's not only their most difficult but it also has some of their absolute best work. And it feels more like a complete work than a collection of songs, perhaps because some of the tracks are so obfuscated as to be almost impenetrable - so they blend into the overall blanket. 'Expecting Brainchild' could be an arena rock classic but because of the way it's recorded, it feels more like a Chrome outtake - and that's precisely what's brilliant about it (and enables the homophobic f-word to be overlooked and barely heard, just as in 'Hit' on Alien Lanes). Another thing which hurts Vampire was the subsequent release of the Fast Japanese 7", which will be addressed here if I ever actually resurrect the 7" blog, because as mentioned above it features versions of 'Marchers in Orange' and 'Dusted' that blow away the versions on this LP. The latter, made evident on the 7" as possibly one of Pollard's best-ever songs (and that's a tall claim!), is almost indistinguishable from the other midrangey rockers in its Vampire form. 'Marchers' on the LP is built around a clunky pump organ, and the title makes me think of the protestant Orange march that I frequently saw during my Glasgow years, so it's a dicey association though surely not what Pollard means at all. '"Wished I Was a Giant"' starts things off with that midrangey, murky basement rock 4-track sound but somehow transcends it, as it's become an iconic GbV song over the years; the mandatory quotation marks makes it all the more brilliant, and the context indicates that Pollard is referring it not as a direct quote but as a nickname for some power-tripping person. So, so many classics here - 'Jar of Cardinals' is pure beauty; 'Gleemer (The Deeds of Fertile Jim)' is one of Sprout's masterpieces, and 'Non-Absorbing', while simplistic in form, is more or less a statement of purpose: 'Do you see more than I do?'. These jams peppered live sets through the period I dub as 'golden' and I've listened to them hundreds of times, so they feel truly familiar to this near-obsessive fan. It is, I guess, the lesser-remembered songs which really characterise Vampire on Titus, and some of them should be more celebrated: 'World of Fun', 'Wondering Boy Poet' (which has the cleanest, folkiest part of the record with it's 'Sailing, just like the days....' refrain-outro) and 'Perhaps Now the Vultures' are all pretty great songs. Maybe the best testament to Vampire on Titus's lasting power is that I listened to it before writing this, then went away for a week before finishing it, and couldn't get '#2 In the Model Home Series' out of my head the whole time. That's a sketchy, fragmentary song that could be a forgotten track on Suitcase or a clip of 'Back to Saturn X Radio Report', but when it drilled deep into my brain its repeated refrain of  'And secretly she sees' somehow sounds like the key to unlock a world with a million hallways and meanings. And that's exactly why this period of GbV continues to fascinate me - because it's just a treasure map. Vampire on Titus may be one of the dustiest of these maps, but when you blow it off enough to see, the riches are extremely rewarding.

12 April 2016

Guided by Voices - 'Propeller' (Scat)

