Guided By Voices

Budweiser is my copilot

At their best, GBV sound like lost '60s Brit-pop A-sides retooled for B-sides (or is it the other way around?) for the post-punk era, bringing to mind Syd Barrett fronting the Kinks hastily knocking off throwaways in a basement with an ample supply of cheap beer, tuneage too raw for public consumption but pretty cool to dig up on an obscure bootleg. At their worst, GBV sound just like the above -- it's a matter of digging through the lo-fi fragments to find jewels amidst the rubble. All of the GBV releases I've heard sound pretty much the same; the better ones simply have good songs outweighing the filler, and the worst ones vice versa. After spending nearly a decade in obscurity, releasing a string of ultra-obscure albums that never got any notice outside of their native Dayton (if even there), GBV's sixth album became a surprise breakout amongst the alternative crowd, scoring critical accolades and tour slots supporting fellow Daytoners the Breeders. Recording at a prodigious rate, leader Robert Pollard obviously subscribes to the "quantity, not quality" theory of artistic production, recording and releasing seemingly his every fit of drunken inspiration. This perpetually alcoholic, sloppily attired 40-something (and looks it) ex-schoolteacher certainly doesn't fit the mold of your typical rock star, and neither does the shambolic gang of fellow middle-aged beer-swilling family men locals (who were fired by Pollard, to fans' regret, after the recording of 1996's Under the Bushes, Under the Stars). They've never released a beginning to end great album, and never fucking will, because Bob Pollard cannot, and will not, edit his good ideas from his bad ones -- every GBV release sports at least several perfect little pop songs side by side with aimless whimsy and grating noise fragments. Each release contains a bewildering amount of songs, all quite brief (many clocking in at under a minute), that makes their albums difficult to absorb all at once -- separating the wheat from the chaff takes time (Pollard has said that his favorite album is Wire's Pink Flag, and the influence of that punk-era masterpiece of fragmented, angular minimalism is clearly evident).

The discography below only lists full-length GBV albums and longer sets. Keeping track of all the numerous EPs, singles, and side-projects would be a futile task, since by the time I've finished printing this they've already released a couple more 7 inches in Belgium.

Devil Between My Toes (1987)

Their first full-length album.

Sandbox (1987)
Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia (1989)
Same Place the Fly Got Smashed (1990)
Box (1995)

This boxed set contains all of the above '80s albums plus an extra disc of outtakes. Definitely not for newcomers, but essential for dedicated fans I suppose.

Propeller (1992)
Vampire On Titus (1993)

Vampire On Titus and Propeller were reissued on one two-fer CD.

Bee Thousand (1994) ****

On Bee Thousand, at least, the wheat outweighs the chaff, and most of the songs are complete songs, with only a handful of blurry, seat-of-the-pants fragments thrown on an official release just for the hell of it. Pollard's nonsensical lyrics give insight to a man who has sacrificed the best years of his life to teach fourth-graders, dealing as they do with such Alice-in-Wonderland subjects as robots, demons, elves, pigpens, all sorts of flying objects (including UFOs), and of course plenty of animals, too. If it sounds a bit like Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, well, that's another key influence, perhaps an even more crucial key to unlocking the GBV sound than Milwaukee's finest beverage products. Casually politically incorrect in the way that middle-aged men tend to get when they've had one too many, GBV toss off a little ditty entitled "Tractor Rape Chain," and pen a barroom classic, "Hot Freaks" ("She baptized me with salt and said Liquor! / I am a new man"). Barraging through a clutch of garagebeat pop full of wannabe-glory buried underneath tons of 4-track hiss, bothering to tune or rehearse only if they damn well feel like it, Pollard's offhand melodies poke through and ocassionally, such as on the sumptious "Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory," or the anthemic "Gold Star For Robot Boy," (currently my favorite GBV song), they actually come close to realizing their ambition of recording a career of Beatles B-sides. Tobin Sprout, roughly McCartney to Pollard's Lennon, gets in four sweet little pop songs that fit in nicely, particularly the quite Macca-esque "Scenes From Ester's Day." "Her Psychology Today," rocks; "Kicker of Elves," is GBV's most compellingly unfinished, weird fragment; and the best-known tune, "I Am A Scientist," could have been a hit single if it were better produced. But, as with all GBV music, Pollard insists upon the lo-fi, hit and run aesthetic: the cheaper sounding, the better.

Crying Your Knife Away (1994)

A live album. It's not like they're hurting for original material to play onstage...

