A Proud and Booming Industry
13 · 25 April 95
Those of you who follow this column, supposing there are such people, might recall that back in February, in issue #4, I encountered Guided by Voices for the first time, in the person of Bee Thousand, then their most recent album. Although little time has passed since then, the band has released both another new album, Alien Lanes, and a box set containing their first four albums and a disc of unreleased material. This would be easily enough to get them most of a column to themselves. In the last two months, though, I've also raked in whatever else I could find by the band. And while I'm certainly a year or two too late to claim any special prescience for my GbV fascination, it does seem like most other people who don't actually live in Dayton, Ohio, are also encountering this huge mass of GbV stuff, along with a steadily building amount of small-, and not-so-small-, time hype, all at once, and so a detailed GbV overview, however unavoidably subjective, might actually be something of at least theoretical usefulness to you. And for those of you who've so far missed the hype, I'm more than happy to contribute some more of it for your benefit.
This release-list isn't quite complete, but it's close enough. Missing are the first GbV EP, Forever Since Breakfast, a later single called Clown Prince of the Menthol Trailer, and several assorted songs on split singles and obscure compilations, but in the grand scheme of things I don't feel that I'm being unreasonable in asking you to accept the 210 songs represented here as emblematic of the absent dozen or so.
Guided by Voices: Devil Between My Toes
The box set, simply titled Box, contains the first four GbV albums (or, if you buy the LP version, the first five, which sounds like vinyl chauvinism but isn't, for reasons that I'll get to later). Devil Between My Toes is the first full GbV album. After listening to the first song on it, "Old Battery", you will be tempted to laugh at the number of words below this point in this column, and say to yourself "I don't know what's so complicated about describing this band. They sound just like REM used to!" And when "Discussing Wallace Chambers" fails to break the mold, and you note that this album came out ("out", throughout this review, is used somewhat loosely) six years after Chronic Town, you may be tempted to write the whole thing off as sadly derivative. Or you might if you had time to, but the next two songs are on you before you have much chance to even reach for the remote, and so you might as well stick it out for a little while longer, to see if anything unexpected transpires.
And while nothing on Devil Between My Toes is likely to induce hemorrhaging by its breathtaking novelty (can holding one's breath lead to hemorrhaging?), the rest of it does contain enough that doesn't sound quite so much like REM to make you loosen your grip on the idea. The martial drums that meander behind the prettily picked guitar on "Cyclops" are intriguing. The starkly mechanical drum-machine loop on "Crux" is out of character for jangly traditionalist pop. The muted, distorted voices on the long near-instrumental "Portrait Destroyed by Fire" are disconcerting, as is the fact that there are several dark instrumental snippets on the album in the first place. And, in the other direction, the silly bounciness of "Dog's Out" and "Hank's Little Fingers" would have sounded jarringly out of place on REM's murkily mysterious early efforts. And the last song, "Captain's Dead", rocks harder than REM ever has, their current aspirations notwithstanding (imagine the Byrds doing an earnest Hüsker Dü cover, rather than the other way around).
Listening to this album as your first exposure to GbV, you would almost certainly remark on its low production quality. Tape hiss, in particular, is very evident throughout, and it rises to a threatening roar during several quiet passages. In the context of the band's later work, though, rest assured that this record's production will come to seem like the embodiment of moderation. A little perhaps-avoidable tape hiss is nothing compared to the intentional sonic mutilation they would later subject their songs to.
Guided by Voices: Sandbox
The second album opens with a song called "Lips of Steel", and instantly I am reminded of Guadalcanal Diary, another fine southern guitar-pop band, who had a song by the same name. "A Visit to the Creep Doctor" also sounds a little like Guadalcanal Diary, and the third song, "Everyday", reminds me of the dB's. The record seems set to recapitulate the Athens-to-Raleigh Mitch Easter American alternative pop movement.
