Choose Yr Own Adventure: Guided by Voices' Suitcase 2: American Superdream Wow
reviewed by dave heaton
Guided by Voices is no more, but the mythology that Bob Pollard created under the GBV name will continue to grow, as long as there's more material to be released. Suitcase 2, the second box set of unreleased songs from throughout Pollard's songwriting career, bears the subtitle American Superdream Wow. That's a title Pollard had mentioned in the past for his upcoming solo album; that re-using of titles is only where the referentiality of Suitcase 2 begins. The GBV universe is an intricate creative labyrinth, full of lyrics, guitar riffs, and titles that reference back to each other. Suitcase expanded that even further by giving a deeper glimpse of the creative process through demos and sketches of songs.
Suitcase 2 continues in that vein and feels even more full of familiar references. The songs here bear elements of a ton of GBV songs: "Volcano Divers", "Teenage FBI", "Office of Hearts", "Wormhole", "Big Boring Wedding", "Curse of the Black Ass Buffalo", "Break Even". And on and on. There's alternate versions of "Dusty Bushworms", of "Mannequin's Complaint", of "Paper Girl", of "A Proud and Booming Industry" (with vocals!). To an obsessive GBV fan, the experience of listening to the whole thing is very disorienting, as you keep hearing familiar pieces of songs and thinking, "where was that from"? It's an excercise for mental stimulation, and an intellectual broadening of the GBV catalogue, but also makes for very exciting listening.
Overall Suitcase 2, with another 100 songs spread over 4 discs, is just as varied and adventurous as the first Suitcase, meaning that everyone will find their own treasures here, while also discarding some of it as trash. That's the nature of the beast, the nature of a collection that fits the characterization implied in the subtitle of the first Suitcase: Failed Experiments and Trashed Aircrafts. These are the paths not chosen, but still they're riveting. Disc 1 of Suitcase 2 is especially cohesive; with a little editing it could stand with the more ragged GBV albums, like Tonics and Twisted Chasers. Some of the other discs are more scattered, harder to get through from beginning to end, as one solid listen. These discs work best when not considered as proper albums, though, but as compilations of side-trips that never quite made it their destination. Suitcase 2 works best as a library, or a geographic location you haven't visited before, where you search around and find what you love and what you don't, where you feel comfortable and where feel nervous. As an overall project it's quite exciting, offering a head-spinning trip through GBV's past that focuses on unexplored crevices, the hidden areas right around the corner from places you've spent much time in the past.
Anyone who would write as many songs as Pollard has, and compile the leftovers like this - plus make up a fake band name for each song - is obsessed. But obsession breeds obsession, and I've certainly given up many hours of my life pondering the warped wisdom of Pollard and GBV, as have many others. The Suitcase box sets are made for the truly obsessed, not for casual fans. Drawing from that level of obsession, Erasing Clouds did a song-by-song review of the entire first Suitcase. This time around, we're forgoing that time-consuming labor of love...instead I offer you a traveller's guide to the set, with quick looks at 20 of the songs that I'm finding most compelling so far. They've been sequenced in a way that works to my ears - It's like my version of Briefcase 2: The Return of Milko Waif, the 1-CD abridged version of Suitcase 2, but with no bonus tracks (Milko has two).
1. "Your Charming Proposal" by Hey John, Bees
A 1-minute GBV rock song in the classic tradition: a fuzzy sound, melodic guitars, and Pollard singing a melody that reaches its height right as the song ends, abruptly and sweetly. A welcoming song, though of course mysterious: "I'll be spending my money on your charming proposal!"
2. "Late Night Scamerica" by Alvin Haisles
Just Pollard's voice and guitar for a minute and a half, but in the driving guitar you can hear what this would sound like as a full-band number, imagine it as a slightly dark yet uplifting rocker, picture fans pumping their fists in the air. The lyrics sometimes come off like part of a fairy tale, but mostly resonate with real-world bitterness.
3. "I Am Decided" by Timid Virus
Pollard's original version of the song tackled by Kim Deal and her band for the Amps lone album (and combined with elements of Disc 2's "Are You Faster" by Christopher Lightship). Here it's a ragged great arena-rocker, big and catchy and energetic.
4. "Home By Ten" by The Inbrids
Buoying up a friend's spirits by encouraging nights of sin and gun-toting. "You claim that the world's unkind / but most of them have to be home by 10". The nights are ours, we can do anything we want. Freedom encapsulated in a great understated melody and persistent rock n' roll guitars.
5. "Somewhere Sometime" by Billy Ray Human
On the surface, a more generic pop/rock love song, recorded in 1978. The lyrics are as straightforward as can be, but in Pollard's singing is a lot of yearning, a lot of heart. A catchy song that has mystery to it besides its surface, yet only really gives a sense of how great a songwriter Pollard would have been even if he followed conventions and didn't let his imagination run wild.
