4 · 21 February 95
Guided by Voices: Bee Thousand
The art work should be independent of the artist. I know this. I've understood it ever since my sophomore high school English teacher, Mr. Day, threw a plate of spaghetti against the classroom's side wall, whirled around to face us, and yelped, challengingly, "Is it Art?!" (Well, okay, it was imaginary spaghetti, and the point he was making wasn't this one, exactly, but I can't remember the example he used to demonstrate this point. Something about serial killers and kindly spinsters, perhaps, but the details elude me.) The point is, you should be able to assess an art work entirely on its own, without having to (or even wanting to) know any biographical details about the author. Without this postulate, Art becomes very unwieldy. But then, what is a conscientious appreciater of art supposed to do with works that change character so completely and obviously depending on what context you impose upon them?
This is precisely the situation I find myself in trying to understand Bee Thousand. It doesn't help that I come to it with almost nothing but context. I bought the album without having ever heard a moment of Guided by Voices music, or read even one descriptive review, despite the fact that the album came out some time last year. But people with otherwise-interesting tastes kept citing them as great, and Bee Thousand kept cropping up on 1994 Year's Best lists, and I began to feel inadequate, overly dependent on the side-effects of major-label promotion for my musical knowledge. So I bought a copy.
And now we come to contexts. If there had been a sticker on the cover of this CD saying "the soundtrack to the documentary on the life of the world's greatest unknown pop band, featuring many of the only known recorded fragments of their actual music", here's what my review would have said:
Few 37-minute stretches of recorded sound are more glorious or more tragic than Bee Thousand. The twenty songs, or fragments thereof, compiled herein document the short life of a band that not only should have been as big as the Beatles, but who might have been the Beatles themselves had the British Invasion been the Cleveland Invasion instead. Even through the dark lens of the distorted, noisy and unbalanced recordings that are all the record we have of the band, their talent for flawless pop melodies, soaring harmonies and ringing guitar lines are clearly evident. As these tapes amply demonstrate, Guided by Voices were more inspired and talented in rehearsal improvisations than most bands get with all the world's studio technology massed behind them.
And that, of course, is the tragic part. For these cloudy memoirs are all we have of Guided by Voices' music. Boom-box tapes, half-completed demos, muffled bootlegs from their few small concerts, attended mostly by friends, this is it. They never recorded in a proper studio, they never made an album, they hardly ever even seemed to finish songs. We can no more reconstruct the true greatness that should have been theirs from this shallow impression than we can solve the Kennedy assassination by watching the Zapruder film over and over again, as helplessly as we find ourselves doing just that in desperate attempts to assuage our fascinated frustration.
But, as inadequate as this record is, it is so much better than nothing that just the thought leaves me teetering unsteadily on the brink of tears.
But no sticker said that. No sticker said "Bee Thousand does for pop what Spinal Tap did for heavy metal", either, but if one had, my review might have been:
Heavy-metal excess is a much easier parodic target than quirky pop charm, but Bee Thousand proves that the latter is worth the extra effort. Necessarily more subtle in its silliness than Spinal Tap's boorish gutter-pomp, Bee Thousand band Guided by Voices' music is a captivating and hilarious amalgam of Beatle-esque chime, American alternative intellectualism, and hopelessly oversensitive tentative forays into 'rock'. The sappy grace of 'You're Not An Airplane' (made doubly ironic by the disparaging reference in 'A Big Fan of the Pigpen' to 'the soft-rock renegades'), the mock-profundity of 'The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory', the mock-issue-consciousness of 'Tractor Rape Chain', the chirpily morbid 'The dead were on display / The queen of cans and jars will keep them safe', the blatant 'college-rock' references like 'I am a scientist', 'the heavens split in half / when she launches her attack / in her opening paragraph' and 'but the judges and the saints and the textbook committee / decided you should be left out', the awkwardly self-conscious delivery of the line 'Are you amplified to rock?', in 'Hardcore UFOs', the giddily inane 'do-do-do-do-do-do, kicker of elves!'--all these details are so perfectly done, so emblematic of a range of bands from the Beatles all the way down to Camper van Beethoven, so true, in spirit, of nearly everything ambitious pop has ever tried to become.
And the irony, just as with Spinal Tap, and perhaps as with all truly accurate parody, is that this music ends up having quite a lot of the virtues of the material it is satirizing. Just as This is Spinal Tap made a not-entirely-implausible heavy metal album in its own right, even divorced from the film, Bee Thousand stands surprisingly well on its own. Perhaps the greatest tribute to the producers' efforts to do their subject justice is the fact that, listening to this album, I find myself wishing that some more of the fictional albums alluded to in the film had actually been made. Making people laugh is hard enough; making them keep smiling even after they've stopped laughing is something else again.
But, again, that's not what this album purports to be. In fact, if I'd known nothing about it beforehand, if I'd had no context to impose on it at all, my review would have been different yet:
The pop song, as an artistic form, has been fully developed for decades now. It is, at the core, about three minutes long, arranged with drums, bass, one or two guitars, a lead singer, and usually some background singers. These elements are so positioned that the drums and bass provide the song's rhythmic foundation, the guitars provide the instrumental drive, and the vocals provide the melodic and harmonic focal points. It generally consists of a few verses of different lyrical content but the same musical structure alternated with a repeating chorus of both repeated words and music. It can end after a final verse or chorus, or can fade out over the repetition of the chorus. The lyrics concern, more often than not, romantic liaisons, either proposed or actual, between a young male and a young female.
