Voice Over

Guided by Voices
Under the Bushes Under the Stars
(Matador)

One listen to Guided by Voices' latest release, Under the Bushes Under the Stars, is convincing proof that GBV is something special. Front man Robert Pollard--a former high school football star and fourth-grade teacher turned general of the Ohio indie invasion--is a master of pop songs in miniature. He writes tunes suffused with killer hooks and loopy lyrics structured to come together in tantalizing, abbreviated bliss. As an enhancement, Pollard and his bandmates--guitarists Tobin Sprout and Mitch Mitchell, along with drummer Kevin Fennell--still record their songs the old way, in glorious lo-fi. The band's rec-room-recording technique renders GBV's startlingly brief and catchy songs with a compelling sense of the grotesque; like listening to an old Electric Light Orchestra album with Hieronymous Bosch ears.

All told, Guided by Voices has released nine albums and a boatload of singles over the years. But things didn't really start to connect until 1994's Bee Thousand, a recording on the Midwest-based indie Scat Records that came on like a poorly recorded demo tape from some forgotten U.K. pop band of the '70s. Songs like "Gold Star for Robot Boy," "Kicker of Elves" and "The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory" were even stranger than their titles with Pollard singing overmodulated strings of non sequiturs, his imitation English accent leading melodies that soared in crooked patterns before burning out in midair.

Pollard has long said that GBV records in primitive lo-fi because the band could never afford a big studio. That was supposed to change with Under the Bushes Under the Stars. The original version of this CD was produced at a major-league 24-track studio in Memphis by fellow Daytonite Kim Deal, of Breeders fame. Close to 60 songs were recorded there, but the project was scrapped because Pollard wasn't happy with the results. His first instincts were to go back to his four-track in the basement, but the band members found a 24-track studio in Dayton they say felt like a living room. GBV went in and spent a grand total of two days recording a batch of freshly written lo-fi songs in the homey hi-fi studio. Five remastered tracks from the Deal sessions made the final cut, including the new CD's first single, "The Official Ironmen Rally Song." The disc also includes two cuts overseen by infamous indie producer Steve Albini, credited in the liner notes to "Fluss," Albini's cat.

The heightened production on Under the Bushes clearly enhances GBV's D.I.Y. sound. It also opens new opportunities for GBV weirdness. "No Sky," an oddly metered song of perfectly off-balanced stops and starts, comes complete with the popping and cracking sounds of old vinyl between Pollard's melancholy vocals. And the hypnotic "Acorns and Orioles" is garnished with beautifully echo-drenched vocals that hover over acoustic guitars, bongos and the ominous drone of distant feedback.

Lyrically, Under the Bushes is typically over the top in scattered poetic images. Pollard starts "Bright Paper Werewolves" with the line, "Come all polluted eyeballs/Stop scouting out the field." The track ends with him singing of unnamed desperate people who "want to get out of here, but they can't find the exits" and who "finally got recognized, so they left in obscurity and misery." The line could easily refer to the growing backlash against GBV. The band has its doubters among the rock-crit crowd, most notably the Village Voice's Robert Christgau, who once said he wouldn't want his fourth-grade kid being taught anything by someone like Pollard. Others are wary of the band's beer-chugging, weekend-athlete, wanna-be rock star pedigree.

With or without naysayers, GBV recordings should continue to litter the landscape. Some of the unused material from the ill-fated Deal sessions in Memphis, for example, is supposed to be released over the next few months as B-sides on singles. Other songs from the sessions will be included on a couple of EPs: the six-song Plantations of Pale Pink, which comes out next month, and the ten-song Not in My Air Force, set for release in August. The rest of the original recordings with Deal will be relegated to the nether world where discarded GBV songs go to die.

Dumping material is nothing new for Pollard. He claims to have penned more than 2,000 songs, most of which he's forgotten, thrown away or otherwise deemed unworthy. That staggering number becomes more believable when you consider that many GBV tunes are less than a minute long, with few breaking the three-minute barrier.

With so many songs in the GBV catalogue, the band has whittled down its road-show repertoire to 50 selections, with certain songs performed every night and the rest revolving from show to show depending on requests.

The most crucial factor in any Guided by Voices show, though, is beer. Pollard and his buddies were derisively dubbed "Guided by Beer" by other acts on a Lollapalooza tour a couple of years ago, and Pollard is rarely seen holding a microphone in one hand without a bottle of beer in the other.

The band's love of brew was rumored to have been a factor in GBV's cancellation of its long-awaited Arizona debut last year at Gibson's in Tempe. State law prohibits musicians from drinking onstage in Arizona, and Pollard has said that the band members canceled because they wouldn't be able to suck brew onstage. Guitarist Tobin Sprout, though, recently offered a more plausible explanation: His wife was ready to give birth back in Ohio and he wanted to be there.

