Propeller (Scat Records ’92) Rating: A-
It was a long road to semi-legendary status for Robert Pollard and his band Guided By Voices, who recorded four albums that few people noticed (and that I've never heard) before recording Propeller, which was so named because this was the album that would finally propel the band to a new level of recognition and acceptance. Actually, Pollard had fully intended this to be the last Guided By Voices album; he was a married family man and it was time to act like an adult, after all, but wouldn't you know it, this album actually did get the band noticed and propel Pollard to an actual career (as opposed to a hobby) in music. The album is all over the place, both stylistically and sound-wise, and listeners unfamiliar with the band's "lo-fi" aesthetic (part design as Pollard liked the immediacy of four track recordings, part necessity as the band had limited funds at the time) will likely need to get used to it. I know that I did, but this album has really grown on me over time, and though there are several songs ("Particular Damaged," "Lethargy," "Some Drilling Implied") that I regard as forgettable filler, most of these songs are very good and quite a few are flat-out great. The album begins with one of the best songs the band ever did, "Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox," whose multi-sectioned, ambitious epic-ness (the song is almost 6-minutes long) is shocking given that the band is known for super-short songs. This song has all the band's virtues in a nutshell, including several exciting guitar surges and a memorable closing solo (most played by Greg Demos), plus gorgeous harmonies (Pollard and Tobin Sprout) that help the song achieve a Who-like grandeur. "Weedking" starts as an intensely atmospheric ballad before moving onto a more rocking chorus before getting totally anthemic, with another exciting guitar solo. "Quality Of Armor" has a great rocking Beatles-esque melody, "Metal Mothers" is mellower and melodic and has a wicked cool guitar tone on the solo towards the end, and "Exit Flagger" is a singable should've been hit (despite the hissy sound quality) with yet more stellar guitar surges. On the mellower front, "Red Gas Circle" and "14 Cheerleader Coldfront" are short but deeply affecting ballads that again show off the band's effective harmonies, while "Unleashed! The Large-Hearted Boy" (great bass line), "Ergo Space Pig" (notable for its big loud beats and psychedelic guitar), "Circus World" (moody and dirge-like, with a wailing guitar solo), and "On The Thunder" (a soaringly anthemic finale) are other songs that I would consider highlights were the competition not so strong. Also notable is "Back To Saturn X Radio Report," a collage of song snippets that crams more creativity into a minute and a half than most bands fit into entire albums. Sure, I wish that some of these songs were a bit longer (after the first song no other song even exceeds three minutes), and again the sound quality could be a lot better, but this is still a great album, with many terrific songs and performances by a band who made good on what was perceived to be their last chance.
Vampire On Titus (Scat Records ’93) Rating: B-
As per usual, it didn't take long for the ever-prolific Pollard to come back with another full-length release, but Vampire On Titus was a significant step down quality-wise from Propeller and is an album that I'd deem skippable for all but diehard fans. Don't get me wrong, there are some very good (not great, unlike Propeller) songs here, but there are also simply too many under-developed and badly recorded tracks. I mean, there's "lo fi" and then there's "shitty recording quality," and too often this album falls into the latter category. Also, with 17 songs blurring by in a mere 31 minutes some of these “songs” sound more like unfinished fragments than full songs. It also can be hard to hear the (admittedly often-impressive) melodies and vocals buried beneath the messy 4-track tape hiss (they really ought to have hired a producer), and despite some inspired moments the band’s unfocused and erratic methods ultimately sells short their obvious talents. That said, there are some songs that are worth hearing, such as "Expecting Brainchild" and "Dusted," whose good guitar grooves overcome muffled, badly recorded vocals. "Sot" and "Unstable Journey" feature the shoegazer-y attributes of having loud guitars and hazy vocals while being dreamy yet rocking, and "Gleemer (The Deeds Of Fertile Jim)" and "Wondering Boy Poet" are affecting if extremely short ballads which show that Pollard is a great vocalist when he wants to be. "Jar Of Cardinals" is also tuneful, with good ringing riffs, and "Non-Absorbing" is a catchy groover. Still, the static-y air guitar-worthy rocker "Perhaps None The Vultures" deserved a better recording, and I feel that way about several other songs as well, some of which I regard as outright filler. Anyway, this isn't a bad album, and many of these tracks are at least interesting albeit deeply flawed, but it is certainly a frustrating album from a band who were capable of better, as we’d soon find out in no uncertain terms.
