Illustration from Teen Talk pamphlet Volume 35, Number 24, 16 June 1957
A month ago, I mentioned that Robert Pollard had one more release slated for 2009 - a Suitcase project. So-called because it contains four discs of songs from the Guided By Voices archive (and this archive once took the form of a suitcase full of cassettes and CD-Rs), this is the third Suitcase collection Pollard has released this decade. Although the GBV grapevine says that Pollard has apparently only scratched the surface of his archives, the official announcement is that Suitcase 3 is going to be the last Suitcase and probably the last release with the Guided By Voices name on it.
If, as a band that released sixteen official albums, you have a suitcase full of unreleased songs, the question of quality comes into play. Apparently, even Pollard has been reluctant to release some of this stuff - luckily for the fans, he's very responsive to their cries for more acoustic demos, noisy jams, and hidden gems. He's willing to air out decades of lo-fi laundry in these sets, with the recordings dating from the '70s up to cast-offs from this year's solo albums. For me, it's not a question of whether the material in a Suitcase release is of varying fidelity and overall quality - I know that any Pollard disc will hit his beloved four P's (pop, punk, prog, and psych) to some degree and that his innate melodic sense will shine through in enough tracks to make each volume an adventurous and rewarding listen. The question is whether the discs will contain any isolated moments or aspects that are terrible enough to make me reluctant to give them repeated listens.
Unfortunately, that was the case with the last set, Suitcase 2 - the inclusion of too many live tracks was an issue on that one, as well as a grating clicking sound on some tracks that was the result of the songs being transferred to CD with faulty equipment. I have no such issues with Suitcase 3 - it contains some old gems, like "Together/Apart" and "Amnesia" from the aborted '84 GBV album Pissing in the Canal, as well as some excellent recent recordings like "I'll Come (And When It Does It's Mine)" and the truly bizarre "The Annex".
The final disc of Suitcase, Disc 12 (the three sets use a single numbering sequence), is a thing unto itself - titled Tall Tale Moon (Antiquated) and Other Known Facts: Spontaneous Lo-Fly Field Recordings, it is a single acoustic jam session recorded in Pollard's house on some random weekend in 1994. Twenty-five song-sketches all recorded (and probably written) within a period of just a few hours, they provide an interesting look into a gifted songwriter's ability to just play and play while life goes on around him - most of the tracks feature the sound of the phone ringing, children laughing, or people chatting in the background. Because, by its nature, it lacks some of the variety of the other Suitcase discs, this one may not get as many listens, but it's a unique document of a period of unbridled creativity in the life of Robert Pollard (having been recorded between GBV's two best albums, Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes).
I don't think I have to say that this box set is FOR FANS ONLY - I think the set says that well enough by itself. But this set also says something important to non-fans - it says, "Wouldn't it be great if your favorite songwriter (whoever that is) loved recording music enough to have a seemingly endless supply of new and archived material, as well as the willingness to give the fans as much access to that supply as they want?" No other songwriter has given fans the level of access that Robert Pollard has, and that's one reason why he'll probably always be my favorite songwriter.
From the 100 songs on the set, I picked "Banners", a song that probably dates from around 1985 and features a keyboard sound (almost like a Mellotron) that is entirely unique the GBV canon - it's one of many pleasant surprises that I found on Suitcase 3. It also has a crazy-good melancholic melody.
"Banners" by Guided By Voices