Guided by Voices – The Best of Guided by Voices (Human Amusements at Hourly Rates) – Classic Music Review


Measured solely by output, Guided by Voices is the rock equivalent of Picasso. The world knows Picasso because he had a better publicity agent.

Picasso was technically more prolific, producing an estimated 50,000 artworks during his lifetime. The known quantity of Robert Pollard songs comes in at around 2500. Add Tobin Sprout and the other contributors to the songwriting guild and you might raise that number by a couple of hundred or so. However, Picasso’s stats are seriously inflated: many of his so-called artworks are nothing more than doodles to which he applied his signature, rather like John Lennon’s doodles that Yoko Ono transformed into “art” and ready cash. Some would argue that many of Robert Pollard’s works are musical doodles—incomplete fragments that fail to qualify as songs.

Harrumph! I think dismissing GBV on the charge that many of their “songs” are not really songs is spurious at best. Yes, my friends, spurious!

According to Merriam-Webster, there are three definitions of “song” apropos to this debate:

  • song: a short musical composition of words and music
  • song: a distinctive or characteristic sound or series of sounds (as of a bird, insect, or whale)
  • song:  a small amount i. e., sold for a song

Every GBV song ever written qualifies as a song based on the first definition; even the 24 seconds of “Hit” contain words and music. Many of their songs incorporate distinctive and characteristic sounds, like the rattling of the 4-track tape deck used for some of their low-fi recordings. And the definition of song as a “small amount” certainly applies to GBV, as the entity spent a good chunk of its existence operating in the red.

So, anyone who says that GBV did not produce songs is going to have to answer to Merriam-Webster and me! They’ve got the words and I’ve got the whips!

Putting aside the legend and the awe of the uninformed that usually comes with legendary status, Pablo produced his fair share of crap. The phrase “It’s a Picasso” is a classic trope used by insecure snobs to browbeat those who dare question the artistic value of half-assed sketches that Pablo should have used for trash can basketball practice. GBV’s extensive catalog has its share of crap, too, but I will say this: I’ve never heard a GBV album where I didn’t like at least half of the songs. In some albums, like Bee Thousand, Isolation Drills and Earthquake Glue, I like nearly all the songs. I’ll wager that if someone had the time to winnow through everything Picasso and GBV ever did and calculate the crap factor, GBV would wind up with the lower crap average.

This best-of collection has a negligible crap factor. I could debate a few insertions and bemoan a few exclusions but in the end, this is a well-curated anthology that reveals both GBV’s strengths and flaws. I wish they’d waited one more album before compiling the collection so that one of my absolute favorite GBV songs—“Everyone Thinks I’m a Raincloud (When I’m Not Looking)”—could be part of the set, but that’s a silly wish. Given GBV’s repeated resurrections, I have to classify them as a work-in-progress that will endure until Robert Pollard kicks the bucket, and meanwhile, their best-of list will continue to expand.

I reviewed two of the three albums they released in 2012 (Let’s Go Eat the Factory and Class Clown Spots a UFO), and I genuinely believed my next review would have covered one of the three albums mentioned above. I decided to go the compilation route because, despite their impressive output and appearances on some of the big late-night American talk shows, GBV is still considered a niche band, a darling of the indie crowd. While I think it’s unlikely that they’ll ever garner mainstream acceptance, I think they deserve a helluva lot more notice than they’ve received. And though I do get frustrated when I hear a song that deserved a lot more recording time than Robert Pollard had in mind, I also consider him one of the great American songwriters, a superb melodist with a remarkable grasp of the importance of a song’s feel.

Guided by Voices is also an exceptionally accessible concept. Even in their hi-fi recordings, there is a certain immediacy that captures the long-lost spirit of the amateur experimentation that once made the United States an exciting and welcoming venue for those with new ideas. The connotation of the word “amateur” has become pejorative over the years, and now it is a term for someone who doesn’t know what the fuck they’re doing or lacks the legitimacy of status. However, in the century preceding the advent of the American Empire, amateurs were held in high regard, whether you’re talking about Edison, Orville & Wilbur or college football great Red Grange. GBV, based in the same city where the Wright Brothers worked long hours in their bike shop to fulfill their dream of powered human flight, is one of the few American institutions today where that sense of experimentation still thrives.

