Sunday, January 15, 2006

Guided By Voices: Under The Bushes Under The Stars (1996)

Fans of Guided By Voices put their support behind various albums when concerning the greatest GBV album of all time. Vampire On Titus, Propeller, Alien Lanes, Bee Thousand, and sometimes even Mag Earwhig! all have their supporters. I am not alone when I throw my support behind the perfect Under The Bushes Under The Stars. From the opening onslaught of Man Call Aerodynamics, to the acoustic romp finisher Take To The Sky, and stops of genius in between (too many to list, but we'll get to them), Under The Bushes Under The Stars is a clinic of great rock musical writing. This is a hooked-filled dream, and full of the mid-fi pop gems which GBV is known for. Move over Bee Thousand...

The disc starts off with a bang, as Man Call Aerodynamics is one of my favorite track 1's (and GBV tracks in general). It is two minutes of driving guitar and some of Robert Pollard's greatest lyrics ("Let them out and dance for the ant god/Like scary magnets to pounce upon command/Upon the man/The man called Aerodynamics"). This is simply an unbelievable song, and one of the best in the GBV catalog. Rhine Jive Click and Cut-Out Witch keep the momentum going, as both are straight forward rockers. Cut-Out Witch in particular reveals GBV's ability to take a rather simple tune, play it over and over again, and yet make the track sound fresh and original.

Burning Flag Birthday Suit stands out on Under The Bushes Under The Stars as the song that simply doesn't really stand out. With so much great songs on the disc, it comes off as underwhelming. Fortunately being one of the worse tracks on an album like UTBUTS says more about the greatness of the album than the song's lacking. The Official Ironmen Rally Song screams "single". I have never heard GBV on the radio here in Edmonton, but if this track got some airtime, GBV's back catalog would get some interest in the city. The Official Ironmen Rally Song contains some cryptic lyrics (for me anyway, as I usually have no clue what Pollard is trying to say), yet is one of GBV's most gorgeous melodies.

To Remake The Young Flyer is hard to describe. It is obviously a Tobin Sprout track, yet unlike most of his other GBV contributions. It has some phaser(?) guitar effect, and Tobin's usual mellow melody, and sounds like something that might be sung around a campfire. No Sky follows a standard (not GBV standard though) verse chorus verse bridge chorus structure. It is a good example of the key difference between Bee Thousand and Under The Bushes Under The Stars; UTBUTS feels more like a full album with less fragmentation, and a greater emphasis on whole songs.

Bright Paper Werewolves is a short and intimate acoustic track. The first part has Pollard quietly singing about polluted eyeballs, and the last bit picks up the volume for a dramatic conclusion. Lords of Overstock is another fully realized rock song, and would make for a radio friendly single. Its anti-business/consumerism message however might make it a hard sell as a single. It seems to be a little game GBV fans like to play, guessing what would be the big hits if the band was more known, and received more radio time. And while I'm providing what-if analysis for GBV's single marketability, the next track, Your Name Is Wild, would be a great contender as well.

Ghost Of A Different Dream is hovering around Burning Flag Birthday Suit as the least-great track on the album. It would be one of the better tracks on some other album, so it makes the cut for my ulimate playlist. There is nothing like Acorns & Orioles in the GBV catalog. It is a haunting acoustic track with some NIN-like ambient noise in the background (which I never really noticed until listening to the song with earphones). Pollard's voice comes off ghost-like, and the song becomes darker and creepier until the fade out finish. Look At Them took a while to grow on me. It is one of those songs that for the chorus, the verses' guitar riff is simply given some distortion to make it stand out more. However, the great thing about Look At Them is how it sounds like a continuation (or a Part Two) of Acorns & Orioles. The haunting ambient sounds from Acorns & Orioles continues after that track fades out, continues through Look At Them, and finishes with the instrumental, The Perfect Life. Therefore, on my box set, I'll likely have Acorns & Orioles / Look At Them / The Perfect Life all as either one track, or at least right after another.

Underwater Explosions reminds me of some of the songs from Robert Pollard's solo effort Not In My Airforce. It has a similar sonic texture to the music, as well as slight effects on the vocals. It is one of the more poppy tracks from UTBUTS, an album which comes off more melancholy than previous GBV releases. As Atom Eyes comes on, I'm wondering if that is the same opening riff as in Chasing Heather Crazy. It is a Tobin track which continues the break from gloominess which Underwater Explosions started, and brings us into pop heaven.

