Artist Spotlight: Guided by Voices

Artist Spotlight courtesy of Pucky

It’s late 2011. A young(er) Pucky has been developing a taste for rock music slowly but surely. First, he catalogs every song played on his local JACK FM franchise, in order to establish the canon of popular rock songs from the Seventies to present, but gets fatigued by the abundance of hair metal and Nickelback. Then, one fateful day he stumbles upon a Rolling Stone magazine in a dentist’s office and peruses it. Years before becoming fatigued by the publication’s narrow-minded quick-hit reviewing style and its attitude-laden textbook liberal slant, Pucky is intrigued by the music reviews section. Who are all these bands? Why are they never on the radio? “My Morning Jacket,” eh? What kind of no-name band is that?

Pucky decides to subscribe to the intriguing newsletters of Jann Wenner just in time for the 2011 year-end lists, but is more interested by other offerings. He discovers RS’ “Top 100 Albums” list for the 80s, 90s, and 00s. Of most interest to him is the 90s list, in which he hopes to see such classics as Live’s Throwing Copper or Collective Soul’s 1995 eponymous record represented. No dice on that front, but again a whole slew of off-radio bands pop up. Radiohead? The Magnetic Fields? The Breeders? Why don’t they play them on my radio station? Piquing the most interest is a ramshackle album cover with an intriguing band name:

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The description for this entry (which ranked at a paltry #79) was even more scintillating: all the songs were recorded on bargain-bin consumer grade four-tracks, with amp hum, sniffling musicians, creaking chairs, and static left in the mix. This intrigued Pucky’s trainwreck fascination sense, but the description of the songs as “guitar-pop perfection” made him consider checking out the band in earnest. The January 2012 issue of RS further sparked the desire to listen to GBV, with the review of their comeback record Let’s Go Eat the Factory including such descriptors as “half-finished songs with titles like ‘Kicker of Elves'” to explain the band’s oeuvre. Seeing Bee Thousand pop up as Amazon.com‘s #1 indie rock album of all time sealed the deal, but Pucky started not with that fabled record, but rather with a track from the band’s oft-maligned 1999 album Do the Collapse:

Amazed that such a catchy song was overlooked by radio programmers, Pucky decided to take the plunge and download their best-of compilation Human Amusements at Hourly Rates from Amazon, and with those 32 songs of goodness, the rest became history.

TL;DR: Pucky has adored Guided by Voices the second he heard of them.

GBV were a band with a strange backstory that was perfectly suited to the pre-Internet era, before every band’s full bio was pasted to a MySpace page before they even put out a song. First of all, when they rose to indie prominence in 1993, lead singer and founder Robert Pollard was in his late-thirties, over the hill by rock standards. Second, he and all his bandmates held down day jobs in their hometown, Rust Belt metropolis Dayton, OH; Pollard himself was a fourth-grade teacher. The group’s first album to reach a wide audience, 1992’s Propeller, was actually their fifth and intended as their final album; furthermore only 500 vinyl copies were made, and each record sleeve was hand-decorated and unique. However, like Brian Eno’s fabled comment that each one of the several dozen copies of the Velvet Underground’s debut was bought by someone who started a band, Propeller seemed to end up in the right hands, including those of Thurston Moore.

Most perplexing about the band was the songs they made. Their MO seemed to be to record on the shittiest tape recorder imaginable, all but leaving in flubbed notes and tape hiss. The sonics seemed to conjure up a place halfway between purgatory and a basement bathroom. And yet, the songs! Oh, the songs. Sweet melodies plucked out of the great collective songbook of the unconscious! In less florid terms, picture the ideal cross between the Beatles’ best tunes with those of the Who, with a dash of psychedelia, a dollop of Wire, and the faintest hint of early prog-rock. All this condensed down into 90-second nuggets.

Guided by Voices unintentionally joined Pavement in leading the “lo-fi” faction of Nineties indie, a subgenre characterized by those hissy, tinny sonics. As much as that aesthetic provided an aura of mystery/nostalgia to the band’s tunes, it was mainly born out of necessity. Live shows were Robert Pollard’s ideal setting, a place where his arena-rock anthems were not limited by his no-budget recording techniques. Also, a live show is more fun to get shitfaced at. Oh yeah, they loved to drink. A lot. Especially Bob Pollard, who probably can’t remember the endings to half of his shows. It’s heartbreaking when a show goes awry due to tipsiness, but until then, you’ve got a kickass rock band fronted by your buzzed uncle, except said uncle can go toe-to-toe with John Lennon for sheer songwriting prowess.

