The adage about ten-year overnight sensations has never rung more true than when applied to this Dayton, Ohio, combo, which spent the better part of a decade toiling in sub-basement obscurity before its sudden adoption by the Amerindie hipoisie. Guided by Voices major-domo Robert Pollard, a thirtysomething elementary school teacher with a knack for knocking off as many as a dozen songs in a single day — he estimates he’s written more than twenty-five- hundred in his life — has perfected an oddly insistent fusion of Anglo-pop melody, arena-rock scope and lo-fi aesthetic, all of which combine to give the band its signature sound.
That signature wasn’t quite so legible on the band’s earliest work, wherein Pollard’s regard for the jangle-pop sound of R.E.M. and Brit-popsters like the Postcard Records contingent bordered on the tributary. On the seven-song Forever Since Breakfast, released, as were the next four GBV records, in a vinyl-only edition of five-hundred copies, Pollard and his pals (guitarist Paul Comstock, bassist Mitch Mitchell and drummer Peyton Eric) choogle along in inoffensively indie manner, set apart ever so slightly from the pack by intricate harmonies keyed by the frontman’s agreeably faux-Brit accent. Still, it’s nothing to write home about. There’s a bit more personality evident on Devil Between My Toes, most of which reveals itself in little details like the martial drumbeat that anchors “Cyclops” and the skewed round-style vocal treatment afforded “Hank’s Little Fingers.” The term lo-fi hadn’t really come into widespread use in 1987, so the few people who actually heard the album upon its original release likely just deemed the recording…well…bad. Nevertheless, the addled neo-psych tone of songs like “A Portrait Destroyed By Fire” goes a long way toward overcoming the project’s technical limitations.
In comparison, Sandbox is positively slick, from the full-color packaging to occasional guitarist Steve Wilbur’s relatively clean 8-track production. Pollard has begun to pare down his songwriting — nearly half the songs clock in at under two minutes — as well as introducing some embryonic wordplay (most evident in “Trapsouldoor” and “The Drinking Jim Crow”). While the band is still prone to bouts of pantomime (“Adverse Wind” is particularly Stipe-striped), guitarist Jim Pollard’s increasingly edgy mini-solos and Mitchell’s aggro-fied bass pounding hint at distinctiveness to come.
Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia is the first release to begin to communicate the band’s bizarro-world musical lexicon. Fractured fairy tales like “The Future Is in Eggs” and “The Great Blake St. Canoe Race” manifest Pollard’s maturing flair for spare-yet-enigmatic lyrical forays (as well as his incremental retreat from verse- chorus-verse structure). While it’s increasingly clear that GBV is Pollard’s show, densely packed melodies like “Navigating Flood Regions” and “An Earful o’ Wax” (which would later become the title of a German “hits” compilation) suggest that the other members somehow got themselves locked into a shared post-hypnotic suggestion that allows them to Osterize mid-period Who, Josef K B- sides and the Blue Öyster Cult into a palatable, potent concoction.
Since it was recorded in a single day, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the fourteen-song, 32-minute Same Place the Fly Got Smashed seems to pour forth in one stream-of-consciousness gush. It may be the band’s darkest release, both in the doomy, distant sound (dominated in the mix by Greg Demos’ slurry bass playing) and in the unusually angst-ridden delivery Pollard uses in bellowing out songs like “Airshow ’88” and “Order for the New Slave Trade.” The singer/guitarist gets even more somber when let loose alone — as on the bleary-eyed “Drinker’s Peace,” which introduces the recurring alcohol theme to GBV lore. Compelling-and more than a little disturbing.
Propeller ushers in the band’s pure-pop (well…) era, wherein utter imperviousness to matters of fidelity and scrutability don’t detract a whit from the preposterous catchiness of songs like “Quality of Armor,” “14 Cheerleader Coldfront” and the Moody-Blues-via-ESP- Records “Mesh Gear Fox” (which will have you singing along without having a clue what’s actually coming out of your mouth). The network of guitar lines — coming in from three directions with the full-time recruitment of perennial collaborator Tobin Sprout — is astounding, given the primitive recording quality, but the most striking aspect of the album is the band’s coincident mockery of and yearning for the days when rock was BIG and its stars were bigger. The amount of inherent irony varies quite a bit as you move from the stadium-sized “G-B-V” chant that opens the album into the Laserium-ready strains of “Weed King,” but the sense of wonder never abates.
