"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 yster 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.
Despite its poor sales performance, King is obviously the favorite of FNM's Billy Gould, the band's bassist and leader by default. The Gould-produced Album of the Year (with Roli Mosimann) follows too steadfastly its elder brother's game plan. The targets of the band's barbs haven't changed--Patton's lyrics lash out at consumerism in all shapes ("Got That Feeling"), and the self-absorbed get skewered with swift asides. It's the same enticing mix of slick hipster jive and unbridled cynicism utilized by Steely Dan in the '70s, here goosed by Roddy Bottum's keyboards and the brilliant Mike Bordin on drums.
Nor has the music changed a great deal, at least not for the worse: "Naked in Front of the Computer" is a fussy example of the band's trademark staccato anger; "Mouth to Mouth" slams and deftly dances the tango at the same time; and the Giorgio Moroderlike synth washes of "Stripsearch" meld to a familiar Patton croon, while dangerous riffing ensues at the climax. "Ashes to Ashes" is even better, with its Soundgarden stomp flirting with a New Romanticlike, arms-outstretched melody. These are the best of a 12-song collection that commits the ultimate Faith No More crime: It's a recording that goes down much too smoothly, a surfeit of sugar for such a meager dose of medicine. Missing is that invigorating sense of confusion, replaced by the suspicion that the usual intense concentration placed on the work has been leached away by side projects, such as Bottum's Imperial Teen and Patton's Mr. Bungle; even Bordin has spent most of the past couple of years touring in Ozzy Osbourne's band. Revealingly, Album clocks in at roughly a tidy 43 minutes, resulting in FNM's shortest CD in a decade.
The members of Faith No More seem finally (fatally?) unstrung by their internal differences on this, the misanthropic combo's sixth offering; Gould had to record this piecemeal, with guitarist Jon Hudson (the band's fourth since inception, following the defection of Dean Menta) together with whichever of his bandmates were in his home base of San Francisco at any given time. At that point of a band's career, maybe it's best to call it a day: You risk yourself playing the fool for a lifetime.
(57 Records/Epic Records)
Five years after Free for All lived up to its name, winding up in the cutout bins before anyone even took it out of the shrink wrap, Michael Penn returns with Resigned, and only the extremists wait with bated breath. He had his shot eight long years ago (with the Top 20 single "No Myth") but aimed too high. Like girlfriend Aimee Mann, Penn has been shuttled from label to label and too often lost in the shuffle; he recorded two fine albums for RCA (March and Free for All), made one more the label didn't want, then found himself living in oblivion. He got the save on Mann's I'm With Stupid (one of the finest recordings of 1995), guested with her again on a Christmas one-off, recorded music no one heard for a movie no one saw (Hard Eight), and had his Epic debut bumped back on the release schedule until it seemed it might never see the light of day. But here it is, finally, worth the wait for those who bothered to stick around--11 short, engaging gems that are at once intimate and somehow huge, grand gestures made by a man who plays to the back of the room but stares only at the front row.
Penn possesses a poptopian vision that connects the Beatles to Badfinger to Matthew Sweet to the Grays, one that plays considerably deeper than it appears at first or 50th glance. Like Mann, Penn creates complex music out of simple melodies, catchy choruses, easy and perhaps even obvious progressions; the notes blend into one another as if they're the only combinations possible until, at the end of 40 minutes, you feel you've heard one impossibly long, unbearably perfect song. Penn writes songs the way long-distance runners breathe, pacing himself for the long haul until it all builds to that final gasp.
The lyrics seem almost beside the point, like filler meant to provide these songs with a reason for being (example: "I am so selfish/I'm absorbed, I am absolved/It's just that you don't get involved"). Penn--working with longtime partner Patrick Warren on keyboards, ex-Grays drummer Dan McCarroll, and producer/57 Records boss man Brendan O'Brien on bass--creates a sound bigger than his black-jeans poetry; the music, filled with guitar waves and Chamberlin echoes and snare-drum kicks, absorbs the lyrics until all that exists are these dramatic hooks ("Try," "Selfish," "Like Egypt Was") and beautiful moments ("Figment of My Imagination," "Small Black Box") that are almost orchestral in concept and dreamlike in execution. Five years may seem like a long time to wait for 40 minutes--pardon, work ethic?--but rarely does so much sound like so little . . . and come off the better for it.
