Saturday, November 14, 2015

Guided by Voices Reunion Albums

Guided by Voices - Let’s Go Eat the Factory, Class Clown Spots a UFO, Bears for Lunch, English Little League, Motivational Jumpsuit, Cool Planet

On September 18th of last year, the seminal indie rock band, Guided by Voices, released a statement on Facebook announcing their unexpected dissolution, thus ending their four year “original lineup” reunion. The break up occurred in the middle of a tour, and the announcement provided no clear reason why the band had decided to throw in the towel then and there. I was lucky enough to have seen the band live a few weeks prior to the break up, and they were just as energetic and rowdy as a bunch of fifty-something rockers could be. (Perhaps a little too rowdy. Robert Pollard’s excessive on stage drinking often threatens to tip over from funny drunk to scary drunk, and plenty of people have suggested that this may have been the cause of the break).

Despite rumors of Pollard’s prickly personality, Guided by Voices’s reunion in 2010 wasn’t completely unexpected considering that reunion tours have become de rigueur among  90s alternative rock stalwarts. But the creative force of this reunited GbV was unexpected. Alternative rock reunions have run the gamut from artistic triumphs (Dinosaur Jr.) to quick cash grabs (The Pixies). Starting in 2012, after some time playing live shows, GbV pumped out six albums in about three years, each album a shotgun blast of about twenty songs. Over the course of these three years, GbV produced the equivalent of what would be the entire discography of certain bands.  

While some music critics recognized the startling quality of this reunited GbV, most critics leveled the same statements they had been making about GbV and Pollard’s work for years: it’s uneven. But this simple dismissal doesn’t do the reunion albums justice. Any band would be lucky to produce these six albums, much less within such a short time frame. So a little over a year after GbV unceremoniously broke up, I’ve decided to do a brief rundown of all six of their reunion albums, many of which surpass the work Pollard was doing in the late nineties and early aughts.

Let’s Go Eat the Factory (5/5)

If there’s one consistent criticism of Guided by Voices it is that they are unable to separate the wheat from the chaff. Too many weird song fragments disrupt the pop perfection of GbV’s best writing, or so the story goes. But for GbV fans, the weird shrapnels of music heighten the band’s best songcraft and the albums as a whole. For those looking for the more experimental side of GbV, Let’s Go Eat the Factory, delivers the goods. Many of the songs sound purposefully clipped and incomplete. The sugary and non-sensical “Doughnut for a Snowman” fades in on a wind instrument and fails to make it to the two-minute mark. The following song, “Spiderfighter,” along with “Waves” sound like pop music made by a swarm of bees. The album also makes plenty of room for strings on tracks like “Hang Mr. Kite,” “Chocolate Boy,” and “We Won’t Apologize for the Human Race,” the album closer that would inaugurate a string of absolutely killer album closers on each reunion album.

Class Clown Spots a UFO (4.5/5)

For those looking for the highs of Robert Pollard’s best pop songs, Class Clown Spots a UFO absolutely delivers. The title track, “Class Clown Spots a UFO,” and “Keep It in Motion” eschew the group’s usual lo-fi antics for a fuller sound, and either could have been radio staples two decades ago. There are also a handful of acidic, guitar meltdowns that draw on the band’s psychedelic side. “Tyson’s High School” combines Pollard’s typical lyrics about grade school with a wall of guitar fuzz. Class Clown is arguably more uneven than Let’s Go Eat the Factory, because there is a larger gulf between the catchy songs and the weird ones. But any album that provides space for “Lost in Spaces,” a sub-one-minute piano ballad by Tobin Sprout is a winner in my book.

Bears for Lunch (5/5)

There are a couple of easy rebuttals to the criticism that Guided by Voices albums are uneven. If you don’t like the weirdo song nuggets on Bee Thousand and Alien Lane, then all you need is to look at Under the Bushes Under the Stars, which, minus the noise track “The Perfect Life,” contains twenty-three (twenty-three!) killer songs. For me, Bears for Lunch stands as the unofficial follow up to Under the Bushes Under the Stars, because each and every song aims to embed itself in your brain and stay there. Despite the fact that Bears for Lunch was recorded decades after the band’s golden period, it actually serves as a great introduction to GbV, mostly by encapsulating their great songwriting skills and musical influences. Punk, psychedelia, Pete Townsend guitar heroics, and 90s indie rock all find a place on Bears for Lunch. The album also serves as a great showcase for Tobin Sprout whose often lighter touch nicely compliments the work of frontman Robert Pollard. Sprout’s responsible for many of the album’s highlights, including the Beatlesesque “Waking Up the Stars” and the CSNY inflected “Waving at Airplanes.” It’s Sprout’s prettier songs that really balance out the album, and it’s often true that Pollard works best when someone works as a foil. While he has written a few great solo albums (including the incredible From a Compound Eye), Pollard benefits from working closely with other creatives, which is why outside of GbV, his best work is with the band Boston Spaceships. What’s truly amazing about Bears for Lunch is that at a moment when GbV should have been tiring out (this was their third album of 2012), they sounded more energized than ever.

