Guided By Voices: “I Am A Scientist” (Bee Thousand, 1994)

I saw this video in 1994 on MTV’s 120 Minutes. I was staying over my friend Matt’s house, and he had cable, and when the two of us had a sleepover, there was very little actual sleeping, because we were up all night, watching Mystery Science Theater 3000, Beavis & Butt-head, and 120 Minutes and all the other amazing junk food Comedy Central and MTV shoveled our way in the small hours. 

What’s astonishing to me is how well I remembered the video. That high leg kick on the basketball court, and the rock and roll frontman act on the empty band shell stage stuck with me. They are still the first thing I think of when I think of Guided By Voices. 

A lot of times when I tell a story like this, it’s as a way of relating how I got into something, but this isn’t one of those stories. After seeing this video, I did not become a GBV fan, I did not go out and hunt down all their albums, and I didn’t even really think twice about them. It wasn’t an indie rock conversion moment. The next day, I probably listened to The Division Bell three times in a row. 

Even today, I don’t really listen to Guided By Voices. I have eleven of their songs on my iPod, and this one is the only one I like from Bee Thousand well enough to want to take it with me anywhere. They’re one of the canon indie rock bands that I never connected with—I went from 1994 to 1999 without even hearing them again, when I bought Do the Collapse and couldn’t figure out why the band’s fans hated it. I checked it against their other records and I thought it was the best sounding thing they’d done!

I might have been missing the point, at least as far as the devotees were concerned. But sometimes I wonder if that night in 1994 might have been different. If there was some mood I could have been in that particular night that could have changed how I perceived that video, that maybe would have made the opening guitar figure (no D string!) the thing that stuck with me instead of the black-and-white high kicks. In some Sliding Doors-style alternate universe, that night was my indie rock conversion night, and I spent high school listening to Guided By Voices and Pavement paying homage to classic rock rather than actual classic rock. 

I keep watching this video tonight. I hadn’t seen it for almost twenty years until a few hours ago, but everything Bob Pollard does with his body in it triggered instant recognition. In an odd way, even though I never really connected with the band, the title of the first song of theirs I ever heard became a sort of epigram for my life. “I am a scientist.” Regardless of what you do for a living, I think you’re a scientist if you approach the world with curiosity and an open willingness to accept what the data tell you. You’re a scientist if you seek to understand.

This is a good song. When I first heard it, I’d never heard anything like it. But at the time, that didn’t matter. It passed me by. None of this is to imply that I don’t think GBV are a great band—they are, but sometimes, you have to keep it casual with a great band. You can’t be a fervent fan of them all. In 20 years, if YouTube is still around, I’ll cue this video up again and call all the kicks before they happen. And hum along a little, too.

Olivia Tremor Control: “The Opera House” (Dusk at Cubist Castle, 1997)

I’m not sure what to say here. I just saw that Bill Doss passed away, and I can’t quite get my head around that. I just saw him a couple weeks ago at the Pitchfork Music Festival, and he seemed healthy and energetic. He was only 43. What an awful thing for his friends and family. 

Doss’ first band, Olivia Tremor Control, and the Elephant Six Collective he and that band helped found, made some of the most formative music for a generation of indie rock kids. their two LPs, Dusk at Cubist Castle and Black Foliage, were crazily inventive, beautifully recorded albums, and moreover, ever time I go back and listen to them, I’m blown away by the quality of the songwriting.

These guys could have been content with studio tinkering and covering their songs in flanger, but Doss and his main songwriting partner, Will Cullen Hart, weren’t content to have a sound—they knew it wouldn’t amount to much if they didn’t have songs, too. “Hideaway,” “California Demise,” “Can You come Down With Us,” “Jumping Fences”… these are some of the best songs of the late 90s, period.