So I’ve rambled enough about the GBV experience, so lemme share some actual tunes! I already mentioned the first GBV song I ever heard (Teenage FBI), so let me go through some other favorites and essentials. This is very tough though, because another integral fact about Pollard/GBV is their extremely prolific nature. There are 23 full length records under the Guided by Voices moniker, alongside a dozen or so EP’s and four(!) 100-song outtakes collections. Then there are 23 Robert Pollard solo LP’s (and counting). And don’t get me started on the side projects, from one-offs like Lexo and the Leapers or Howling Wolf Orchestra to more enduring projects like Circus Devils or the Boston Spaceships. There are over 2000 songs registered by Robert Pollard and co. through BMI. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of chaff, but the wheat is the best damn wheat that power-pop has ever grown. So this is but a drop in the bucket of great tunes from this magnificent act and its many spin-offs.

“Tractor Rape Chain” – I picked a live version because I actually attended this concert! I’m behind the front row though I can’t find me in this video.

“The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” – one of the other 19 genius tunes on the amazing Bee Thousand record from 1994. Shows that Bob can do ballads too. It’s one of their few songs to be covered in hi-fi by another artist, …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead.

“Don’t Stop Now” – another gorgeous ballad, off my favorite record of all time, 1996’s Under the Bushes Under the Stars.

“Glad Girls” – If this had come out in 1996 and not 2001, it would have been a huge hit. It’s probably their most recognizable tune.

“Weed King” – an earlier tune, off the Propeller album.

“I Am a Tree” – one of the only GBV songs written by latter-day guitarist Doug Gillard, it’s a bit uncharacteristic with its nimble guitar work and relatively epic 4.5 minute length, but it’s still one of my favorites

“14 Cheerleader Coldfront” – a rare duet between Pollard and the band’s other resident songwriter, Tobin Sprout. Sprout’s tunes are just as nice as Pollard’s, with a more whimsical, elfin tone to contrast Bob’s more rocky instincts.

“Big School” – here’s a deep cut you won’t find on their best-of. Just try not to sing it after you hear it!

“Billy Wire” – So some more backstory: in 1997, Pollard fired all his other bandmates (the “classic” lineup) and hired Cleveland glam-rockers Cobra Verde to back him up. Every record through 2004 then featured a slightly different lineup, until Bob broke up the band for good New Year’s 2005. Then in 2011 the classic lineup reunited for a successful nostalgia tour before announcing they would continue to produce new music. 2012 yielded THREE new full-lengths, and this tune from the second one, Class Clown Spots a UFO, proves they’ve still got it.

“You Satisfy Me” – I had to include one track from a side project, since there are so many! Boston Spaceships found Pollard backed by Chris Slusarenko (late period GBV bassist/arranger) and John Moen (drummer, the Decemberists) for five albums of seventies-esque rock glory. Here’s a fan video:

And Good God there are so, so, SO many more.

If you want to get into them, I definitely recommend their Best-of collection. All killer, no filler. If you’re not about that life, start with 1995’s Alien Lanes, a 28-track pop masterclass including possibly the band’s best songs ever, though its patchwork nature makes it feel like the Abbey Road suite dragged through the mud and stretched to 42 minutes. Then, work your way forward through their discography chronologically.

Sadly there are so many more places not to start. Pollard’s solo albums almost always pale in comparison, but each one has at least one track to warrant buying it (e.g. the otherwise dull The Crawling Distance contains the propulsive “Faking My Harlequin” and the addled Blazing Gentleman boasts the sticky “Faking the Boy Scouts”). Vampire on Titus sits tantalizingly between Propeller and Bee Thousand, but it’s by far the lowest-fi of their albums. It’s fun to revel in its metallic griminess for a time, but it’s not at all accessible, even when it boasts sweet tunes like “Jar of Cardinals” and Sprout’s “Gleemer (The Deeds of Fertile Jim)”. Pre-Propeller records are collected in the Box box set, and while it’s fun to hear GBV in their formative period, they’re overall lesser albums. Finally, 1999’s Do the Collapse was a brilliant mistake. At the peak of their popularity, GBV were signed to mega-indie TVT Records to increase their exposure from beyond the steadfast indie scene at Matador. They even enlisted Ric Ocasek, dark prince of power pop and the guy who made Weezer stars, to produce. For many unclear reasons, the record turned out lackluster, with the shiny production overcompensating for lesser songs. Still, I’ve found things to love about it, first and foremost being “Teenage FBI”, but also including deep cuts like the melancholy “Mushroom Art” and the transcendent “Liquid Indian.”

Anyway, I hope I informed some of you about this fantastic, mysterious American band and its resident drunken master. I’ll leave you with my favorite GBV official video and one of the greatest songs ever written.