I usually bitch about compilations that are not sequenced in chronological order, but in this case, it hardly matters. The development of GBV is not a trajectory like you see in The Beatles or Radiohead, where the movement from simple to complex is obvious. GBV’s development is more like that of the craftsperson: the constant honing of skill, which results not so much in “better” but in “variations on a theme.” GBV applies its talents to creating and shaping songs that make your spirits rise with memorable melodies and clever hooks. They belong in any conversation about great American rock bands, as I shall conclusively prove in the following treatise.

“A Salty Salute”: This anthemic statement from Alien Lanes is a more-than-appropriate opener, with plenty of amp buzz and tape hiss that clocks in at 1:29. The song also defies conventional structure by melding verse and chorus into the same chord pattern and melody. I still hear the famous first line “Disarm the settlers,” as “Disarm the sexless,” but that may be my deep personal disgust regarding the concept of virginity. Man, as soon as I found out what my nether region was for, I dumped virginity quicker than a B. O. contaminated boyfriend.

“Things I Will Keep”: One of the most frequent charges filed against GBV is creating public mayhem through impenetrable lyrics, and at first glance, the lyrics of “Things I Will Keep” do raise suspicion. But if you stop and think about those moments in the boundaries between wakefulness and sleep, you realize that they’re chock-full of word fragments and random images that we store deep in the unconscious (“The things that I will keep/And hide them in my sleep.”) If you interpret the lyrics through that lens, the song becomes a celebration of an experience unique to every human individual—the experience of entering the depths of the psyche, an experience that is ours and no one else’s. “Things I Will Keep” is also a fabulous melodic rock song, with a relatively steady chord progression grounded in G major strengthened by a momentary shift to a Bb chord as the song moves toward the chorus. The melody is so enticing that “Things I Will Keep” features an unusually long guitar solo where delightful variations on the melody move from the lower strings to the higher with effortless grace. I also love the way Robert Pollard forces the words to bend to the musical and poetic melodies—for example, you read “From behind the curtains/It will most certainly/bring peace,” but the delivery splits it into two lines: “From behind the curtains/It will most certain/Ly bring peace.” Splitting the word “certainly” strengthens the rhyme, which in turn strengthens the melody, increasing the memorability factor. “Things I Will Keep” is the first of many great melodic rockers in this collection.

“Everywhere with Helicopter”: Meh. This song has never grabbed me, and Universal Truths and Cycles is not one of my favorite GBV albums. The melodic movement is too choppy and the energy feels a bit forced.

“I Am a Tree”: Mag Earwhig illustrated the fluid nature of GBV, with the classic lineup largely supplanted by Cleveland’s Cobra Verde. According to the press release in the GBV Database, “This is a conceptual rock opera inspired by the Who’s Tommy, the Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow, Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, and the Edgar Broughton Band’s Wasa Wasa.” Since the storyline is as unintelligible as that of Tommy, I suppose I’ll have to buy that explanation. “I Am a Tree” is one of the two Mag Earwhig (out of twenty-one) tracks that made it onto this collection. It’s an interesting dramatic monologue, but the high-pitched repetitive scream from the backing guitar gets very old after about thirty seconds. This is one song that would have been MUCH better with even lower fidelity sound.

“My Kind of Soldier”: This pleasant, flowing melodic number that opens the remarkably consistent Earthquake Glue features lyrics that hint at deeper meaning without giving you enough to make a solid identification. The couplet “Fight for the moment of control/When it opens then it’s gone” can be taken as a profound comment on the elusive nature of control, using the metaphor of the door that leads nowhere. It could also mean nothing at all: sometimes Pollard and the boys deliberately painted canvases of non-meaning to fuck with listener expectations. This confusion is a common experience with many GBV songs, but in the end, I usually wind up moving past it because the song sounds great. “My Kind of Soldier” probably falls into that category.

