The Enduring Mystery of Guided by Voices

I had a queasy feeling when I picked up the new album by lo-fi heroes Guided by Voices.  Nineties indie rock has come fully into its nostalgia phase in the last few years, and next to the new record was a tribute album (one of several, in fact) that featured the likes of Thurston Moore and Crooked Fingers covering GBV classics from the mid-1990s.  Would the band’s new effort turn out to be a tepid attempt to reignite the old magic? And was I more excited at the thought of going home and listening to new renditions of their so-called “hits” than the new material?

To a certain extent, these fuck-ups from Dayton, Ohio represent an eternal pop music type: the underground band that people of a certain age, who went to high school or college in a certain window of time, will always look to with great fondness and tribal allegiance.  This is a particular category, limited to those bands who never quite ascended to the moment-defining status of a Pixies or Pavement.  Guided by Voices certainly represents that archetype for indie fans my age and a little older (in their thirties, more or less).  How could geeky History majors resist the shopworn familiarity of the band’s infectious British Invasion melodies, the flippant surrealism of Bob Pollard’s lyrics, the fabled prolificity of a band that spewed an endless stream of albums and EPs at an unsuspecting world?  Even the most dedicated rock librarian could barely keep their Sunfish Holy Breakfasts and Plantations of Pale Pinks straight, and the effect was not unlike that of Scrooge McDuck diving into his impossible vat of gold coins.

Yet GBV also represent a very idiosyncratic point along the axes of pop and the avant garde, accessibility and elusiveness, genius and almost willful mediocrity (to put it generously).  A few Guided by Voices records are great from top to bottom, but very few.  Even the most dedicated fans expect Pollard to come up with one genius idea for every five throwaways, and this ratio has generally become less favorable in his solo career.  Part of the joy has always been picking through the dross to find an immortal pop moment, which is often as tossed-off as the other boring, random, half-baked songs that come along with it.

Eight discs of unreleased music and the vault remains near capacity

Not giving a shit has always been part of GBV’s aesthetic.  Critics generally grouped them with the lo-fi movement of Sebadoh and other artists who embraced the downscale sound of recording on a four-track in your bedroom.  (This was the era before laptops and Pro Tools made decent sound quality widely accessible and affordable.)  This lack of polish allowed a band that took its cues from the likes of the Beatles, the Kinks and R.E.M. to retain a radical edge, since it conveyed a recklessness, impulsivity and resistance to virtuosity that punk celebrated.  It also prompted a wonderful feeling of possibility and contingency, that the next track could be amazing or terrible, and there was never any way of knowing.  (This has certainly fueled my own compulsive habit of picking up a Pollard solo album or GBV EP whenever I see one, on the off chance that I might miss one terrific song otherwise—an expectation that has often been proven wrong.)

And herein lies the mystery—what made them great?  Was it the freshness and sloppiness of the work?  Was it just Pollard’s innate melodic sense, which stands apart from issues of process, style, sound quality, etc?  Was it a band dynamic within the “classic lineup” that created the mid-90s streak of Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, and Under the Bushes Under the Stars?  Band analogies do not seem to work too well, although it could be argued that the chemistry and balance provided by Tobin Sprout, the songwriter who labored in Pollard’s shadow and left the band in the late 1990s, brought a greater richness to the music than it later had.  It was not quite a Lennon and McCartney partnership, nor did it redound in the same kind of ineffable synergy that powered the Beatles.  Sprout’s role was more like that of a George Harrison, contributing one or two really good songs per record.  Certainly, Sprout’s contributions to the band’s recent return, Let’s Go Eat the Factory, remind listeners how refreshing it can be to get a break from the monotone of Pollard’s eccentric tics and tangents—like any band where multiple voices and perspectives expands the music’s emotional and stylistic range.  In rock, as in life, a conversation is often more interesting than a monologue.

Few would really argue, though, that a Pollard-Sprout partnership was the key to the band’s genius.  Captain Bob was and continues to be the driving force behind all things GBV—the main attraction, the vortex of whimsy, ego, alcoholism and refracted Britpop-punk.  Like Woody Allen and Prince, he possesses a confidence in his own abilities bordering on narcissism, which will not permit the filter of a record company or any other market considerations to constrain his output, even if the result is an excess of content and shortage of quality.  This approach contributes to a general fuck-you attitude and even a kind of machismo.  This is a man who disbanded his “band” in 2004, which by then basically consisted of himself, only to release 13 album-length discs and (about) 6 EPs as a solo artist in the next 7 years (along with side projects like the Circus Devils and Boston Spaceships that are almost too numerous to count).