Okay, for anyone who has seen (or better yet, been to) the final Guided By Voices concert, you by now know the significance of the song Don't Stop Now. It was the very last GBV song ever played live, and was a fitting finale for its message; don't ever stop listening, because Pollard will never stop playing/creating music. Chances are GBV songs will be played during future Pollard solo concerts, however, Don't Stop Now will still be the last song played live by Guided By Voices. It is a beautiful song which I wish was placed at the end of the disc (perhaps due to my excellent hindsight). Office Of Hearts shares commonalities with Lord Of Overstock. They have similar mentalities musically; rock and roll, plain and simple.

We then begin the home stretch, which contains some of GBV's most wonderful songs. Big Boring Wedding is gold, pure and beautiful. The music is thoughtful in the first place, yet Pollard's dramatic vocal melody brings it to a whole new place. When he sings "Pass the word, the chicks are back/The chicks are back", the song almost sounds positive though the limited volume (the song sounds chronically quiet, even when heavy driven guitars kick in), and sad melody never completely go away.

It's Like Soul Man is a Tobin song which also makes an appearance on his solo album Carnival. I actually find the Carnival version more rocking, and is generally better. However, It's Like Soul Man is likely my favorite Tobin song ever, and its inclusion on UTBUTS makes the album that much more special to me. Drag Days is almost three minutes long, so it is an epic in GBV terms. It is a low key track with a modest chorus which grew on me after a few listens. Sheet Kickers is another three minute epic. It has a bass intro with some heavy guitar kicking in later on. Pollard's vocals are on display in this track, as they are the immediate focus (which is often not the case in a GBV song).

Now onto the underappreciated Redmen And Their Wives. Along with Liquid Indian, Redmen And Their Wives is one of the most beautiful songs ever recorded. Pollard's melodic instincts are in full gear, and if there was no music and just him singing this song with absolutely no backing, it would still be beautiful. Also, coming in at around the second verse, odd ambient noises similar to those found in the trilogy of Acorns & Orioles, Look At Them, and The Perfect Life, make an appearance and link the track to the rest of the album. The song picks up to an electrifying conclusion (couldn't help it), which reminds me of the finish to Hey Jude. I guarantee that if I were to make a one-disc GBV best of, Redmen And Their Wives would be on it.

Take To The Sky has an awesome acoustic riff, though I feel the track feels slightly tacked on to the album. As a finisher, Redmen And Their Wives or Don't Stop Now would make for a more appropriate ending. Perhaps it is just that the song sounds too upbeat, since UTBUTS is the saddest sounding of GBV's albums.

Under The Bushes Under The Stars is one of the greatest albums ever made (and also the greatest album Pollard has ever made). Every song on the album makes my ultimate playlist/box set, and if I were to give a friend one album to introduce them to Robert Pollard and Guided By Voices, it would be this one.

Tracklisting (songs in bold make my ultimate GBV/Pollard playlist/box set - yes, in this case it is all of them):
01 Man Called Aerodynamics
02 Rhine Jive Click
03 Cut-Out Witch
04 Burning Flag Birthday Suit
05 The Official Ironmen Rally Song
06 To Remake The Young Flyer
07 No Sky
08 Bright Paper Werewolves
09 Lord Of Overstock
10 Your Name Is Wild
11 Ghosts Of A Different Dream
12 Acorns & Orioles
13 Look At Them
14 The Perfect Life
15 Underwater Explosions
16 Atom Eyes
17 Don't Stop Now
18 Office Of Hearts
19 Big Boring Wedding
20 It's Like Soul Man
21 Drag Days
22 Sheet Kickers
23 Redmen And Their Wives
24 Take To The Sky

Under The Bushes, Under The Stars at Amazon


Dan said...

you know, i was never much a fan of "burning flag birthday suit" either until i heard the live version found here:

it's one of pollard's top 5 favorite songs he's written, by the way.

The Rock Robot said...

Hi dan. Sometimes when I listen to a GBV song for the first few times, I may not exactly like it so much, but often I can hear the possibility or potential of liking it in the future.

As for "Burning Flag Birthday Suit", I liked it from the start, however, it is one of my least favorite tracks from (in my perspective) a perfect album.

