Illustration from George B. Perry's Slings and Arrows, 1901
Ohio producer and musician John Shough is typically associated with his work at Cro-Magnon Studios, the Dayton studio where Guided By Voices and the Breeders recorded some of their classic '90s material (Shough also played bass for Guided By Voices from time to time under the pseudonym Johnny Strange.) I also remember that, at one point, there was talk of him doing a collaboration with Robert Pollard under the name Eric Pretty, but that never came together. He came up on my radar again earlier this year, when his cover of the lost Pollard gem "Sixland" was included on Suitcase 3, and I liked it a lot. Around the same time, I was hearing some good things about Ultra Vega, a one-off album Shough put out in 2000 under his own name - it turned out to be well worth tracking down.
With the GBV association looming large and boasting a 20-song/40-minute tracklist, Ultra Vega has to work pretty hard to get away from unfortunate comparisons to Robert Pollard's work. Shough pulls it off pretty well for the most part, though, carving out a distinct identity with his "producer's ear" for interesting sounds while obviously coming from the same songwriting school as Pollard and particularly former GBVer Tobin Sprout. Shough's voice is pleasant but thin and nondescript - he uses this to his advantage, though, to create contrasts as he takes a flimsy-sounding verse melody and throws it against a whole choir of harmony overdubs on the chorus. This trick doesn't really get old over the course of the album, either, as Shough keeps the songs short and focuses on big chorus hooks. The most impressive thing is that none of the twenty songs is conspicuously weak, making for an album that is fun to listen to all the way through.
The other big influence on Ultra Vega is XTC - on songs like "Hens Gone Wrong", he's copping Andy Partridge pretty hardcore, but I can't get too mad at it because it works really well. The sing-song nursery rhyme melody jumps from an awkward verse to a lovely but abbreviated chorus and back again, and the lyrics are stupid in a charming way. And it's one of a dozen or so songs from Ultra Vega that has been stuck in my head this week. Shough has supposedly been working on a follow-up album called Done in Taurus for the last decade - his Myspace page says it will be released this year. I have my doubts that it will be released that soon, but I hope it sees the light of day before too long.
"Hens Gone Wrong" by John Shough