It's a year later and GBV is back on the bill at Gibson's. Will the band actually perform? Will Pollard try to sneak a cold one onstage with him? The show should be a winner, but all bets are off.

Guided by Voices is scheduled to perform on Saturday, May 11, at Gibson's in Tempe, with Spoon. Showtime is 9 p.m. (all ages).

Cracker
The Golden Age
(Virgin)

"This is the Golden Age," Cracker leader David Lowery sings on the title cut of his band's new CD. But Lowery, one of the all-time smart-asses in alternative rock, knows better. You can hear it in the weariness and resignation in his voice. Yes, this CD could very well usher in a Cracker dynasty on the pop music time line. But it could also just as easily render Lowery's long-promising band past its prime.

The Golden Age feels like a make-or-break effort. It sounds like the kind of ornate, carefully crafted product a band produces to prove to itself and others that it's still a contender. When younger artists present this kind of fussy work, as Billy Corgan did with Smashing Pumpkins' latest epic, it's generally seen as a sign that an up 'n' comer can indeed deliver the goods. It's different when an aging act noisily tries to extend itself. Such efforts often carry a hint of desperation.

And there are hints of desperation in the way Cracker carries on here.
Why else would the normally frill-free Lowery throw in every special effect his engineers could get their hands on? The CD is festooned with all sorts of decorative sounds--space-age beeps and buzzes, country-fried fiddles, swelling string sections and voice-box guitars, a la Peter Frampton. When Lowery shouts his lyrics through a bullhorn or uses Joan Osborne's vocals instead of his own, it feels like Cracker sitting in on another band's album.

Lowery and his Cracker pals--guitarist Johnny Hickman, bassist Bob Rupe and drummer Charlie Quintana--are far more convincing when they don't try so hard. "How Can I Live Without You," for example, is a wonderfully laid-back slab of country-funk with wise-ass Lowery wondering, "How can I live without you/If it means I gotta get a job?" The song's ease of effort sets it apart from this disc's frantic opening cut, "I Hate My Generation," which finds a sarcastic Lowery screaming the chorus at the top of his scrawny lungs. The song's faux ferocity has all the empty emotion of Frank Black's equally automatic scream-on-demand technique.

The bells and whistles and other add-ons that clog the CD also obscure Lowery's moments of real growth. Two songs in particular, "Dixie Babylon" and especially "Big Dipper," come closest to the bone because they show Lowery allowing himself to bleed. "I really must confess/I'm feeling quite distressed/My stars are always crossed," Lowery sings next to Hickman's austere twang on "Dixie Babylon."

Even better is the charged, reflective mood on "Big Dipper," with Lowery playing a guy hanging out in a cafe, smoking cigarettes, thinking about getting a new tattoo while waiting for the courage to pick himself up and confront life, face first. "Hey June," he sings, "Why'd you have to come around so soon/I wasn't ready for all this nature/The terrible green, green grass/The violent blooms of flower dresses/And afternoons that make me sleepy." Then he sees a girl walk by and imagines both of them crossing life's Rubicon together: "We could wait awhile/Before we push that dull turnstile/Into the passage/Where thousands they have tread/And others sometimes fled/Before the turn came." That's good stuff.

Lowery's attempts to graduate from eternal wisenheimer to wistful observer ultimately survive the CD's inconsistent aural mood. And indeed, the assorted styles and noises on The Golden Age ultimately make for an estimable collection of songs. In flailing around to find his second wind, Lowery has scored a critical success. Still, the CD feels like an overt push for commercial success, and in that regard, Cracker may still have to wait for its golden age.--Serene Dominic

Cracker is scheduled to perform on Thursday, May 9, at Electric Ballroom in Tempe, with Sparklehorse. Showtime is 8 p.m. (all ages).

Ass Ponys
The Known Universe
(A&M)

On its second major-label offering, this Ohio foursome continues to ponder the riddles of the universe, like incredible shrinking men. Most of singer Chuck Cleaver's harrowing insights are filtered through small-town eyes, giving as innocent and limited a view of the world as an outdated children's encyclopedia, which The Known Universe's packaging parodies with off-handed panache.

But don't make the mistake of thinking there's anything here aside from stock photos and insect diagrams to align this album with Pearl Jam's Vitalogy. The Known Universe revolves around rural rock rhythms and Cleaver's whiny, worrisome voice, which sounds like a fearful kid being forced to sing "I'm a Little Petunia" in front of the class.

