If one of your favorite bands decided, 15 years after the fact, to monkey around with their swan song album, would you curse them as heretics? Or would you call them visionaries for allowing their art to evolve? Phantom Tollbooth, a trio that broke up in 1988 after issuing a handful of albums and EPs on indie rock stalwart Homestead, is betting that fans won't stone the band for remaking their last album with an entirely new set of lyrics, vocals and melodies -- written and performed by someone who was never in the band.
Tollbooth released Power Toy in 1988. This year, they dusted off the album's master tapes, stripped out the vocals and gave the instrumental tracks to Guided By Voices mastermind Robert Pollard, who then wrote new lyrics and melodies, and recorded vocals.
The result is Beard of Lightning (Off Records), an album that may take Tollbooth and GBV fans a while to reckon with, but one that is worth the effort. The album juxtaposes Tollbooth's punk-flavored take on blues, jazz and classic rock with Pollard's pop sensibilities and occasionally awkward lyrics (i.e., "The critical stage is raining down/Lost emotions being found/Origins of crowded house/Make a short line shorter," from the opener, "Mascara Snakes"). At times, Pollard's vocals sound like what they are, thoughts and melodies recorded completely apart from the band's original mindset. For the most part, however, the original instrumental tracks and the new vocals mesh well.
Fans who are familiar with Power Toy may refuse to believe that Beard of Lightning could work because Power Toy was such a wonderful finish to the band's short career. Tollbooth bassist/singer Gerard Smith, however, sees new things in the band's music thanks to Pollard's efforts. "I think that Bob's words, melodies and placement are superlative. He did a really great thing by singing where Dave and I would never have thought to and then laid back in areas where it seemed perfectly natural not to," Smith said via email.
Pollard is a big Tollbooth fan, and had the idea for the project. He had worked with Off Records' Chris Slusarenko, who put him in touch with Tollbooth vocalist-guitarist Dave Rick. Pollard asked the Tollbooth guys to put a tape together for him, Rick said via email. "Considering the band broke up around 15 years ago it wasn't gonna happen," said Rick, who played in Yo La Tengo before Phantom Tollbooth and King Missile and Bongwater after the band broke up. "But then somewhere along the way we were all like, 'What about him singing on the old tapes?'"
Beard of Lightning isn't an exact reworking of Power Toy. The new album omits Tollbooth's rampaging cover of Heart's "Barracuda," and substitutes Pollard's take on "Valley of the Gwangi," taken from a Tollbooth 7" recorded two years before Power Toy. One of the bonuses of BeardÍis that Pollard added vocals to two tracks that were instrumentals on the original album, truly making them his own.
Pollard and Tollbooth have stylistic differences, but Smith said that upon hearing the final result, he "felt relieved and vindicated of the art-rock tag that had been placed upon the band's work. We may have been different, but we were very much in the spirit of rock and roll and I think Bob's contribution is going to drive that home."
Pollard's lyrics are placed higher in the mix, but are equally as obtuse as Smith's or Rick's. "Ya gotta dig 'em on the surface then conversely dig deep to make connections," Rick said. "I liked the originals plenty, but the real hoot about this project for me was the conceit of making it as if Bob was in the band. So, if we all jammed the music with him back in '87 he'd be there scribbling and mumbling into the PA and I assume he'd come up with what he did in 2003."
The Tollbooth guys still play music: Rick in bands including Wide Right, the Martinets and Magenta Shift; drummer Jon Coats, who has released electronic music on his own label, Dank Disk, under several monikers, including Antifade, Stummfilm and Canartic, a project with Smith; and Smith, who is working on a revamped version of the band Easter Parade. Still, they were willing after 15 years to take a fresh look at the final Tollbooth album and risk refuting their art and let Pollard turn it into something new.
"The remix is the ultimate compliment to an artist," Coats said via email. "Instead of a DJ remixing we have Bob reimagining the vocals (melodies). He did an incredible job. Those songs are not easy to work with. As a listener I can finally hear the band as it is without listening to the individual parts. I think this idea of taking older recordings and reimagining is just starting."