Friday, September 10, 2004

Band Review: Guided By Voices

I have been a fan of Guided By Voices since 1996, when I heard their CD "Alien Lanes". This CD is a "low-fi" home recording, made on a 4-track recorder... It features tape hiss, some fuzzy sounds, and some songs which sound incomplete... but I view it as a work of art. It's something like 41 minutes long, but there are 28 songs. Many of the songs clock in at under two minutes, with the shortest ("Hit") at 17 seconds! The band rocks out on many of the cuts, the lyrics are poetic and imaginative, the titles are amusing, and Robert Pollard has A TRUE GIFT for creating melodies that can stick with a listener for days!

The main man of this band has always been Pollard. He was an athlete in college, throwing a no-hitter for Wright State's baseball team. He went on to become a teacher, and I believe he was teaching fourth grade when he decided to give up that day job for the life of a rock and roller. While the band lineups have changed frequently, Pollard remains the constant, the bandmaster. He plays some guitar here and there, but his primary job is lyricist and songwriter. When Pollard writes songs, he comes up with a strange title first, then writes the song!

Early Guided By Voices is contained in the box set titled... "Box"! The five CDs represent the first four GbV albums, plus an extra disc of "extras" called "King Shit and the Golden Boys". This last CD stands alone as a great GbV album.

The early "classic" GbV lineup (including Tobin Sprout on guitar) produced the acclaimed low-fi masterpieces "Vampire On Titus", "Propeller", "Bee Thousand" and "Alien Lanes" in the early to mid-90's, along with the EPs "Fast Japanese Spin Cycle" and "The Grand Hour". The musicians, frequently fueled by alcohol, produced many accidental moments of greatness. For example, on "Alien Lanes" the song "Ex-Supermodel" features the sound of a friend passed out on Pollard's couch, snoring noisily. There are also some songs which bring to mind the sounds of British Invasion bands and early 70's rock. Pollard has a decent vocal range, and his reedy voice makes his words and melodies come to life.

The band cleaned up their sound a bit with "Under The Bushes Under The Stars", which proved to be the last album by the "classic" lineup. This disc has higher production values but continues the band's tradition of memorable songs. An EP disc called "Sunfish Holy Breakfast was also released around this time, and it contains some fine melodies. At this point, Pollard decided to record with the band Cobre Verde backing him, and touring as Guided By Voices. Their CD "Mag Earwhig!" continued the trend toward cleaner-sounding music, and introduced guitarist Doug Gillard to GbV fans.

The band made further advances up the musical evolutionary ladder with "Do The Collapse". Until this time, GbV had recorded a string of CDs for independent label Matador. This time, they signed on with another indie label, TVT, and hired Ric Ocasek (formerly of The Cars) to produce. Cobre Verde was no longer in the picture, but Gillard remained to play guitar. The new band lineup had a tight, muscular sound on record. Their sound was almost slick in quality, and "Do The Collapse" is truly a magnificent piece of melodic rock ear candy. One single from this disc, "Hold On Hope" is abstractly anthemic, with a grand, stately feeling. The leadoff cut "Teenage FBI" features nice guitarwork and great vocal harmonies. Gillard's guitar shines on "Surgical Focus", "Mushroom Art" and "Wormhole". The rest of the band fleshes out the sound with layers of guitars, vocals and keyboards. A second TVT disc, "Isolation Drills", continued in the same vein with a different producer, but in my opinion it does not have the warmth of "Do The Collapse". Nonetheless, it includes a lot of great melodic hooks, good lyrics, excellent singing and wonderful guitarwork.

Guided By Voices went back home to Matador for "Universal Truths and Cycles", which contains some "low-fi" moments for old-school GbV fans, alongside some more-produced cuts such as "Back To The Lake" and the hard-rocking "Skin Parade". "Earthquake Glue" is more of the same, and it prompted one reviewer to say it sounded like "The Who on steroids". I believe that reviewer was correct, as many moments on "Earthquake Glue" do evoke images of Keith Moon and Pete Townshend. This disc contains a wonderful pop single "Best of Jill Hives". "The Pipe Dreams of Instant Prince Whippet" is a 10-song EP CD that features cuts not used on "Universal Truths" and "Earthquake Glue". For a bunch of "extra" cuts, there are some gems here, particulary the singalong/drinkalong anthem "Beg For a Wheelbarrow" and the sophisticated "Dig Through My Window", replete with strings.

Robert Pollard released many interesting solo CDs during this time, including a personal favorite of mine, "Not In My Air Force", as well as "Waved Out!" and "Kid Marine". He recorded a great CD with Doug Gillard called "Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department"; this one ranks with just about any GbV disc in quality of material. Gillard did just about all the playing, Pollard did the singing and writing. The pair has recorded another CD as "Lifeguards", but I have not yet heard it. Pollard reunited with old-school GbV bandmate Tobin Sprout for a couple of CDs as Airport 5. "Tower In The Fountain Of Sparks" is the better of the two, as the songs are more cohesive, while I think "Life Begins Here" sounds like a collection of "extras".

The recent box set "Hardcore UFO's" contains several CDs, including the GbV best-of disc "Human Amusements At Hourly Rates". This CD is available individually or as part of the box set, and it is a great introduction to this great band. Other discs contain B-sides, rarities and great unknown cuts such as the enigmatic acoustic-guitar rocker "My Thoughts Are a Gas". The box also includes the DVD "Watch Me Jumpstart", a film about GbV by Clay Tarver.

I only got to see this wonderful band one time, at La Luna in Portland, Oregon. Pollard is a dynamic performer, twirling his microphone, doing high leg kicks. He also likes to drink beers as he performs. I watched him fire a can of Bud into a crowd: it was a fastball, thrown underhand, probably at about 50 mph. Luckily it didn't hit anyone. This happened several more times during the evening, as the band played on and Pollard continued to drink. Seeing him perform, I was able to understand why alcohol is mentioned fairly often in his lyrics. (I wasn't able to figure out why he also frequently refers to airplanes.)

Sadly, Guided By Voices is coming to an end. They recently released "Half Smiles Of The Decomposed", which I haven't heard yet but plan to acquire soon. Their last performance is (I believe) scheduled for Chicago this New Year's Eve. Of course Pollard will continue to record solo material, but things just won't be the same for us GbV fans.

The Best of Guided By Voices: Human Amusements At Hourly Rates (try this one first)
Do The Collapse
Alien Lanes
Bee Thousand
Under The Bushes Under The Stars
Not In My Air Force (Robert Pollard solo)
Sunfish Holy Breakfast


Blogger J. Marquis said...

Nice history of the band. You could be a liner note writer.

I see they're going to play two nights in Portland. Are you going to see them?

10:24 AM  
Blogger J. Marquis said...

I can appreciate how Pollard writes his songs. When I'm going to put something on my blog I spend about 90% of my time thinking up the title and then I just spew out the rest.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Snave said...

Sometimes I do it the same way as Pollard, although I have always wished I could come up with song titles like he does... "Ceramic Cock Einstein"... "The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory"... "Pop Zeus"... the list goes on and on!

11:06 AM  
Blogger Elisabeth said...

Hey there, I just found your comment on my blog entry on Bill Clinton's bypass surgery. I did read Fast Food Nation a few years ago, but didn't see the film (forgot the title) by the guy who ate a McDonald's diet for 60 days (or was it longer?) and immediately felt the physical consequences of doing this.

BTW, I liked your very erudite post on Guided By Voices. I am familiar with the band's name, but not with their music at all. I should probably check it out. Thanks for your recommendation for a first album purchase.

2:51 PM  

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