Bee Thousand (Matador ’94) Rating: A
After many years teaching fourth graders in Dayton, Ohio and drunkenly bashing out several albums worth of material with key cohorts such as Mitch Mitchell (guitar), Kevin Fennell (drums), brother Jim (guitar), and especially Tobin Sprout (guitar, vocals), who at least co-writes 7 out of this album's 20 songs (most of the short but sweet low-key ballads are his), almost 40-ish Robert Pollard must’ve been surprised to see his band suddenly touted by the same lo-fi loving indie folk who worshipped Pavement. Song titles like “Hardcore U.F.O.’s,” “Gold Star For Robot Boy,” “Kicker Of Elves,” “Demons Are Real,” and “You’re Not An Airplane” betray a mind who probably spent too much time amusing juveniles, but it was the band’s sound that caught people’s attention. If The Beatles had never escaped the garage and were less interested in fully fleshing out songs they might have sounded like Guided By Voices. Indeed, at their best the band’s inspired amateurism sounds a little like loud, poorly recorded Beatles demos (though again this is as much an aesthetic choice as due to a lack of funds), albeit with a more rocking “let ‘er rip” attitude, though they can also go acoustic effectively. Heck, when Pollard and Sprout harmonize on affecting ballads such as Pollard's “The Goldheart Mountain Top Queen Directory” (notable for the epic grandeur of its chorus and its equally unforgettable recorder embellishments) and Sprout's "Ester's Day" (with its memorable "down and out" mantra) they can damn near make me cry, and there are many exciting rockers as well. He may not make much effort to hide mistakes or the album's hissy sound quality, but I have to think that Pollard spent a fair amount of time getting the great guitar tone on "Hardcore UFO's," and "Tractor Rape Train" is simply an all-time GBV classic, with more great riffs and Pollard at his Lennon-esque best. "Smothered In Hugs" has an exciting guitar surge and brilliant vocals, "Echos Myron" is another stone cold killer, with its catchy "what comes up surely must come down" vocal hooks, high-pitched harmonies, and even a great guitar solo, and "Gold Star For Robot Boy" is another great surging rocker. "Mincer Ray" has another winning melody along with an agreeably low-key vocal (Sprout again, who also wrote the song), "Queen Of Can and Jars" features fabulous ringing riffs, and "I am a Scientist" is another knockout track that's arguably the band’s best known song. Even songs that for a long time I regarded as filler ("Hot Freaks," "A Big Fan Of The Pigpen," "Kicker Of Elves," "Peep Hole") have grown on me over time, and I now feel that they add character to an album that all but revels in its glorious flaws (a perfectionist Pollard 'aint). I still don't really care for "Her Psychology Today" and "Demons Are Real," and again there are times when I wish that Bob would've fully fleshed out some of his more interesting song snippets or re-recorded some parts that sounded particularly sloppy, but on the whole this package simply works. The sequencing is superlative, at least half of the songs are phenomenal, most of the ones that aren't still manage to enhance the overall package, and the band's so-called "classic lineup" (bass players typically came and went) is in peak form. True, for years I thought that the album was overrated (this album instantly made GBV critics darlings), as it took me quite some time to get used to the GBV aesthetic, but my perseverance has paid off and now I too regard this album as a '90s classic. Bee Thousand remains the band's best known, most highly regarded, and best selling album, and its success enabled Pollard to quit his teaching job and pursue music as a full-time career.
