By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
By New Times
"Earwhig" is British slang for that loudmouth guy at the end of the bar who thinks he's the world's greatest storyteller and just won't shut up. There's a metaphor here for Guided by Voices' way-beyond-prolific leader, Robert Pollard. Sure, he may have labored over his four-track for a decade in complete obscurity down in that famous Dayton, Ohio, basement, but since the indie-rock universe started kissing his ass circa 1993's Vampire on Titus and 1994's Bee Thousand, he's had songwriting diarrhea of the worst sort. By my count, Pollard has foisted 99 tunes on us via GBV's four official albums since 1993--and that's not including the 21 new numbers on Mag Earwhig! or anything on his solo disc, the 'tween-album EPs, or the 1995 boxed set compiling the before-fame basement tapes. Hell, the law of averages alone dictates that a fair amount of that output is gonna be crap, or at least ultrarepetitive. ("Stop me if you've heard this one before . . .")
The only thing I can think of to explain the near-universal acclaim accorded these weekend warriors is the NRBQ Syndrome. You know what I mean: There isn't a fortysomething white male rock critic anywhere in America who doesn't think NRBQ is one of the greatest bands that ever walked the Earth, and it's because the band's music is a skillfully crafted pastiche of everything those guys grew up listening to. It pushes all the right buttons, so of course they think it's genius.
Guided by Voices does something similar for the generation that came of age writing fanzines and manning college-rock radio stations in the mid-'80s. The rap on Bee Thousand (and most of the other recordings, too) was that, like Wire's Pink Flag, it was a collection of 20 songs that deconstructed rock history, reordered the pieces, and served it all back up in deliciously hard-to-resist bite-size pieces (most of 'em under two minutes!). Let's count the names dropped in the GBV entry of the Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock: R.E.M., Postcard Records, the Who, Josef K, Blue Öyster Cult, Moody Blues-via-ESP Records, Beach Boys, Incredible String Band, Frank Zappa, the Soft Boys, and (nonspecifically) Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd.
I may be a card-carrying member of the Fraternal Order of Rock Critics, and I'm not immune to the sweet nostalgia of having any of the above invoked in a short, catchy garage-rock ditty. Repeated listening to Mag Earwhig! yielded six moments I found impossible to resist: "Bulldog Skin" (Pavement meets British Invasion), "I Am Produced" and "Now to War" (Robyn Hitchcock's "I Often Dream of Trains" meets "Waterloo Sunset" Kinks), "Not Behind the Fighter Jet" and "Little Lines" (glam meets Merseybeat meets Sex Pistols), and "Jane of the Waking Universe" (Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein). These tunes would have made a heck of an EP--great to crank up and sing along with in the car, but certainly not original or important enough to warrant much thought beyond that.
Why I Feared Pollen:
1. The name. Pollen: "a fine, powderlike material produced by the anthers of seed plants." Gawd! Not more of that East Valley hippie groove shit!
2. The drummer writes most of the lyrics, just like Rush.
3. All song titles are one-, two- and three-word sentences, with only the first word capitalized and a period at the end. There must be a closet schoolteacher like Sting in their midst.
Why I No Longer Fear Pollen:
1. No hippies here--these five Pittsburgh transplants offer a heavy sound more akin to Steeltown than doobie-hoovin' Tempe fare. The band makes extensive use of head-bashing 4/4 beats, like the early Jam at its most brisk, but Pollen also throws in a twin-guitar attack that approximates corporate rock without the government grant.
2. There are no horrific Neil Peart-y, Ayn Rand homages here--drummer Bob Hoag merely documents his herculean desperation, usually promising to make good on his last chance. He's as hard on himself as he is on his drum skins, from the new-kid-in-school doldrums of "Chalkboard dust." ("Everyone here is cool, except for me; I'm nothing. And they stole my lunch money") to his silent-partner status in a crumbling relationship in "Colorful."
3. Pollen's odd punctuation habits may seem to put on airs, but this set's chocked with hardworkin' blue-collar anthems like the standout track "Tiny shoes.": "Pull back skin and you will find tired muscle."
Despite treading dangerously close to the dreaded power ballad here and there, this powerful local band's national debut is nothing to sneeze at. Shake its tree and revel in the fuzz.
Faith No More
Album of the Year
King for a Day, Fool for a Lifetime (1995) now stands, in light of this new release, as Faith No More's crowning achievement--where lurching and unpredictable rhythms met Mike Patton's conniption-fit vocals, as the art-deranged bombers of No Wave joined wild-at-heart lounge characters to do the cha-cha. It wasn't the metal-for-the-masses of The Real Thing or the go-to-hell follow-up of the perverse Angel Dust. Rather, it kept you guessing and pondering at its multifaceted planes both smooth and sharp, pressing "play" time and again like an ape with a one-task mind.