Guided By Voices – ‘Bee Thousand’ – Round 4: Rob’s Choice

I reviewed ‘Bee Thousand’ when it was released in the Summer of 1994. I’ve tried hard to find a copy of what I wrote, but it’s proving elusive. I had hoped to look back and find my younger self seeing clear-eyed through the tape-hiss and four-track glitches to the heart of a great rock record. perhaps it’s best I don’t catch up with what I did end up committing to print, but I’m pretty sure even then I had a feeling that there was something special about GBV.

‘Bee Thousand’ is the band’s seventh album and was intended to be their last. Robert Pollard was fed up with keeping a band together and ready to return to his teaching career and ‘Bee Thousand’ was recorded to collect the odds and ends left over from GBV’s previous ten years together. Instead it gathered increasingly enthusiastic coverage, catapulting the band into a further decade of recording and Pollard into the heart of the indie rock firmament.

It’s a remarkable album that raises fascinating questions about conceiving, writing, recording and playing rock music. Is Pollard peddling pastiche or is he channeling tunes direct from the heart of British Invasion rock? How can the band bang out songs so poppy, so perfectly melodic, apparently by the yard? 20 songs in 35 minutes! Short, sketchy songs yes, but perhaps any other approach would fail them.

I stopped keeping up with GBV a couple of albums after Bee Thousand, but by then they had repeated the same trick across at least 4 great albums. Listening again in preparation for the Record Club, I was particularly struck by how these songs, these scraps of harmony and rhythm, are the absolute opposite of the disposable throw-aways they should by all means be. They get richer and more rewarding with every listen and every year.

I’m a romantic when it comes to music. Some might describe Robert Pollard as an imitator, a copyist, a lo-fi chancer trading in scratchy punk-pop fragments. When I listen to ‘Gold Star For Robot Boy’, ‘Echos Myron’ or ‘Buzzards and Dreadful Crows’ I prefer to think he’s a magician, pure and very simple.

Tom Listened: It’s a long time since I listened to a prime era GBV album for the first time and I am not sure I can remember how it felt. Certainly, Under the Bushes…. is a much more straightforward beast by comparison and now that I’ve listened to Bee Thousand I can see how Alien Lanes is very much the bridge between the two, mixing Bee Thousand’s tangential skewdness (?) with Under the Bushes pop sensibilities. Bee Thousand is probably the album I most want to own that I don’t already and, although there is NO WAY anyone can make sense of it on a first listen, I am certain that I would still be listening to it regularly (and finding something new every time) in a decade’s time.

Nick listened: I strongly suspect that Rob has been absolutely gagging for the chance to play something this lo-fi on my hi-fi, given my reputation for being such a sound-geek, and, if he suspected that GBV’s aesthetic would be like sandpaper to my brain, then… well, he wasn’t a million miles away, but he wasn’t entirely correct, either. If anything GBV sounded worse than I had expected or feared; the term “lo-fi” has come to mean something different in the 00s than it did in the 80s or 90s, and Bee Thousand sounds absolutely nothing like the last No Age album (which I love) for instance. It literally is like someone playing a broken guitar, someone drumming with pencils on a damp paperback, and someone else mumbling, while they record it on a dictaphone with a cardboard box over it. Looking at the credits, I was astonished how many members GBV had. So I confess that I did find the sonic aesthetic off-putting; it was like having auditory cataracts or something. But I didn’t hate Bee Thousand. I didn’t find it to be the messy, lo-fi Beatles-esque pop classic Rob painted it as either, but I was intrigued by the modus operandi of it, and plenty of the tracks were catchy and melodic beyond the scuzz. Beyond the scuzz, though, it seemed like, with the way the songs, so short, so quick, so cut-up into little chunks, so breaking-up-like-radio-static before your ears, were composed as well as presented, that Bob Pollard was trying his damnedest to obliterate them and make them unlistenable (but in a different way to Alex Chilton, say, on Sister Lovers), and I can’t understand why; is he ashamed of his songs? Scornful of his potential audience? It seems a little churlish to so wilfully do this to your music when people like Ron Sexsmith are desperate to move in the other direction. I’ll have to take Rob & Tom’s words for it that the melodies and tunes seep through and infect your brain after multiple listens, though, because I can’t really see myself digging any further with Guided By Voices…