“14 Cheerleader Coldfront”: Ah, the delightful rattle of a cheap tape recorder! This small bit of song from 1992’s Propeller is a Pollard/Sprout composition that features unimpeachably unintelligible lyrics clearly designed to blow the neural circuits of anyone attempting a rational interpretation. The quality of the recording is lo-fi-plus: a demo of a demo of a bootleg. Obstacles aside, Tobin Sprout’s rather sad-and-sweet delivery makes for a rather charming experience, and damned if I know the fuck why.

“Twilight Campfighter”: One of a series of great tunes that appear on Isolation Drills, “Twilight Campfighter” opens with arpeggiated guitar, turning into a sweet stereo guitar duet before the band enters on cue, driven by the steady BOM-rest-BOM-BOM rhythmic pattern. The result—when combined with vocal harmony and Robert Pollard’s warm voice, tinged with more tender emotion than usual—is mesmerizingly beautiful. And while I struggle to make sense of all the lyrics, the chorus is a remarkable fragment of romantic poetry (not romantic in the mundane sense, but in the style of Shelley and Keats):

As we vegetate and wait around for brighter days
And can dance contented to the sound of money
Could I have seen a sight
Much greater than your twilight eyes
That penetrate our silent lies

“Echos Myron”: Described in the book Guided by Voices’ Bee Thousand by Mark Woodward as a song that began as “a really creamy love song,” the final version was described by Pollard as “our call to arms. Myron embodied Guided by Voices itself and the many years of perseverance.” The song is a sloppy, messy harmonic bash, performed with the confidence of a band that has found its niche. Beneath all the lo-fi hiss and buzz, Tobin Sprout knocks it out of the part with an extended, highly melodic and playful bass run that thrills me to the core.

This is a good time to bring up the whole question of lo-fi recording. During college I often listened to GBV in the dorm room and some of my roommates—the commercial pop types—couldn’t believe it when I told them that GBV actually chose to make low-fidelity recordings. “You mean they WANTED to sound shitty? That’s CRAZY!” Look. If someone has been conditioned to believe that the overproduced crap consumed by the masses qualifies as great music, they’re never going to get GBV. However, there are many in my generation as well as GenXers who revolted against slick production values and creepy auto-tuned voices. We’re the ones who brought back vinyl! We’re the ones who go crazy over crackly recordings of Robert Johnson and Gary U. S. Bonds! There is a certain intimacy in lo-fi recordings I find enchanting, as do many others. I also think producing a lo-fi recording that clicks with the listener is a lot harder than creating one in an unlimited-track studio. You can engineer a consumable hit in the modern studio, but if you go lo-fi, you’re in deep shit unless you have a great song.

“Learning to Hunt”: This gentle poem is as close to Radiohead as GBV would ever get. With Pollard’s voice sounding like it’s filtered through a water tank and the effects pedals unleashed, a soothing soundscape emerges to serve as the context for the thoughts and feelings of an adolescent trying to make sense of the transformative period bridging platonic friendship and sexual attraction. The hunting metaphor appears on two songs in this collection, not surprising given the Midwestern milieu of GBV. What’s interesting about “Learning to Hunt” is that the hunting urge does not come naturally to him; it feels both unnatural and incongruent with the tenderness of his feelings. Take that, NRA!

“Bulldog Skin”: This is definitely a drinking song, but I can’t decide if it’s a beer-drinking song (the beverage of choice for GBV) or a guzzle-the-whiskey-bottle song. The reference to a scud missile towards the end identifies the singer as one of those guys who joined the army because he had nothing better to do, and now, with the thrill of Desert Storm behind him, he admits “And now I don’t know how to feel.” Considering the substandard treatment Americans provide to their returning war heroes, beer simply isn’t strong enough an antidote. I’m going with Jack Daniels.

“Captain’s Dead”: The closer to GBV’s first album opens with the usual buzz, a bumped guitar string and a mooing sound that calls to mind a very badly played Alphorn. The song proper is a high-speed melodic rocker that ends when the band seems to get tired of it all.