English Little League (3.5/5)

2013 must have been a pretty relaxed year for the reunited Guided by Voices, since they released only a single album. English Little League leans more heavily on longer songs (by GbV standards). There are only two songs shorter than two minutes and none under a minute in length. The more out there songs don’t land quite as well as on the band’s previous three albums, and a couple of the longer cuts could have been shaved in length. Still, there are plenty of highlights on English Little League, even if not all of them hit you immediately. Album opener, “Xeno Pariah,” starts with some “ooohs” and “ahhhs” borrowed from the Beach Boys and only gets better from there. “Flunky Minnows” stands out as one of the album’s absolute pop gems. And, as is true of everyone of the reunion albums, the final song, “W/ Glass in Foot,” absolutely sticks the landing.

Motivational Jumpsuit (4.5/5)

Motivational Jumpsuit opens with “Littlest League Possible,” a sort of manifesto and call to arms about finding enjoyment out of being a big fish in a small pond. It’s a great attitude not only for aging alt rockers but for anyone looking to produce art in our splintered culture. Not even half of the songs on Motivational Jumpsuit stretch past the two minute mark, and only a single song eeks its way past three minutes, making the album sound more tossed off than even their previous efforts. For most bands, this would be a dig at the quality of the album, but Robert Pollard and company have always allied themselves with the spontaneous prose, first-thought-best-thought philosophy of the Beats. Because of their blink and you’ll miss them length, it might take a couple of spins for the songs on Motivational Jumpsuit to sink in. But if there are great songs, they’re easy to find on the album, including the optimistic sounding “Record Level Love,” the exuberant “Planet Score,” and riff heavy “Zero Elasticity.” And while it’s a fool’s errand to look for meaning in most of Pollard’s cryptic lyrics, “Writers’ Bloc (Psycho All the Time),” in which Pollard sings “The last recording nearly killed me,” might have been our first inkling that this reunion line up was not long for this world.

Cool Planet (4/5)

Coming out months after Motivational Jumpsuit, Cool Planet sounds in many ways like a companion piece to the earlier record. Like its predecessor, Cool Planet consists of a smattering of quickly written and recorded songs that get much of their energy from their six pack and a tape deck origins. Sadly enough, the album was the final product of Guided by Voice’s productive reunion. This time around, the boys of GbV have a cool story to go along with the album. During the brutally cold and snowy winter of 2013/2014, the band decided that while they were stuck inside, they might as well write an album. (This kind of makes me feel bad for watching so much Netflix during that winter). As always, the album contains a number of standout tracks. The nearly over before it starts, “Pan Swimmer” is a welcome injection of yelps and guitar. Pollard sounds like he’s having so much fun on “Males of Wormwood Mars” that he nearly lets the song break the three minute mark. And “All American Boy” sounds like a ramshackle Mott the Hoople. The entire affair ends with the title track, “Cool Planet,” a tightly-wound pint-sized epic that serves as a fitting end to a hell of a second act.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Darth Plagueis by James Lucero

Darth Plagueis by James Lucero (3.5/5)

“Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise?” So begins Senator Palpatine’s short tale about a Sith lord who had such control over midichlorians, microscopic organisms that are symbiotic with the force, that he could defeat death itself. As told to Anakin Skywalker, the story of Darth Plagueis helps turn the Jedi to the dark side of the Force by dangling the promise of his wife, Padme’s, continued survival. Out of a couple lines of dialogue, author James Lucero weaves a narrative of Darth Plagueis’s rise and fall in a time before the events of Episode I.
Darth Plagueis can be an incredibly fun read. Like a videogame that allows you to indulge in wanton destruction, there’s something electrifying about rooting for the Sith for once, and at times the novel feels as if it has opened up a whole new perspective on the Star Wars universe. We no longer have to spend time on the side of the Rebellion or the Jedi Council. Still, if Darth Plagueis had hewn more closely to his description in Episode III, an ancient Sith delving into arcane magics, then Lucero’s narrative might have a little more room to maneuver.