Thanks for the comment.

MFB said...

This is the best Geebs album. I'm sorry you never got to hear "Cut Out Witch" live. It was a riot (literally).

The Rock Robot said...

...hmmm...I actually have never got to hear any GBV live. I got into them after they broke up.

Anonymous said...

Rock Robot... don't tell me that, with your significant investment in back catalog, you haven't invested in the Electrifying Conclusion DVD? Although i too never actually had the pleasure of live GbV, this disc is not that bad of a consolation. There are some pretty drunk versions of songs, but it is amazing how well they manage to not let the drinking interfere too much with the song renditions. As Radio-Free Burke says, Cut-Out Witch is a standout. Also, Watch Me Jumpstart has some really good live footage, as does The Who Went Home and Cried, which focuses on Greg Demos' last live show and features footage of an extended rehearsal session on Bob's front porch (including an unplugged version of Psychic Pilot Clocks Out!).

The Rock Robot said...

I do have the Electrifying Conclusion DVD, as well as two copies of Watch Me Jumpstart (since I couldn't wait to get the Hardcore UFOs boxset to watch it). I have heard more negative things about the Who Went Home and Cried DVD than possitive so I have constantly been pushing back on buying it. Maybe I should pick it up one of these days.

Anonymous said...

I listened to UTBUTS on the drive to work this am, and with it fresh in my mind i concur that it truly is a perfect album. (I love Burning Flag Birthday Suit, btw... when it kick into gear midway through, well it's just a stellar rock moment for me...) The thing about GbV is, they have a number of perfect albums and i simply can not qualify one as better than another, especially since they all feel different and each one has its own characteristic charm. Mind you i don't seem to have the same problem qualifying one BAND as better than all the rest...

Anonymous said...

And honestly, as good as the Electrifying Conclusion DVD is, you'd be hard pressed to own a system that could play it, both visually and aurally, as HARD and LOUD as GbV palyed live. Sheeit, you'd have the cops over in 5 minutes. So I'm sorry for you, Rock Robot. I only got to see them once (as I didn't discover GbV until Feb '04), but they were awesome live. I swear during the show (in Bloomington, IN in October), the entire world became a singularity when Bob hit the first chorus of "Tractor Rape Chain" and EVERYBODY in the fuckin' audience sang it! Damn, that was a cool concert experience!

Anonymous said...

...and ya know why I love Cut-Out Witch? Once again, they take cool parts that sound like things I've heard in other bands and graft them together into these songs of Frankenstinian hookiness. The opening, with dual guitars playing a twangy, lackadaisical figure (reminds me of the Silos, perhaps somewhat REM-ish) that threatens to come to a complete dishembled stop, but miraculously regains its energy and cranks back up, finally crashing into a roaring wall of guitars I haven't heard since the Buzzcocks were around. As much as I like and admire GbV for their expedient recording techniques, I'd love to hear them re-record this song in full bigtime studio fidelity - THAT would be cool.

The Rock Robot said...

Regarding re-recordings, I would love to hear a full-on studio perfection recording of many GBV albums! I think live albums/bootlegs/torrents are the best way to get louder versions of many older GBV tracks.

Buster said...

Yeah, I too only got to see GbV live once. On the last tour. I had numerous opportunities to see them, as they came through St. Louis quite often, but something ALWAYS stopped me from seeing them (out of town, a close relative's wedding, etc.). It was like some horrible curse. Of course I had no idea they were about to call it quits. So, on their final tour I let nothing stand in my way, and was completely blown away!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful double record (not double LP, though that would have made more sense). A good place to start for the high technologically challenged.

On my list:

Man Called Aerodynamics
Office Of Hearts
It's Like Soul Man
Drag Days
The Official Ironmen Rally Song
Cut-Out Witch
To Remake The Young Flyer
Bright Paper Werewolves
Lord Of Overstock
Redmen & Their Wives
Ghosts Of A Diferent Dream
Don't Stop Now

Those last two sure sound good together.

When I watched the Austin version of Redmen, I cried a little bit. I first heard them a year ago and I doubt they're planning a Swedish tour, so I don't think I'll ever get to witness...but much as I would love to experience the bliss of (say) Echos Myron live, I reckon the full emotional spectrum of their shows has been somewhat underrated from the reviews I've read.