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