Eventually, everything from my formative years will be reissued in some deluxe vinyl package. I'm not unhappy about this; owning an original of Propeller was an impossible dream, and I never jumped on the twofer CD with Vampire on Titus since I had already had an original LP of the latter. Scat reissued this a few years back, selecting cover #14 for immortality (a good choice!) and thus enabling me to complete my dream run on vinyl of GbV's most fertile, amazing period. Except my original-ish white vinyl Bee Thousand disappeared mysteriously some years ago, leaving me with only Scat's Director's Cut, which is not bad and has 'Shocker in Gloomtown' on it, after all, but doesn't have the original sequencing which makes me feel that I need both. Anyway, we'll get there. But yes, this is the start of a fertile, amazing period which I would argue is not just GbV's finest era but one of the finest eras of any artist ever, in any medium. Yeah, 1992-97, starting here and going through Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, including most of (if not all) of the EPs and singles from this time - it's a run that is just utterly perfect. Now, Propeller I had listened to a zillion times on a dubbed Maxell type II (high bias!) cassette I got in high school from some enterprising soul online, back when I was actually trading dubs of albums through the mail, such was this high school kid's budget. It's a record that is so brilliantly conceived from start to finish that by the time I finally got this vinyl version, well, I didn't even need to listen to it. I could go through song by song and try to describe them, or even better describe what they mean to me, but maybe that would be boring or pointless. I could try to write something smart about the ironic rock and roll chant that opens the album, the arena-rock aspirations of these basement dwelling weirdos from Dayon, Ohio, and something about the failure of stardom being what makes this great, blah blah blah, sprinkle in some comparison to Kevin Coyne, and we're done. But what's the point? When they broke in '94 or '95 everything that could have possibly been written about them already was. And I can't even really say how great this sounds on vinyl cause it really just sounds like the cassette did - after all, it was recorded on cassette to begin with. So while the pressing is lovely enough (and includes a collection of some alternate handmade covers), it's not like the discovery of some great lost soundworld. OK, here's something I'll actually say: I love Pollard's more optimistic songs, and this record is covered in them: 'Quality of Armor', 'Exit Flagger', 'Unleashed! The Large-Hearted Boy' - these and most of the other cuts have been live staples for 25 years, through various lineups, and these must be songs I have listened to 3000 times each and I'm not the slightest bit tired of them. If I remember correctly they were gonna 'quit' the band and this was to be their final album, though given how many times Pollard has broken up and reformed the band, at this point I just see Guided by Voices more like a celestial force than a band, so I don't take that too seriously. I was just talking about the pre-Propeller Box that had all their albums up to this point, and was thinking about how actually great a lot of them are; I made a great mixtape of the best 4 or 5 songs from each of those. But Propeller is a step forward beyond belief; this is where Sprout really starts to shine ('14 Cheerleader Coldfront'!) and the band became, to me at least, the greatest fucking rock band of all time. Even the weakest cuts are epic soundworlds to me - the collage 'Back To Saturn X Radio Report' is made up of fragmentary songs that are found on King Shit and the Golden BoysStatic Airplane Jam, and other outtakes compilations from this era, and somehow the clumsy pause-button editing just strikes me as a brilliant vision. This is the first cornerstone of an amazingly rewarding vision, and I'll just knock off the superlatives now because I got a few more albums to spread them over.

11 April 2016

Peter Grudzien - 'The Unicorn/The Garden of Love' (Subliminal Sounds)

