So it's been a wee while since we posted a classic album review from Pops. He's since recruited himself another music lover (Johnathan Wallace) and professional ringer to act as co-conspirator/collaborator. Johnathan's the owner-operator and musical talent of a family run business called Sync Music Boutique. He and his lovely wife specialize in creating original scores for use in advertising, film, TV and video games, radio, or any other application you may require. They differentiate themselves by employing an organic composition approach using largely analogue and acoustic high fidelity produced sounds.
Big thanks to Pops and Jonathan for taking us back to this little forgotten gem!
GUIDED BY VOICES by MAG EARWIG! (1997 Matador Records)
Robert Pollard - vocals, Doug Gillard - lead guitar, John Petkovic -guitar, Don Depew - bass, Dave Swanson - drums, Tobin Sprout - various occasional music and singing.
By the time of Mag Earwig!'s release, Ohio's Guided by Voices were already nine albums into their career. Fifteen years of fluid lineups centered around songwriters Pollard and Sprout had been spent mostly in obscurity, but over the previous few albums the world had begun to take notice (well, a small portion of the world who were into underground US guitar bands). Their appeal was built on Pollard's knack of re-creating 60's British invasion melodies, his lacing them with kaleidoscopic lyrical twists, and a lo-fi, often ramshackle sound that nevertheless captured raw energy and the feeling, as a listener, of being there as the songs were born. As they went on, so they improved and just as they seemed to be headed for the big league, they had a bust-up and album ten seemed unlikely to materialize. Pollard fell out with his right hand man and fired the rest of the band.
Pollard, a relentless creative machine, was not to be put off and, taking on fellow Ohioans Cobra Verde wholesale as his new group, proceeded to come up with arguably GBV's most ambitious album yet. As well as providing the most solid band to date, Cobra Verde came with the added advantage of Gillard a talent on guitar with chops to spare. GBV who had never been focused on technical ability now had at their disposal a guitarist capable of realizing the ambition in Pollard's songs and, better still, knew how to make guitars SOUND FANTASTIC! Listening to the previous albums you could tell that if you ever got to see them live, GBV would rock like a muthafucker. Now they could properly rock on record too.
But there's more to Mag Earwig! than even that. Not content with keeping the band going and bashing out another album, Pollard wanted more. The 60's influence now fully instilled in their sound, he now wanted to push forward and introduce another of his obsessions - Prog Rock. To most GBV fans this was a bit of a curve-ball. Well known for the brevity of their songs, it would be foolish to expect 20 minute epics (most still averaged 2 minutes) but keen to emulate The Who's Tommy, The Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow and Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Mag Earwig! is Pollard's version of a concept album. Distinguishing the storyline threaded through the 21 song's typically surreal lyrics will prove difficult to most, but it shouldn't hinder the enjoyment of the fare on offer.
There's still some patchwork 4-track lo-fi moments, but there's also powerpop, some blistering rock flashes, some punky moments and, yes, some of the arrangements are indeed prog-like in their construction. Guitars sparkle, chug and even occasionally solo on tracks like 'Bulldog Skin', 'Not Behind the Fighter Jet', 'Portable Men's Society' and 'The Finest Joke is Upon Us'. When things get more DIY sounding, there's always melodic and lyrical hooks to grab attention and keep proceedings vital. There are standout moments in all styles throughout, but surprisingly the highlight is the only non-Pollard song. Sung brilliantly by Pollard 'I am a Tree' is actually by the guitar genius Gillard and is a multilayered riff-fest. Fist-punchingly, Keith-Moon-drumfillingly, air-guitar-windmillingly exhilarating.
The "Cobra Verde" lineup didn't last beyond this album making Mag Earwig! uniquely transitional in their vast discography (luckily though, Gillard did stick around for 5 more albums until the GBV hiatus in 2004). It's certainly not the best of their 21 albums (they reformed in 2012 and have released 6 more since then!) but the guitars have rarely sounded so good.
Here's a wee video we found of Doug and Robert singing "I am a Tree" live @ the NYC Irving Plaza back in 2010.