“Late in “bee thousand,” Guided by Voices singer/songwriter Robert Pollard provides a skeleton key to his remarkable music. “I am a pharmacist, prescriptions I will fill you,” he sings, “potions, pills and medicines to ease your painful lives.” It’s no empty boast – the stately little hymn “I Am a Scientist” and the 19 other sublime songs on this album possess just such restorative powers.
GBV’s seven previous albums (released in limited editions on minuscule indies) were brilliant, but Bee Thousand is a tour de force by a good old-fashioned American basement genius. A rotating group of thirtysomethings based in Dayton, Ohio, Guided by Voices mine familiar territory: classic English pop rockers like the Who, the Kinks and the Beatles, albeit filtered through latter-day Beatlemaniacs like Cheap Trick and Robyn Hitchcock, as well as lo-fi avatars like Daniel Johnston and Pavement.
The group is clearly guided by those voices, but the band name also goes a long way toward identifying the surely ethereal source of their inspiration as well as underscoring the way Pollard’s vocals drive the moving, indelible melodies. An irresistible English folk drone weaves throughout the record, as in the jingle-jangle mournfulness of “Queen of Cans and Jars,” singer and guitarist Tobin Sprout’s exquisite “Ester’s Day” (co-written with Pollard) and the uncannily long-lined melody of “Smothered in Hugs.”
Recorded on a four-track machine, Bee Thousand sounds like a favorite bootleg or a beloved old LP whose worn grooves now reveal only a blurry jumble. Amp hum, sniffling musicians and creaking chairs all inhabit the mix, but the homespun production only underlines the strength of the songs – lo-fi or not, there’s no denying an astonishing rush of guitar-pop glory like “Tractor Rape Chain.”
As with Big Star, the beauty of GBV’s music cocoons – and so triumphs over – its own root sadness, like an oyster building a pearl around an irritating grain of sand. In the jubilant climax of “Echos Myron,” Pollard’s voice radiates a downright heroic melancholy as he sings, “And we’re finally here/And, shit, yeah, it’s cool,” and then can’t help but add “or something like that.”
Even if the lyrics sometimes read like mad-libs (“I met a nondairy creamer explicitly laid out like a fruitcake,” Pollard sings on “Hot Freaks”), they always play to Pollard’s strong point, which is precisely where rock itself excels – combining music and words to produce a distinctly third impression that’s complex, unnameable and yet startlingly vivid. But the real miracle of Bee Thousand is that it not only celebrates the power of rock music, it also embodies it. “I am a lost soul/I shoot myself with rock & roll,” Pollard sings on “I Am a Scientist,” “but nothing else can set me free.”
“White men with guitars: this remains the paradigm for indie rock, college rock, underground rock – whatever, nevermind. Still, despite its obsolescence due to politically incorrect Caucasian maleness, this brand of indie rock still produces vital, exciting music and continues to blaze into uncharted territory as well as rediscover territory long thought settled. Many such groups ultimately find themselves shot from obscurity into the limelight: R.E.M., of course, remain this genre’s figurehead, and Nirvana, Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth (which, of course, have a significant female member, Kim Gordon) followed similar paths to their places in rock history.
Currently, Pavement’s lethargic avant pop reigns as the indie-rock sound du jour, but that could be threatened by this year’s model, Guided by Voices. GBV manage to be even more politically incorrect than their contemporaries: Not only are they guitar-wielding males, but since their ages peak in the late 30s, they’re practically baby boomers, making them especially unlikely indierock superstars. You would never guess it from the youthful spirit of their music, though: hooky rock that infuses songwriting smarts and a love of melody with a sometimes spiky, sometimes whimsical sense of experimentation.
GBV first drew serious attention in 1993 with Vampire on Titus; their next album, the masterful Bee Thousand (1994), with its kaleidoscopic command of the pop vocabulary, solidified their acclaim. GBV’s maturity should come as no surprise, considering their history. While they appear to be an overnight success, they have actually been together since 1983, honing their craft on numerous self-released albums that never made it outside their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. These albums – many of which are collected on Box – chronicle the band’s evolution into its signature sound as styles are tried out and discarded like so many clothes. The result of this woodshedding hits home most clearly, however, on GBV’s new album, Alien Lanes. If anything, Alien outshines Bee Thousand in its startling consistency; over the course of 28 songs, GBV explore nearly as many styles, in the process creating a magnum opus of pure pop for now people.