Alien Lanes (1995) ***

Remember upthread when I said that the difference in quality between GBV albums came down to whether the wheat outweighed the chaff? Well, on their followup to their breakthrough, Pollard & Co. eschew "lengthy" tunes for the most part and populate this record with a string of pop/noise fragments that sometimes sound pretty okay but probably wouldn't stand up stretched to the standard 3-minute (or even 2-minute) length. 28 tracks within roughly 40 minutes makes for some mighty choppy listening, and, as you might have guessed, by no stretch of the imagination do all -- or probably even the majority -- of these (I guess you have to call them) "tunes" deserve release. It's as if Bob and the boys got drunk one evening in their 4-track studio, bashed out a handful of solid full-length songs, goofed around a lot, and threw the whole shebang together unedited as Side One. And then did the same for Side Two the next night. Wait, now that I think about it, that scenario's more than likely very close to the actual production of this GBV product... And the thing is, there are enough fully realized tunes to keep the listener frustrated that Pollard and Sprout couldn't just spend some more time and release an entire album of tunes as bright as "Game of Pricks," (rushing power-pop with a misleadingly vulgar title) and "My Valuable Hunting Knife," (potential Boy Scout anthem). I realize that such anti-professionalism is these guys' whole schitck, but so much of this doesn't seem so much rough-edged as lazy and sodden. Not that some of the fragments aren't interesting -- the one introducing the "giggling faggots" always makes, hee, giggle, and the one where the ex-supermodel's boyfriend writes music for soundtracks now has a cool little storyline to it. Tell you what -- just throw this puppy in a cheap Walkman, slap on the headphones, and when you're walking around it all mushes together into its sub-Side 2-of-Abbey Road gestalt. Music like this was meant to be listened to on the shittiest equipment possible.

Jellyfish Reflector

Another live album. Probably not redundant with the previous live set, since they've got such a backlog of material to choose from.

Under the Bushes, Under the Stars (1996) ****

Ah, now they're finally getting it together -- in a complete turnabout, GBV release an entire album possessing only a handful of fragmented tunes, and even those fragments are more fully developed than usual. If you're a newcomer, this might be the GBV to own -- it's certainly more accessible than their previous work. Track after track mines the same winning post-power pop formula of jangly guitars, fake Brit accents (except when Pollard's unleashes his newfound Michael Stipe imitations), Beatlesque melodies, and sweet/tart post-punk hooks. And, curiously enough, that's the album's main flaw -- on first or even second listen, it all flies by as too similar sounding. This is in contrast to the wildly veering eclecticism of Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes -- maybe when you're cramming 18 songs on one album (24 including the bonus EP), you need a few bad songs to make the good ones stick out? Eventually, I've grown to enjoy nearly every little gem on here, except for the first four songs -- for some reason none of them stick to me, until "Official Ironmen Rally Song," kicks in as a potential chart-topping single (well, in an alternate universe where I set the standards). Pollard's songs don't seem like much on the third or even fifth listen, just pleasant little pop-rock ditties, until suddenly they bury their hooks in you and you've got his refrains boring themselves into your head all day. In particular the haunting "I can't tell you anything / You don't already know," from "Acorns & Orioles," has me mouthing it at the oddest moments (and now that I've just mentioned it in this review I'm going to have the damn thing stuck in my head all night...) Sprout's tunes are sweeter, more conventional, and slightly less memorable; my favorite here is "Atom Eyes," which sorta reminds me of Keith Moon circa "Girl's Eyes". Important fact to note: the original CD was released with 18 tracks. Don't buy it. Instead, only buy copies that tack on a six-song EP released shortly afterwards, because the 6 bonus tracks constitute perhaps the most consistent and best GBV release I've heard so far. The EP contains Sprout's best-ever song, "It's Like Soul Man," and Pollard's "Big Boring Wedding," has one of the catchiest buzz-phrase refrains ever: "Pass the word, the chicks are back." If I ever get married, I'll make sure they play it at the reception. When I'm in a generous mood, I'd give this release an extra half star because of the EP, but probably not -- no GBV release deserves higher than 4 stars. Which is a pretty high rating, anyway.

Mag Earwhig! (1997) ***1/2

Firing the entire old GBV (including Sprout) and hiring the long-running local indie rockers Cobra Verde, Pollard turns in yet another inconsistently brilliant collection of typical Pollard-isms, slouching more towards the mainstream with every release. With the Cobras behind him, GBV are freed from their charmingly ramshackle lo-fi limitations and now rock like a well-oiled, professional hard rock band. That's a good thing on faster, harder numbers like "Not Behind the Fighter Jet" and "Bomb in the Beehive" which hit louder and tougher than the old GBV ever could, but on the downside, there's an acute loss in textural variety - the trend was already evident on Under the Bushes, but now it's taken over so completely that on first (or third) listen it's starting to get hard to tell the songs apart. The dry high-pitched, high energy buzz on almost every track grows tiresome quickly, and despite a few acoustic-picked ballads, one soon aches for a dose of Sprout's pop sweetness to counter Pollard's tart tanginess. In fact, the most immediately accessible track is the one song that Pollard had no hand in writing, Doug Gillard's classic hard rock anthem, "I Am a Tree." Getting past the samey-sounding-ness, one finds that Pollard hasn't lost his touch, but keeps cranking out smashing tune after tune with a few missteps along the way (how can a 21-track CD not have a few bad songs?). "Jane of the Waking Universe," may be his finest power-pop anthem yet, though Pollard is inching towards arena-aiming hard rock in his writing elsewhere. Songs like "Bulldog Skin," "Portable Men's Society," and "Little Lines," are designed more for pumping the fist (or chugging a Bud) in the air than humming along. And with Gillard's slashing riffage, this is the first GBV album that you can air guitar to - which is a good thing.

Do the Collapse (1999)

Produced by Ric Ocasek, the first "slick" (i.e., mainstream production standardized) GBV album.

Suitcase: Failed Experiments and Trashed Aircraft (2000)

A 4-CD box set consisting of 100 outtakes. You realize that by this point Bob Pollard has recorded more songs than Bob Dylan has in his entire career?

Isolation Drills (2001)

Their latest CD.

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And Mother - release the bad seed