Thursday, February 02, 2006

Guided By Voices: Mag Earwhig! (1997)

It is about flippin' time I get to review Mag Earwhig!, an extremely rocking Guided By Voices album. I would have posted it sooner, but as you may have noticed, I am somewhat going chronologically. This album may have the best chance of enticing new listeners to GBV, since it is full of songs meant for the radio, even if non of them were actually played on the radio. The sound quality is mostly decent, and there are hardly any throwaways. After Under the Bushes Under the Stars, this may be my next favorite GBV release. Alright, I also have to mention this is the first new linup GBV album. It is the one where Robert Pollard begins his collaborations with Cobra Verde, and more specifically, Doug Gillard...

Can't Hear The Revolution is a brilliant opener, as it truly is more of an intro to what is awaiting than an actual song itself. I will find it difficult to place it on any mix disc on a track other than the first. Sad If I Lost It is the first of the "why the hell did I not hear this on the radio?" tracks. It has an absolutely gorgeous chorus which explodes into heavy driven guitar the second time through. I find the lyrics as cryptic as ever ("And the courage seekers/Of the aborted logos/Of declaration no-go are/But I'll keep a light for 'em/Hold down the fort for 'em/And wear my maroon blazer all the time").

...and then I Am A Tree comes on, with its screaming intro and crazy-ass lead guitar. This here is Guided By Voices' rock and roll masterpiece. This song is pure rock for four minutes and contains one of the greatest lead guitar performances ever! That solo midway through is un-freakn'-believable! I also heard somewhere that this was orginally a Cobra Verde song, which has some Pollard lyrics attached to it. The album slows down for a minute with The Old Grunt, a campfire singalong type track (until the distortion kicks in of course - so maybe a campfire song with the devil). For now, it is on my re-visit later list since I don't really get into it much now.

The underwhelming Bulldog Skin (which was a single) follows. Underwhelming? I could never really get into this song even though it so obviously rocks hard. I have decided I will eventually like this track, and it will make the playlist simply because most of my friends that hear the song in my car or whatever seem to enjoy it. Oh and of course both Bulldog Skin and I Am Tree should have been huge radio hits.

There is another (longer) version of Are You Faster? on Suitcase 2 which shares nothing with the Mag Earwhig! version. It is a short simple tune, which ends with a nice fuzzy guitar outro. I absolutely love I Am Produced. I often have the "Pressed, printed, stomped, tripped, trapped, tricked, packaged, shipped" part in my head when I'm bored at school. Also, I know that I said I was not going to put any live tracks on my playlist, but the live version of I Am Produced on Live At The Wheelchair Races kicks so much ass and brings this song to a whole other level.

This version of Knock 'Em 'Flyin' is superior to the one on Tonics And Twisted Chasers, and has a tacked on guitar outro. I love the way Not Behind The Fighter Jet starts, as it feels like we are thrown into the middle of the song. This is another should-be radio hit, which is closer to the pop side than the rock side (as most of these songs are closer to the rock side, though that changes on the next release Do The Collapse - you may have heard about that).

Choking Tara is odd. Not the song that is, but the fact that this version made Mag Earwhig! and not the perfect sounding and rockier version on some Matador various artist release (and later on the Hardcore UFOs disc Demons & Painkillers). Either way, the song is a melodic beauty, and both are going to make the playlist since they are just different enough. Jumping ahead a bit is Now To War, another song which has a rockier version on another album (in this case the Bulldog Skin single, and then later on Demons & Painkillers). This acoustic version brings out the lyrics more, and gives the song a greater impact. However, once again, both versions stand out as being different enough to include both in the playlist.

Hollow Creek is about thirty seconds long, and is not anything special, but it blends nicely into another straight out rock-your-socks-off hit, Portable Men's Society. I'm using the term "hit" here as in "this should have been a hit". It has a haunting verse structure, and a two part chorus; the first being an epic vocal performance, and the second pure catchy rock and roll genius.

Holy crap! Another unbelievable rocker, Little Lines follows the great Portable Men's Society. This is one hell of a one-two punch, and at this point you should see just how special this disc is. Little Lines may have the best verses in the GBV canon (oh, well, not including My Valuable Hunting Knife...or I Am A Scientist...or..., nevermind). The way the verse blends into the chorus is done wonderfully, and we can now add this as the sixth should-be-radio-hit on the album.