When Cleveland’s Scat Records — a virtual major in comparison to the band’s series of self-created labels — issued Vampire on Titus, these reclusive rockers (who hadn’t even performed live in several years) were suddenly, and somewhat bizarrely, thrust into the limelight as the world finally caught up with GBV’s lo-fi, hi-NRG aesthetic. The timing couldn’t have been better, as the band reached a creative zenith on songs like the surreal Beach Boys frug “Jar of Cardinals” and the baleful “#2 in the Model Home Series” (which turns eerier and eerier when Pollard clamps down on the line “…and now the fun begins” with the feral terror of an animal trying to chew free a limb from a trap). Elsewhere, finely wrought psychedelia wafts up enticingly in the form of “Perhaps Now the Vultures” and the melodica-driven “Marchers in Orange,” both of which could pass for Incredible String Band outtakes. Simply superb. (On CD, Propeller and Vampire on Titus are jimmied onto one disc with the latter’s artwork as the front cover.)
Pollard and his cohorts — particularly guitarists Mitch Mitchell (having switched from bass) and Tobin Sprout — tighten things up even more on the bright’n’shiny Bee Thousand. The album’s 20 condensed songs — most of which last less than two minutes — could pass for anything from White Album outtakes (“Kicker of Elves”) to scaled-down arena rock (“Buzzards and Dreadful Crows”) to Zappa-esque prank-pulling (“Hot Freaks”). Titles like “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” notwithstanding, the genre-jumping seldom sounds premeditated — and Pollard’s voice has never sounded better. While undeniably erratic, Guided by Voices never sacrifices hummability to practice art-for-art’s sake.
You’d think the rapid release rate — and dense packing of songs — would exhaust the band’s considerable backlog, but you’d be wrong, judging by the number of between-LP slabs they’ve disgorged. Fast Japanese Spin Cycle, eight songs in twelve minutes, reprises a couple of previously released ditties but more than makes up for that small sin by leading with the classic-in-waiting “My Impression Now.” The Grand Hour, a six-pack highlighted by the dizzy “Break Even,” is just as fine. The band limits itself to four outbursts on I Am a Scientist, but two of those — the wide-eyed title track (an Andy Shernoff-“reduced” live version of the Bee Thousand selection) and the contorted, Soft Boys-styled “Do the Earth” — are positively indispensable.
Crying Your Knife Away, a vinyl-head’s dream, is a haphazardly playful official bootleg that captures the blink-and-you-missed-it nature of GBV’s live shows — although the added visual benefit of Pollard’s incessant beer chugging and Daltrey-esque pirouetting will have to wait for the concert film.
In its vinyl version, Box combines the band’s first five albums (Devil Between My Toes through Propeller), paying special attention to maintaining the homemade quality of the early packaging and artwork. A bonus disc, King Shit & the Golden Boys, contains nineteen previously unreleased songs spanning a five-year period. (The CD edition omits Propeller.) While completists will no doubt covet the rare stuff, most of it could have remained in the vaults without any great outcry.
Alien Lanes, which exudes a curiously unfinished, vaguely disinterested attitude, sacrifices a good bit of the band’s skewed pop savvy — except on the Mersey- bop “Game of Pricks” — in favor of fragmentary sketches that don’t really go anywhere. Pollard’s rec-room haikus (like “Striped White Jets” and “Big Chief Chinese Restaurant”) still gush forth with addled aplomb, but they seem to have been balanced at random atop relatively tuneless lo-fi blueprints, rather than woven into actual songs. The breach might have something to do with the unusually indistinct lineup — no less than eight official members, including new bassist Jim Greer, a former Spin magazine editor and a veteran of New York quirk- rock combo Rude Buddha, are credited — but it’s becoming obvious that the band needs to take a refresher course in self-editing.
Under the Bushes Under the Stars finds GBV getting back into gear, and, for the first time, taking the step up to state-of-the-art studio recording (with a few interludes). Fortunately, they don’t act like kids let loose in a candy store: apart from the addition of a few simple frills (like the acoustic detail on the glammy “To Remake the Young Flyer,” one of four tracks written by Sprout), there’s little shift in the sense of economy. Pollard seems to have tired of tilling Brit-psych terrain, aside from a brief dip on the swirly “Underwater Explosions.” Instead, he concentrates on extra-crunchy guitar rock, characterized by the pulsing car-radio strains of “Man Called Aerodynamics” and “The Official Ironmen Rally Song.” The latter is also, along with three non-LP tracks, on an EP of the same name. Pollard and Sprout both released solo albums in ’96.