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These New Puritans – ‘Hidden’ – Round 4: Nick’s choice

Hidden
I wasn’t entirely sure which record I was going to pick from a field of about three which were all clamouring for attention, until Rob’s choice started playing (this is a benefit of hosting; with your whole record collection to hand, you can change your mind). Hidden seemed like such a stark contrast to what went on first that I had to go with it (not that the other things I was thinking about selecting were any closer to Rob’s choice!).

Hidden is a strange record. Coming barely 24 months after These New Puritans’ debut album, it’s a very different beast, and it seems like the band not only spent an awful lot of the time since their debut fastidiously arranging and recording Hidden, but that they also did a lot of learning and changing in that time. I can’t think of many other bands who have leapt so far from their debut to their second album.

Because where Beat Pyramid was a decent collection of brief post-punk, post-dance slithers of guitar and occasional moments of dark ambience, Hidden steps out into bizarre territory, opening with an elegiac, Elgar-esque swell of mournful horns, and then moving through multi-part gothic-prog-pop compositions driven by massive, darkly reverberant Japanese Taiko drums, pumping hip-hop and dance beats, and barrages of synths and samples. There’s barely any guitar, vocals are muttered or chanted rather than sung, and the whole thing is recorded, mixed, and mastered to eliminate distortion and maximise dynamic impact, making it sound disorienting, otherworldly, and out-of-time compared to the usual pumped-up, distorted mess of modern mainstream pop, dance, and rock (and quite a big chunk of alternative music, too).

I was delighted to see NME name Hidden their album of the year for 2010; after a decade of safe, trendy, post-Strokes choices, it seems like the bravest pick since Spiritualized in 1997. And in fact I think Hidden, skipping from M.I.A. to Talk Talk to Prodigy to colliery bands to Squeeze (singer and composer Jack Barnett sounds a little like Chris Difford), is just as much a masterpiece as Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space.

Partly this is down to the overall atmosphere of the album, conveyed in part by Barnett’s mysterious, conspiracy-theory-laden vocals (which you could almost sum-up as “I get up when I want, except on Wednesdays, when I get rudely awakened by the Taliban” in terms of delivery), but mostly it’s due to the music. Percussion dominates the album, those massive, ominous Taiko drums, massed rimshots, pumping dance beats, and a cornucopia of other things being hit with sticks; it’s exhilarating, but also disconcerting, especially when a M.I.A.-inspired, chanting, digitalist modern pop song like Fire-Power is slowly subsumed by plaintive brass. I think Hidden is an awesome record.

Rob listened: I bought ‘Hidden’ after NME gave it the top slot last year, and I like it a lot. In recent years I’ve fallen into a lazy sense that British alternative music is indie-landfill, despite loving stuff from Art Brut through Mogwai to Wild Beasts. It’s great to have that up-ended and to hear a band I had assumed would sound like Fields of the Nephilim (bad type-face guys) sounding so much like ‘Flowers of Romance’-era Public Image Limited. Both Tom and Nick said they found ‘Hidden’ oppressive. I don’t get that at all. I find it enveloping, groovy and fun, to be honest, but perhaps that’s precisely because I bracket it somehow with PiL’s third album which it can’t match in terms of intensity. Anyway, a winner.

