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Suitcase - Failed Experiments and Trashed Aircraft

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Album Review

Only a fool would argue Robert Pollard's talent as a songwriter, but even the most loyal fans may find room to question his decision-making process. As the frontman, benevolent dictator, and sole constant member of Guided By Voices, the ever-prolific Pollard writes songs the way most people eat potato chips (one right after another), but while a surprising number of them are good, he doesn't always appear to know which songs are keepers and which would be best left in his basement. The majority of Guided By Voices' albums have at least two or three songs that are purposeless fragments (often more), and it's significant that GBV's most consistent (if not their best) album, Do the Collapse, was the first with a "real" producer (Ric Ocasek) on hand to assist in the editing process. Pollard's issues with quality vs. quantity are practically the raison d'être of Suitcase: Failed Experiments and Trashed Aircraft, a four-CD box set that collects homemade recordings of 100 songs that didn't make the grade on GBV's albums, from a tune Pollard wrote and recorded while a junior in high school ("Little Jimmy the Giant," one of the better songs on disc one) to several tunes rejected for Do the Collapse. Like most of Guided By Voices' previous releases, just about everything here was recorded on cassette machines in basements or rec rooms, and it sounds like it; I'm no audiophile, but the constant rumbling of hiss, fumbling of microphones, and rising and falling of levels was driving me nuts by the end of disc four. (However, on " "Try to Find You," recorded live in a noisy bar, we do get to overhear the touching reunion of two women who apparently haven't seen each other in a while.) And true to form, each disc has several songs that sound unfinished, go in the wrong direction, or are simply dumb jokes that don't communicate outside the rehearsal room. But it's just as true that Pollard's genius with a melody, a chord change, and a hook runs wild and free through this set, and if you don't mind wading through losers like "Mr. McCaslin Will Sell No More Flowers," "Gayle," and "Driving in the U.S.A.," you'll be rewarded with beauties like "James Riot," "The Terrible Two," "Shrine to the Dynamic Years," "I Can See It in Your Eyes," "A Farewell to Arms," and "Long Way to Run," to name but a few. In many ways, Suitcase plays like Bee Thousand or Vampire on Titus expanded to epic length — the work of a bunch of inspired semi-pros serving up a little noisy crap alongside a healthy portion of unpolished genius. The noise and the crap are what keep the mass audience away, and at the same time makes them all the more endearing to their cult; the same cultists probably also love the bulk of a four-disc box, while most anyone else would be better served with a more tightly edited two-disc package. If you're already a GBV loyalist, you don't need me to tell you you'll love Suitcase, but if you're either a dabbler or new to the band's work, let me point out that Do the Collapse and Mag Earwhig! are a lot cheaper, more portable, and readily available at better record stores near you.


Formed: 1985 in Dayton, OH

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

Inspired equally by jangle pop and arty post-punk, Guided by Voices created a series of trebly, hissy indie rock records filled with infectiously brief pop songs that fell somewhere between the British Invasion and prog rock. After recording six self-released albums between 1986 and 1992, the Dayton, Ohio-based band attracted a handful of fans within the American indie rock underground. With the 1994 release of Bee Thousand, the group became an unexpected alternative rock sensation, winning positive...
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