Tobin Sprout and the land of half-realized songs
When you’ve been a part of one of the quirkiest, distinctive and profoundly enjoyable underground indie pop bands in the history of indie pop, the comparisons are inevitable.
Tobin Sprout (the one with the high-pitched voice) carved out a niche for himself as Robert Pollard’s right-hand man in Guided By Voices. This is all old news, of course, for the legions of fanatic GBV followers and one might expect the “former member of GBV” tag to eventually work its way from the top of Sprout’s reviews to the bottom by his sixth solo album. But we all know by now that’s not going to happen. Because for as much as you want to give “Toby” credit for the two or three songs on each record that transcend or morph somewhat from his GBV background, you simply can’t overlook the derivative material that makes up the rest of the production.
Sprout’s latest offering, Lost Planets & Phantom Voices , doesn’t break any new ground in that regard. It starts out promising enough with the repetitive but infectious “Indian Ink”, a pleasant introduction to the equally fun “Doctor #8”, one of those two or three gems you know will be on a Sprout release. As always, Sprout’s lyrics define description here but the lo-fi psych pop (conjuring up usual suspects the Beatles and the Velvet Underground) once again shows off Sprout as a master of his craft. “Catch the Sun”, the third track, isn’t as strong as its predecessors but is solid in its own right. Sprout is probably at his best lyrically on Lost Planets with this meditation on getting older without losing hope (though you’re never sure with Sprout). It’s a theme that permeates many of the songs on this record and probably shouldn’t surprise anyone given Sprout isn’t so sprite anymore
We see it again on “All Those Things We’ve Done”, perhaps the strongest track: “Watching the years go by / Stars fly across our sky / All those things we’ve done / Life works, in ways / Time can’t be saved / A simple, sinful, truth”. Sonically, the jangly guitar pop, restrained drumming from former GBV pal Jim Macpherson and flawless production make this an interesting case study. Up to this point, every track has clocked in at right around three minutes or less. The production is relatively clear, the playing is tight and focused and Sprout is working comfortably within his obvious vocal limitations. He is, as he sings in “Catch the Sun”, one of the “Gentle men of mystery / Studying the Sixties” and he does it as well as anyone.
Then it all falls apart.
The lifeless and meandering instrumental “Martini” almost makes you forget how enjoyable the first four tracks were. That’s followed up with a string of material, like “Rub Your Buddha Tummy” and “Courage the Tack”, songs which have GBV written all over them, e.g., distortion heavy recording techniques (seemingly indie for the sake of being indie) and drum tracks. These songs would have had a place on an early- to mid-‘90s GBV record, but here are throwaways by even the most generous of standards.
Momentum is regained somewhat on “Shirley The Rainbow”, which includes the same players as “All Those Things We’ve Done”, mostly because it abandons those pretensions and highlights Sprout’s aforementioned strengths. “Fortunes Theme No. 1”, another inexplicable instrumental, follows “Shirley.” And while bound to make you smile for the striking similarity it bears to the background music of former PBS series Simon , in which little Simon goes an adventures to the Land of Chalk Drawings, it does little to enhance the album. “Cleansing the Storm” and “Let Go Of My Beautiful Balloon” round out this mixed collection in competent but mostly forgettable fashion.
Strangely enough, the cartoon character Simon and Tobin Sprout have more in common than a few kindred notes. You can’t get over the fact that Sprout, like Simon, seems to find solace in breathing life into these crude chalk drawings. He creates a world that works for him, that offers redemption in half-finished thoughts and ideas, but shuts almost everyone else out—making his tales difficult to believe in. It’s a subtle art that can begin to work on repeated spins but is initially and even ultimately under whelming. Sprout, coincidentally, is also a gifted painter. What he offers us here, though, are a couple of subtly layered, fully realized works of art and a handful of unfinished sketches.