Tom Listened: I have recently been listening to Lou Reed’s Berlin and John Martyn’s Grace and Danger. These are two of my favourite albums. On first listening I literally hated the sound of both! The songs were fine but Berlin’s theatrical production and Grace and Danger’s 80s synth cheese took considerable effort to see past. I say this because I had a similar experience listening to Hidden at DRC. Whereas I loved the sound of Bee Thousand, but I knew I would need to spend time with the songs (and am confident that I would quickly grow to see them as indispensable), Hidden’s dark and ominous (for me, if not Rob) sound made me feel disorientated and unsettled. It could very well be that, with time, I would grow to accept, then embrace, then love this album (just as I have Berlin and Grace and Danger) and I was impressed by its originality and the fact that it could induce such a strong response in me. However, I think, of the two, I’ll be purchasing Bee Thousand first.

Wildbirds & Peacedrums – ‘The Snake’ – Round 4: Tom’s Choice

A strange thing happened to me at 2009’s End of the Road Festival. I’ll come clean – festivals and me generally don’t get on. Too many people, too much squalor. Unpleasant toilets, too many people. Back pain from standing up too long, lukewarm reception for your favourite band because most people in the crowd have never heard of them, too many people…I could go on.  EotR 2009, however, worked in every respect; the sun shone, the site was clean…hell…even the toilets were OK! Best of all were a slew of bands that put on performances that were just too good for anyone to ignore – The Tallest Man on Earth, The Low Anthem, Dodos, Okkervil, Dirty Projectors, Josh T Pearson. Possibly the best of the lot were Wildbirds & Peacedrums. My brother-in-law and I, bored by whatever was on the main stage, speculatively wandered over to the tent and caught the last song and a half of what was evidently quite an event. On stage: a man, a woman, plenty of hair and a drum. And you couldn’t take your eyes off them! In twenty five years of regular gig going I don’t think I can recall a band play with such intensity and abandon, so completely lost in their music and channeling so effectively every last joule of energy they could muster into the crowd. Martyn and I knew immediately that we had just more-or-less missed something quite spectacular and felt simultaneously disappointed and privileged.

That was that until about six months ago when I ventured into the excellent Drift record shop in Totnes and, flicking through the vinyl, came across The Snake. I very much doubt that I would own this record if I solely purchased music from the internet – although the gig(let) had been amazing, I had dismissed the band as being a wonderful live act who probably disappointed when trying to reproduce their sound in the studio. But it seemed a little like fate that the record was there, in non-virtual form, in a little independent record shop in rural Devon. The guy behind the counter certainly seemed pleased with my acquisition and I left the shop curious and strangely confident that this was money well spent.

Wildbirds & Peacedrums are married couple Mariam Wallentin and Andreas Werliin. They hail from Sweden. There must be something in the water over there. Education, welfare state, high taxes, equality, dark nights, northern lights…whatever it is, they’re doing something right if their music scene is anything to go by. Wildbirds & Peacedrums are yet another special Swedish band. But a national proliferation of talent and quality in no way detracts from the consistent excellence of The Snake. I suppose the album’s closest Swedish cousin would be The Knife’s Silent Shout but whereas that record sounded glacial and sinister, The Snake is visceral, energetic at times, and has a much warmer heart. Although the drums take centre stage, the closer one listens the more one hears – these are complex songs with subtleties that reveal themselves with time. To be honest, I don’t really know what compelled me to take the album to DRC as I had never really intently listened to it before. This is evidently not an album to have on in the background as you attempt to wash up whilst your daughter asks you about her maths homework and your son is making farting noises on his forearm. It took an evening of proper listening round at Nick’s place for The Snake to reveal its true quality to me and now I am going to have to go and rewrite my bloody Best of the Decade list!

Rob listened: I found in ‘The Snake’ some of the cold distance and alien-ness that the others ascribed to ‘Hidden’. It’s great to hear a band taking spare ingredients and hammering something new out of them. We talked and thought about Morphine, Low and ‘Sung Tongs’ as similar examples of instrumental restriction driving either wild invention or pure distillation. It’s intriguing also to hear this and find parallels with some of the other remarkable music coming from Sweden over the last decade. This lady came most easily to mind. I missed Wildbirds and Peacedrums at the End of the Road. I was probably off watching Fleet Foxes with the masses. Whilst I didn’t have enough of a chance to get a real grip of their spooky-forest drum folk tonight, I found what I heard thrilling.