But, as on the first album, the initial impression is firmly undermined as the album progresses. Only a couple of other songs remind me of Guadalcanal Diary or anybody similar. "Barricade", the fourth song, evolves in sections like a miniature Townshend rock opera performed by Thin White Rope's cheerful cousins. "Get to Know the Ropes" stretches itself out spacily. "The Drinking Jim Crow" could serve as shoegazing music if Robert Pollard wouldn't enunciate so clearly. The jerky "Common Rebels" reminds me of the Knack, at least until it slows down midway through. The acoustic "Long Distance Man" is unabashedly Beatle-esque.
The first hint of GbV's true destiny, though, comes to me on "Trap Soul Door". The music is mostly undistinguished, and the song is brief, but these unassuming surroundings conceal a deceptive little vocal melody with unmistakably classic style. After hearing this, I go back and relisten to this entire album, focusing specifically on the melodies, and I start to hear things I missed the first time. Stylistically the band seems unfocused, and while the more serious tape-hiss problems appear to have been corrected, sterling production is still hardly among GbV's qualities. What they've begun to demonstrate, though, is an innate sense for the melodic core of pop songwriting. If you're picking qualities to hang a band around, and can only afford one, this is a pretty good one to go for.
Guided by Voices: Self Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia
Things start getting a bit stranger on the third album. Just reading the song titles is enough to clue you in to this; where the first two albums have the occasional entry like "A Visit to the Creep Doctor", most of the titles of their songs aren't themselves particularly bizarre. "Trap Soul Door", "Adverse Wind" and "Artboat" are odd as song titles, but not flamboyantly so. Scanning the track listing for this album, whose title itself is pretty funny, one finds "The Future is in Eggs", "The Great Blake St. Canoe Race", "Slopes of Big Ugly", "Navigating Flood Regions", "Short on Posters", "Chief Barrel Belly" and "The Qualifying Remainder", and one begins to suspect that Pollard is up to something mischievous.
There are some promising musical things going on, too. The production has begun to fragment, as the band presumably becomes more comfortable with their medium and starts to experiment with revealing more of its character in the finished work. "Navigating Flood Regions" may be the first entire GbV song to intentionally stick to "bad" production, the whole of it sounding like somebody ran the masters of the tape deck through an aging Microverb, instead of patching it into the effects return like they were supposed to. If you're going to insist on being bothered by such things, you probably shouldn't have even started reading this column. Now that you're here, though, you might want to shelve your preconceptions and forge ahead, because I've come to feel that enjoying GbV doesn't require that you lower your standards, just that you examine them.
Just as the production begins to take on a shape of its own, the songs too are beginning to discover their own identities. Pure-pop referents in abundance will, I think, jump to your mind as you go through this album. A bit of the Beatles there, some Byrds here, some Who, a little Jethro Tull perhaps. "Paper Girl" reminds me of the Bee Gee's, in their pre-Disco-Evil days. "Liar's Tale" seems extracted from some romantic crooner's age that I didn't live through. Touches of REM and other later practitioners creep in every once in a while, still, but for the most part Pollard's songwriter roots seem to extend farther back than that. What use he will make of them, at this point, is still a little unclear, but I'm beginning to get an idea.
Guided by Voices: Same Place the Fly Got Smashed
The future finally arrives in a minivan on the fourth GbV album. After three albums that I think it would be fair to call "formative", Same Place the Fly Got Smashed assembles, for the first time, the essential elements of the mature Guided by Voices idiom. By which I mean:
- Bizarre production. Self Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia had some muddled songs, but this is the first album where different elements of the same song start to exhibit different production idiosyncrasies. This is the first album where low-fi production tools start to be treated as musical elements in their own right, not low-budget attempts to emulate more expensive gear. Where most people with cheap gear work hard to make the gear seem to disappear, to hide its cheapness, Guided by Voices seems to have decided that somebody ought to be honest about things for a change. When you first find out that Bruce Springsteen did Nebraska on a four-track, you probably go "Wow, man" (or, if you find this out during a particularly bad Star Trek phase, "Fascinating, Captain; yet our sensors do not detect anything"). Implicit in your surprise, and in the fact that that exigency is brought up to begin with, is the idea that a four-track is normally bad, and that it's a testament to some unique and praiseworthy talent of Bruce's that he was able to do real musical work with one. Yet, when you think about this, what sense does it make? Didn't punk establish, if it wasn't established previously, that you don't need expensive instruments or a great deal of technical skill to make great music? And if a crappy Strat knock-off and three chords are good enough for playing rock and roll, why should producing it be so different. Get some cheap microphones, a machine that can record on all four tracks of a cassette at once, and start making music.