Ever the restless spirit, Pollard cleaned house before recording the next Guided by Voices record. The band’s “classic” line-up was gone (supposedly on amicable terms) and replaced lock, stock and barrel by Cleveland’s Cobra Verde. With Sprout out of the picture, there was no question that GBV was now solely a vehicle for Pollard’s over-flowing creativity. With a more professional-sounding band backing him up, the stage appeared set for the great lost classic rock album Pollard seemed destined to record. Mag Earwhig! falls well short of those kind of expectations, but it remains an underrated gem in the canon. Rocking harder than ever before, Pollard used his new contributors to full advantage, crafting chunky riff machines like “Bulldog Skin” and “Little Lines” in lieu of whimsical pop ditties. The album also has better production than any prior GBV effort, indicative of Pollard’s first tentative steps toward courting mainstream acceptance.
Those steps turned into a full-on dash in 1999 when GBV signed to TVT and got Ric Ocasek to produce their next record. Before he could enter the studio, however, there was the little matter of Pollard needing a band, the result of an ill-advised mid-tour interview he gave a webzine, in which he mentioned that he planned to record the next GBV record with different musicians. Led by guitarist John Petkovic, the understandably aggrieved members of Cobra Verde confronted Pollard about the interview after a show in San Francisco and immediately ceased being his band. Only CV guitarist Doug Gillard (who contributed the stellar “I Am a Tree” to Mag Earwhig!) remained in GBV, and proved to be Pollard’s next important sometime- collaborator.
With a new lineup in tow, Pollard made Do the Collapse with Ocasek. Too band a partnership that seemed so perfect on paper translated so poorly on disc. Stripped of their spontaneity and eccentricity by a disciplined task-master, GBV come off like just another run- of-the-mill pop-rock band. But the blame for the weakness of Do the Collapse belongs mostly to Pollard. With a few exceptions (“Teenage FBI,” “Mushroom Art”), his songs aren’t that strong. The honest-to-god power ballad “Hold on Hope” was pegged as a possible breakout single, but its obviousness and shallowness was so apparent that Pollard quickly disowned it.
Signing to TVT obliged the band to release far fewer albums than Pollard’s usual pace, so he insisted on permission to issue solo releases on a vanity label called the Fading Captain Series. With Do the Collaspe and the first few Fading Captain releases as evidence, that arrangement was better for Pollard than for GBV, as many of his best songs are on the more obscure releases. (An excellent 1999 collaboration with Doug Gillard, Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Department, sounds a lot more like prime GBV than Do the Collapse does.)
Though it appeared Pollard was spreading himself too thin for the musical health of his band, Isolation Drills is Pollard’s best album under any name since Under the Bushes, Under the Stars. Reeling from the end of his marriage and his band’s increasingly busy tour schedule, Pollard poured his heart into a collection of songs far more personal than his past tales of robot boys and cutout witches. But rather than dwell on his foibles, Pollard used private turmoil as an excuse to revel in the transcendent power of arena rock. Building on a direction first established on Mag Earwhig!, Pollard here focuses on riffs rather than melodies. His songs are still catchy (none more so than “Glad Girls” and “Chasing Heather Crazy”) but they have a hot-blooded power derived directly from Pollard’s all-time heroes, the Who.
Isolation Drills was the conventional yet powerfully potent album Pollard always wanted to make, yet GBV remained a cult act. Matador re-signed GBV in 2002 and released Universal Truths and Cycles. Hailed by some as a welcome return to Pollard’s less focused and more obscure mid-’90s style, it sounds like a retreat from Isolation Drills. Bizarre and half-finished song fragments are sandwiched between terrific anthems like “Eureka Signs” and “Christian Animation Torch Carriers” in an attempt to replicate the unique flow of the band’s lo-fi albums. But now that it’s clear Pollard can write complete songs, his best work on Universal Truths and Cycles underscores just how bad the bad is.
But go figure: Earthquake Glue is another consistently great release in an Isolation Drills vein.
Pollard himself compiled the GBV greatest hits with typical restraint (i.e., none), packing 32 songs from 16 different records onto a single disc that is as good as any introduction to the band’s long and fruitful career.