And there’s also “The Opera House,” which is one of my favorite album openers ever. From the first tickle of guitar, it feels like it’s ready to take on a voyage, and then it does. I can’t think of too much other music that surges like “Opera House. This song is positively stuffed with sounds, but it’s never chaotic. All of those seemingly random synthesizer phrases and bursts of tape noise contribute directly to the song’s momentum. I can’t even imagine constructing this; it must have been incredibly hard work. try not to feel energized when they sing “we feel okay!”

It was work Doss did happily, and we’re the ones who got to benefit from it. Bill Doss is gone. I can hardly believe it. I’ll be listening to this a lot today.

Galaxie 500: “Fourth of July” (This Is Our Music, 1990)

The first day of summer is tomorrow, though honestly, it’s felt like summer arrived months ago this year. It’s supposed to be in the 90s today in southeast Michigan—August weather, really. 

One of the things I love most about summer in the Detroit area is that this is the time of year when all the gearheads and enthusiasts pull their old cars from under the dust covers and cruise. Or in recent years, simply display them in the driveway, because gas is expensive, and an 18-foot-long Impala uses a lot of it. 

People do this all over the country, of course, but Detroitland takes a special pride in it, and the sheer number of people harboring some old, very well-kept automobile in their garage while their everyday car sits in the elements is astonishing. There are tons of late 60s muscle cars and Corvettes from through the ages, not to mention a decent complement of big old Lincolns and Packards with flared fenders and running boards and rumble seats, but the biggest concentration is from my favorite era for car design, the late 50s and early 60s.

This was, of course, the Jet Age, and the nascent Space Age. The cars people designed and built during this period were optimistic for a future in the air and beyond, with fins and wings, and tail-lights shaped like rocket boosters. The front grilles look like turbine cowls; the hoods ornaments were chrome and jutted sharply toward a better, sleeker tomorrow. 

This optimism wasn’t entirely misplaced—we did, after all, make it to the moon before the 60s were out—but it’s hard to skirt the realization that in many respects the future never came, and the society that produced these optimistic designs had horrible systemic problems that were standing in the way of real progress. Even as we gave gravity the slip, the convulsions of the 60s dealt the first blows to our hope for a near future among the stars by reminding us that we had accounting to do in this world. What began with “Telstar" ended with "Whitey on the Moon.” 

Still, I love it when those cars come out, because in amongst all that history and the problems that still reflect it today, those tail lights and hood ornaments believe that one day we’re going to get it together, and as despairing as the times may get, they jsut might be proven right some day.

One of my neighbors has a classic Ford Galaxie 500, with a ragtop and all. It’s been parked on the street across from my house during the day lately, and I love it. My sedan is more practical, but I can’t imagine anyone doting over it for half a century and proudly displaying it in an August car parade like the one my town holds every year during the Woodward Dream Cruise. My car doesn’t say anything except “where to?”

Galaxie 500 the band are named after that car parked across the street. “Fourth of July” is one of their best songs, with one of the most hilarious opening lines ever written for a breakup song: “I wrote a poem on a dog biscuit, and your dog refused to look at it.” This band’s open ended psychedelia embodied a lot of the same optimism of the car they were named for, at least to my ears. Enjoy it on this hot, almost summer day. 

Rollerball: “Wet Food Twice A Day” (Bathing Music, 2000)

 A couple of days ago, Insomnius mentioned LiveJournal in a post titled “Why Blog?” It was a good, thoughtful post that I think a lot of people could identify with on some level. I know I can. Not least because, like Insomnius, I had a LiveJournal. I’d sort of forgotten about it and assumed it must have been a very long time ago, but visiting it (yes, with that link, I am inviting you to go ahead and look at my old LiveJournal, rampant typos and all), I see I last posted on it in 2005. Which is seven years ago, but still, I think of it as something I briefly experimented with in college and gave up before long. 

Which is also basically true. That 2005 entry is an outlier, the only one from after 2003. I never updated regularly. But looking back, I’m glad I updated it when I did, because it’s been interesting going through all the posts (there are fewer than 40) and seeing what I thought was worth logging in for.