- Overachieving melodies. The central energizing tension in Guided by Voices music, at least in my opinion, comes from the way they mix an apparent sonic indifference (though I'm becoming more and more convinced that this is carefully cultivated) with enthusiastically complicated and polished melodies. The level of craft evident in the vocal parts of GbV songs is more comparable to West Side Story than to Dinosaur Jr. or the Feelies.
- Odd sound-bites. On later albums these would get titles and index points all their own, driving the track count way up. Here they are worked into the thirteen listed songs, and only sparingly at that. But even if you only count the samples at the outset of "Airshow '88", the grade-school chant "Ambergris", and the demented minute-long closing track, "How Loft I Am?", GbV have started to hint that their albums need not consist of twelve three-and-a-half minute songs, carefully separated by silence. Later albums would sound more like collages of found tape-lengths than like the usual song-by-song assemblages, and I hear the beginnings of this here.
- Cryptic lyrics. I'm not always convinced that Pollard isn't stringing phrases together totally at random, but every time I say that and go to transcribe a particularly telling example, I find that there's something to it, after all. It's not always easily explainable, but who said lyrics have to be?
- A song or two you could pull out and play to nearly anybody. For all GbV's quirks, nearly every album has something that could be extracted, which in isolation would demonstrate the band's musical and melodic gifts without the listener having to immediately confront any of the harder things.
"The Hard Way" would be my choice from this one, I think.
Guided by Voices: King Shit and the Golden Boys
The box set concludes with a disc of nineteen unreleased songs. Given how much stuff GbV has put out, it's at least a little amazing to me that there's yet more lying around. 1993, especially, appears to have been an insanely productive year for the band. Twelve of these songs are from then, five are from 1991, and two date back to 1988.
The two old ones, "We've Got Airplanes" and "Dust Devil", sound very much like the flip sides of a single that never quite got made. "Dust Devil" I like as much as anything on the first two albums. The 1991 songs, by contrast, sound like rehearsal tapes that just turned up in a box somewhere. They're noisy and impromptu, even by GbV's standards, and not performed with the band's usual attention to singing on key.
The 1993 songs are more like what you'd expected from unreleased tracks. There are some gems, like the quiet "Don't Stop Now", which features some of the worst acoustic-guitar fret-buzzing ever made commercially available (and from which the disc's title is taken); the soaring vocals of "Deathtrot and Warlock Riding a Rooster", whose music consists of a two-finger piano part; the mechanical "At Odds with Dr. Genesis", a fragment of which turns up at the beginning of "Ester's Day", on Bee Thousand; the folky "Please Freeze Me" and "Crocker's Favorite Song"; and even one song, "Postal Blowfish", that reminds me more than a little of Fugazi. Intermingled with these are some less-remarkable tracks, but what do you want from stuff they initially didn't intend to even release?
The box, as a whole, is even cooler than its individual components. It makes me think that every band ought to spend several years printing up their own albums and giving them to friends, before worrying about wider distribution. This strategy is good for the band, as it gives them plenty of time to develop their style free from meddling outside influences. It's even better for obsessive fans like me, though, as it provides a rare opportunity for immersing ourselves in an impressive, and extensive, catalog that, until recently, was basically unknown to the world. Just discovering Guided by Voices is exciting. Finding out how much stuff of theirs there already is to enjoy is like looking up from the mysterious new sweater you just found at the back of your closet to realize that the back wall of the closet hinges back, revealing four or five more fully-furnished rooms that you never knew your house contained.
Guided by Voices: Propeller
If you buy the box set on LP, it also includes 1992's Propeller, the fifth GbV album. It had already appeared on CD, grafted to the end of Vampire of Titus, before the box came out, though, and so the CD version of the box reasonably leaves it out.
