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Phantom Tollbooth: Beard of Lightning

John Kenyon

Phantom Tollbooth

Beard of Lightning

Label: Off
US Release Date: 2003-05-27
UK Release Date: 2003-05-19

You can call Bob Pollard a lot of things, but lazy isn't one of them. Pollard, the singer, songwriter, and overpowering force behind Guided by Voices, has cranked out 28 releases in his Fading Captain series over the past four years. Yes, it does seem as if he rolls tape every time he's near a guitar and releases it under some name like Lexo and the Leapers, Soft Rock Renegades, or Disco Tit (OK, I made that last one up: Bob, you're welcome to it). Thing is, much of what he releases is good, the worst disc containing at least a couple of gems.

All this, of course, is in addition to the frequent releases from GBV. But all that, it seems, wasn't enough work for Pollard. Under the name Airport 5, former GBVer Tobin Sprout recorded backing tracks that then were given to Pollard who finished them with melodies and lyrics. Pollard did the same with tapes from current Guided by Voices bassist Tim Tobias and his brother, Todd, as the Circus Devils. Heartened by the success of these experiments, the Captain put out the call for more. Mac McCaughan from Superchunk provided a set of tracks for what became the Go Back Snowball disc, proving that Pollard could move outside his comfort zone and create something worthwhile.

His latest project, however, is something else all together. The band Phantom Tollbooth, hearing that Pollard said the group would have "ruled the world" had he been at the helm, gave him the chance to prove it by providing the instrumental tracks from its best disc, Power Toy, and told Pollard to do what he would to improve them. Pollard is clearly a fan, so not only was he faced with conceiving melodies and lyrics for these backing tracks, but he had to do so with the knowledge of what came before possibly coloring what he created.

Phantom Tollbooth, a New York band that put the "power" in power trio, created a precise din on its second and best disc, Power Toy. Subsequent reviews call the dozen originals on the album "jazzy" or "art rock" or "prog-thrash". All work as well as any other. Dave Rick's slashing guitar seemed to be shredding metal leads one moment, picking an avant garde jazz riff the next. Gerard Smith on bass and Jon Coats on drums joined to form an inventive, propulsive rhythm section that held down as large a chunk of the music as Rick's guitar. Husker Du and the Minutemen are frequent points of reference, based more on the number of members in each band as on musical similarities, one guesses. Still imagining the Zen Arcade-era Husker barreling through Double Nickels on the Dime conjures something not unlike Power Toy, so who knows?

Either way, the weakness of the Phantom Tollbooth attack was in the vocals, handled by Rick and Smith seemingly as an afterthought. To Pollard's credit, a decent singer could sing the lyrics from the original tunes and improve things considerably. And someone with Pollard's ear for melody? At times, he improves these songs immeasurably.

As for the nuts and bolts of this experiment, here is what Pollard did: Of the 13 tracks on the CD issue of Power Toy (which includes two untitled bonus tracks not found on the vinyl), he recreates 10. The band's cover of the Heart classic "Barracuda" and the 1:30 p.m. "Why I See Why" were omitted, while the single-only track "Valley of the Gwangi" was included and leads off the new disc as "Mascara Snakes".

On all 11 recreations, Pollard wrote new melodies, and has said in interviews, accurately, that many of his melodies occur in parts of the songs where there is no singing on the original, and vice versa. The result, while certainly interesting because Pollard's vocals sprout up in unexpected places, is a bit disjointed. Perhaps that was the only way for Pollard to overcome the obvious tendency to ape the familiar, but it gives this the feel of ill-fitting pieces being jammed into under-sized holes.

Much of this would be improved simply by erasing all of the vocals from Power Toy, rendering this a heavy, psych-prog instrumental record like those created by contemporaries like Blind Idiot God or Universal Congress Of. Pollard improves it all the more with his inventive melodies and trademark oddball lyrics, work on par with the best of his similar experiments in creating melodies and lyrics for existing music.

"Down by the Gowanus", a complex, stop-start riff with braying, near-unlistenable vocals, becomes the solid, rocking "Asleep under Control" on Beard of Lightning, while the noisy and disjoined "Paper House" is re-born as the melodic "Iceland Continuations".

Pollard knows when to hold 'em, too, keeping the best parts of "Criticize the Critters" for his own "Atom Bomb Professor", including the already Pollardesque bridge and much of the melody on the verses. On the acoustic "Over the Pipes", Pollard wisely stays close to the original melody for his own creation, "A Good Looking Death".

While he opted to leave one instrumental track off the new disc, the two unnamed bonus instrumental tracks on the original CD issue are given melodies and lyrics here, with varying levels of success. The first, which becomes "The Cafi Interior", finds Pollard attempting to jam lyrics like "Laceration feather knives from the egocentric ceiling" into places where vocals previously feared to tread. Better is the second bonus track, re-christened "Janus Pan", a funky, slow burner where Pollard's concise lyrics fit perfectly.

Ultimately, this project's success will vary depending on the listener. Those who eat up everything Pollard touches likely will find much to like, though this lacks the overt pop feel of the majority of his work. The Circus Devils collaborations are the best reference point here, though some of the more adventurous work of the current GBV crew (most importantly guitarist Doug Gillard) clearly has prepared Pollard for this flight into the unknown.

Will Phantom Tollbooth rule the world with Beard of Lightning? Hardly. One guesses Pollard's marquee value alone will help it to best the original sales of , but that ain't exactly aiming for the fences. At its best, the disc makes one hope for a new disc from these four, with Pollard, Rick, Smith and Coats collaborating together in the studio.

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