Also fun to look at is the “now playing” field that accompanies every post. For one thing, it reminds me of how much more effort I devoted to getting into the more avant garde side of indie rock back then. The musical accompaniment to my first post was Rollerball’s Bathing Music, which I haven’t listened to in a very, very long time. I still have the CD, though. 

The album came out on a tiny indie called Road Cone, which, if I recall correctly, redirected you from its website to perishablerecords.com to purchase its releases. I see Perishable’s site is still up, and has exactly the same layout that it had in 2000, though fewer pages work and it actually appears to have been updated with subsequent releases at least through the middle of the last decade.

I believe I bought this album at Newbury Comics after reading about it in Magnet. “Wet Food Twice A Day” was my instant favorite, probably because of its very deliberate beat. It was out, but not too out. As much as I once tried very hard to stretch my taste into very challenging music, a lot of harsh noise and not much structure were never really my things. One of the other early posts has Jackie-O Motherfucker’s Fig. 5 as the musical accompaniment, and that record is one of a handful of albums that convinced me to stop trying so hard to be the kind of listener I’m not. 

Bathing Music came in a nicely designed paper case (you can make out the texture in the album cover jpg above), but the CD was in a plastic sleeve inside, just banging around waiting to get scratched. So I took the tray out of an old jewel case and cut it down with scissors so that it would fit in the paper case and the CD would have a backing that kept it from getting scratched. 

Which reminds me of another thing: a time in my life where every piece of music that came into my life was treated with a great deal of care, listened to until committed to memory, and carefully shelved in alphabetical, then chronological order. Some time perhaps two years after that first LiveJournal post, I started to fall behind the promos, and then the internet opened wide and spewed music at me, and I’ve been sitting on mountains of unplayed music ever since. 

Anyway, “Wet Food Twice A Day” is on the iPod now, and the CD’s back on the shelf, right between Roedelius’ Wasser Im Wind and Rollerskate Skinny’s Shoulder Voices. And my LiveJournal is still there, archived for no one in particular to look at. 

Shearwater: “Henry Lee” (Snow Leopard EP, 2008)

Like, I’m sure, a lot of people, I first learned “Henry Lee” from the version by Nick Cave and PJ Harvey that appeared on Cave’s Murder Ballads LP. Aside from having one of my favorite videos (it’s uncomfortable, but so perfect for the song), it was dramatic, a sharp version of a very old song with a new, mostly wordless chorus that belied the hideous murder at the heart of the song.

"Henry Lee" has a long history. It came to the United States as the Scottish ballad "Young Hunting," a song that may actually have roots in Scandinavia, and while it fell out of the repertoire in its homeland, it established itself as one of the most played and most recorded murder ballads we have. Sometimes the title "Loving Henry" is used (there’s a related song called "Lowe Bonnie," too), but "Henry Lee" has become the standard most often used.

It’s a simple story, really. A woman is in love with Henry Lee, but he spurns her after leading her on, his own true love being far away in “that merry green land” (which could easily be Ireland or Scotland), so she stabs him to death, then enlists some local women to help throw him down a well and keep it a secret. Harvey and Cave list the murder weapon as a “little pen knife,” which is a mutation of the original “weapon knife” referenced in older versions, such as the defining recording made by Dick Justice for Harry Smith in 1929.

"Little pen knife" actually makes the crime seem more horrific. You’d have to really go at someone with a pen knife to kill them—the only reference point I have is Joe Pesci in Goodfellas.

Shearwater’s version uses the pen knife, too, but puts a very different musical spin on the song from any other I’ve heard. Older versions done in traditional styles tend to be disconcertingly nonchalant about the brutality of the crime they describe, while Cave and Harvey seem almost to lose themselves in the visceral details. Jonathan Meiburg sings it in a disarmingly gentle way, as though it were a lullaby for the murdered man, easing him into his final rest.

It’s chilling in its own way.

Iron & Wine: “Godless Brother In Love” (Kiss Each Other Clean, 2011)

"She looks lovely as lightning."