GBV typically get tagged as avatars of low-fi – a sound characterized by hiss and noise, the result of home taping on primitive recording equipment. Indeed, like most previous GBV projects, Alien was recorded in a basement on four-and eight-track machines. The coarse sound gives the album the feel of a treasured bootleg, a millionth-generation tape of a favorite unknown band on which lie gems of unquestionable value.
Alien’s diamonds in the rough include “Game of Pricks,” whose title belies desperately sweet power pop. On that song, lead vocalist and primary songwriter Robert Pollard croons opaque proverbs like “You can never be strong/You can only be free” over churning, infectious guitar hooks. Like the most sublime rock, “Game of Pricks” manages to be both tragic and uplifting; that its chord progression never quite resolves imparts a curious melancholy, a feeling that pervades the album. Similarly, “Motor Away” succeeds as a driving anthem – recalling such ’80s icons as the Records and Bram Tchaikovsky – while maintaining a plaintive longing. Also striking are Alien’s darkly beautiful ballads like “They’re Not Witches,” “The Ugly Vision” and “Ex-Supermodel,” their honeyed despair rivaling anything off Big Star’s Third (true to the low-fi spirit, “Ex-Supermodel” features a snoring noise underneath its gorgeous guitar line). Throughout, Pollard dazzles with his casual vocal virtuosity. He appears able to weave beautiful melodies over anything, often with a faux British accent to boot.
On Alien the band – which includes Jim Pollard on guitar and bass, Mitch Mitchell on guitar, Kevin Fennell on drums, (rock critic and Kim Deal squeeze) Jim Greer on bass and multi-instrumentalist Tobin Sprout – displays a chemistry born of a near decade spent rocking the basement. Sprout, who plays Keith Richards to Robert Pollard’s Jagger, also makes excellent song contributions. He wraps his elfin voice around the exuberantly simple “Yeah!” chorus of “A Good Flying Bird” and tugs at the heartstrings on the Buzzcocks-style rave-up “Little Whirl.”
Despite their indie-rock status, GBV are no Sonic Youth: GBV don’t rebel against rock conventions, they revel in them, unafraid of intoxicating harmonies, smart melodies and chiming guitars. On Alien they also reveal influences ranging from early Cheap Trick and T. Rex’s psychedelic glam to Wire’s deranged art punk and everything by the Beatles (check out “As We Go Up We Go Down”). But GBV’s individual outlook and infectious enthusiasm make old ingredients seem new, mixing them into a brilliant collection of songs whose importance feels predestined.
Alien’s release coincides with that of Box, which collects four early GBV albums (the vinyl version includes five) along with a set of unreleased songs. Taken together, these objets trouvés become a kind of indie-rock version of Dylan’s The Basement Tapes. Devil Between My Toes (1987), GBV’s first album, is their most bizarre, as the band experiments with abrupt rhythm changes and discordant guitar rants à la Wire and Joy Division, with oddly compelling results. Sandbox (1988) incorporates these idiosyncratic tendencies into sunny pop replete with Mick Ronson style guitar solos; songs like “Can’t Stop” prefigure Nirvana’s spiky stopstart hooks, and “Long Distance Man” is a virtual rewrite of the Beatles’ “Nowhere Man.” Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia (1989) continues the slide into stylistic bedlam, adding ambitious song structures to the maelstrom. These elements continue on Same Place the Fly Got Smashed (1990), a strange concept album that tells the tale of a lonely Midwestern alcoholic in ballads like “Drinker’s Peace” and losers’ anthems like “Pendulum.” Propeller (1992) remains the pièce de résistance of the band’s formative period, presenting big-sounding, punky arena rock, a blend of the Sex Pistols and Grand Funk Railroad. More than anything, the records in Box recall a pre-Veruca Salt time when indie bands didn’t get signed by major labels before they’d left the garage.
Unfortunately, Box doesn’t include GBV’s debut EP, Forever Since Breakfast. Like many records circa 1986, Forever replicates exactly the sound of midperiod R.E.M., a band with whom GBV share much. It’s easy to forget that R.E.M. were once a regional cult band with a Byrds-obsessed guitarist, a poetry-mumbling singer and an indie hit called “Radio Free Europe.” GBV are in much the same position today, but in a musical climate more open to their success. Like R.E.M., GBV blend the conventional with the weird and are accessible enough to get that mix over to the masses. Maybe they’ll bring low-fi to the charts the way Green Day replaced Nirvana’s grunge with pop punk.
Even if that happens, the songs will probably remain the same. On “An Earful o’ Wax” (from Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia), Pollard sings, “When you come around/I can still be found/In another world.” Let’s hope he never gets his head out of the clouds.”