Peter Grudzien is an outlier among outliers; in many ways you could call this just another acid-drenched, home-recorded privately pressed psych record, albeit one deeply rooted in country/western traditions and affectations. But Grudzien's 1974 statement is one that is militantly gay, wistfully fragile, and perfectly balanced on the damaged/cohesive axis, and somehow feels completely unlike anything else in the genre. The songs on The Unicorn are almost all based around a strummed acoustic guitar and his yokel yodel, but then there's some weird fuckery throughout; 'Redemption and Prayer' is built around processed voice loops, and feels akin to something that might come out of the San Francisco Tape Music Centre a decade earlier. 'Kentucky Candy', an epic ode to his lover, has some delay-heavy, operatic background vocals that (according to the liners) were just ripped off an LP recording of Tannhäuser, and the effect is stunning. There's a plodding bass throughout most of the album (which is just enough to make it all feel off-kilter, despite Grudzien's excellent technical abilities) as well as pedal steel, banjo and some electric guitars. It feels like a vision - one that begins with the title track's mystical allusions (for the unicorn, according to Grudzien's original liner notes, is a 'frail creature that will redeem mankind', though the 2007 reissue notes state that it's about a guy whose profile looked like a unicorn) and on through the unambiguous 'White Trash Hillbilly Trick' and 'Queen of All the Blue-Eyed'. He digs in and shreds on the instrumental 'The Lost World', and the lyrical themes throughout don't avoid the big issues of religion, love, and guilt. This is a lovely reissue too; the home-recording makes everything a little bit uneven, as levels tend to jump from cut to cut, but the acoustic instruments sound warm and full, and the musique concrete parts feel appropriately spooky, with enough midrange to clearly identify them as tapes being reworked. Everything climaxes on the finalé, 'Return of the Unicorn', which moves through a variety of different recording fragments, including a lo-fi, instrumental keyboard theme which feels anthemic, and a full-band (though of course, all Grudzien) conclusion which sounds decisive, even visionary. The second album was culled from recordings ranging from the 1950s to the late 80s, and it sounds appropriately hodgepodge, but strong. There's more country stylings but even some homemade doo-wop ('The Bills', from 1957), a few versions of the title track, and some cover versions. Spotty, yes, but overall enjoyable, and it feels more like a window into the mind of a person who is just absolutely in love with sound and its potential. And he was at fucking Stonewall, according to the haunting cut of that name, from 1987, made up of nothing more than his (deeper than before) voice accompanied by bells. His chronicling of the story revises the official history and talks about clones and conspiracy theories, too! The aforementioned liner notes, written in all capital letters, are pretty difficult to read but tell Grudzien's story, and one of the things that I think makes this so strange is that Grudzien is a New York City guy through and through, despite the Nashville/Bakersfield influence on his music. Given that Merle Haggard died last weekend, it's interesting to think about the whole sense of identity in country music; Haggard played his cards when it suited him but is mostly remembered as a right-wing or even reactionary figure against the counterculture (though it's of course more complicated than that, sorta like, say, Neil Young). Grudzien seems like he's from another planet, and maybe he was -- he was a total outsider in every way, not just because of his sexuality, and you could argue that country music represented a true freedom to him, and his obscure private-press rendition of it captures a genuine essence that the commercial products only pretended at. Though I hesitate to ever call one form of art/music genuine and another not; what I mean is that Grudzien, who even after this gorgeous double-LP reissue remains super obscure, represents the untold story of 1970s counterculture. Not that The Unicorn necessarily stands alongside any traditional country or underground gay art music of the time - it's just a singular creature, and shaped a bit like a unicorn.

Group Ongaku ‎– 'Music Of Group Ongaku' (Seer Sound Archive)

1960 was a long time ago, even in the accelerated and compressed culture-span that has informed so much of my own accumulation here. And the first side of this record is a long 33 minutes recorded these 56 years ago, where all sorts of crazy echo-laden sounds are performed by the Japanese avant-garde of the time, in this case a six-person ensemble led by Takehisa Kosugi, later of the Taj Mahal Travellers. No instruments are credited on 'Automatism' or 'Object' but we can hear all sorts of things, and the historical liner notes (on this less-than-legitimate reissue) tell us some of what is used. It's not recorded so well, at Shukou Mizuno's house, so it feels like a strange distant radio broadcast. I'm reminded a bit of Cage's Variations IV, perhaps in the static-laden, wooly quality of the sound as well as the wonder as to what produces the sounds. There's a lot of voice as well, hollering and grunting, and it feels serious and playful at the same time; one would guess that tapes and other recordings make up about half of the sound, thus being a live electro-acoustic improvisation and a quite early one as well. You could even imagine it being scary, audio terror from a past era, if you tend towards fear in your curiosity. The b-side is the two-part 'Metaplasm', recorded a year later with a slightly different lineup and with instrumentation credited. And a good thing, these notes, as it's a significantly more 'instrument'-based approach, with clear saxophone solos (by Kosugi and Yasunao Tone), plucking about on guitars and cellos, and a piano. This has a unsurprisingly 'open' feel, with the musicians taking their time to feel out space and interact without stepping on each other's toes. It's shocking how much this sounds like today's "non-idiomatic improvisation", as absurd as that term may be; could this just be a human-nature blueprint for how to approach open sound? The second part of 'Metaplasm' is where the tapes come in, and it continues the exploratory vibe, this time through machinery. Remember, this was recorded before the Beatles hit and when rock music was not much (if any) of an influence on these artists; it's an avant-garde that feels pure and untouched by commercialism or marketing. 'Ongaku' means 'music' in Japanese, so the name of the group is even a bit ironic, or a bit generic; I'm not quite sure which.