This is the pop song. Plenty of people, since its formulation, have chosen to do something else, but it's been relatively rare that anything not exhibiting these characteristics has been considered "pop". At the risk of sounding proclamatory, though, I'm forced to say that Guided by Voices appear to be challenging this calm confidence. For, on the one hand, it seems intolerant in the extreme to call this music anything other than 'pop', in the truest musical sense. Yet, on the other, it fails several of the usual tests. Most obviously, the arrangement of Bee Thousand, both in musical space and in time, breaks from convention in some important ways. The production strews instruments around the record with what at first seems like complete disregard for their interactions, but which, on further examination, seems to be ultra-careful intent. Audio fidelity of any given part frequently changes drastically from song to song, and sometimes even within a song. Parts come in and drop out. Odd quasi-incidental recording artifacts drift in in company with expected elements, so that a sparkling guitar melody will bring along an odd insectoid buzzing, and a rich harmony vocal seems to arrive over phone lines that are overdue for replacement. Drums turn up missing on more than one track where their presence seems anticipated. The piano and vocals of the concluding track sound as if they were recorded inside some sort of large, old-fashioned, iron house-heating apparatus. Most pop records work very hard to create the illusion that their production was seamless; Bee Thousand goes so far to the other extreme that it's as if as soon as any part was recorded, the entire studio was disassembled and sold, and a new one was purchased at garage sales and hastily assembled before recording the next part.
The flow of the record over time is nearly as strange as its arrangement across the musical spectrum. Songs start and stop with little warning, and with no evident concern for anything like completion. Several last long enough to stick in the mind as coherent pieces, but I'm not sure there's a single track here that wouldn't sound strange pulled out of the context of the album and played on its own. I'm sure this isn't why Guided by Voices hasn't gotten any airplay I'm aware of, but it can't help. The credits list twenty tracks in the album's not-epic 37 minutes, but the number of disconnected musical passages is rather higher even than that. The three-minute benchmark, you can deduce, is paid no heed. The lyrics are, like the rest of the album, sensible taken a phrase at a time, but hard to fathom in larger chunks.
But, to reiterate the important detail, this is definitely pop music, and superb pop at that. Production and sequencing aside, there's hardly a moment anywhere on Bee Thousand that doesn't sound like a moment of a soon-to-be-classic pop song. And while the fact that the album doesn't actually deliver any of those songs sounds lamentable, lamentation certainly isn't my reaction to it. I sit, rapt, as it plays. It finishes, and I start it over again. I can't stop listening to it. Bee Thousand is that impossible-sounding animal, a timeless pop album not actually built out of pop songs. Tomorrow I'm going to go to every record store I know and buy everything else by Guided by Voices that I can find.
As I said, that's what my review would have been like if I'd known nothing about this record or band beforehand. And, with a nod to Mr. Day for the "artist is irrelevant" lectures, it's pretty close to my actual reaction.
There's a caveat, though. Most of the word-of-mouth I'd heard about Guided by Voices portrayed them as heroes of "Indie Rock". This, indeed, is mostly why I'd resisted buying this album for months, despite the breathless (and detail-less) praise it seemed to be garnering. For though "Indie Rock" is ostensibly a political designation more than an aesthetic one, I've previously found that it in practice involves aesthetic characteristics no less distinguishable than those of "corporate rock" or any other label. Too much music people have introduced to me as "Indie" has displayed an irritating, lethargic, anti-professional muddiness that, personally, I can't abide. Energy-less singing, improperly tuned guitars, musical aimlessness, production indifference, all these things tend to put me in a frighteningly major-label-friendly mood, in which I find myself thinking things like "REO Speedwagon may have been total crap, but at least they cared what their records sounded like, and were willing to work hard on them."
And so, listening to Bee Thousand, a part of me keeps asking whether this music is this way because the band really felt this was the way the album should be, artistically, or whether it's this way because they considered it politico-artistically incorrect to work harder on such industry-coopted details as whole songs, proper console wiring, mixing, equalization, etc. Did they work as hard on (or think as hard about) this album as REO Speedwagon used to work on (or think about) theirs? If not, what would it have sounded like if they had? Worse? Or a million times better still? If I praise this album, if I buy stacks of GbV CDs tomorrow, am I implicitly condoning artistic attitudes that, in other hands, make an enormous amount of the music I most abhor in the world? Do I lose my license to adore such detail-obsessed idols as the Loud Family, Kate Bush, Marillion and Jane Siberry if this is just some catchy crap the band tossed off in a day and then couldn't be bothered to polish, and I let them get away with it?
I certainly hope not, because tomorrow is CD-shopping day, and it looks to be a slow week for new releases.
Archers of Loaf: Harnessed in Slums
While I'm on the subject of both Indie Rock and the Loud Family (and because, formatwise, a column with only one entry seems unfinished to me), Archers of Loaf are connected to both for me, the former musically and politically and the latter by virtue of their sharing the Loud Family's label, Alias. I liked their first album, Icky Mettle, pretty well, but couldn't quite figure out who the band wanted to be. Last year they put out an EP called Vs. the Greatest of All Time, which struck me as scattered, unpleasantly noisy, and musically undisciplined, and thus disappointing. They have another album (or something) due in mid-March, and I wrote it on my list of things to watch for, but with a question mark, as I hadn't decided for sure whether they deserved another chance from me.
This three-track disc, which appeared in my stores last week, is presumably an advance single from the album. It convinced me to remove the question mark. The third track (the one left off the vinyl version of the single) sounds noisy and petulant, but the first two, "Harnessed in Slums" and "Telephathic Traffic" are tight, loud, catchy, forceful pop like my favorite moments of Icky Mettle, a jumpy drive somewhere between Helmet and the Replacements, or like Too Much Joy covering Hüsker Dü, or perhaps vice versa, or the dB's doing the Sex Pistols, or like Nirvana if Kurt and Krist had grown up as Research Triangle college brats. (Aren't these comparisons fun? No? Spoilsports...) There are still, I think, quite a number of bands around like the Archers of Loaf these days, but I like this one better than many.