Let's Welcome the Circus People
If Guided by Voices is any indication, you can't underestimate those working-class towns when it comes to spawning talented songwriters. Maybe it has something to do with the amount of beer consumed being directly proportionate to how boring your town is--and the amount of beer consumed having everything to do with your creative output--but if Liverpool could produce The Beatles and Manchester The Smiths, it shouldn't be a total surprise that two of the most talented songwriters in rock today are products of Dayton, Ohio.
Actually, GBV leader Robert Pollard started making music not long after The Beatles stopped, and for the better part of a decade was accompanied by guitarist Tobin Sprout. Sprout was a faithful sidekick, playing Pollard's songs live and on recordings, while Pollard reveled in his role as lead singer. But while it can be argued that the individual Beatles lost some of their luster when left to their own devices, the polarization of Pollard and Sprout gave each a chance to prove his true mettle.
Pollard's star was always bright because, let's face it, he is GBV. Sure, Sprout got to throw in his three or four (usually standout) songs per album, but GBV was and always will be Pollard's baby. Still, while awaiting the release of GBV's next record, due out in a few months on Matador, he couldn't help but release the third of his solo records, less than a year after the release of the second one, Waved Out. Talk about prolific.
Of course, anyone who writes as many songs as Pollard is going to do at least one of two things: have at least 20 songs that sound alike, or wear his influences like a tee shirt. Pollard does both, but it's always been part of his charm. In fact, he's made such a career of sounding like his British rock idols (complete with English accent) that it's easy to think Pollard invented the arena pop song rather than stole it from someone else.
Kid Marine, while not quite as good as Pollard's first solo release Not in My Airforce, is still better than the uneven Waved Out. Tracks like "The Make-Over" and "Men Who Create Fright" are Pollard at his finest--starting off sparse and pretty and building to a short, sweet climax.
In the category of best solo effort from a former second banana, there's Sprout's Let's Welcome the Circus People. Though Sprout's never been as prolific as Pollard (or if he has, he's never proved it), he's certainly no slouch. In fact, his last solo record, 1997's Moonflower Plastic (Welcome to My Wigwam), in its own way, tops anything GBV's ever released. It certainly sounds better, recorded almost flawlessly to eight-track rather than four-track, like many of GBV's murky efforts.
Sprout never seemed quite content playing Paul McCartney to Pollard's Lennon, and it's clear he deserves more than that--his middle-aged efforts are thankfully superior to McCartney's dreadful turn in Wings (and anything he's done since, for that matter). Unfortunately, Circus People, like Moonflower Plastic, starts out on the wrong foot--with the album's most dispensable song as the opening track. Things certainly pick up after that, and Sprout makes careful use of the secret weapon that remained holstered in much of his GBV work: the piano, along with various keyboards.
But it's the guitar and vocal work that's the dividing line between Pollard and Sprout's solo sounds: While Pollard strums, Sprout jangles, playing McGuinn to Pollard's Townshend. And Sprout's voice has a higher timbre than Pollard's more resonant tenor, leaving Sprout, on a song like the carnivalesque "Making a Garden," sounding downright whiny. But it's that same pitch that's so achingly effective on "And So On," "Vertical Insect (the lights are on)" and "Who's Adolescence," three of the album's prettiest tracks.
When it comes to songwriting consistency, Sprout's the clear winner. But as far as artistic vision and the sheer will to experiment goes, it's Pollard who comes out on top. Like any great inventor, when he's on, he's on, producing songs that are worthy of patents. And even when the experiment blows up in his face, you're still intrigued enough to want to know the identity of the man behind the curtain.
Live on KXLU
(Triple X Records)
For starters, kudos must go to the Streetwalkin' Cheetahs for pedestalizing two groups that didn't sell more than five records put together: The Stooges and MC5. Consider the Cheetahs' homework, too; liner-note hat-tips include yesteryear scribes and legendary near hitsters: Deniz Tek, Legs McNeil (who even penned the inner affirmation here), Killer Kane, Cherie Currie, Wayne Kramer and Johnny Thunders (of course).
Then, lest we forget, the fucking ape-chunk chords churning a buoyant collection of singsongy, in-yer-face punkarama running the pithy theme gamut of drugs, debauchery, fucking, violence and jealousy. Smash it up, it's '77, honey!
The Cheetahs are playin' smart, too; not only does the cardboard CD jacket smell like an old Clash 45, but the thing was recorded live in overdub-free honesty on So-Cal left-of-the-dial staple KXLU. And continuing the proselyte status of garage-happy pranksters to punk-rock heroes is soothsayer Wayne Kramer, brought aboard for bonus-track production and all-around Scooby Snacks.
"None of You Business" carbons "I Feel Alright" with equal aplomb and sees singer Frank Meyer suitably orating like a true, irate shouter of yore. "Disease" recalls not NY or UK, but L.A.'s Weirdos, and "Shawna" refreshes, to comely effect, crusty "We're a Happy Family" riffs. In a better world, "Durango" would be in the upper reaches of airplay/sales charts, if not just to show Green Day how they have been gettin' it wrong all these years.
Durable, if not expected, MC5 and Stooges covers rear here, "Looking for You" and "Funhouse," respectively, a coupling that can almost excuse Meyer's "We're gonna take this back to the Motor City" crack prior to the testosterone-heavy Bators push of "Motor City Rock 'n' Roll." The sax (what year is this, anyways?) in "Built for Speed" gives a commendable Dolls slant to the otherwise Iggy referencing.
The separately recorded bonus cuts cue up like speeded-up Sabbath or Grand Funk; more sax, wah-wah to the floor, and slow, machine-gun drumming. And "Inside" gets my nod for single of the week--this week, or any other, for that matter.