“Tractor Rape Chain”: “’Tractor Rape Chain’” is an example of taking a pretty melody and giving it a really strange lyric that doesn’t jibe,” revealed Mr. Pollard in Guided by Voices’ Bee Thousand. A gentleman by the name of Nolan Twinn-Johnson offered up a detailed analysis of the lyrics in the same book, slanted more towards understanding Robert Pollard’s mental processes when writing lyrics as opposed to a full interpretation. My take is that the lyrics are a dramatic monologue from a borderline paranoiac, a shut-in whose world is filled with images of ghosts and the horrible things going on outside his four walls. The melody does in fact fail to jibe with the man’s mental state; the music that would come out of this mind would be full of crackle and buzz. As for the music, the acoustic guitar opening is an obvious and poorly integrated patch, and I believe the poor integration was fully intentional—another thing that doesn’t jibe. The song proper is dominated by a simple A/Asus pattern in the verses that allows the flowing melody to take center stage, while the chorus tests the limits of Robert Pollard’s range. Full of fuck-ups, gibberish and a creepy lead character, “Tractor Rape Chain” somehow emerges from it all as a fabulous number. Go fucking figure.

“Game of Pricks”: I was thoroughly, completely, and categorically delighted to find this song from the Tigerbomb EP in this collection. A marvelous two-minute melodic rocker, it’s hard to imagine this song not appealing to everyone on the planet with fully operational ears. The hook is exceptionally memorable, something that nearly everyone who has been in a relationship has wanted to fling back at the person who has done us wrong: “And I never asked for the truth/But you owe that to me.” Even a superficial-listening-to-the-radio-while-cruising-Main-Street-for-a-hot-piece-of-ass exposure to this song would make you want to burn rubber to the nearest record store and pick up a copy.

And it gets even better once you listen carefully to the words. The person singing “And I never asked for the truth/But you owe that to me” is the fucking cheater! “I’ve cheated so long I wonder how you keep track of me,” he reminisces before slamming the woman he betrayed with that now outrageous hook. Goddamn, I want to kick this fuck in the nuts RIGHT NOW! I love GBV!

“To Remake the Young Flyer”: This is more of a Tobin Sprout solo effort, as Tobin wrote the song and handled everything but the drums. It’s rather nice from a musical perspective, but if you were hoping that Tobin Sprout would display a more accessible lyrical style than his bandmate, you will find your hopes cruelly dashed against the flinty rocks of indecipherability. I think the song is about shaping young men into a cog in the war machine, but your guess is as good as mine.

“Hit”: Yecch. The worst 24 seconds in recording history. I take particular exception to the reference to “giggly faggots,” a phrase that this half-gay woman finds extraordinarily offensive. When Rancid used the epithet in “Listed MIA,” it was in the context of a dumb-ass landlord tossing hateful insults to a renter complaining about living in a shithole. There is no evidence in “Hit” that the epithet is anything but a homophobic put-down. Let’s just say this song lands really badly for me and move on.

“Glad Girls”: This is one of three songs I play for GBV skeptics to bring them into the cult. On Isolation Drills, GBV worked with a real live rock producer in Rob Schnapf, and though the high-fidelity production turned off the hardcore lo-fi crowd, hearing GBV without the dampening limitations of the random acoustics inherent to basements was a revelation for many. Isolation Drills was GBV’s twelfth album and the first one to slip into the charts (toward the bottom end, but still).

“Glad Girls” explodes from the get-go with a stirring rendition of the chorus, featuring power guitar, pounding drums and pulsating bass. Damn, that sounded great! Let’s do it again! Opening a song with two renditions of the chorus is certainly a break from tradition, but this is GBV and who gives a fuck about tradition anyway? The verses are perfectly structured builds, starting with restraint and muffled guitars before breaking the pattern on the third line and ending with a rising guitar riff that heightens anticipation for what’s next. The first takes us ecstatically back to the chorus; the second leads to a brief instrumental passage that introduces a third variation in chord structure to the mix, a relatively sweet, melodic passage that ends by taking us back to the last lines of the verses (“The light that passes through me now . . . “). Some listeners have criticized “Glad Girls” for being too “poppy,” a totally bullshit criticism by people who don’t know dick about musical composition. “Glad Girls” is an anachronistically structured, superbly executed and musically complex piece of rock music, so fuck you.

p. s. Kudos to Tim Tobias for some fabulously spidery bass runs.