It's not an album to miss. The songs are easily my choice for the best to this point, with several clearly in the running for a short list of the band's best moments (the ones I have in mind, in case you'd like to calibrate your tastes with mine, are "Weed King", "Quality of Armor", "Exit Flagger", the Simon and Garfunkel-ish "14 Cheerleader Coldfront", the turgid "Some Drilling Implied", and especially the stomping anthem "Unleashed! The Large-Hearted Boy"). The production is reasonably unobtrusive, as GbV production goes. All in all, this would make a great single-disk introduction to the band.
Guided by Voices: Vampire on Titus
That is, it would if it weren't packaged (on CD at least) with Vampire on Titus, which is almost certainly the hardest bit of the GbV catalog to enjoy. There are some more great songs in here somewhere, but for once the production really does beat the spirit out of them. Relentless metallic vocal distortion, in particular, shreds the melodies of too many of these songs. And of the songs that escape it, an unfortunate number don't seem up to the band's usual quality to me. If this album were mine to edit, I'd probably only retain three of the actual recordings here: "Marchers in Orange", "Jar of Cardinals" and "Non-Absorbing". Many of the others harbor potential, but they'd have to be re-recorded to make it legible.
Guided by Voices: The Grand Hour
This six-song 1992 EP (it actually came out between Propeller and Vampire on Titus) looks important. After all, it's got songs titled "Alien Lanes" and "Bee Thousand", which ought to be the absent title tracks from the later albums of the same names. And with a title like "The Grand Hour", it sounds long.
In fact, the only way to get an hour out of this disc would be to play it six times. And I don't actually recommend that. "Shocker in Gloomtown" is okay, and "Break Even" has a few nice moments, but the rest of this set is pretty much a mess. Not including "Bee Thousand" and "Alien Lanes" on those albums was the right decision. Releasing them at all was, I'm afraid, questionable.
Guided by Voices: Static Airplane Jive
Seven-inch singles, you remember these, right? Song on each side, play 'em at 45, etc.? Well, GbV's approach is a little different. After all, slow one of these suckers down to 33 and you can get, oh, six or seven songs on it! As long as they're all really short...
This one's pretty good. "Big School", the opening track, is snappy and charming, the band relocating the perfect balance between low-fi production and high-quality song construction. The stately "Damn Good, Mr. Jam" is the source of the bewitching "Anything for free" chorus that drifts in and out of Propeller's grab-bag track, "Back to Saturn X Radio Report". The b-side squeezes in four more songs: "Rubber Man" is too short to say much about; "Hey Aardvark" is barely longer, but useful for singing at a campfire that's extremely pressed for time; "Glow Boy Butlers" is a good rock song, with a more prominent bass part than GbV songs usually have. "Gelatin, Ice Cream, Plum...", the last song, is my favorite, and perhaps the best argument for seeking out this single. It's hard to claim, given how many GbV songs you can acquire more easily, that six more on diminutive vinyl are really essential, but if your turntable is still in operating condition and there's a 7" single bin off in the corner of your local CD store, why don't you saunter over and flip through the Gs just in case they've got one of these lying around. And if playing it reminds you that you really need a new stylus, which in turn prompts you to put on some of those old 45s of yours that never made it to digital, and relive some happy episodes from your youth, then so be it.
Guided by Voices: Fast Japanese Spin Cycle
For those of you who have relegated turntables to the scrap pile of electronics history, though, GbV has accommodatingly provided us with a some more singles in shiny CD format. You should be warned, if you buy this one thinking that you're getting an exceptional value because the back of the cardboard sleeve lists eight songs, that the eight songs clock in at just over ten minutes, which timewise puts this in the lower percentiles of the CD-single population.
As long as you don't measure "value" in elapsed seconds, though, I bet you'll be pretty pleased with this. Of the words in the title, "Fast" is the operative term. If, for some personal reason, you wish to understand GbV but want to spend as little time as is humanly possible in doing it, this succinct collection is as good a depiction of the band in miniature as any I could think to construct. You blow through eight great songs, you hit Play again, you listen a second time, hit Play once more, and after half an hour you are a passable expert in the GbV aesthetic, if not the catalog or any lyrical trivia.
