Guided by Voices
Suitcase 2: American Superdream Wow!
here’s not much point in setting the context for a collection like Suitcase 2. Suffice it to say, if one is a novice to the labyrinthine world of Guided by Voices this is not the place to begin; that would be like beginning Thomas Pynchon with Slow Learner, or Francis Ford Coppola with Dementia 13. Their immense body of work has more inviting points of access, from cherished classics like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes to strong later work in the form of Isolation Drills or Earthquake Glue.
For those already indoctrinated into the cult of Pollard, however, Suitcase 2 is clearly essential. Even so, it must be approached with caution, for anyone expecting a sequel on par with the original is apt to be disappointed. The first Suitcase was released in 2000, following the widely reviled Do the Collapse (1999, and sounding better every year, to be sure), and after that album’s Ric-Ocaseked studio sheen Pollard seemed to say, “hey, you whiners want lo-fi? Here, sift through the tape hiss for the gems.” And gems there were; though a fair portion of the four-disc collection sounded like improvisations Pollard left on his answering machine after staggering home drunk through the mean streets of Dayton, Ohio, Suitcase contained an astonishing proportion of flat-out brilliance.
Five years later, the sequel drops, and if it’s not in that rare Godfather II realm of follow-ups that transcend their progenitors, neither is it Matrix Reloaded. Suitcase 2 occasionally suggests Pollard thoroughly strip-mined his musical archives with the first collection (not to mention 2003’s Hardcore UFO’s box set, which consolidated other scattered songs, including obscure masterpieces such as “7 Strokes to Heaven’s Edge” and “Color of My Blade”), which delved heavily into the 1993-96 period of Bee Thousand outtakes and songs from the aborted Power of Suck concept album. But Pollard deploys remarkable rigor in his sequencing, which sometimes seems to have taken more effort than many of the songs; Suitcase 2 regularly allows listener frustration to grow, but each time that frustration threatens to hit a critical mass the album bursts into a zinger that reminds us why we’re obsessive GbV fanatics in the first place.
Thus we get disc one, which opens with “This Ream,” which sounds like someone tuning a guitar, hitting a few random chords for about a minute, giving it a title and calling it a song. Things fail to pick up too dramatically with “Rocket Head,” a prototype for the later “Teenage FBI;” the song plods along amiably enough, but it’s mostly of interest as a window into Pollard’s songwriting technique, dating from 1988, a full eleven years before its verse melody bore fruition—fine in an archeological sense, not so thrilling musically. But just as interest begins to wane, track five delivers “Somewhere Sometime,” a 1978 treasure that sounds like a Badfinger-inspired bar band in the best possible way.
The pattern repeats in various permutations. Disc two begins with a bang, the Power of Suck-intended “I Am Decided,” which Kim Deal recorded for her underrated Amps album, but it then drifts into dross for several tracks. The wistful 1987 ballad “Telephone Town” whisks it back into shape, though, and then the boisterous leer of 1978’s “Hey, I Know Your Old Lady” reminds us that Bob Pollard is second only to the Minutemen in the ability to present fully satisfying songs in sixty seconds or less. On the fourth disc, “Cox Municipal Airport Song” shows more of Pollard’s emotional side, and then two tuneless songs hold time until “Heavy Crown” ambles its way onto my lengthy wishlist of strong songs recorded solo-acoustic style begging for full-band treatment.
With 100 tracks spread over the four discs, numerous other examples could be cited. If Suitcase 2 lacks the surprisingly high success ratio of its predecessor (which I’d put around 70%, compared to about 55 for this one), it also has fewer drunken-jam debacles (though “Zarkoff’s Coming” is a contender for the worst-sounding GbV song ever recorded—it’s so no-fi that Alan Lomax himself would wince). But a box set can’t be approached like an album, where a percentage like that would be lethal. The combined effect of the Suitcases is to effectively show Robert Pollard’s development as a songwriter, which can be broken down into three approximate phases. In the late 1970s he wanted to rule the world of rock; though he has attested in interviews and the Watch Me Jumpstart documentary to loving the late British Invasion and prog-rockers like King Crimson and Yes, little of that shows through in his own early efforts. Instead, Suitcase 2 tracks like “You’re Killing Me” and “Do Be” sound more like attempts at the blandness of contemporary hit bands like REO Speedwagon or Toto. It’s as if young Pollard was trying to create his own private Boston, so to speak, but lacked the studio wizardry of that band’s Tom Scholz. Indeed, strumming by himself straight onto tape, he lacked not just the wizardry, but the studio itself.
As the 1980s progressed and Guided by Voices took shape as a band, Pollard entered his second phase, sounding more like a mellow indie-rock band—R.E.M. is the obvious reference point for such mid-‘80s standouts as “The Lodger Carried a Gun,” but other tracks such as the understated “How Can You?” and the rocking “Shake It Out” hearken back to such praiseworthy also-rans as Dumptruck and the dB’s. Indeed, these tracks prove that GbV could have been a recognized, touring act with a little luck.
Without that luck, the band entered its third phase; convinced no one was listening, Pollard let his (hot) freak flag fly, and the GbV of legend emerged, with its bizarre imagery and disregard for recording quality. Suitcase 2 has less to offer on this phase, though dozens of albums, singles, and EP’s already represent it quite nicely. Regrettably, the collection also documents a possible fourth era in the band’s history: Pollard’s equation of himself with the band and his flogging of its legacy. Tobin Sprout doesn’t get a single songwriting credit on Suitcase 2, and you’d never know how much Doug Gillard’s guitar contributed to the band’s final decade on the basis of these four discs. Worse, 10% of the hundred tracks are brief acoustic throwaways recorded by Pollard alone in 2005, after GbV had officially disbanded. None of them are even slightly worthwhile (“Soggy Beavers,” anyone?), and their insistent lo-fi sound comes off as an attempt to con listeners who don’t read the credits into mistaking them for unearthed oldies.
That shady misstep aside, Suitcase 2 does exactly what it sets out to do, documenting the incredible breadth of Bob Pollard’s songwriting. It gives us material to hear once and file under “skip,” songs to lovingly add to the GbV canon, and plenty of fodder for debate among obsessives (was the guitar blast on “Madroom Assistance” recycled for “Little Lines”? Did the vocal melody for “Home By Ten” inspire that of “Smothered in Hugs”?). It also cements Pollard’s place among the giants of rock history; how many bands could sustain four box sets of almost entirely non-overlapping material? If it doesn’t exactly inspire baited breath waiting for another suitcase-full of one hundred songs, it does keep one wondering what else Pollard has sitting around in some dusty old canister covered in empty beer bottles and record sleeves in a Dayton basement. For all we know, the holy grail of rock music could be awaiting discovery there.
Reviewed by: Whitney Strub
Reviewed on: 2005-12-06