Seriously not kidding

Listening to all these records, one has the feeling of playing all the ex-Beatles’ first solo albums in a row.  If you took the early releases by John, Paul, George and Ringo and put the best songs on one album, you would have a Beatles record to rival almost any they released together: “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “My Sweet Lord,” “Imagine,” “It Don’t Come Easy,” and so forth.  Critics and more than a few fans used to wonder whether GBV might not be much better if Pollard had an editor, and put out fewer records with only the best songs.  Others asked what might happen if the band put more time and effort into revising and recording their songs—couldn’t the corrosive “Stabbing a Star” be a real rock hit if it sounded anything like a proper recording?

GBV did, in fact, attempt this in the late 1990s, beginning with 1997’s Mag Earwhig! and proceeding through Do the Collapse and Isolation Drills.  Pollard parted ways with the band’s old members and recruited the band Cobra Verde to back him with a new, polished, muscular sound, recording songs that extended beyond the less-than-a-minute larks of earlier albums for a regular three-to-four-minute model.  It was a recapitulation of huge power pop in the Cheap Trick mold, done the right way, and resulted in songs like “I Am a Tree,” “Glad Girls,” and “Teenage FBI.”  It still smacked of Pollard, but the lyrics were less random and weird (relatively speaking) and the songwriter did attempt to capture normal human emotional experiences in phrases like “When you’re around me, I’m somebody else.”  As great as an anthem like “Teenage FBI” is, though, it is not quite the quintessential GBV.  Perhaps Pollard wanted to achieve real stardom and financial success—the drippy ballad “Hold On Hope” made it onto the soundtrack of Scrubs, and “Glad Girls” has appeared on How I Met Your Mother, a true sign of mainstream indie rock acceptance—or maybe he just wanted to show that he could actually pull off proper pop-rock if he tried.

The real GBV, though, will always reside in the tinny ranges of sound and murk of a song like “Everyone Thinks I’m a Raincloud (When I’m Not Looking),” with its vague sense of yearning and remorse embedded in intriguingly obscurantist lyrics.  For a band that has always indulged in extremes of productivity, noise, and unabashed poppiness, the irony may be that their appeal actually lies in a muddling midpoint: a balance of melody and dissonance, virtuosity and sloppiness, obscurity and familiarity, haphazardly arrived at.  Even if GBV’s songs never crystallize an emotion in the way of a “Let It Be” or “Bridge over Troubled Water,” the goofball poetry of the lyrics still captures some kind of relatable or identifiable feeling, partly through melody and partly through attitude.  How else to explain the resonance of a song like “Acorns & Orioles,” a superlative acoustic ballad from Under the Bushes Under the Stars: “I am a minister, and the impostor, you said I’m on my own; but I am not alone, I am the militant clients who bring you home”?

In any case, Guided by Voices is back—in part, one must suspect, as part of the general wave of indie nostalgia that has seen bands like Pavement and Camper Van Beethoven take to the road to provide for their retirement by replaying classic albums for their now-older and richer fans.  I understand the appeal, and I certainly don’t begrudge the artists making money by giving fans something they want, but it is a depressing spectacle in this writer’s opinion to see Key Lime Pie reenacted like the Battle of Antietam.

GBV, to their credit, recently put out an album of new material, Let’s Go Eat the Factory, instead of simply rehashing the old.  On a first listen, I assumed it was just the latest in a series of turgid sounds phoned-in by Pollard, ever certain that whatever comes out of his mouth is worthwhile.  (Ironically, the lyrics to one song assert that “not every voice needs to be heard”—a fine sentiment coming from the guy who has written over 1500 songs, ranking as one of the most productive songwriters in pop music history.)  Yet on a second or third listen, the album reveals itself to be a smorgasbord of classic GBV maneuvers and fresh excursions: fragmentary ballads, aggro mod-rockers, pop culture jokes like “How I Met My Mother,” and even a frisky psych-rock dance number like “Spiderfighters.”  That an indie rock band can revisit an old formula, recreate the sound of its glory days and still find a way to surprise veteran listeners is a testament to a certain ineffable quality of GBV, a band whose fans could be forgiven for having lowered expectations by now.

A big part of the joy of radio and pop and independent music in their different ways has always been surprise: a melody that you have never heard before, a song that comes on the air without any warning or expectation, a striking new artist who emerges out of the great mysterious mass of people.  Few artists, just like few of us in general, can continue to be surprising and unpredictable for long, and it is this sense of contingency that may make GBV’s catalog of half-assed ideas, phoned-in efforts and flashes of genius as compelling today as it was in 1994.

For More on Militant Babies and Boston Spaceships:

  • The Brazilian tribute record Don’t Stop Now can be downloaded for free here.  It is a lot more fun and creative than Sing for Your Meat, the more recent tribute by American indie musicians.
  • For similar retrospectives on Pavement and Wilco, try this and this.
  • Finally, the voluminous discography of GBV, Pollard, Circus Devils, Boston Spaceships, Howling Wolf Orchestra and many other names and configurations can be explored here.