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An Overview of Guided By Voices' Suitcase (Recordhead/Rockathon)

by Dave heaton

"...and drink from a bottle of and think up another song and make it sound nice cause I don't want to live a wasted life"--Maxwell Greenfield, "My Feet's Trustworthy Existance," Suitcase

In 1995, when Scat Records released Guided By Voices' Box, a 5-CD, 6-LP set of out-of-print albums and unreleased songs from the band's earlier years, it felt like Christmas for GBV fans longing to hear more. Now, five years and at least a hundred songs later, GBV Captain Bob Pollard has topped that with Suitcase, a 4-disc set of unreleased songs from Pollard's suitcase, reportedly filled with hundreds of tapes of unheard material (at least before most of the tapes were destroyed in a flooded-basement incident). This release truly takes GBV fandom to the next level, with 100 more songs for rock fanatics to obsess over.

Suitcase is a real treat for fans, and fodder for the critics who complain that Pollard releases too many songs. But actually, I can't imagine what those critics could say about Suitcase that wouldn't seem irrelevant. A four-disc set of "failed experiments and trashed aircraft" is extreme; pointing that fact out is just stating the obvious. The whole point of Suitcase is to showcase the songs Bob didn't want to release, for the sake of giving more music to the fans. This is a release for them; I doubt Pollard's trying to reach new ears with this.

The set includes 100 songs from throughout Pollard's songwriting career, in Guided By Voices and before. There's everything from a 20-year-old Pollard singing about his brother Jimmy to discarded demos for the next GBV album. The most glaring fact about the songs on Suitcase is how hard it is to place most of them, timewise, without consulting the fact-filled booklet. Sure, a few songs immediately mark themselves chronologically. The sound of "Bunco Men," for example, makes it quickly recognized as a left-aside Under the Bushes mid-tempo rocker. And a song like "Long Way to Run" is obviously from the early years of GBV. Still, the bulk of the material is hard to date by ear; in many ways Suitcase is a bold confirmation that GBV's music is drawn from so many eras of rock that it's become virtually timeless.

Outside of giving GBV fans a heck of a lot of songs to listen to and analyze, Suitcase also represents both an unraveling of and an adding to the mythology surrounding GBV. One of the things GBV has always had over other rock bands is a sense of mystery, and that has always been propelled by all of the facts and questions that go with GBV's catalog. Pollard writes and records so quickly and so often that a massive book could be penned tracing not only who played what when, but also what lyrics were reused when, and what audio snippets resurface where. Suitcase gives answers to some of these questions, by including, for example, some of the songs that make up Propeller's "Back to Saturn X Radio Report" sound collage, or through its extensive booklet of photographs and lineup information. Though this is more a leftovers collection than a historical retrospective, the whole GBV story is here; each lineup and stage is represented. Even GBV's period of playing live in Dayton to crowds that couldn't care less is represented here, via "Try to Find You" and "A Kind of Love " recorded live at Gilly's in 1984, even before their first EP Forever Since Breakfast (there's also two bizarre songs apparently recorded at a local video store in 1990, but that's another story).

Bob Pollard has been dreaming up rock songs for most of his life. Before he was writing songs he was dreaming up song titles and band names, creating album cover art, and so on. All of these habits appear on Suitcase, either in the music or the booklet that accompanies it. Each of the 100 songs has been given a fake band name, ranging from the realistic (Flaming Ray, Moonchief) to the ridiculous (Ghost Fart, Ceramic Cock Einstein, Urinary Track Stars). The booklet includes scrawled lyrics, handmade album covers for albums never made and part of a GBV family tree diagram. This is a man who takes rocking seriously and has fun with it, and all sides of his personality are on display in some element of Suitcase.

The music, of course, is the biggest exhibit of Pollard's imagination. Many of the songs are in "demo" form or seem to be songs that Pollard made up, recorded and forgot about until now. In one sense, then, this is the rawest exhibit of Pollard's art yet, which is something noteworthy considering the "lo-fi" form much of GBV's output has taken. Another important aspect of Suitcase is the way the songs fit into and are a part of GBV's existing catalog. So many of these songs include lyrics or melodies that ended up, in full or in part, in a released GBV/Pollard song. Some are obvious. For example, "Gayle" is a pre-GBV Pollard and Mitch Mitchell singing a simple come-on ("Gayle, gimme a little bit of your loving") to the exact melody that became "Death Trot and Warlock Riding a Rooster," from King Shit and the Golden Boys. Others are less obvious, like the way the opening guitar chord of "It's Cold" vaguely evokes the start of "Jane of the Waking Universe" (to me, at least). There's also numerous songs which are alternate takes of familiar songs, including a rocking version or "Wrecking Now," a piano-laden "Wondering Boy Poet," a slower "Why Did You Land?", a messed-up weirdo version of "Buzzards and Dreadful Crows," and many more.

Suitcase also includes multiple versions of the same song, recorded in some cases over a span of years. These are absolutely intriguing, an audio snapshot in motion of how an idea enters Pollard's head and how it mutates. Herein lies the true pleasure of Suitcase. This as comprehensive a portrait of one man's creativity as you will find. You can just about hear ideas popping out of Pollard's skull and onto tape, and you can also observe what becomes of those ideas, how they grow and what Pollard does with them. Suitcase might not be the "best" Guided By Voices album, but it is definitely the most complete portrait of Bob's songwriting thus far. Everything is hear, and it's an amazing journey to sort through.

The best fact about Suitcase is that Bob Pollard is still thriving as a songwriter. This isn't an after-the-fact retrospective. Two of the best songs on Suitcase, "Raphael" and "Born on Seaweed," were recorded in 2000. Will there be another Suitcase in 20 years? Who knows, but I do know Pollard's not out of ideas yet, and that fact excites me more than just about any other music-related fact I can think of.

(Note: Check out the next four articles for in-depth, song-by-song reviews of each disc in Guided By Voices' Suitcase. And after that visit for more info on this release and on GBV in general.)

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