“Drinker’s Peace”: Okay! The guitar is clearly out of tune, Robert Pollard slips a bit on the higher notes and the sound quality is absolutely abysmal. But what a great song! Dating back to 1990 and the relatively obscure fourth album, Same Place the Fly Got Smashed, this dramatic monologue of an alcoholic is eerily lovely and quite moving. The album was their first decidedly low-fi effort, and the fact that the singer and the accompanist are both out of tune resonates with the story about a guy whose life is out of tune as well. The melody is reminiscent of mid-period Who, and it’s easy to imagine Roger Daltrey doing a cover. The journey of an alcoholic has been told a thousand times in literature and film, but Robert Pollard adds color to the story by alternating self-deprecating humor with the bleak reality of addiction:

I get a contact buzz
Can’t remember what the problem was
I find it hard to even care
Life was too real till you got there

My life is dirt but you seem to make it cleaner
Reduce my felony to a misdemeanor
When I feel sick you’re an antibiotic
Organize my world that was pointless and chaotic

“Surgical Focus”: Do the Collapse was the album where GBV officially abandoned lo-fi for higher production values, hiring Ric Ocasek to handle the production. One thing that always drives me batty about Cars music is that they never quite let themselves go, and you can hear that restraint on Do the Collapse. The tempering of energy worked on the three songs from that album in this collection, but overall, the album leaves me feeling the way I do after a half-assed fuck. “Surgical Focus” seems a tad overproduced, and other than Greg Demos’ bass work (okay, I’m a bass guitar whore!), this song doesn’t do much for me.

“Cut-Out Witch”: From Under the Bushes and Under the Stars comes this curious piece that opens with a classic guitar fuck-around pattern that you often hear at a jam session when the musicians don’t know what they want to play. The song then alternates between all-out bash and dark ramblings about a witch. Clearly one of the most questionable inclusions on this compilation.

“The Best of Jill Hives”: Another brilliant composition with insightful and memorable lyrics, “The Best of Jill Hives” is one of the best mechanisms for introducing non-fans to the delights of GBV. Yes, yes, yes, I’ve already confessed to being a bass whore, so how could I not fall in love with a song driven primarily by bass guitar? Shit, man, I start dripping after the first two measures! Beyond the song’s inherent sexiness is a penetrating psychological analysis of a classic, self-absorbed narcissistic bitch with no sense of shame who uses her feminine wiles to tease males into humiliation—all while spewing venom about her obvious inferiors. Behind the brilliant smile and record of conquest there lies a soul “grounded, sad and cursed”:

Been around and left you flat
Tragically decided that
Every child of God’s a brat
And she’s dying to escape them
But do we really need to see
All her punchdrunk history?
And which of it might hold the key
For the exit to her destiny?

I don’t know where you get your nerve
I don’t know how you choose your words
Speak the ones that suit you worst
Keep you grounded, sad, and cursed
Circle the ones that come alive
Save them for the best of Jill Hives

This is the kind of woman who gives sadomasochism a bad rep. Robert Pollard’s voice in this piece is largely unembellished, as he allows the emotional impact to arise from the depiction of the character. I like the little touch of echo on his voice that gives this hi-fi song a bit of lo-fi realism.

“Hot Freaks”: One of the great songs from Bee Thousand, “Hot Freaks” features Robert Pollard delivering a streetwise rap about a conversion experience—the kind of conversion experience this committed atheist would love to experience:

I met a non-dairy creamer
Explicitly laid out like a fruitcake
With a wet spot bigger than a great lake
She took me to the new church and baptized me with salt
She told me, “liquor”
I am a new man

The music is delightfully dark and bluesy, but it’s hard for me to get into the sexuality of the music because I think this song and Robert Pollard’s unbridled performance are as funny as fuck.