Alien Lanes (Matador ’95) Rating: A-
In addition to being incredibly prolific and an unabashed drunk who drinks huge quantities of beer (as did the rest of the band; fortunately GBV were always a kickass live band when they didn't totally overindulge), Robert Pollard and his band were always known for their enormous membership turnover, but this was the same lineup that did Bee Thousand, excepting bass of course. Now signed to the fine indie label Matador Records, who gave them a hefty advance, GBV certainly didn't spend the money on the production side of things, as Alien Lanes is in the same "lo-fi" vein as its predecessor. With 28 songs blurring by in little over 40 minutes, Guided By Voices’ succinctness continues to be both a blessing and (this time more so) a curse. If none of the songs here stick around long enough to get too boring, neither do many of them last long enough to leave a lasting impression. Although Guided By Voices are acknowledged masters of low-fi pop gems, and though many of these songs are engagingly catchy and rough, the band would’ve been better served by more fully developing some of these songs rather than haphazardly running from one idea to the next. Simply put, there are too many unsatisfyingly brief snippets and merely decent songs this time out, as the album on the whole is far less consistent than Bee Thousand, though its best songs are of a similarly high quality. For example, "Watch Me Jumpstart" has those rocking, escalating riffs and catchy vocal hooks, "As We Go Up, We Go Down" is an extremely tuneful sequel of sorts to "Echos Myron," "Game Of Pricks" is a genius pop rocker that's possibly my favorite GBV song, "A Good Flying Bird" will have you shouting several "yeah!"'s in no time, "Closer You Are" is another great surging (and quite catchy) rocker, "Motor Away" motors along impressively, "Chicken Blows" is a wonderfully atmospheric ballad with creative vocal arrangements, "Litle Whirl" shows off Sprout (who this time at least co-writes 9 songs) at his British Invasion-y best, and "My Son Cool" is a pounding rocker with another catchy, tuneful chorus (if a single repeated fragment can be considered a chorus). Other tracks that approach top-shelf GBV are the short yet anthemic opener "A Salty Salute," the even shorter but quite pretty and affecting "They're Not Witches," the rockabilly-ish "My Valuable Hunting Knife," the folksy violin-flavored charmer "Blimps Go 90," the good if seriously lo-fi rocker (with its Bob Mould-like guitar tone) "Strawdogs," and "Alright," a melodic, somewhat epic, mostly instrumental finale. That's 15 songs that range from very good to great, more than half the album, in other words, but unlike Bee Thousand, which these days I can press play and pretty much enjoy from start to finish, with Alien Lanes I tend to program out several songs. Again, much of what's here is very good, but despite many successful song linkages the parts don't fit together quite as well this time, and I'm sure that some people will still have problems with the band's ongoing non-existent production values. Of course, the band's messy style is part of what makes GBV such an original band, but at times their uniqueness (and Pollard's lack of discipline when it comes to fully developing songs) limits their overall effectiveness and makes me wonder whether future progress is possible.
Under the Bushes, Under the Stars (Matador ’96) Rating: A-
Not that progress is really necessary, because these guys have their very own niche that their rabid cult fans greatly appreciate, and this is another very good album. The production is much improved, too, perhaps because they actually hired outside producers (Kim Deal and Steve Albini) this time around. After all, they had already done the "lo-fi" thing, many would say definitively so on Bee Thousand (and Alien Lanes has its fair share of enthusiastic supporters too), and Pollard was always looking to improve his craft and progress forward with his band. Although proud of their "lo-fi" records, Pollard sought a bigger sound that was more in sync with the band's hard rocking live shows, and now he could afford to do it, too (check out the wall of guitars that instantly greet us on "Man Called Aerodynamics"). Whereas Alien Lanes was inconsistent but had more than a few momentous peaks to make up for it, Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, which was originally intended to be an autobiographical concept album called The Power Of Suck, is simply really good throughout. The problems with the album, and they're minor, is that the cleaner sound takes away some of their uniqueness (and it takes some getting used to if you expected more of the same), and there are few songs here that immediately stamp themselves as instant GBV classics. Then again, strong songs such as “The Official Ironmen Rally Song,” “Your Name Is Wild,” “Ghosts Of A Different Dream,” “Underwater Explosions,” “It’s Like Soul Man,” “Drag Days,” “Sheetkickers,” and “Redmen and Their Wives” (this album has no shortage of creative song titles) would all possibly qualify for my inevitable Best of Guided By Voices playlist, and there's quite a few other candidates as well, with very little in the way of obvious filler. With 24 fully fleshed out songs (actually more than Alien Lanes), this album builds a nice momentum; indeed, like a great NFL running back this album gets better and better as it goes along (Pollard the jock would no doubt appreciate that analogy), though "Take To The Sky" is a somewhat anti-climactic finale after a run of several standout songs. On the whole, Under the Bushes, Under the Stars was a fine way for the so-called "classic lineup" of GBV to bow out, as the entire band soon scattered for various reasons, with Sprout (who wrote four songs this time out) of course being the biggest departure.
