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By John Mulvey
Guided By Voices
Hardcore UFOs Box Set
The recorded work of Dayton, Ohio's Guided By Voices ranks as one of the most daunting in contemporary rock; seemingly infinite library of semi fi anthems, one minute epics and rockist pranks, where every fleeting idea is memorialized as a song. Faced with the bewildering range of official albums, side projects and archive releases often collected in the Fading Captain Series, this five CD plus one DVD box set is a relatively concise point of entry.
Easier still, the first disc, Human Amusements At Hourly Rates is also available as a greatest hits CD, a beginner's guide to the work of GBV's Robert Pollard and his various band mates over two decades. At a brisk 32 tracks, it's a great way of sampling the quality of Pollard's energy, attention deficit economy and way of compressing the canon Beatles, Who, Byrds, maybe a little early Wire into a snapshot.
142 songs figure on Hardcore UFOs, enough to sustain an entire career for most groups. For Pollard, however, it's a tiny fraction of his work. Obviously, he spreads himself thin at times. But this insane productivity is what makes GBV such a fascinating, infuriating project. At their best, they present meticulously crafted songs with all the spontaneity and never to be repeated excitement of improvised music. Take 1995's "A Salty Salute": momentous yet sketchy, 1'28" long and delivered as if it came together just as the tape started rolling.
Yet it would be wrong to see GBV's music as an avant garde re imagining of rock history. What propels their finest performances isn't self consciousness Pollard saves that for the freshman surrealism of his song titles but an apparently naive, instinctual grasp of what some guys, some gear and electricity can create. Tellingly, the essays accompanying Hardcore UFOs don't dwell on theory, or on Pollard's peculiar compunction to call his every fragment of melody a song. Instead. the writers focus on bleary memories of bonding over old records, sport and inland oceans of American beer. GBV are just a bunch of Midwesterners hammering away in the garage, goes the subtext, and Pollard is a genius comfortable in the body of Everyman.
Surely it can't be that straightforward. Siltbreeze label head Tom Lax's tale of GBV playing a tiny Philadelphia gig in exchange for his copy of Amon Duul's Yeti suggests Pollard has more esoteric tastes than most teachers in the Dayton area. And what of song titles like "Catfood On The Earwig", "The Ascended Masters Grogshop", '14 Cheerleader Coldfront"? Their scrupulous eccentricity confirms Pollard as an only partially suppressed aficionado of Prog rock as well as psychedelic whimsy. Or the countless line up changes over the years? These, at least, betray a drive and ruthlessness at odds with that pervasive 'all guys together' rhetoric.
The Human Amusements disc is a lovely collection of moments, because many of GBV's best songs are over in a moment: the tremulous whoosh of 1987's Captain's Dead bears comparison with The Byrds' "Lady Friend"; the clanging romanticism of 1994's "Tractor Rape Chain"; and so on. Otherwise Hardcore UFOs works like most non chronological box sets: the longer it goes on, the deeper into arcana it travels. Disc two, Demons And Painkillers, tidies up various singles, B sides and compilation tracks, predominantly from the mid 90s golden period when GBV happily straddled their crotchety four track roots and the glossier, more orthodox sound of recent albums. Its inconsistency is probably more representative of the group than the sustained high of Human Amusements. Pollard's overwhelming weight of songs results in a baffling profligacy, making it hard to see why the staccato "Postal Blowfish" festered on a soundtrack for The Kids In The Hall sketch show.
In fact, that profligacy occasionally makes Pollard look as if he hoards songs for box set posterity. Disc three, Delicious Pie And Thank You For Calling, consists of demos and unreleased recordings drawn from a heavily accessed archive which must eventually dry up. There's a generous proportion of trash and, just as predictably, some mystifyingly neglected little marvels. The late 80s diffracted pastorales of "Perhaps We Were Swinging" and "Never" posit an alternative route through psychedelia for GBV.
Disc four, Live At The Wheelchair Races, and the predominantly live DVD, Watch Me Jumpstart, offer respite after a fashion, being selections from 1995 onwards. Stripped of the studio albums' varying production standards, they prove that Pollard's vision is freakishly constant. Thousands of songs down the line, he still relies on minute variations of a limited palette. His is a curious, fanatical way to work it's as if he gets bored of one swift, barely finished song, then proceeds to write another that's virtually identical. GBV lore would infer it's always been the case, but disc five, Forever Since Breakfast, is the collection's one real surprise. On their 1986 seven track debut EP for I Wanna Records, Pollard is yet to risk the lyrical abstraction and brevity that's become his trademark. "Land Of Danger" and "The Other Place" are fully formed, only fractionally elliptical and a lot like early REM. The work of a rock craftsman, Pollard might be trying on someone else's character for size, but after such an exhaustive survey of his cultivated, occasionally self defeating idiosyncrasies, it comes, frankly, as something of a relief.