Out of all of these great songs, Learning To Hunt made the cut (along with I Am A Tree and Bulldog Skin) on GBV's best of album Human Amusements At Hourly Rates, so you know it must be good. It is a hauntingly beautiful tune which slows down the album a bit. There is some great lead guitar hidden in the background, and Pollard's sad lyrics are perfect, especially with the added effects on them. The Finest Joke Is Upon Us was also on some special version of Under The Bushes Under The Stars, however it really is at home on Mag Earwhig! I know I'll get some email/comments on this, but Mag Earwhig! is the worst song on Mag Earwhig!

Jane Of The Waking Universe is another amazing track, though I won't include it in the should have been a radio hit category, due to the drop in sound quality during the chorus. The sound is 100% intentional and I love it, and the verses in this track are some of Pollard's catchiest. The Colussus Crawls West, other than having a fine title, starts off slow and halfway becomes another beast altogether. With lyrics such as "Bring popcorn for Geronimo", how can you go wrong?

And if you haven't been blown away already, Mute Superstar should push you over that rock n' roll mountain. When I first heard this I thought, where did this come from? This is GBV doing grunge and I like it, as it is one of GBV's heaviest songs. Bomb In The Bee-Hive is a fitting conclusion to Mag Earwhig! It is another straight-out rocker, which is what the album is all about.

I love Mag Earwhig! That exclamation point is there because it is part of the title, and because I was shouting the fact. This is GBV's most rocking album, and if that means they have to lose some of their edge for a more straight forward in-your-face sound (which I have read in some reviews), then I'm all for it. It may be the best place for a new listener since it is A) simply excellent, and B) mostly good recording quality. It is as essential as any other GBV album, and marks an era change in the band, as Doug Gillard's pro guitar work adds a whole new dimension to this already great band.

Tracklisting (songs in bold make my ultimate Pollard/GBV playlist/box set):
01 Can't Hear The Revolution
02 Sad If I Lost It
03 I Am A Tree
04 The Old Grunt
05 Bulldog Skin
06 Are You Faster?
07 I Am Produced
08 Knock 'Em Flyin'
09 Not Behind The Fighter Jet
10 Choking Tara
11 Hollow Creek
12 Portable Men's Society
13 Little Lines
14 Learning To Hunt
15 The Finest Joke Is Upon Us
16 Mag Earwhig!
17 Now To War
18 Jane Of The Waking Universe
19 The Colussus Crawls West
20 Mute Superstar
21 Bomb In The Bee-Hive


Anonymous said...

For some reason that absolutely escapes me now, this album took several years to hit me(with the exception of a few songs, esp. Learning to Hunt and Jane of The Waking Universe). Maybe the strange, almost metallic sheen of the production, which was a huge contrast even to "Under the Bushes ..." At some point, though, I finally got it, and I was stunned. It truly is an awesome album for all the reasons you mention.

By the way, thanks for doing this site/blog.

Anonymous said...

Nicely done. However, "Tree" was never a Cobra Verde song. Doug Gillard wrote it in the early 90s, and played it (and later recorded it) with Gem. The words were never rewritten by Pollard, altho' Pollard's phrasing differs slightly from the Gem version, as well as how DG performs it in his own set.


jazman said...

Oh My Gawd.

"Bulldog Skin" underwhelming? Puh-lease. It's the best goddamned Alex Chilton song Alex Chilton didn't write!

And the video C-U-T-E cute!

More later!

The Rock Robot said...

I admitted I was not a big fan of Bulldog Skin, though I did also admit that I should like I don't feel bad. Maybe it will grow on me, we'll see.

jazman said...

Hey RockRobot and GbV fans worldwide!