Mag Earwhig! (Matador ’97) Rating: B
The new era of Guided By Voices begins, as Robert Pollard, who now pretty much is Guided By Voices, plays with members of Cobra Verde on the solid but unremarkable Mag Earwhig!. Don't get me wrong, the guys from Cobra Verde acquit themselves quite well, providing Pollard with a tighter, more professional, and harder rocking (though many would argue more generic) sound than his former bandmates ever did. However, Guided By Voices have always succeeded or failed primarily based on Pollard's songwriting, which has been better (plus Sprout's infrequent but always worthwhile contributions are missed, as is his harmony singing). "I am A Tree" (written by Doug Gillard), "Bulldog Skin," "Not Behind The Fighter Jet," "Little Lines," and "Now To War" are instantly memorable standouts, and "Sad If I Lost It," "Portable Men's Society," and "Learning To Hunt" are other admirable efforts, but Mag Earwhig! has far too many throwaway songs and unsatisfying fragments, without enough of the pop brilliance that made Guided By Voices' previous albums so worthwhile. Maybe I'm just tiring of Pollard's lack of discipline (though the more professional production is again commendable), but one thing I'm sure of is that with this admittedly transitional album (the "Guided By Verde" lineup would last for only this one album) my enthusiasm for his band has waned considerably. Then again, when I hear a surging rocker like "Jane of the Waking Universe" I'm reminded that at his best Robert Pollard is simply one of the best songwriters in the world, which is why I keep coming back for more.
Do The Collapse (TVT Records '99) Rating: B+
This is the album where Pollard tried to make GBV more of a "normal" pop band in an unabashed bid for the big time. With an accomplished new group of musicians, including old hand Demos (this time on bass), guitarist Doug Gillard (a holdover from Cobra Verde), and drummer Jim MacPherson (ex-Breeders) at his disposal, Pollard also hired producer Ric Ocasek, much to the dismay of fans of his "lo-fi" work. Still, though I would agree that certain tracks are indeed overproduced ("Hold On Hope," "Dragons Awake," and "Wrecking Now" most obviously), and that the album is the band's glossiest and slickest to date, on the whole I quite like it and consider it a clear improvement over Mag Earwhig!. Supremely melodic, idiosyncratic, and (at least at times) rocking songs such as "Teenage FBI," "Things I Will Keep," "Surgical Focus," "Much Better Mr. Buckles," and "Liquid Indian" are among the band's best, and there are quite a few grower tracks that I've come to greatly appreciate as well (such as "Optical Hopscotch" and "Wormhole"), some of which sport impressive guitar work (such as "In Stitches," "Mushroom Art," and "Wormhole" and "Wrecking Now" again). Even "Hold On Hope," a blatant "sell out" ballad that the hipsters hated and that Pollard himself calls "embarrassing," is pretty good for what it is, even if Pollard's vocals are overly earnest and Ocasek's gooey strings are laid on a bit thick. Sure, some of the reckless abandon that the band is noted for is absent (perhaps in part because Ocasek banned drinking from the studio), and unsurprisingly the album is more new wave-y than usual at times, but by and large these are very good songs, and even the ones that aren't are more unmemorable or a bit boring than bad. Heck, Pollard even has some 3 and 4-minute songs this time out, which I'm sure would please the friend of mine who has been known to shout out in exasperation "hey Pollard would you actually finish a song for once already?" On the whole, I like this album and feel that it gets a bad rap, as it was poorly received (an ill-fated label switch to TVT Records likely didn't help) and therefore did not take GBV to "the next level" as Pollard (and TVT Records, one would presume) had envisioned.