6. "You're Not the Queen Anymore" by Scott Joy
Its melody somehow evokes "Leaving on a Jet Plane" at one small point, Pollard's guitar-playing sounds very reminiscent of various quick acoustic ballads from GBV's past, yet the song, which ultimately reveals itself to be a bittersweet kiss-off, has an intimacy beyond belief for such a trifle of a song.
7. "Jimmy's Einstein Poster" by Yummy Ropes
"Oh, Jimmy's Einstein poster / he hangs it on the wall / and he looks at it to make him smarter everyday". Ready for the singalong?
8. "Dusty Bushworms" by The Plexigrall Bee-Hive
One of the great enigmatic, romantic GBV songs (from one of their finest of little releases, the Get Out of My Stations EP), a testament to the power of song, "Dusty Bushworms" here sounds a bit clearer, but then there's these weird cricket-noise guitar effects all over the place. They don't really add anything to the song, but nothing needs to be added, and it's hard to detract from the song's beauty.
9. "Soggy Beavers" by Milko Waif
A crass 45-second reminder where Pollard's mind is at, that beneath the surface GBV songs are really all about sex.
10. "Stingy Queens" by Seraphim Barf
From the sessions for the aborted 1996 album The Power of Suck, Pollard sings a gorgeous melody and fumbles his way through brillant, messy lyrics that already seem very stream-of-consciousness. It's a portrait of the U.S. as a place where people get technology-obsessed while dogs are dying and lost kids are crying, but occasionally it's also a drinking song (of course), a tear-stained confession, a fever dream, a fairy tale.
11. "Happy at the Drag Strip" by Herkimer Mohawk
A failed experiment, or is it a trashed aircraft? Pollard talks his way through an image-heavy poem for the verses, then sings a so-so chorus. A song that could have stayed back in 1980 without anyone missing it, but in its own way, with its own weird story-song mix, it's weirdly compelling.
12. "Two or Three Songs" by We Too Bark
"Once I wrote two or three songs in a row / they were not so bad at the time..." Suitcase 2's theme song.
13. "Color Coat Drawing" by Leon Lemans
An Isolation Drills outtake that wears that album's mix of sadness and cautious hope well, with Pollard's voice weary yet the guitars and melody moving the song in an upward direction. "Bring me my coat / cause I'm going"...
14. "Headache Revolution" by Dale Frescamo
Would have been an epic rock anthem if he stuck with it. In this form it's a minute-long acoustic-guitar song with a great title that's sung as a even greater hook. It's over almost as soon as it's begun.
15. "Tainted Angels With Butter Knives" by Mutts UK
A great Neil Young-like low-end riff leads us through the sludge, a quagmire of bitter parody ("Jason Lowenstein is a wanker"), feedback, and fog.
16. "Cox Municipal Airport Song" by The One Too Many
Simple pleasures - a man sits at an airport in the early '80s, pondering leaving town, and then writes a straightforward (some would say hokey) song about it, one filled with melancholy and hints of its secret life as a Who song.
17. "A Proud and Booming Industry" by The Fake Organisms
This song ended up as an instrumental on GBV's first full-length, Devil Between My Toes, but in its previous life it was a pleasant (but not dynamite)rolling Byrds/REM-like number about life in an industrial town.
18. "I'd Choose You" by The Needmores
Rough and seemingly recorded live, "I'd Choose You" shares roots with Do the Collapse's "Wormhole", though it was recorded over a decade earlier (1984) and is much more of a straight-up bar-band rock song, albeit quite a catchy one.
19. "Solid Gold Animal Collection" by Yummy Ropes
Goofy, strange, and sung in a rather nerdy, scientist's voice for Mr Rock and Roll (though it was the 1980s), this is in its own way really brillant and entertaining, especially at the end when it reveals itself as the creative product of a bored rainy day indoors.
20. "So Roll Me Over" by Wim Dials
For the first half of this 1:12 song long, Pollard sounds like he's about to fall asleep or pass out - he's slurring his way through an undefined melody. Then he kicks into gear and gleefully sings absolute nonsense, sounding like the missing Beatle who lost his mind and was locked up. It's the pefect crazy, yet endearing, ending for our journey through Pollard's brain.
For the record, the overlap between my Briefcase and the official one is four songs. When you get your copy of Suitcase 2, you should make your own 1-cd version; choose your own adventure, re-write GBV history to your liking . And if you sequence the perfect GBV album from these remnants of the past, don't hide it - let me know so I can build it myself...