Nick listened: I had never heard of Wildbirds & Peacedrums before, which is unsurprising I suppose given how Tom discovered them; it seems like a certain amount of happenstance was required. I find it intriguing that Rob found this to be spooky and These New Puritans to be “enveloping, groovy, and fun”, because The Snake, on first listen, seemed to me to be a warmer, friendlier, less aggressive take on percussion-driven alternative-to-something than These New Puritans, certainly in terms of pure sound; the drums which drive this album while just as naturally-mixed as those on Hidden are so much less overwhelming and oppressive. Beyond that, the music reminded me a little of The Dø, a French indiepop duo, but more abstract and less song-based. I didn’t like The Snake enough to rush out and buy my own copy (heaven knows where I’d find it other than online anyway), but I will try and borrow it when we meet next at Tom’s gaff (now that I have relented and left my record player out all the time) so I can get to know it better.

Iron and Wine – ‘Kiss Each Other Clean’ – Round 3: Rob’s Choice

I didn’t get on with ‘The Shepherd’s Dog’. I loved Sam Beam’s first two records, partly for their frail, bruised beauty, partly for the chime they struck with and against my fear of death, and partly because I could almost play them on the guitar. Almost, but not quite. Still, I had no problem with Beam, ever the Western frontiersman, pushing on into new territory with his third album. It’s just that the songs either weren’t that strong, or were swamped and flattened by the full band and their busier instrumentation. Tellingly, the best two tracks were those which could easily have come from ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’.

‘Kiss Each Other Clean’ is everything the last record should have been. It’s full, warm, at times complex but always admirably straightforward. Above all it’s confident and convincing. Listening with the others we drew a comparison with Tom Waits, not because of the sound, more through the feeling that Iron and Wine have got to this point by building from the bottom up, using whatever came to hand and mind, inventing rules of composition and tone as they go.

It’s very fine, from the swelling abstraction of ‘Walking Far From Home’ through the sweetheart country swoon ‘Tree By The River’ to the final sweep of ‘Your Fake Name Is Good Enough For Me’, a seven minute romp which begins with a proggy N’Orleans boogie, pulls a reverse ‘Paranoid Android’ gear change and finally kicks into a fervid, tumbling rush to salvation. This last track, perhaps Sam Beam’s best yet, seems to flash by in half the time of ‘The Trapeze Swinger’ Beam’s earlier 7-minute melody-mantra, a sure sign that he’s on to something rich and right.

Spotify link: Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean

Nick listened: My wife’s a fan so we already own a couple of Iron & Wine albums, but the downhome sound of the first couple didn’t really interest me. Sam Beam’s move into Califone-like territory on The Shepherd’s Dog, where texture and percussion became more important, appealed much more though, but, as Rob says, I wonder now whether the songs weren’t quite there. I’m not familiar enough with this one yet, but on the strength of hearing it and my wife’s curiosity at my description of it, we now own it. Without being glib, after a couple more listens it seems almost like a deliberate trip through the history of American music – a little bit of soul, a little bit of funk, a little bit of jazz, a little bit of country, a little bit of alt.rock – but there’s a lightness and a fluency that stops it feeling like an exercise and keeps it feeling like an album. Another winner.

Tom listened: For me, I doubt that Iron & Wine will ever match Our Endless Numbered Days and its wistful melancholy. I always found their first album a bit hit or miss but enjoyed The Shepard’s Dog and preferred the ‘different’ songs (‘Boy with a Coin’, ‘Carousel’, ‘Lovesong of the Buzzard’) to the ones that Rob has suggested in his write-up. So on one listen, I am not sure that the new album represents such a significant step up in terms of quality over its predecessor. I liked much of what I heard (although the groovy number on side two left me unconvinced) and liked the fact that Sam Beam is experimenting with his musical palate but, at the moment, am unconvinced that I need to own this album…a few listens on Spotify are required!

dEUS – ‘In A Bar, Under The Sea’ – Round 3: Tom’s Choice

I have to admit to being somewhat disappointed. Having excitedly revealed my chosen album for DRC and expecting the other members to have been intrigued and curious to hear a band they had heard of but not heard, it did not augur well to find that Rob had consigned dEUS to his (admittedly vast) ‘loft collection’ and Nick ‘thought he owned it, or was it the other one by them?’.