Long before the ambiguous ending of Thelma & Louise, there was a similarly disturbing scene at the end of Quadrophenia, director Franc Roddam's 1979 film based on the Who's rock opera about the mod scene in swinging London. The hero, Jimmy (Phil Daniels), was last seen on his scooter, hurtling full-speed toward the edge of the white cliffs of Dover. The final image was of the scooter smashing into the rocks far below, and viewers were left forever wondering whether Jimmy careened over the edge to certain death or jumped off in time to watch the scooter's destruction--a symbolic farewell to his mod persona and his troubled youth.
The ending of Quadrophenia was the first thing I thought of when I heard the news last June that Material Issue's guitarist, singer and songwriter Jim Ellison, had been found dead at 31, slumped over a moped in the garage of his Chicago home. Apparently distraught over a recent breakup, Ellison was the victim of carbon-monoxide poisoning in what was eventually ruled a suicide. But it's the movie image of Jimmy instead of that sad real-life picture of Jim that stays with me as I contemplate Material Issue's fourth (and, by necessity, last) album.
Telecommando Americano consists of 11 new tracks that Ellison started and bassist Ted Ansani and drummer Mike Zelenko finished, as well as the six songs from the trio's vinyl-only 1987 debut, thus bookending the band's career. With early roots in Chicago's mid-'80s '60s revival scene, Ellison, like Jimmy, was a mod. Everyone knows that he dressed the part, and the influence of mod heroes such as the Who and the Small Faces is loud and clear on driving, upbeat pop songs such as "She's Going Through My Head," "A Very Good Thing" and "Chance of a Lifetime" from the Material Issue EP. But Ellison also had the strong work ethic, the self-confidence bordering on arrogance, and the love of a good time that characterized the '60s mods. "We think people pay to see someone enjoy themselves onstage," he once told the Chicago Tribune. "We gladly admit to being full of ourselves and thinking we're great, otherwise we wouldn't be doing what we're doing."
This was an attitude that was very much out of step with the prevailing ethos of the grunge/alt-rock '90s. Although Material Issue scored a respectable hit with International Pop Overthrow, its 1991 Mercury Records debut, it was soon overshadowed by that year's biggest success story, Nirvana's Nevermind. With songs about rape instead of pleasant first dates, and angst and apathy the primary emotions instead of love and longing, the Seattle trio provided a dramatic contrast to the Chicago one--the brutish rockers to Material Issue's refined mods--and Lollapalooza nation clearly preferred the rockers. Though nearly as strong as International Pop Overthrow, 1992's Destination Universe and 1994's Freak City Soundtrack each sold half as much as the album that preceded it, and Material Issue soon found itself without a label.
Ellison was sending unimpressive tapes of new songs to Chicago critics by early 1995, but none of those seems to have surfaced on Telecommando Americano. Songs such as "Satellite," "Young American Freak" and "2 Steps" boast Ellison's usual knack for indelible hooks, with big sing-along choruses and deft melodies, but now they are driven home by new instruments such as piano, slide guitar, analogue synthesizer and xylophone. The truth is, they're every bit as strong and memorable as the modern-rock radio staples "Valerie Loves Me," "What Girls Want" and "Diane."
In retrospect, Kurt Cobain and Ellison had a lot in common beneath their surface differences: Both were incurable romantics who idealized perhaps unobtainable standards for love and relationships, and they may have paid the ultimate price for that. A lot of critics dismiss Ellison's lyrics as more trite rock crap about girls and cars, but they miss the poignant fact that the objects of his desire were almost always out of reach. In "976-LOVE," he says that phone sex is a poor substitute for the love you can't get, while in "Off the Hook," Ellison discovers that his sweetheart is giving him a permanent busy signal.
Not that I think we should make too much out of any of that. As evidenced by their posthumous examination of Cobain, college English majors, armchair psychiatrists and rock critics can't resist the temptation to seek answers about the artist's end in his lyric sheets. But those people hardly notice that the mood of the music rarely jibes with the mood of the lyrics.
There's a palpable joy in every note of Telecommando Americano, revealing just how much singing or picking up the guitar were life-affirming acts for Ellison. Listening to his last album or Nirvana's From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah is energizing and makes me happy to be alive. I hear the sound of talented, if troubled, artists drowning out the voices of nihilism with a blast of feedback or a ringing power chord. But then, I've always believed that Jimmy jumped off that scooter.