I feel one of the advantages I have, since I've come to GbV quite late (32 months and counting) is that I came to them with absolutely no pre-conceptions. I don't care that the line-up that recorded this album wasn't the "original" line-up, for instance. And I think this allows me to enjoy GbV albums (discs, whatever) purely on musical merit-hey, not that any of you other correspondants use any other standard, of course-no slam intended there. Let's just say that I feel some of the criticisms leveled at this disc, because Bob recorded most of the songs with Cobra Verde, are unjustified. For my money, he could have recorded these songs with the Moron Tabernacle Choir, as long as they came out sounding like this (and as long as Doug Gillard was playing guitar!)

This album was an immediate hit with me. From the opening electro-noise of "Can't Hear the Revolution", I knew I was in for a real treat. In fact, if I was compiling a list like the Rock Robot was compiling, I could not in good concience leave ANY songs from this album out. I really think it's that good. In fact, I made a dual-disc compilation of GbV stuff for friends and family; this album comprised one of the discs. I could NOT leave any of the songs out. It's a tight-knit, flowing package, I believe on par with the greatest albums of all time. Think "Sgt. Peppers", "Surrealistic Pillow", "We're Only In It for the Money", that sort of artistic continuity and flow of musical ideas.

I especially enjoy what I hear as "couplets' of songs. For instance "The Old Grunt" is inseperable from "Bulldog Skin"; "Hollow Cheek" flows naturally into "Portable Men's Society" (one of my all-time favorite titles, and songs).

Another thing I enjoy is something I've written about quite a bit. I love the way Bob and GbV can remind me of other bands, without mimicing them. For instance, as you can see above, I think "Bulldog Skin" sounds a hell of a lot like a great Alex Chilton song. If Tom Petty had ever recorded a song as good as "Little Lines", I might have actually bought some of his records. "Portable Men's Society" would have made a great Blue Oyster Cult tune; and when I first heard "Mute Superstar", I swore Iggy Pop had died and come back as a prog-rocker.

Funny thing is, I've never really liked the last song "Bomb in the Beehive". It sounds musically obvious to me; just sort of a fast riff, not much melody, sort of sounds tossed off. Hmmm.

Anyway, I think this is a fantastic record, and stands up to any album ever recorded. And Bob got a tremendously important collaborator in the process!

jazman said...

Now HERE'S something interesting...

I just went to the GBVDB, and lo and behold, read this; it's an excerpt from the press release put out for Mag Earwhig:

"The first GBV album by their new lineup, which consists of leaders Robert Pollard and Tobin Sprout, backed by the entire lineup of Cobra Verde. This is a conceptual rock opera inspired by the Who's Tommy, the Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow, Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, and the Edgar Broughton Band's Wasa Wasa. Pollard is the main character in this sprawling narrative, an insectile cartoon figure named the Magnificent Earwhig, who interacts with a wild cast of characters in songs evoking nostalgiac memories of an Ohio boyhood, starting one's first band, and inhaling American roadside pop culture."

Gee, I did not know that. No wonder it sounds like a rock opera...

jazman said...

Oh yeah, and one more thing...

Did I mention that "I Am a Tree" sounds like Lamb Lies Down-era Genesis with rock balls?

Joe said...

I'm also not a huge fan of Bulldog Skin. I once read an interview with Bob and when asked what's up with the fake english accent, he replied that his "normal" singing voice makes him sound like a hick. I think Bulldog Skin is a prime example of this. It sounds like he's straining to not sound british... But maybe I'm over-analyzing this. Anyway, this is still a fan-fuckin-tastic album.

Anonymous said...

My impression now: The snippety songs break the flow of this album as well as Not In My Airforce, off which it sounds like many of these are taken. It seems like Bob felt that they were a vital element missing from UTBUTS in hindsight or that he just didn't want another relatively straight record quite yet. Imho that's a pity; I think a trimmed down Mag would have had more success in both senses of the word. Not least with the creamy Choking Tara. (I do think he got the hits vs snippets ratio 100% right again with Universal Truths & Cycles.) I love Gillard's playing and quite like his voice too.

My list:

Mute Superstar
Little Lines
Bulldog Skin
Not Behind The Fighter Jet
Are You Faster?
I Am A Tree
Portable Men's Society
Now To War
Jane Of The Waking Universe
Sad If I Lost It

I won't say this about many GBV songs, but for some reason I can't stand The Finest Joke Is Upon Us. Which probably means that one and this record as a whole will be my favorites after awhile.