When I first heard that there existed a novel that detailed the life and times of Darth Plagueis the Wise, I assumed it took place centuries prior to the prequel trilogy, perhaps around the events of the Knights of the Old Republic. After all, Palpatine tells Anakin that the story of Darth Plagueis is a “Sith legend” and that he lived “many years ago.” Unfortunately, Lucero’s novel chooses not to explore Star Wars lore from the past and instead develops Plagueis as a Sith master to Palpatine. Less a retelling of an ancient legend, Darth Plagueis serves as a prequel to the prequels.

Early in the novel, Darth Plagueis rendezvous with his master Darth Tenebrous, a meeting that ends in the death of Tenebrous at the hands of Plagueis. This battle between master and apprentice, a relationship formed out of the “rule of two” mentioned in the prequels, characterizes a Sith’s fraught life hardened by a form of social Darwinism. These events do not occur in some distant past, but about thirty-five years prior to the Trade Federation’s invasion of Naboo. The Sith, it appears, haven’t been eradicated from the galaxy, but rather, have existed in secret for some time.

Plagueis isn’t a human like Vader, Palpatine, and Dooku. He’s a Muun, a species devoted wholly to financial dealings and whose homeworld is the center of the InterGalactic Banking Clan. It was a smart decision to make Plagues a Muun, because it establishes his love of money and working evil through misdirection behind the scenes rather than through brute force. Plagueis’s modus operandi becomes important as it becomes clear that he developed the grand plan to destroy the Jedi that Palpatine would later carry out. In his civilian life, Plagueis is Hego Damask, the CEO of Damask Holdings, a position of power that allows him to manipulate galactic politics from afar.

Following the murder of his master, Plagueis soon sets his sight on his own Sith apprentice, the mononymous Palpatine. Large portions of the novel are devoted to fleshing out the backstory of the duplicitous senator and eventual emperor. We learn that during his youth, Palpatine was the black sheep of a prominent Naboo family. Plagueis senses Palpatine’s force sensitivity and guides him towards the dark side, nudging Palpatine along far enough so that he eventually murders his entire family, including his overbearing father, while making it look like an accident.

In the films, Palpatine was purposefully opaque. We don’t see him in the original trilogy until Empire, and even then we’re only given a holographic glimpse of the man behind Vader. In the prequels, Palpatine mostly just, to paraphrase Bela Legosi, pulls the strings, which means that the convoluted backstory leading to the Clone Wars remains largely unseen. Darth Plagueis sheds light on both Palpatine’s rise to power and the execution of the grand plan to dethrone the Jedi from Coruscant. By focusing much of its attention on Palpatine, the novel risks shedding his cloak-like mysteriousness. Throughout the Star Wars series, Palpatine comes to be known by his mercurial slipperiness, a kind of reptilian embodiment of evil. Fortunately, Lucero is smart enough to maintain some of the character’s unknowability thanks to some smart characterization.

As one might expect, the story is heavily influenced by the world building from the prequels. This means that midichlorians are front and center, and Darth Plagueis’s search for immortality is less about digging up arcane Sith scripture than it is about carrying out Dr. Frankensteinesque experiments, a development that might bother those still upset that a person’s connection to the force can be determined by a blood test.

Personally, I’ve always been a little ambivalent about developments in the prequels that made the Star Wars universe closer to our own. The original trilogy derived much of its power from its ability to transport us to a completely unfamiliar realm. If Star Wars were to take from our own history, I’ve always felt they should borrow from myth and the middle ages, which is why I never liked the idea that Padme was “elected” queen, and, similarly, I’m ambivalent about Muuns and the introduction of finance capitalism in the Star Wars mythos. It makes sense that, as a Muun, Plagueis has access to nearly unlimited wealth to pull off his massive scheme. This also ties into the theme that all of the Sith villains in the prequels are men who come from power: aristocrats, politicians, and financiers. Still, I sometimes get the feeling that we’re just a step away from introducing credit default swaps into Star Wars.

As the novel proceeds, we learn more about Palpatine’s training how he and Plagueis went about sowing disorder in the galaxy. Much of the narrative is episodic, and we move from one event to another. There’s nothing wrong with this structure, and the fact that the novel contains no single adversary kind of necessitates a looser narrative. However, as the events in the novel begin to collide with the events of Episode I, it feels less like a story within the larger Star Wars universe and more like a Wookiepedia article.