The first thing I noticed on this new Guided By Voices album -- Cool Planet -- was a consistency of sound, a sense of fidelity where even the seemingly tossed-off song sketches sound about the same as the more produced pieces. As usual with GBV, the album is a hodgepodge of very cool rock and roll pastiche and spontaneous invention. Yet even the raw stuff was recorded with an attention to fidelity so it is not quite so jarring from track to track.
Take the Tobin Sprout song "All American Boy," for example which sounds like a lost outtake from a Big Star/Mott The Hoople session that never happened, as recorded perhaps by John Cale. If Bowie had recorded this, the tune would have come out like a hybrid between his "All The Young Dudes" and Paul McCartney's "Back Seat of My Car" (from RAM). Instead this recording sounds like a demo sketch for something that will hopefully flesh out to epic proportions in concert. That doesn't undermine the recording here. In fact, this sort of just-get-it-recorded production style is akin to the joy of watching a well made black and white film -- your mind participates more and colorizes it in your mind's eye.
That said there are some kick ass rockers on Cool Planet such as the album opener "Authoritarian Zoo" which romps along like some sort of mutant mix of Small Faces and late 60s Who by way of Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers, with vocals that strain beyond their range with no apologies. "Bad Love Is Easy To Do" is a sweet little piece of guitar-bass-and-drum, pure pop for (Robert) Pollard people.
"Males of Wormword Mars" sounds big and full with great sounding drums this side of The Beatles "Ticket To Ride." Speaking of that, "Ticket to Hide" is a fabulous Tobin Sprout tune with its haunting "It might get louder" coda signaling a warning that the best is yet to come from these boys. To that, on this album its really nice to hear that Tobin Sprout's songs are getting the fuller band treatment on some tracks here, such as the chugging churning rocker "The Bone Church," co-written with GBV guitarist Mitch Mitchell. On many GBV records, Sprout's tracks are more obviously produced on his own separate from the Pollard-penned songs. That differential is less obvious on this album.
Fidelity wise, this album sounds pretty good overall, and yes, it is probably recorded digitally and all that (sigh) so some of you may argue that an LP is unnecessary. That decision will come down to how you prefer to listen to your music and such -- I do notice that the LP version sounds warmer than the CD-quality 44.1/16-bit download (not FLAC) that came with the album -- that may well be a side benefit of my Bellari tube pre-amp and/or any special mastering that went into the creation of the LP. That said, the download sounds just fine in the car which is the primary place I'd be listening to the digital incarnation of this album.
As with most every GBV album there are a host of 45 RPM singles that have been issued, each with B-sides and on colored vinyl. Some of the stuff on these B-sides are more decidedly lo-fi in nature, bits that might have been put on the album but were wisely left off (perhaps) due to the drastic difference in sound. Still, the appeal of a distorted crunchy (probably) live-in-the-studio rock like "Eyesore Wives" and the Tobin Sprout penned "Pillow Man" are undeniable. A track like "A Year That Could Have Been Worse" sounds too much like some odd Robert Wyatt/Devo hybrid to fit on the album, but its cool nonetheless.
All in all, Cool Planet is yet another reason to support the cottage industry that is Guided By Voices.
The album is pressed on lovely blue vinyl too!
What's not to like?
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer whose songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. www.ingdom.com Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he's written: www.dialthemusical.com.