For 15 albums or so, Robert Pollard has been the honcho behind the thirtysomething, Dayton, Ohio, Brit-invasion-style, lo-fi pop ensemble Guided by Voices. After a recent and fairly decent solo effort (in conjunction with/response to former fellow GBV bandmate Tobin Sprout's also recent and fairly decent solo effort), he's now made like a paramecium and subsumed the band. More significant still, he's taken his batch of 20 songs north to Cleveland and recorded them with a post-punk glam outfit, Cobra Verde (a name so goofy it might be genius), on backup. Hence Mag Earwhig!, which isn't necessarily any tighter than previous offerings, rocks decidedly harder. And no doubt much to the dismay of all those fans who prided themselves in being able to withstand the previous 50-minute batches of shitty production, the lo-fi tag has been replaced with one that should now read "medium-fi." (Egads, user-friendly GBV. A few songs even make it over the four-minute mark.) No need for worry -- GBV haven't gone AOR. Mag Earwhig! is crammed full of Fab Four/Who stylings, klutzy musicianship, and oddball lyrics. Pollard's knack for catchy melodies continues unabated, as does his knack for dropping the song midhook. Things remain spontaneous, off-kilter, and wobbly. Only now the drums have some punch and shimmer; the guitars fill up the room; the bottom end actually exists. All of this is a good thing. Moreover, I've heard that Mag Earwhig! is supposedly a prog-rock opera -- though, with no readily apparent plot or characters, I'm not sure how one would confirm or deny this rumor. (The elliptical parentheticals on the lyric page, which read like stage directions -- for instance, "Enter the drag queen" -- don't necessarily clear this up.)
Points of interest: "Bulldog Skin," which could be a radio-friendly hit, if Pollard didn't sing so intentionally, charmingly flat at the beginning; "I Am a Tree," written by Doug Gillard of Cobra Verde, with its anthemic '70s guitar and driving punk drums; "Portable Men's Society," a drony gloom-pop vibe with a genuine wankers-only solo; "Jane of the Waking Universe," with an annoyingly catchy chorus; and "The Colossus Crawls West," which sports the lyrics (sung over a disconcerting background rumble) "And when the colossus crawls west/ Jazz bastards will fall and confess/ We all love you so and/ Your rock is paradise plastic/ It's cheap and fantastic!"
Paradise plastic indeed. Now if somebody could only tell me why so many musicians from Ohio (Pollard and crew, Chrissie Hynde, the goobers in Cheap Trick) have so little in common with Mr. Heartland -- John Cougar Mellencamp -- and so much more in common with the invaders from across the pond. Something to do with Ringo, no doubt, and his dashing lo-fi je ne sais quoi.
-- Curtis Bonney
Heavy D has parlayed the Good Time Charlie role -- a persona usually good for a hit or two -- into a multifaceted career. Waterbed Hev is his sixth record in eleven years. During that time, Hev has gone from being an easygoing, likable pop rapper and impresario for the Mount Vernon (N.Y.) hip-hop scene (which boosted the careers of Eddie F., Pete Rock, and C.L. Smooth) to being an easygoing, likable pop rapper who is CEO of the label that signed him in 1987.
As a rapper, Heavy D is as user-friendly as they come. At the outset of his career, his sound relied on wholesale sampling of familiar songs. In the early '90s he began to build slightly more complex collages, but now that Coolio and Puff Daddy have made unimaginative sampling trendy again, Heavy has returned to his original strategy for many of the tracks on Waterbed. This would be particularly annoying if not for Heavy's good taste in music and his uniquely amicable rap character. He's from the streets but hardly stuck on recalling the harsh lessons of that life. He's self-effacing and shy where other rappers are arrogant and self-aggrandizing. On this recording, he trades on the charm of his "overweight lover" guise with gently cheesy come-ons; in one song he rhymes, "Would you have my daughter?/ You oughta." Heavy D genuinely strives to be the Barney of the hip-hop nation, and the fact that his records aren't played on some pop radio stations is a true barometer of the anti-hip-hop sentiment in the entertainment industry.
Waterbed Hev marks mild growth, but mostly it's a pleasant 45 minutes of light hip hop, which is all Heavy ever wanted to do. And that's the problem. Whereas KRS-One creates every record as a historical document to which listeners will return for years to come, Heavy's recordings are made to boost two or three singles into the upper echelons of the R&B charts, then run a quick trip to the cutout bins en route to obscurity. Hopefully, now that he's a label head, he'll set his sights higher and see the value in back-catalog sales.
-- Martin Johnson