“Shocker in Gloomtown”: This song first appeared on a 1993 EP; you can get it now on the director’s cut of Bee Thousand. The song is an absolute hoot, a bash about some of the shit gigs bands have to play around town while they’re trying to build a fan base. Fellow Dayton denizen Kim Deal covered this song with The Breeders, and as much as I like the GBV version, I prefer Kim’s take, which sounds like she’s about to break out laughing at any second.

“Chasing Heather Crazy”: Another hit-like effort from Isolation Drills, this song is sort of a precursor to “The Best of Jill Hives” in that it deals with the inexplicable behavior of a woman, this one with mental health issues, likely some form of depression. The melodic movement is superb, but what makes this song work for me is the mix—the arpeggiated guitar, the shifting rhythms and dynamics, the builds, peaks and valleys. The arrangement is one of GBV’s strongest, proving that when they feel like taking the time and energy to work with a song, they can still produce music that grabs the listener.

“My Valuable Hunting Knife”: The third song I play to introduce neophytes to GBV is this low-fi gem from Alien Lanes. Despite the complete lack of production, despite the thinness of the bottom and despite the percussion limited to simple snare hits, this song fucking rocks! The melody defines the word “infectious,” and the bursts of encouragement from Robert Pollard to the band (“Hit it!” and “Come on!”) tell you he’s really feeling it. I’m not sure if the song is about an insecure kid obsessed with that foul instrument used to slice up wild game or about a kid obsessed with his penis, but whatever is happening, this song always puts me in the mood to shake my lovely fanny.

“The Official Ironmen Rallying Song”: Meh. I’ve never cared for this song or the album (Under the Bushes, Under the Stars). Nice bass, though, said the bass slut.

“Non-Absorbing”: I guess they had to include something from Vampire on Titus, the album with the lowest fi of the lo-fi albums. Consider it a piece of GBV history and wait for Bee Thousand to come out.

“Motor Away”: This was a single back in 1995, and I could think of a dozen or so GBV numbers that should have taken this slot. It’s an arena rock song without the arena—the instrumentation is big and thick but the low-fidelity recording obfuscates the power. Oh well, I’ve never been an arena rock fan anyway.

“Teenage FBI”: It’s amazing that I’ve come this far in this review without once referring to Robert Pollard’s 14-year career as a public school teacher. I still can’t get my head around that. I would have loved a teacher as outrageously idiosyncratic as Robert Pollard, but his penchant for the divergent thinking that is common to all children before we crush their creativity through education makes me wonder how he could have survived in such an oppressive system.

While he taught at all levels as either a regular or a sub, this song focuses on the madness of post-pubescence and the parallel development of mindless competition between teens. I was sort of an odd duck in high school and let all that peer-related bullshit slide off me like water . . . off an odd duck’s back! But many friends of both genders agonized over rumors spread by evil teens and responded in fashion with even more outrageous rumor-mongering about the rumor-mongers. When a friend once told me that “Everybody thinks you’re a slut,” I laughed until tears ran down my face. “Well, duh!” I said. “I like to fuck. So what?”

Remember: fake news was invented long before Fox News took to the airwaves.

“Teenage FBI” gives us a far more empathetic picture of the confused teenager who can’t understand those funny feelings in the nether regions because the parents were in full denial and never had a good long talk with the kid about fucking. The kid is torn between the desire to conform and the apparent inability to manage a bubbling stew of emotions, both sexual and asexual, and on top of that, neither his parents nor his friends will grant him the non-judgmental space he needs to get himself grounded. The repetition of “someone tell me why” is a beautiful encapsulation of the ultimate teenage question—a question that no one wants to answer: not his parents, not his romantic interest and certainly not the members of the Teenage FBI who want to spread dirt far and wide.

Robert Pollard deliberately sweetens his voice in this dramatic monologue, singing in a higher register than usual and removing any sense of cynicism from his phrasing. It’s a remarkably empathetic performance, and the power-pop style suits the subject.