But by the time the scratchy, tinny opening gambit ‘I Don’t Mind Whatever Happens’ had segued into the effervescent call and response funk-groove of ‘Fell on the Floor, Man’ I knew that, no matter how disparaging the views of my fellow club members, I would remain unmoved in my conviction that ‘In a Bar…’ represents a high water mark of mid 90s kitchen sink indie, to be ranked alongside Pavement’s Wowee Zowee and Alien Lanes by Guided by Voices. Although these three albums sound markedly different, there is much that binds them…a playfulness and eclecticism that resembles a 5 year old with ADHD having just eaten a bumper pack of Haribo, surreal lyrics that do not bear close scrutiny but have occasional glimpses of genius, seemingly throwaway tracks that, in time, turn out to be pivotal to the ebb and flow of the listening experience. One thing that can not be argued with is ‘In a Bar…’s ability to surprise. If you think you know what’s coming next, you’re wrong. This is not a simple matter of having no two consecutive tracks that sound alike; no two of the fifteen tracks on the record are remotely similar. As a mathematician, I would be intrigued to determine the probability of this occurring without producing a cacophonous, incoherent mess. ‘Slim’ would be my guess!

dEUS are obviously music lovers and in thrall to their influences. However, this record is very much their own and whilst echoes of Waits, Sonic Youth and the Velvets can be heard at times, this is no pale facsimile. The fact that ex-magic band member Eric Feldman produced this album speaks volumes, not only because (at times) the record borrows elements of the good captain’s songbook, it also shares his adventurous, envelope pushing aesthetic. From the indie-tuba led ‘Theme from Turnpike’ to the apparently seamless transformation of the classic ‘Little Arithmetics’ from breezy indie-pop to guitar maelstrom, nothing is predictable or misses its mark. Yet, I would argue that the album is not a difficult or inaccessible listen – hooks abound, melodies are strong and lyrics pull you in. Almost unbelievably, the best is saved for last. ‘In a Bar…’ is that rare beast, an album that finishes with (to my mind) its three strongest tracks – the beautiful piano led ballad of ‘Disappointed in the Sun’ runs into the epic, intense, exhausting ‘For the Roses’ only to close with the wistful and delicate ‘Wake Me Up Before You Sleep’. …And then a little silence, before going through it all again.

Rob listened: Well, this didn’t sound much like the record I thought I had in the loft, which turned out to be by a barely-registered offshoot project called ‘Moondog Jr’, although I do have a few dEUS singles stashed up there somewhere, I reckon. I couldn’t believe how (apparently wilfully) eclectic this album was. It’s made me think about how bands, when they begin, move from writing their first song, to their second and third and on and on, approaching each from a blank slate, but somehow, almost always, assembling a collection which has a strong sense of togetherness, of a sound. Not so for these Belgians, at least on the evidence of this. The songs swing from Tom Waits barroom blurs, through Can-meets-Pop-Music-by-M, to Pixies rifforama, Pavement spikiness and pattering Wilco alt-country waltzes. By all reckoning it should sound like a half-baked mess. It all sounds pretty great.

Nick Listened: Sure enough, I do own this, and The Ideal Crash too, though I’ve never listened to the latter and not listened to this in several years. So long that I couldn’t remember a damn thing about it, actually. I had it mentally filed under “crazy genre hopping indie stuff”, and that’s where it’s going to stay; the first half in particular being completely all over the place, as if dEUS had heard a huge array of American music while growing up in Belgium, but completely shorn of context, and just decided to mash their favourite bits into one another regardless of whence they came. The result is a little disorienting, but definitely enjoyable too; I’ve pulled this out of its alphabetised home on the shelves and put it next to the CD player to remind me to play it again. So, despite Tom’s misgivings, a winner.