I think Sam Beam picks his words as much for the way they sound as for their meaning. It seems as though he has these melodies that he forms into words, and gradually, as he refines them, they become images, and strings of lines that form a thought. I had a chance to interview Beam years ago, and I wish I’d thought to ask him about this.

"Godless Brother In Love" is full of these images—the one I quoted above is just the most striking to me. The song’s overall meaning is mysterious—it may be about parents learning to let their children learn and be their own people—but there’s no point in the whole thing where I think there might have been a better alternative for what he sang.

Paul Simon wrote that way, and I don’t think I have to make a case for him as one of the great songwriters of his generation. Beam has a similar gift for wringing emotional depth out of phrases that seem clipped from bigger documents and strung together. And since he started building his songs up with bigger arrangements, I think the comparison has gotten stronger. Both men have a strange way of working around the conventional of what a singer-songwriter is supposed to sound like.

Not every experiment on Kiss Each Other Clean worked for me, but it’s a good album, and this song, right in the middle of it, is just lovely as lightning.

Fleet Foxes: “Ragged Wood” (Fleet Foxes, 2008)

I was in Chicago for the Pitchfork Festival this past weekend, which, honestly, as someone who writes for the site, is as much about meeting and seeing the people I work with as it is about watching bands. It’s been interesting over the years to see how we’ve all changed from year to year and where our lives have taken us. It’s also good to know that the people you’ve built these long-distance relationships with are all incredibly nice in person.

The performance that stuck with me most was Fleet Foxes’ Saturday night headlining set. I think they’re a truly great band. Back in 2008, when they won our albums poll, I remember a lot of people coming out of the woodwork to say they’re nothing special.

It’s fine not to like the band, but these people are wrong. The common knock on them—“folk with beards and harmonies, whatever”—seems to miss everything that’s special about them. First of all, they can really sing. All of them. Their harmonies are rich and complex—it’s not something you hear often. Most of what we call harmonies in our shorthand is actually just two people singing the same thing in unison.

These guys are usually singing four or five different parts, or breaking into sections to sing opposing lines. And they can do it live. That alone sets them apart. Someone I talked to this weekend marveled at the way Robin Pecknold seems to have a reverb unit built right into his throat.

But they’re also good songwriters with an interesting sense of structure. “Ragged Wood” was originally supposed to be the title track of the band’s first album, but they switched to self-titled just before the release. It remains a sprawling and unpredictable suite, though, passing through three movements that let the band touch on all of its strengths.

You get the shuffling, up-tempo first section, the pretty, quiet middle and the ascendant coda with the huge harmonies and chiming guitars. The instrumental texture changes, too, which is something these guys don’t get enough credit for. They’re great at combining sounds and changing the combinations to keep your ear engaged.

It’s academic-sounding, but these to me are the qualities of a band that thinks about sound and works to make its music more interesting and nuanced. It’s the difference between great bands and decent bands. On Saturday, Fleet Foxes were great.

Yo La Tengo: “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House” (And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, 2000)

Yo La Tengo are the perfect indie rock band. It’s not just that they translate a wide range of hip influences into something fuzzy, tuneful and endearing—it’s also that they’re so obviously nerds about it. The title of “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House” is a Simpsons reference, and the lyrics are a funny and pretty convoluted pop music joke.

First, the Simpsons reference. The phrase appears in the fifth season episode “Marge on the Lam” as the family is watching a fund-raiser for public television hosted by actor Troy McClure, who introduces himself thusly: “Hi, I’m Troy McClure, and you may remember me from such telethons as Out With Gout ‘88 and Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House.”

Yo La Tengo’s songs are mostly worked up from instrumentals they write together and develop from there. In the late 90s, YLT bassist James McNew named most of these instrumental sketches for Troy McClure’s filmography (think Gladys the Groovy Mule and Earwigs: Eww!), but the titles always changed once the band added lyrics and finalized the songs.