Isolation Drills (TVT Records '01) Rating: B+
Adding second guitarist Nate Farley, Isolation Drills continued the more polished, commercial direction of Do The Collapse but is both more rocking and more melancholic. Apparently Pollard was having marriage difficulties at the time, and though they're still enigmatic on the whole, his lyrics are a bit more straightforward and personal than usual this time out as a result. Tracks such as the musically uplifting if lyrically "Unspirited" and the forlorn ballad "Fine To See You" allude to his current relationship difficulties, while "How's My Drinking" prettily flips the finger to those who disapprove of his so-called "excessive" drinking. Elsewhere, "Sister I Need Wine" has a hushed intensity not unlike Elliott Smith (who producer Rob Schnapf had worked with), but the band rocks hard on the surging album opener "Fair Touching" and the excellent "Twilight Campfighter," with its escalating riffs, wonderfully pure guitar tone, and appealing harmonized vocals. The near 5-minute "The Enemy" gradually builds an impressively hard rocking momentum even though its overall melody isn't all that memorable, and "Run Wild" delivers a simple but effectively anthemic chorus. The pure power pop of "Chasing Heather Crazy" and the catchy unabashed summertime pop of "Glad Girls" are easy picks for any Best of Guided By Voices playlist, and the album on the whole delivers consistent quality, with only a few misfires such as the seemingly unfinished "Frostman" and the rather annoying "Want One?" Perhaps the sound has become a bit too uniform, lacking the adventurousness and diversity of earlier efforts, which makes it seem like GBV-by-numbers at times, but on the whole this was another high quality release that deserves a better reputation than it has. In fact, in revising and expanding this page (some readers might recall that my initial reviews of the band were less positive), I'm surprised not only by how much more I like some of their mid-'90s albums (especially Bee Thousand), but by how much better some of their pre and post-"classic era" albums are than I expected them to be. Alas, from a critical and commercial standpoint they seemed to have trouble transitioning into the '00s, perhaps in part because they were seen as such a quintessential '90s band. Note: After this album Macpherson and Demos left GBV, who resigned with Matador Records, and Pollard released three more GBV albums (Universal Truths and Cycles, Earthquake Glue, Half-Smiles of the Decomposed) with varying bass players (Kevin March replaced Macpherson on drums while Gillard and Farley remained) before breaking up the band in 2004. Perhaps I'll review these albums at a later date, but for now I'll conclude this page with the next review...P.S. The original “classic Guided By Voices lineup” regrouped and released not one, not two, but three (!!!) studio albums in 2012 alone! To say that I have some catching up to do is an understatement!
Human Amusements At Hourly Rates: The Best Of Guided By Voices (Matador '03) Rating: A
Guided By Voices main man Robert Pollard has probably written more songs over the past 15 years than any man alive, both with his main band and his myriad side projects and solo albums (it's not inaccurate to state that Pollard is too prolific, I think even his most devoted fans would probably concede as much). Many of those songs have been well written, raucously played pop gems that nodded to both The Beatles and The Who, whether recorded seemingly in his basement (the early “lo-fi” stuff) or in a real recording studio (the slicker later stuff). Alas, many of Guided By Voices’ albums are inconsistent, as too often Pollard has seemed uninterested in fully developing certain songs or discarding ones that don’t work, making GBV a perfect choice for this “best of” package that I’m proudly holding in my hands.
Surprisingly, given that Pollard himself selected the songs, this compilation does its job quite well. By that I mean that it holds together as an album, with a non-chronological sequencing that makes sense (thereby making all of the songs seem of a piece even though some periods in the band’s history are markedly different from others), and a thoughtful track listing that proves that Pollard can separate the good stuff from the bad after all.
With 32 songs filling up almost an entire cd, there are many highlights, many of which I've already discussed on this page, including “A Salty Salute,” "Things I Will Keep," "I am A Tree," "Cheerleader Coldfront," "Twilight Campfighter," "Echos Myron," "Learning To Hunt," "Bulldog Skin," "Tractor Rape Train," "Game Of Pricks" (albeit in a different, inferior version to the one on Alien Lanes), "To Remake The Young Flyer," "Glad Girls," "Surgical Focus," "Chasing Heather Crazy," "My Valuable Hunting Knife," "The Official Ironman Rally Song," "Non-Absorbing," "Motor Away," "Teenage FBI" (also an inferior alternate version), "Watch Me Jumpstart," "Exit Flagger," and "I am A Scientist." Most of these songs should sound instantly familiar to any big GBV fan, but even on this compilation there are still a few underdeveloped songs (“Hit” is only 24 seconds long, for example) and poor selections (“Hot Freaks” instead of “Smothered In Hugs”? I just don’t get the love for “Hot Freaks’ but I digress…). In addition, this album is a little too career encompassing, as more songs should’ve been included from his '90s prime and albums like Propeller, Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, and Under The Bushes, Under The Stars. Of course, nobody would ever accuse Pollard of being a perfectionist, so it makes sense that even this collection would be flawed. Really, the best way to listen to Guided By Voices is to create your own playlist (mine has 55 songs right now), but I understand that doing that is quite an undertaking. Given that, neophytes might as well start here, as this compilation is the most consistently impressive album with the Guided By Voices imprint on it, and it makes for a great beginners guide while also providing a choice playlist for big fans.