Patrick Wolf – ‘Wind In The Wires’ – Round 3: Nick’s Choice

Patrick Wolf – Wind In The Wires

Patrick Wolf’s second album was a very last-minute choice for this week’s DRC; I have a list of potential future choices saved on my computer’s desktop, but nothing there was really speaking to me as I pondered what to choose. Then, all of a sudden as I got home and prepared to hit the road for Sidmouth, this struck me as being an obvious choice. Subliminally perhaps I felt a thread or theme running through from my other choices; Tom pointed out during the evening that I had chosen three solo artists, and all English, for our first three meetings.

And three English solo artists who all make music very much influenced by and about England itself, too; from Bark Psychosis’ evocation of crepuscular urban landscapes and the people within them to Polly Jean’s exploration of the emotions of war and how conflict has shaped and scarred our nation, and now to Patrick Wolf’s meandering, wounded troubadour escape from London to Penzance, taking in Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s coastal railway line through Devon, howling atop Cornish cliffs, and the emotional peril of self-discovery.

I was interested in Patrick Wolf from his debut album, 2003’s spitting Lycnathropy, which tied up violin-folk with glitchy beats and Freudian wailing, but the reserve of Wind In The Wires, his second album from 2005, was what made me a fan. Seeing Patrick perform these songs live, stripped to voice, one instrument (violin, ukulele, or piano), and a barefooted drummer, at Exeter’s Phoenix made me fall absolutely in love with this record, though. There’s a musicality, a compositional ease, about the way he moves through a tune and from tune to tune that manifests here which few of his contemporaries can get close to.

Patrick himself is a divisive figure, though; I know some music fans and writers who cannot stand to listen to his records for the ostentation and diva-ish-ness they perceive as being his character. I interviewed him (over the phone) once, and found him to be compelling and compassionate, if a little controlling (he is a complete perfectionist regarding his music). His hair has regularly been coloured shocking red or stark blonde, his face glittered, his wardrobe veering into sparkly silver shoes or ostentatious feathered capes; in short, he is, and can be, and will be in the future, a glam figure, stomping and strutting. But here, on this record, he is stripped back (even if the arrangements aren’t, necessarily). It’s the only album cover (of four so far) where his hair in the cover photo is (close to) its natural colour.

So the record begins with a song about being tired of the scene in London, leeched dry by libertines and lasciviousness, and winds its way to space and fresh air in Cornwall, depicting the journey, epiphanies along the way, a period of realisation, and finally, to close, the return leg back home, enervated and positive and with a finished record to press. It could be taken as a concept album if one wanted. I adore it. But what would Devon Record Club think?

Rob listened: I think both Tom and I were expecting something a little more theatrical from Patrick Wolf. From my perspective, having formed a rounded judgement largely by flicking past his album covers in the racks, I thought we’d get the bastard offspring of Elton John and Julian Cope. Instead this seems the very essence of pastoral Elgartronica. I confess I wasn’t convinced at first. Something about that voice, and its background, sounded too forced, to keen to be something, to say something. Pretentious, in the true sense. Nick’s defence was well-marshalled, and by the time the closing tracks came around, I started to get a feel for why Wolf might inspire such devotion.

Really glad to hear it.

Tom listened: I was very pleasantly surprised by this album – it was nothing like I was expecting and, once I had gone through the excruciating process of trying to recall who his voice reminded me of (Josh T Pearson from Lift to Experience to save you the bother), I realised that I had been completely drawn in by the album and was really enjoying what I was hearing. The experience of having my expectations confounded by this record really got me thinking about how detrimental image, perceived personality and prejudice is when listening to music and how, despite finding the record fascinating, I still am finding it a little difficult to see beyond the overblown theatrics I had witnessed on Later…with Jools Holland. More fool me!