© 1996 Michael Velez.
Guided by Voices: New Puritan Speedball
by Mike Velez
Guided by Voices have become the latest unlikely "alternative to the Alternative" icons. Their recent notoriety is unlikely in that it is due almost entirely to two old fashioned elements. They put on a great live show (think '68 Who meets '86 Replacements); moreover, the songwriting prowess of guitarist Tobin Sprout and bandleader Robert Pollard frequently amazes.
For many, the initial listen to a Guided by Voices disc is an experience almost magical and not, in any event, so easily forgotten. Even the most jaded can be reminded why they began listen to rock in the first place; the GBV experience listening experience is a reminder of that eerie and thrilling sense of one's life as rendered by bass, guitar and drums. True to their name, the collected ouevre of Guided by Voices is akin to capsule summary of the best rock/pop of the last thirty years. Pollard, lead vocalist and songwriter writes songs that are both simple and bracing, offhandedly steeped in the codes of multiple rock eras as to exude a sense of classic timelessness, an impressive paradox. GBV's best work recreates the here and now by way of the way-back-when, paradoxically shorn of any rehash or calculation.
Earlier discs like 1992's Propeller and 1993's Vampire on Titus, comprised a slew of ideas that were fascinating, if occasionally unformed. Songs like "Non Absorbing" or Sprout's "14 Cheerleader Coldfront" might never leave a listener's consciousness when heard twice. The band has had many songs but seemingly more ideas left unexamined. By the time 1995's Alien Lanes came out, it was almost as if "lo-fi" was becoming the band's medium and message, their basement recordings sounding more like manic song recodings.
For a band playing in such an oddly circumscribed sphere of independent rock, Alien Lanes was appropriately titled. In the 1960+s rock bands might typically release an album every six to eight months or so. This, the quick follow-up to 1994+s Bee Thousand, was the ultimate blast of Pollard+s mod-mediated pop. Twenty-nine songs, some of them typically eccentric fragments ("Gold Hick," "Hit"), rushed by in under forty minutes.Crunching garage pop ("Watch me Jumpstart") and Pollard+s almost fey Sixties mannerisms ("Blimps go 90"),the twin poles of GbV+s aesthetic, were amply balanced.
On Under the Bushes, Under the Stars Guided by Voices have settled down and crafted what sounds like their perverse notion of a mock AOR album, as if to answer their critics. Several of the tracks, like the lead-off single "The Official Iron Man's Rally Song," "Look at Them," and "Don't Stop Now" possess a conspicuously full and rich sound (ironically not unlike the band's earliest discs). Buttresed by alternately fragile and soaring melodies, the album highlights Pollard's trademark bizarre lyric imagery. While lines like the couplet that opens "Rally Song" ("Bitter fish in crude oil sea/ You don't have to follow me/ You just have to join in on this song") may look awkward on the page, they mesh perfectly within the song itself as sung with understated feeling by Pollard. After several listens, Pollard's strangeness often connects in personal and unlikely ways.
Pollard's impressive songwriting talent lies in his ability to cull the universal and the transcendent from the ordinary; his songs often remind me of sci-fi author Philip K. Dick's observation that the figures of the Divine initially occur in the realm of the discarded. The distorted glimpses and sketches of "Bright Paper Werewolves" and "Lords of Overstock" comprise a cast of characters that summons a sense of the absurdities of living in mid-nineties America.
Throughout Under the Bushes, Under the Stars Pollard and Sprout's penchant for incandescent garage pop is undiminished. It is on some of the longer songs -in particular, the holdovers from the Kim Deal/Steve Albini sessions found in the disc's last several tracks- that Pollard pens some of his most drop dead gorgeous work. The disc may in time prove to be the band's best work, but chances are that they will have two more discs out by this time next year! [in fact, several discs have been confirmed since this article's original publication -Ed.]
Despite the blathering of some, there is ultimately nothing truly retro about Guided by Voices (except perhaps for Pollard's admittedly affected quasi-English accent) Such a charge is roughly on a par with calling Captain Beefheart a traditional blues broker. Yet, there is in Guided by Voices a pervasive aura of an earlier rock era. Pollard and live guitarist Mitch Mitchell have copped to playing in metal bands in the early Eighties in the band's hometown of Dayton, Ohio, and Pollard to playing in Cheap Trick cover bands. These unlikely touchstones come through live. Pollard erases twenty years off of his thirty-eight, leaping high in the air when not diving into yet another song with unabashed glee. Mitchell plays accelerated old-school power riffs and leads, cigarette in mouth. Anyone who attended last year's Reed College show can attest to their collective energy; their presence goes beyond the workmanlike air of an older bar band traditionalism or the oh-so earnest (and equally studied) grimacing of Nirvana's also-rans. Guided by Voices seem to derive their energies from their love of their songs and from a faith in rock itself. When the feeling is right, they are a tremendous live act.
The Guided by Voices story is unlikely to be sure. The idea that a group of musicians on the wrong side of thirty -after years of recording catchy but increasingly insular rock/pop constructions in basements and living rooms- can rise from obscurity solely on the basis of their music is , sadly, almost quaintly romantic. Like "The Nirvana Story +" (three young punks from a lumberjack town reinvent punk and become spokesmen of a generation- next week: the mini-series!) "the GBV story" might seem to loaded with rock myth-making to be anything other than hope and hype. Investigate for yourself.