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January 2003
By Victoria Segal

Guided By Voices
Hardcore UFOs Box Set
Matador Records

5 out of 5 stars

Unleashed! The Large Hearted Band: 5-CD box set (plus DVD) chronicling two decades of songwriting magic courtesy of Robert Pollard and a cast of thousands.

"I figured if you record 100 songs, there's gotta be 20 good ones in there," Robert Pollard, Guided By Voices' singer, songwriter and scissor-kicking live spirit, told MOJO last year. It would probably take a team of government scientists the best years of their brains to discover exactly how many songs Pollard, his shifting band and his multifarious alter egos have devised over the past two decades. Fourteen official albums, a scattering of solo recordings, a maze of pseudonymous side-projects and untold overflow - Bob himself puts the number in the thousands. No wonder there's a need for Hardcore UFOs, GBV's very own Rosetta Stone, a way of deciphering the vast collection of rock'n'roll hieroglyphs that form their abundantly weird, endlessly wonderful back catalogue.

A lo-fi pioneer acclaimed by everyone from J Mascis to The Strokes, the 45-year-old former elementary schoolteacher (oh, to meet his former pupils) is both folk artist and folk legend. If his odd creative impulse had fused some different neurons, his Dayton, Ohio hometown might now have its own version of the Watts Tower, or the Midwest's biggest collection of matchstick art. Instead, these five CDs show his uncanny ability to channel, say, The Beatles or The Who into his own psychic wonderland, deploying his random poetry generator to create music that is cryptic, vivid and ultimately profoundly touching.

For the bewildered, the essential component here is the 32-track Human Amusements At Hourly Rates: The Best Of Guided By Voices (also available individually for anyone short on time). At times, Pollard's McCartneyesque holler hints at unhinged brain-fever, the singalong aphasia of Tractor Rape Chain or Everywhere With Helicopter equally disturbing and uplifting. At others, it lends itself to parallel-universe stadium anthems such as the swinging nursery rhyme Echos Myron or the small-town break-out of Motor Away, irresistibly poignant and pointing at all kinds of hidden symbols and
secrets. "I met a non-dairy creamer explicitly laid out like a fruitcake," smoulders Pollard on the sticky lust-funk of 1994's Hot Freaks (co-written with former guitarist Tobin Sprout), while the cement-mixer clatter of My Valuable Hunting Knife could be a Freudian joke, the American dream dissected or a strange term of endearment. Meanwhile, tracks from the rich seam of albums since 1999's Do The Collapse - the Big Star shine of Glad Girls, the autumnal heartbreak of The Best Of Jill Hives - indicate sadness and becoming maturity. Yet tellingly, the band sound older on 1986's Forever Since Breakfast, their first 12-inch EP, included here as disc five. Endearing like an ultrasound snapshot, its unripe jangle is indebted to R.E.M. - although nobody could guess Pollard would soon make Michael Stipe look like a moon-June balladeer.

Windmill-fighting completists are further served by disc two, Demons And Painkillers: Matador B-Sides, Out Of Print Singles, Bonus And Compilation Tracks, which is stuffed with delights: the Roadrunner-rattle of Some Drilling Implied from the Cut Out Witch 7-inch, or the 1995 Tigerbomb EP, including the mop-topped brain-pop of quintessential GBV song Game Of Pricks. Meanwhile, disc three, Delicious Pie And Thank You For Calling, contains unreleased tracks for those who want to hear Pollard shouting into a boombox in 1984. Still, demos of Bulldog Skin and Man Called Aerodynamics reveal seed-corn greatness, while the backward Slave to Your Beetle Brain and the hysterical laughing on Back To Saturn X offer another little skylight into GBV's consciousness.

It's disc four, Live At the Wheelchair races, however, that best highlights the band's undying rock'n'roll passion: live recordings between 1995 and 2002 bringing the full beer-swigging, high-kicking Pollard experience into your house. The freewheeling rush of live favourites A Salty Salute and Tractor Rape Chain just emphasise why the Strokes courted GBV so assiduously, hassling them for support slots way back when, then inviting them to appear in their Someday video when roles had reversed. To five young New Yorkers buckling under the weight of expectation, Guided By Voices' independent integrity and Rolling-Rock good vibes must have seemed a glorious tonic. For Hardcore UFOs is not the record of a career, it's an archive of a way of life and a catalogue of genius.