Four-Track Minds

On Avery Island, the Merge-released debut from Jeff Magnum's home-baked Neutral Milk Hotel, opens with a miscued blast of synthesized fuzz and random chatter, just before the careening first track rips through the confusion. It's a hell of a setup: In the grand tradition of album-opening ass-kickers from the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There" to the Replacements' "I Will Dare," "Song Against Sex" announces itself with a self-assured, unforgettable blast of pure pop, with trombones soaring, tape loops squealing, guitars and drums pushing the needle into the red, and Magnum rattling off twisted lines that -- to these ears, at least -- add up to a tale of a sexual awakening. On Avery Island is a roaring, rambunctious kitchen-sink hoot in which the most tuneful fragments of Sixties psychedelia are channeled through Magnum's charmingly whacked lyrics and crafty, inventive melodies. And on the plaintive "A Baby for Pree," Magnum boils the entire recorded works of Donovan into something so fragile and pretty it'll make you weep.

Hot Monkey is the moonlighting incarnation of Scott Taylor, a guitarist and vocalist who full-times with the Memphis-based Grifters. His work with that quartet -- rooted in loneliness, angst, and sexual frustration -- acts as a balance to the more impressionistic musings of David Shouse, the band's other singer/guitarist. At home in his basement, armed with a guitar, a drumbox, and sundry effects, Taylor sings aching, often beautiful songs draped in a dense web of fuzzball guitars, and click-clack percussion. The More Than Lazy disc (Shangri La) combines a previously released ten-inch EP (Lazy) with a generous helping of outtakes and leftover tracks. Besides offering a chance to hear some of the Grifters best songs in their embryonic states (including "Steam," "Cinnamon," and "Sain"), More Than Lazy highlights Taylor's playful, endearingly whiny vocals and his ability to twist conventional pop-song forms to fit his peculiar, endlessly catchy melodies. This is a cogent, fully realized dose of bedroom bop that towers above Lion, his first long-playing effort from a couple years back.

If four-track manufacturers ever decide to seek out endorsement deals, they'll most likely be lined up at the doorstep of Guided by Voices. The Dayton, Ohio, aggregation has spent the better part of the last ten years bashing out surrealist, Beatle-esque anthems and ballads into battered home-studio decks, and have unwittingly become the embodiment of the low-fi aesthetic. After nine albums and too many singles and EPs to count, the band is, quite naturally, taking measured steps toward in-studio perfection (as witnessed on their latest, Under the Bushes Under the Stars, a relatively polished effort). The recent solo albums by principal songwriters Robert Pollard and Tobin Sprout, however -- both issued on Matador -- are rooted in the bargain-basement production ethos of GBV landmarks such as Propeller, Bee Thousand, and Clown Prince of the Menthol Trailer.

In GBV, Pollard and Sprout operate in similar fashion to David Shouse and Scott Taylor in the Grifters, with one (in this case, Sprout) writing in a relatively straightforward style while the other (Pollard) ventures farther along the edges of the postpunk, neopsychedelic envelope. The pair's solo albums seldom stray from this formula: Pollard's Not in My Airforce is loaded with skewed, oddball sputterings and rousing power-chord rockers; Sprout's Carnival Boy, meanwhile, is a feast for anyone looking for more of the catchy, instantly hummable nuggets that he's been burying on every GBV release and releasing sporadically under the alias Bevil Web.

Sprout's is the better of the two albums, a sharp, half-hour burst of AM pop as filtered through an indie-rock soul. But it's Pollard's set that best illustrates the possibilities that are open to any songwriter armed with good ideas and the right equipment. He stumbles wantonly through quick-hit ruminations ("The Ash Gray Proclamation," "John Strange School") and masterfully mined chunks of mighty rock-and-pop ("Get Under It," "Girl Named Captain," "Flat Beauty"), piecing it all together without giving a good goddamn about blown notes, misplaced mikes, or off-balance EQ levels. Every idea is captured, every utterance documented. Granted, it's a dangerous way to work, but Pollard pulls it off because his short, sharp songs are full of wit, humor, and careless, offhanded abandon -- rough-edged traits that too often are polished away in the sterile confines of the studio.

Addresses: Emperor Jones, Box 49771, Austin, TX 78765; Drunken Fish, Box 460640, San Francisco, CA 94146; Drag City, Box 476867, Chicago, IL 60607; Merge, Box 1235, Chapel Hill, NC 27514; Shangri La, 1916 Madison Ave, Memphis, TN 38104; Matador, 676 Broadway, New York,

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