First spin album review – Circus Devils’ Laughs Last

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The final album from Guided by Voices’ Robert Pollard’s psych-rock sideproject.

I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with Circus Devils. As one of Robert Pollard’s longest-running sideprojects, the band – now in its 15th (and final) year – deserves respect. But at times listening to a Circus Devils record has seemed more like factory work than fun. Work in a particularly fun- and gadget-filled factory, but still.

For the uninitiated, Circus Devils is the rabbithole in which GBV frontman Pollard – with help from fellow Ohioans (and brothers) Tim and Todd Tobias – indulges in his weirder, psych- and prog-rock sides. For me, Circus Devils is Pollard’s closest aural equivalents to his photo-collages (which adorn most of his records as well as filling editions of his publication Eat). True to the trio’s name, as well as the titles of two albums to be released simultaneously on Feb. 24 (Laughs Last is the Devils’ 14th and, according to a media release, last album; it’s companion release is a 30-track double “greatest hits” album called Laughs Best), the music and lyrics share a jokey quality that pops up way more often than in Guided by Voices albums.

As for Laughs Last, a press release for the album states:  “On LAUGHS LAST, Pollard and the Tobias brothers take a breathless romp through multiple styles, starting off with the brash hotdogger, ‘Get Out Of My Way When I’m In Town.’  Along the way we’re treated to the R.E.M. inflected ‘I Do the Nixon,’ the organ-fuzz stomper ‘Teenage Rooster,’ and the defiantly conventional ‘Crucified by The British Press.’  Full of high humor and low drama, Laughs Last is the bold exclamation point at the end of Circus Devils’ 16-year run.”

That’s about all I have to say before getting to the review, which is based solely (except in the case of “I Do the Nixon,” the teaser/first single) on first impressions. It has been unedited, except for clarity and grammar.

Circus Devils, Laughs Last

“Get Out of My Way When I’m in Town” – Fun, weirdo tune. Good opening. Lots of quirky sound effects. Blustery chorus. “This can be discovered/This can be recovered.”

“Philosophy Bag” – What the heck is this one about. “Drill it/Kill it.” But a cool descending bass-line. Again, another busy track, lots of sound effects, even a vocal sample: “No man every drowned in his own sweat.” This track makes me think of a (Jack) Kirby photo-collage.

“ZX35 Power” – “Circus Devils love you, ZX35 Power!” Wonder if this is a shout-out to an FM radio station, or an imaginary FM radio station? ZX35 sounds like call letters… this one has a great psych-rock guitar riff. This is just the kind of short, joke-y tune Circus Devils are made for.

“Teenage Rooster” – This is full-on prog with the witchy keyboards and organ, and haunted house atmosphere.

“Alice Cooper Alarm Clock” – Another great joke song title. This one says “inst.” in brackets. So we’re warned… but it’s over before you know it.

“End of the World Ice Cream” – Pollard sounds angry on this one. The only weird notes are the watery vocals towards the end. Otherwise a pretty cool, standard mid-tempo rocker with typically great Pollard lyrics: “Chastity was a lovechild/Daffodil is a dream/Better not use the guilt card/Narrow is the scheme.”

“I Do the Nixon” – Why does the album’s poppiest moment (so far) have Nixon in the title? ‘Cos it’s Circus Devils. Great song.

Circus Devils – “Do the Nixon” (fan vid, very cool): 

“Smoke Machine” – Sounds like a lo-fi tape experiment, the glory days of indie-rock – early Sebadoh or something, at least that’s how it starts. Then it gets kind of pastoral and weird… then it rocks! I started out thinking this song was going to be a dud but it’s got legs, man. And hooks. Liking this record more with every track.

“Time Trapper” – Okay, this one might let me down. A simple melody sung over an arpeggiated guitar… the chord change though is taking it places… a brief song/existential-lyric experiments that seems to be a Circus Devils signature.

“Crucified by the British Press” – Melodically, this immediately lives up to the greatness of the title. Hearing a lot of The Who on this record but that’s nothing new where Circus Devils (or GBV for that matter) is concerned. Glad to hear that Pollard actually sings the title in the chorus. This could be off a latter period (pre-reunion) GBV album, like Universal Truths and Cycles. Also hearing some Kinks, as befits the title.

“Mr. Detail’s Explanation” – Some nice chunky guitar and a Townshend melody. Over too soon.

“Farm Action” – You never know what to expect from the title. Far from being a rocker, this is a folk tune. And did Pollard just use the word “glossolalia”?

“Into Gear” – This is one of those maddening tracks – like “Farm Action”, come to think of it – that sounds like it’s aping a certain but elusive niche style or song, particularly in the guitar (if that is guitar). Maybe it’s aping Circus Devils.

“Cockroach Whiskey” – You can’t go wrong with a song title like that – or can you? Pollard likes to do spoken-word bits on Circus Devils records, and this is one of those. “Zig-zag-ziggy that’s me/Nothing from A to Z/How wrong you are.” Just guitar, vocals, some atmospheric keyboards.

“To Each His Zone (Sunshine Baby Butt)” – Don’t let the title fool you – this track has what is probably the album’s most melancholy pop melody. A lovely late-in-the-album treat.

“Aerial Photographs From Alcatraz (including nightmare parade)” – Very un-rock, almost world music percussion; power chords, a multi-tracked Bob, the lines “Break out the drumbeat again/Back on a diet of ribs/(?)/Back is the motorcade in this nightmare parade.” It ups the weirdness quotient with a thudding, instrumental moaning outro.

“Asteroids” – Begins as though it’s being broadcast over 1950s airwaves. Pollard singing/talking over this DJ Shadow soundscape. Builds tension – is it going to burst into a last glorious explosion of rock? Nope, it ends as it beings – a soft caress from across the decades.

All in all, an excellent record, and a fitting swan-song to an underappreciated (even by indie-rock standards) band. Guided by Voices fans (are there any fans of Circus Devils who aren’t?) will enjoy almost as much as Pollard’s most recent release, ESP Ohio.

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