Indie Canon Inductee: Guided by Voices

30 Jan

Guided by Voices is a band that you may know by name but have never listened to.  If that’s the case, this article will hopefully warrant a listen.  I myself hadn’t listened to GBV until a few years back outside of a few tracks of theirs I had on a Matador Records sampler.  Since then, they have become my most listened to artist according to last.fm, surpassing Beat Happening and Joy Division a few days ago thanks to my non-stop research over the past week.  I wouldn’t consider Guided by Voices my favorite band, but there are reasons why I’ve listened to them as much as I have…

Hailing from Dayton, OH, Guided by Voices is a band that exemplifies the original definition of the term “indie rock.”  Robert Pollard founded the band in the early 80’s while working as a schoolteacher.  At that point, the band had a sort of revolving door for its members which early on included Robert Pollard’s brother, Jim.  Their first four LPs spanning from 1987 to 1990 were self-released and only a few hundred copies of each were pressed.  The release of 1992’s Propeller on the label Scat saw their fan base begin to expand outside of friends and family in Ohio as the band started to tour on the East Coast.

By 1993, the band consisted of their classic line-up: Robert Pollard, Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Kevin Fennell and Greg Demos.  They released Vampire on Titus which showed the band shortening the average length of their tracks, some of them mere fragments of songs, and tacking a few more on.  A year later saw the release of the indie rock staple, Bee Thousand.

Bee Thousand is considered by most (and myself…go figure) to be the band’s crowning achievement.  This would be their last release on Scat and it was distributed through Matador records which allowed the band members to quit their day jobs and led to their signing with Matador to join indie rock peers like Pavement.  The band had perfected their lo-fi sound and zippy tracking.  20 tracks in 36 minutes of what sounds like a five-piece recording in a half bath.  The album is loaded as were most of the boys during practice.  “Buzzards and Dreadful Crows,” “Tractor Rape Chain,” “Hot Freaks,” “Gold Star For Robot Boy,” and the list goes on…

This one saw some late night MTV time, but I missed it being nine at the time.  How about Pollard’s kicks?  Drunk David Lee Daltry?

**Side note: for those superfans of GBV, see if you can find a copy of King Shit and the Golden Boys.  It is the last disc of Scat’s Guided by Voices box set and features previously unreleased 90-94 era tracks that could have made for an amazing album.**

Above: Pollard gives a Big Boot to an invisible Andre the Giant while on tour for Alien Lanes.

Speaking of Alien Lanes…it was GBV’s first release on Matador in 1995.  The band had a budget this time, but you wouldn’t know it.  28 tracks this time in 41 minutes.  Still with the D.I.Y. 8-track sound, but maybe they found an abandoned pool house.  Although Alien Lanes is front-heavy in comparison to the more through-and-through Bee Thousand, it’s still got some of my most listened to Guided by Voices tracks: “A Salty Salute,” “Watch Me Jumpstart,” “Closer You Are,” and the tragically separated pair of “As We Go Up, We Go Down” and “Game of Pricks.”  “Game of Pricks” alone has nigh 250 plays on my iTunes.

Who in God’s name was directing music videos in the mid-90s??

Under the Bushes Under the Stars in 1996 is lyrically polarized between Pollard and Sprout.  Although Pollard is credited for roughly 85% of the songwriting (“Cut-Out Witch,” “The Official Ironmen Rally Song,” “Lord of Overstock,” “Don’t Stop Now” and “Acorns & Orioles“…God, I love that one) Sprout has a 100% hit ratio for his songs (“To Remake the Young Flyer,” “Atom Eyes,” and “It’s Like Soul Man“)  Some fans discredit Under the Bushes…, but piss on them.  This is/was the last hurrah of the classic lineup and it’s damn good.

And then, the inevitable falling out.  Reportedly, Robert Pollard and Tobin Sprout weren’t getting along in early 1997 and Pollard told the press that he would be working with other musicians in the future (i.e. he fired the band).  He was able to make a surprisingly smooth transition by hiring the Cleveland indie outfit, Cobra Verde, as his new band.

It wasn’t until five LPs later with 2003’s Earthquake Glue that I found Guided by Voices’ sound to be as compelling as their Golden Era work (1994-1996).  There were glimmers here and there with Max Earwhig! and Isolation Drills, but Earthquake Glue recalls Propeller-era GBV, sans Sprout plus production.  You won’t find a bad song on the album and tracks like “The Best of Jill Hives,” “A Trophy Mule in Particular,” and “Secret Star” makes one wonder if GBV would have cycled into the alternative rock mainstream had they dropped their D.I.Y. lo-fi image a decade earlier.  But…

*     *     *

Pollard put the fork in Guided by Voices in 2004 and continued to release on his own.  The classic line-up mentioned above reunited in 2010 and with the release of Let’s Go Eat the Factory a few weeks ago, they have now released albums in four decades.  Only indie acts like Sonic Youth or the once independent and long-since mainstream R.E.M. (an obsession of Guided by Voices who ironically disbanded this past year) can say that for themselves.  Let’s Go Eat the Factory was a miss, albeit a near one, but the band sounds as though it’s 1997 and I can’t wait to see what the near future brings.  GBV’s longevity combined with their proportionally massive catalog and great live performances (so I’ve heard…damn) land them a spot in the Indie Canon.

An early interview with Bob Pollard and his brother Jim followed by a live snippet of “Gold Star For Robot Boy.”

A band cannot create great music without great singer/songwriters.  GBV’s best work is penned and sung by frontman/vocalist Robert Pollard and guitarist/vocalist Tobin Sprout.  Both men enjoyed solo careers of critical, not popular acclaim (listen to Pollard’s From a Compound Eye and Sprout’s Moonflower Plastic (Welcome to My Wigwam), and despite their brief falling out, the two have collaborated on tracks throughout their independent ventures.  They aren’t exactly indie rock’s Lennon & McCartney due to the disparagement in volume of production, but the pair have been referred to as perfect “musical foils” of one another.

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One Response to “Indie Canon Inductee: Guided by Voices”

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  1. Record Store Day 2013 | the self-hating hipster - April 20, 2013

    […] and “As We Go Up We Go Down.”  This record also happened to be inducted in my Indie Canon and for good […]

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