“Watch Me Jumpstart”: One of the heavier songs in the catalog, “Watch Me Jumpstart” is an ode to the act of freeing oneself from boundaries: the daily routine, the guilt trips tossed our way and the endless set of expectations heaped on us by parents, friends and society at large. In the opening verse, Robert Pollard accomplishes something really quite difficult—he captures the yearning we all have to break free from the false self while using a metaphor that integrates personal experience with a cultural reference recognizable to any American with a television set:

Watch me jumpstart as the old skin is peeled
See an opening and bust into the field
Hidden longings no longer concealed

Robert Pollard was a three-sport athlete in high school, and even Americans who don’t know dick about football understand the symbolic meaning of the runner breaking through the line and into the open field. It’s a powerful metaphor of American individualism, of the belief that “one man” can make a difference. It’s a flawed metaphor, of course, because it implicitly excludes women and the simple truth that the runner would have been flattened like a pancake if he didn’t have all those fat guys on the offensive line forging a path for him. Still, it’s a powerful metaphor because we all want to be that runner, streaking towards the end zone to the validating cheers of a crowd projecting their hopes onto his churning legs. Fortunately, Pollard wasn’t content to leave his audience with a new version of the self-help message, instead reminding those listeners fantasizing about personal glory that the road to becoming who we are is not a dead-end street but an endless road filled with obstacles, primarily those that grow out of attachments to other people:

I remember the faces that cry
And they’re holding me back so I have to die

The musical structure is fascinating—a repetitive riff drives the verses and continues through the first part of the chorus, and just when you think there will be no break in the pattern, Pollard introduces a chord sequence that includes that evil sixth shift from F# to C, and somehow manages to maintain the melodic flow.

I also love the way this song ends—“Film finished, fade into black.” I’ve said what I needed to say, let’s move the fuck on!

“Exit Flagger”: Hmm. Not one of my favorites. In most of their lo-fi recordings, the balance is such that you can clearly hear Robert Pollard’s voice and identify the lyrics; here his voice is buried by guitar and the usual background noise.

“Back to the Lake”: I do like how this album is sequenced, for after every song I identify as a turkey comes an absolute gem. “Back to the Lake” is by far my favorite song from Universal Truths and Cycles, a tightly-structured power-chord-dominated rocker with a rare sprinkle of piano. The lyrics are indeed sketchy, but they seem to center around the symbolism of the lake as a place for renewal, a retreat from our toxic daily life governed by schedules and obliviousness to natural reality. I couldn’t care less about the lyrics, though, for the deliberate progression of the melody over a power-packed arrangement engages my full attention. Pollard does sound like he’s suffering from allergies, as his voice is more nasal than usual, but he still manages to pull off a few glissandi that give me the shivers.

“I Am a Scientist”: The collection ends appropriately with one of GBV’s more iconic numbers, a brilliant piece of poetry and music from the rightfully iconic Bee Thousand. Although I always view the artist’s explanation of his or her work with great skepticism, I will defer to Robert Pollard’s unusually self-aware description of his mindset when he wrote this marvelous song:

Then there’s “I Am a Scientist” which was the first song I wrote that I felt showed some maturity in my ability as a songwriter. I wrote it and recorded it very quickly— it was one of only a couple completely new songs that ended up on Bee Thousand. I really like the structure, the way it builds to the climax— and I think it’s pretty. It’s somewhat self-deprecating and uplifting. I like songs that are melancholic. I never take a lot of time on a lyric but I took a little more time on this one and thought of some occupations that could be associated with my state of mind at the time. What am I? What exactly am I? It’s a kind of self-analyzing song. I’m a scientist studying myself. I’m a journalist recording and reporting what I find. I’m a pharmacist prescribing a medicine, a drug I could ingest to do something to help me find out. In the end, rock and roll’s the religion, the source of redemption. The way out. With all the confusion of not knowing which direction to go in or what I really was during that time, rock and roll seemed to make it a little clearer. What am I going to do? Rock and roll’s what I’m going to do. That song was the answer. That song was the decision.

