Tobin Sprout's voice is instantly recognizable on Dayton, Ohio band fig. 4's only album, as is the melodic stamp he impressed upon each song. Joining Sprout are John Peterson on drums and fellow future Guided by Voices member Dan Toohey on bass. Recorded in late 1986, fig. 4 is post-punk in a distinctly early R.E.M./Athens-scene sort of way, showing the influence of new wave and punk as well as jangly alternative rock, and, as such, is not a bad complement to early Guided by Voices, whose ranks Sprout would join not long after this album saw the light of day. In fact, with Robert Pollard singing background vocals on half the songs, this might give some insight into what a Sprout-led GbV might have come out sounding like. In other words, not bad at all, and pretty exciting at times, with a slightly less angular style. Most of the songs on the album are group written (though one imagines that credit was mostly a function of youthful one-for-all type idealism), and, as such, deviate ever so slightly from the sort of wistfully melodic pop Sprout would come to perfect in Guided by Voices and his solo career. Instead, the band play it hard and steady, adding some pent up, sloppy youthful rage. The songwriting is solid, if not yet entirely singular: the melody of "Fishin'" is pure Beatles gone Byrds, while "Strangler" works a Smithereens bass groove into submission. It's easy to see why this stuff was both refreshing and alternative in the mid-'80s: while there is a sweetness to the melodies, they are also, for the most part, not instantly, easily hummable tunes (other than a couple of cuts, including "Train Brain"), and they are certainly not clean and shiny enough for radio. But they sure will stick in the memory. Maybe you can do without fig. 4 if your itching for early-'80s jangle pop bands has been suitably scratched already. Maybe. But you really do need to have the fabulous "Dig the Catacombs" (by a 1995 Sprout side project, Bevil Web) and some impossible-to-find singles included on the package as bonus tracks. As fine an introduction to Tobin Sprout as you will find.
fig. 4 Review
by Stanton Swihart