That part of the process never happened with this song, though. Ira Kaplan wound up writing lyrics that actually sort of fit the title, devising a weird, humorous short story around an imagined rivalry between singers Tony Orlando and Frankie Valli.

Why Valli and Orlando? Well, that’s where the convoluted pop music joke comes in. In 1964, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons had a huge hit (#3 pop) with a song called “Dawn (Go Away),” in which Valli sings to his love interest (Dawn), that she should stay with her current boyfriend, reasoning that the guy she’s with has money and will provide for her, whereas Valli has nothing. It’s kind of tragic, actually, though it sounds pretty bubblegummy.

Tony Orlando fronted a group called Dawn in the 1970s—the song is basically about Valli burning down Orlando’s house because he wants Dawn back. Some of the lines are tough to make out, but Valli hums “Sherry,” one of his biggest hits, as he leaves the scene of the arson—Orlando drops to his knees during a medley of hits from Grease.

It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but I think it’s pretty hilarious when you piece it all together. I also think the band made a good decision having Georgia Hubley sing it—she sounds like she really empathizes with both Orlando and Valli. I also think her drumming here is outstanding, and the band chose the perfect organ and electric piano sounds for the song. It’s become my favorite Yo La Tengo song over the years, even before I listened past the great feel of the song and tried to figure out what it meant.

Wolf Parade: “Yulia” (Expo 86, 2010)

Wolf band #2. And this song is maybe a throwback in its own way, too. The late-70s Springsteen/Landis aesthetic has been used a lot in indie rock over the last half-decade, but I think it’s often used in a somewhat empty way, like bands piling on the glockenspiel ripping off the “Thunder Road” guitar tone in an attempt to make their songs sound bigger than they are.

But Springsteen’s songs earned their bigness, which is why it usually sounds so hollow when bands try to sound like that. This song, I think, does a good job of earning its bigness. The video (one of my favorites this year) actually reflects its content—the story of a Soviet cosmonaut whose mission went badly, stranding him in space.

There is a lot of heavy content here. For one thing, the Soviet space program really did lose people. There’s a whole school of thought, based on some radio transmissions intercepted by a pair of Italian brothers in 1960, that Yuri Gagarin wasn’t actually the first man in space—he was only the first to come back. The transmissions those brothers intercepted sounded like a man getting further and further away. This song seems based on that story.

Can you imagine that? You’re in this tiny capsule, the first man in space, thinking about the hero’s welcome and the accidents of time and place that put your name in history, and then there’s bad news. Your telemetry is off. You’re not settling into orbit. You’re not ever coming back. What do you think about?

In Wolf Parade’s world, you think of the woman you love. You call her name over and over. And you know that it won’t be your name going in the books:

So when they turn the cameras on you
Baby please don’t speak of me
Point up to the dark above you
As they edit me from history
I’m 20 million miles from a comfortable home
And space is very cold
Yulia

This song has all the weight of a great short story, plus the added weight of a surging arrangement and great melody. It’s really pretty haunting when you focus on the lyrics.

Slow Club: “Giving Up On Love” (Yeah, So, 2010)

I love a good pop song. I still get to call this a pop song, right? That term is so slippery—the stuff atop the charts changes constantly, and so what we think of as a pop song does too. But really, what else is this? Indie rock, I guess?

For me, the definition of pop song has to be flexible enough to account fro everything that’s ruled the charts at one point or another, which basically means this: highly memorable and broadly accessible. If it has those two qualities I don’t see the point of calling it much of anything else. You could hyphenate it if you wanted to provide clarification maybe. Indie-pop, then.

Anyway, Slow Club’s “Giving Up On Love” gets the pop song job done with considerable aplomb. The UK duo borrowed a fragment of Motown bassline, and apparently decided that the whole song needed to be chorus, which… hey, no complaints.

Hidden Track:

This is the album version. The single version that accompanies the video is a lot faster and not quite as good in my opinion.