As a bonus, you even get good versions of Vampire of Titus' "Marchers in Orange" and "Dusted", which would excuse you from buying that if you didn't have to to get Propeller anyway.
Guided by Voices: Bee Thousand
I've already reviewed this once, so I'm not going to repeat all the things I said the first time. Suffice it to say that my original review found me with strongly mixed feelings about the album. On a visceral level, I loved it almost instantly. There are at least four of the catchiest pop songs ever written on this album (I mean: "Tractor Rape Chain", "The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory", "Kicker of Elves" and "I Am a Scientist", and if you've heard the album I bet you had another couple in mind). On a philosophical level, though, I had misgivings about the production and fragmentary songs, and couldn't help wondering whether they were signs of pure reverse-elitist laziness, and thus not to be condoned.
By the fact that I've gone out and purchased the rest of this stuff, you should be able to deduce which point of view won out. In the end the production just made too much sense to be unintended, and so I decided to overlook it. Now that I've got the proper context in which to place Bee Thousand, I have gone from overlooking the production to reveling in it. This is, so far, the definitive Guided by Voices album. It is the single release on which all the band's signature elements come together most perfectly. The song writing is astonishingly inspired (and significantly more varied than on any one earlier release), the sound fascinating and unfailingly appropriate, the pace unrelenting. At 37 minutes, this is not a long album by anybody's standards, but by the time the 20th track ends you will feel like you've had an experience.
Indeed, though predictions like this are rarely more than an opportunity to look foolish later on, I'll go ahead and state that I believe Bee Thousand will come to be considered one of the best and most important albums of the 90s. Its marriage of catchy and challenging is ingenious, its deconstructions of pop production and the song and album forms are thought-provoking, and it's even insanely enjoyable. I shudder when I think that I resisted buying it for a while on misguided principle. If its eccentricity grates on you, which is always possible, it will probably seem haphazard, but you'd have to be pretty dour not to find at least a few appealing moments.
At any rate, this is definitely the place to start. If you care about GbV at all, or are even remotely curious, please, please go out and buy this album. It looks like the band is going to get enough promotion that you're not going to be able to be a plausible follower of worthwhile rock music without registering an opinion on them, and once you're resigned to that you might as well do what's necessary to assure that you end up on the right side when the inevitable backlash arrives. Bring sandbags; we'll ring Dayton with them and all go hole up in Pollard's basement. The next GbV album will have the biggest damn tambourine choir you've ever heard.
Guided by Voices: I Am a Scientist
Real rock bands put out singles to go along with their albums, so why shouldn't GbV? This perplexingly normal-looking CD5, with only four songs, is a must-buy for the reworked version of "I Am a Scientist" that opens it. Apparently the motive for the remake was coming up with something normal-enough sounding that maybe a radio station would play it (like, one of those radio stations that has, you know, commercials and listeners whose roommates aren't techies at it), and that sounds like a really bad reason, but the resulting version is good enough to stop me from complaining, and I'm usually a pretty incorrigible critic of such things (I'm still complaining about the "peppier" version of "Pretty in Pink", and that was nine years ago). I wouldn't bother with this until after you've absorbed Bee Thousand, as four songs, even these fine ones, just aren't enough to do Guided by Voices justice, but collectors are referred here with assurance. "Curse of the Black Ass Buffalo" won't make any of my rave lists, but both "Do the Earth" and "Planet's Own Brand" are excellent.
Guided by Voices: Get Out of My Stations
Got an indie label? Want to put out a Guided by Voices single? The band is apparently prepared to participate.
This one has seven more songs, of sorts. Of them, unfortunately, only "Scalding Creek" and "Spring Tiger" strike me as more than throwaways. GbV songs are frequently concise, even some of the great ones, but they nearly always seem developed to some logical point; even if that point is just one verse and 32 seconds, it's usually a tight verse. Songs here like "Mobile" and "Melted Pat", though, make me wonder if the band even bothered listening to them after recording them. I find them hard to listen to twice myself.