Woodworth, Marc (2006-10-02). Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand (33 1/3) (pp. 16-17). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

“I Am a Scientist” does contain a lovely melody and a strong build, but the lyrics are the centerpiece, and on that score, I don’t think he gives himself enough credit. His descriptions of the various occupations he uses to analogize his experience are not stereotypes, but insightful observations on how those professions stray from their stated purpose by succumbing to typically human flaws:

I am a scientist – I seek to understand me
All of my impurities and evils yet unknown
I am a journalist – I write to you to show you I am an incurable
and nothing else behaves like me

And i know what’s right
But i’m losing sight
Of the clues for which i search and choose to abuse
To just unlock my mind
Yeah, and just unlock my mind

“Of the clues for which I search and choose to abuse” calls to mind the scientists who facilitate corporate corruption by producing findings in line with the company’s profit strategy; of journalists who favor sensationalism over objectivity; of pharmacists who are more than willing to dispense drugs with dangerous side-effects and fall back on the lame excuse that “the doctor made me do it.” The more germane point is Pollard’s awareness of his own imperfections and the identification of his development as a songwriter as a continuous process of becoming where many mistakes will be made through self-distortion and the limitations imposed by the unlocked mind.

And really, that’s what Guided by Voices is all about—an ongoing journey consisting of breakthroughs and backsliding, of mistakes and masterpieces. It is a journey that mirrors our own journey through life, for none of us will ever come close to perfection, which in itself is a ridiculous concept that the human race is best advised to leave behind. The pursuit of perfection has no place in the arts, for a perfect song or a perfect painting could not possibly connect with the imperfect human beings who experience it. What matters in the arts is something we call artistic integrity—a phrase difficult to define, but two interpretations I found on the Net capture its essence:

  • Melissa McPhail, author: “Most people think of the word integrity as ‘adherence to moral and ethical principles,’ but there is another definition equally important to understanding the word: ‘the state of being whole, entire or undiminished.’ The two meanings of integrity are integral to each other. When one exhibits moral character, he is whole; when he displays unethical behavior, he opens himself to attack and harm from others, i.e., he breaks the one true shield he has protecting him in life. This concept of being whole applies also to one’s creative work. The only way the work can remain undiminished is by staying true to the initial qualities that made it what it was.”
  • Urban Dictionary: “Artistic integrity means to create art for the hell of it, not because you want profit.”

GBV may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but when it comes to artistic integrity, they come as close as anyone can come in the often filthy business of music.

7 responses

  1. […] Guided by Voices – Human Amusements at Hourly Rates (The Best of Guided by Voices) […]

  2. Thanks very much for this. I really enjoyed your blow-by-blow take. This album, downloaded via Amazon Music a few years ago, was my introduction to GBV. I first came across them through an episode of The IT Crowd. The unfortunately billious Twitterer Graham Lineham, who was previously a wonderful comic writer (IT Crowd, Father Ted, Black Books) is a huge fan and champion of the band!

  3. I thought that this was a really good piece – sometimes I have you pigeon-holed as someone’s who’s primarily knowledgeable about 1960’s music, but then you write a great piece on a great 1990’s group.

    1. Thank you! I can understand the perception about the 60’s, as I did spend a lot of time there since it was a big part of the tapestry as I was growing up. I’ve also been reticent about exploring the music of my generation because I wasn’t entirely confident about my ability to filter out the attachments to the music of “my time.” I think I’m over it—I’m doing all of Radiohead’s albums, planning on covering a good chunk of PJ Harvey, exploring influential groups like Big Star. I only have one review in the queue from 1970; all the rest are 90’s and 00’s with a sprinkle of classic blues and modern jazz. I might pick up a few more groups I missed from the 70’s and 80’s, but I can’t imagine doing much more with the 60’s.

      1. Hi, I’ve enjoyed this review as I only recently heard GBV for the first time and have armed myself with Isolation Drills.
        I love the Twighlight Camping number and I’m keen to hear some more. They seem a lot more interesting than REM, and that’s not a slight.

        If I may make a recommendation for you: from a NZ band; Submarine Bells, by the Chills. I’m guessing you’ll like it, maybe even love it.

      2. That’s a great idea! I’d love to do The Chills! Stand by . . .

  4. Matheus Bezerra de Lima | Reply

    Besides Sinatra’s albums and singles, what if you think also about my idea of you review the Getz/Gilberto album? It would be so great also as review Sinatra! Getz/Gilberto is a masterpiece!

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