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Tobin Sprout - Lost Planets and Phantom Voices

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Artist: Tobin Sprout

Album: Lost Planets and Phantom Voices

Label: Recordhead

Review date: May. 7, 2003

Warm Nostalgia and Patient Self-Indulgence

While Robert Pollard has been spending much of the last few years churning out so much music that his good work has largely been drowned by a sea of inferior material, former Guided by Voices bandmate Tobin Sprout has been quietly painting and releasing a solo album every couple of years. While it was inevitable that Sprout would always be the George Harrison to Pollardís Lennon/McCartney, itís safe to say at this point that the loss of Sprout left a hole in GBV that has never been filled, and that his songs provided a much-needed contrast to Pollardís weirder, harder-edged material. Pollard now seems to be pulling back from the cock-rock excesses of his major-label days, but itís difficult to imagine GBV matching the greatness of its golden years, when Pollard and Sprout were a pop-genius double act.

Itís hard not to wax nostalgic when discussing Tobin Sproutís music. Longing for GBVís glory days aside, Sproutís songs have always been infused with a sense of longing, a warm ache that pervades the lovely melodies heís so capable of spinning. Whereas Pollard seems more obsessed with the weirder aspects of British Invasion rock (psych-era Beatles, rock-opera era Who), Sprout has always had more in touch with mid-period Kinks or even Nick Drake; thoughtful music that lingered over its own sadness and sense of mortality. These bands were aware that beneath the traditional subject matter of pop songs (girls, good times, girls) there was a sense of impending loss, a dawning realization that it would end all too soon. On Guided by Voicesí finest albums, such as Vampire on Titus and Bee Thousand, Sproutís winsome longings gave a real emotional heft to records that otherwise might have tipped too far towards Pollardís non-sequitur laden garage rock.

On his newest release, Lost Planets and Phantom Voices, Sprout proves that heís maintained his ability to craft gorgeous melodies and layer intricate vocals; much of the album passes in a beautiful, analog haze of humming guitar and languorous singing. Itís a more relaxed, confident record than Sproutís previous solo outings, perhaps because thereís less pressure on Sprout to perform. At this point, one has to imagine that Sproutís audience is reasonably small, reduced to GBV die-hards. Sprout doesnít seem to care, and the music here isnít designed to win anyone over. Instead, itís an album of largely mid-tempo, often acoustic meditations on love, surrounded by Sproutís expected aura of longing. ďIndian InkĒ and ďCatch the SunĒ are classic Sprout, vibrant garage-pop with instantly memorable melodies. Noisy, free-form numbers like ďMartiniĒ give the album a free, loose feeling that keeps things fresh. Whatís most notable about Lost Planets is that itís the first solo Sprout album that doesnít seem to lack from Pollardís input. 1999ís Letís Welcome the Circus People suffered from an occasional blandness. On Lost Planets, there is a strong sense of energy and enjoyment in the making of the music, an atmosphere of playful self-indulgence. This is perhaps a testament to Sproutís patience in waiting for the album to come together, letting the songs slowly gather.

In his spare time, Sprout makes photo-realist paintings, highly detailed renderings of his daily life. Theyíre produced largely for his own interest, simply because he feels the need to make art. His music seems to be produced in the same way, for its own enjoyment, and with little consideration to its response. Sprout is obviously obsessed with the detail of certain tones of feedback, of the effect created by certain combinations of vocal harmonies. This obsession with sound is belied by the wonderful textures and inviting warmth of Lost Planets, and while one imagines that its audience is a fraction of those who will buy the next Guided by Voices record, itís also possible that Sproutís audience will be better-served. And if youíre still longing for GBVís old line-up, you could always make a mixtape of Sproutís songs and the gems from Pollardís recent outings. An imaginary reunion album would fit right in to Tobin Sproutís world.

By Jason Dungan

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