Guided by Voices: Crying Your Knife Away
The thing that finally laid to rest the last reservation in my mind about Guided by Voices was this 2LP 1994 live album, available, anachronistically, only on vinyl. This is a strange claim, I concede. A noisy record of a sloppy, drunken concert given at a friend's birthday party (and punctuated with frequent in-jokes that you won't laugh at), during which Pollard's singing is usually out of tune, and the instruments frequently are as well, this album could easily be seen as proof that Guided by Voices will release anything, no matter how amateurish it sounds. Did we really need to hear the inane banter of the guy who jumped up on stage in between the last song and the encore? Did the crowd who were actually there that night even need to hear it? Perhaps not.
What this album proved to me, though, was something else. It proved to me that GbV's songs are intentional. After hearing them play 24 of them live, even in these shaky renditions -- especially in this form, in fact -- I am now totally convinced that the songs themselves are results of careful crafting, not just isolated lucky moments that they happened to capture on tape when they were making the album. Many of the tracks here are basically butchered, but they are all butchered in a manner that makes it clear that there is a right way.
The album also offers a few other interesting insights about the band. For one, the track selection could be taken to hint at the band's own opinion of their albums. People who agree with me that Vampire on Titus was mostly wasted space will be intrigued to see that only one song from it made this set ("Non-Absorbing"), while there are six included from Propeller, its predecessor. Of the rest, six are from Bee Thousand, six are from what would become Alien Lanes (which at the time was to be titled Scalping the Guru), two are from The Grand Hour, two are from split singles, and "Postal Blowfish" was unreleased at the time (but is now available on King Shit and the Golden Boys, in Box). The unlisted 25th track, which sounds like it was done after everybody left the club, perhaps just before packing up the gear, is a cover of the Breeders' song "Invisible Man", which is cooler now that we know that Kim Deal produced some of the songs for the next GbV album (not Alien Lanes, but the one after it, due out in the fall). And lastly, listening to this album I was amused to find myself regretting the pops and crackles of the vinyl, wishing I had this on CD -- amused because the noises that GbV includes on their albums intentionally are far more prominent than the ones introduced by the playback medium. Misplaced snobbery...
PS: Lest you ever think that GbV albums are done without attention to detail, note that the sides of the LPs are carefully arranged with one and four on one disk, and two and three on the other, so you can stack the two records on your record changer (you still have a record changer, right?), hear the first two sides, flip 'em over as a set, and hear the rest, in the right order. Ah, craftsmanship.
Guided by Voices: Alien Lanes
And, oh yeah, as if all that wasn't quite enough of one band for you, they just put out a new album. As a new release from a band I'm very much in favor of, I feel like it ought to get a nice thorough review. But it's not going to (at least, not from me), for two reasons. First, this column is way the hell too long already, and if I don't wrap it up and go to bed I'm going to be too tired to post it tomorrow. Second, I didn't really experience Alien Lanes as a new album. Box came only a couple weeks before it, and I was still trying to process old albums and singles and things by the time I got this, and so it enters my world as just another chapter in a book I'm trying to read all of the chapters of at once.
To an extent, then, the only question I am really able to ask about this album, once I made sure that it wasn't a significant departure from anything before it, is "Well, is Bee Thousand still the best, or is this better?" After some meditation, I answer thus: "Bee Thousand is still the best." This is a great album, with another boatload of great songs, but it's not different enough from Bee Thousand to have a chance of unseating it in my mind. If I'd heard this one first, then Bee Thousand, my opinion might be reversed, but I didn't.
So, if you liked Bee Thousand, buy this too, and I'm very confident you'll enjoy it. If you're new to the band, though, I'd still say to start with Bee Thousand. This is a very similar listening experience, but if you start here people who became GbV fans all the way back in 1994 will act all superior about it, and there's really no reason to give them that satisfaction. Unless this one's on sale, in which case you might as well save the buck.
Spend it on music gear.