Throughout the album, Cleaver recounts man's goofy dominion over defenseless little creatures. On "God Tells Me So," he justifies cruelly turning a magnifying glass on some ants with the argument that, in the greater scheme of things, the Almighty is subjecting him to the same karmic crap.

As fatalistic as any songwriter since John Fogerty, Cleaver can venture out on a happy summer's day and find cataclysm in the calm. "The river looks like chocolate milk/It's foaming at the banks," he indicates on "It's Summer Here." Meanwhile, back in town, a barber's burning hair out behind his shop and laughing about the unbearable smell. Not exactly "Penny Lane," but bouncy enough to elicit a smile.

Cleaver's high-register warbling (if you don't like the little-kid analogy, try Pete Townshend being assailed by killer bees) may be a little off-putting at first. If you're yeller, the R.E.M.-ish "Under Cedar and Stars" might be the most radio-friendly point of entry here. It's a great track, but don't stop there. The Known Universe is rife with humorous imagery and unique vantage points from which to observe the mundane. So get off your duff, 'cuz there's never been a better time to get behind the Ass Ponys.--Serene Dominic

The Beatles
Anthology 2
(Apple/Capitol)

Judging by the many used copies of Anthology 1 on the shelves at your neighborhood Zia Record Exchange, many of you youngsters who got all psyched up to hear "the band that forever changed pop music" were disappointed at having to sit through rehearsal tapes of the Quarrymen. Well, gather 'round, children, because Anthology 2 (1965-1968) captures the period where pop music truly got its face rearranged by the Liverpudlians. Whereas volume one had the lads merely paying homage to Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Carl Perkins, here we have a seasoned group smashing those influences to shards and gluing them together into a new model. (Editor's note: Hey, we know we reviewed it last week--this is part two.)

Mark Lewisohn's book The Beatles Sessions, which detailed every Beatles studio session from their EMI audition on, was supposed to whet fans' appetites for an official release of all the plum outtakes lying fallow in the EMI vault. The master tapes the label made available to Lewisohn mysteriously disappeared just before his book was released in 1987, however, and those pilfered tapes became the primary source for the rash of superb Beatles CD bootlegs that have been a mainstay of cool record stores everywhere since the book came out.

For Anthology 2, Apple/Capitol Records were left in the unenviable position of having to impress bootleg collectors who think they've heard everything, while embracing the casual Beatles fan accustomed to predictable rehashes like Love Songs and the red and blue hits collections. The solution? Cross-fertilize different takes to create versions that even the most hard-core bootleggers couldn't have heard. Which, if you think about it, is a bit like rereleasing Citizen Kane by "augmenting" the finished version with scraps from the cutting-room floor.

Although a splendid time is guaranteed for all, there are a couple of bumbling oversights here that even the studious Lewisohn (who annotates the anthology) failed to spot. The scat-singing harmonies on the first take of "Strawberry Fields Forever" that can be heard on the Unsurpassed Masters bootleg are sorely missing here. Another letdown is "A Day in the Life." On page 97 of his book, Lewisohn writes that the studio tapes reveal "everyone in the studio bursting into a spontaneous barrage of applause" that makes for "remarkable listening," as does Paul's original idea of ending the song with a big long "hummmmmmmmm." We get neither here, just a teeny snippet of studio chatter from Paul that makes for considerably less than remarkable listening since it's faded down midsentence.

This annoying tendency to edit or fade down songs early also keeps us from hearing the final calliope snippets of "Mr. Kite" or the hysterical screams from Paul at the end of "I'm Looking Through You" found on boots like Back Track and Ultra Rare Trax 2. The latter boot also contains the entire "12-Bar-Original" instead of the miserly Anthology 2 edit. Admittedly, this Rubber Soul outtake is a pretty sucky instrumental at either length, but since the Beatles rarely ever jammed out on a recording, it's more fascinating to hear the Fabs suck for six minutes and 36 seconds than it is for two minutes and 54 seconds.

Such complaints are petty, however, once you hear gems like the long-awaited and ne'er bootlegged first take of "Tomorrow Never Knows"; Paul's first version of "Your Mother Should Know," which sounds uncannily like Sting; and a version of "Across the Universe" that's allowed to breathe freely without claustrophobic choirs and chirping schoolgirl singers flapping in the breeze.

The cheerful "Real Love" should also help wear down the purists who are still grumbling that Paul, George, Ringo and a cassette player do not the Beatles make. Just simmer down. No one's challenging John Lennon's claim that "one and one and one is three." But remember that George's lame 1981 tribute to their fallen comrade, "All Those Years Ago," had the three of them and Linda, and they resisted using the Beatles name then. That's real integrity, baby!--Serene Dominic

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