Author Archive: altrockchick

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


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” contains 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 catalogue 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 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 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 their 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 lo-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; that 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 handles 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 singer and 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 on 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!”) tells 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 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 of 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, in this case 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.

Classic Music Review: Pablo Honey by Radiohead

I tend to be a non-linear person, a character trait that has confused many readers who have tried to make sense of my journey through life and still have no idea where the hell I’m coming from. To assist those readers, here’s a recap of the life events that eventually led me to Pablo Honey:

  • 1993-November 2000: Radiohead released four studio albums. My experience of Radiohead during that era was subliminal, limited to those songs (“Creep,” “High and Dry,” “Karma Police”) that frequently appeared on the radio. My exploding libido and growing sense that my sexuality wasn’t in sync with MVE (mainstream vanilla eroticism) led to a craving for loud, defiant music that combined raw power with social consciousness. Once I was old enough for a fake ID (around fifteen or so), I spent every weekend in mosh pits, cruising and bruising my way through the then-great Bay Area punk scene. My tastes were more Rancid than Radiohead. I did fuck pretty frequently for a teenager, I guess, but nowhere near the levels I would achieve in my college and post-college years.
  • November 2000-October 2007: During a home-for-the-holidays visit from college, my mother turned me on to Kid A. I loved every second of that record and still do. However, the love I felt for a great piece of music paled in comparison to my ravenous appetite for penis and pussy. I spent most of the period between 2000-2005 fucking men and women, singly and in groups, covering all ages, races and fetishes. This was not some manic, aimless quest, but a very intentional effort to take my erotic skills to the highest level possible. I spent very little time listening to new music, relying on old favorites and a few friendly suggestions to provide me with music to accompany my sexual experiences. Somewhere in there I graduated from college.
  • October 2007: After spending years exploring various long-term possibilities with men, women and couples, I found my life-partner, who happened to be female. Gender really wasn’t an important consideration: it was all about finding someone who shared my erotic tastes, was unafraid of vulnerability and could be trusted with my life, soul and emotions. Ironically, October 2007 was the month Radiohead released In Rainbows, a coincidence I’ve always found curiously satisfying. Note to Self: Insert “Bodysnatchers” into my biopic soundtrack at the moment Ali and I first made deep eye contact.
  • April 2008-October 2008: My partner moved to Seattle, where I had a little house. After about six months of total erotic immersion, with my needs fulfilled to near-satiation (they’re never fully satisfied), I felt the urge to explore music again, and Radiohead was my #1 priority.

There are TONS of Radiohead fans in Seattle, so I connected with a friend at work who had seen Radiohead at the White River Amphitheatre that summer. I told her about my Kid A experience and that I was interested in learning more but needed some guidance about where to start. I had prepared a list of Radiohead albums released to date and sat in her cubicle on a swivel chair, legs crossed, adopting the posture of an attentive stenographer in a 1930’s romantic comedy.

OK Computer—well, it’s iconic, so you should start there. If you liked Kid A, you’ll probably like Amnesiac, since it was recorded during the same sessions. I really like Hail to the Thief, though some people don’t—and some of the songs are much better live. And their latest—In Rainbows—awesome, just awesome. And if you’re really adventurous, you could check out The Bends—that’s the one that got them noticed. Great videos, too.”

I looked at the list and noticed she had ignored the one on top. “What about Pablo Honey?”

“Oh, yeah. Well, there’s ‘Creep.’ I don’t know. I think I listened to it once, maybe, but it’s not the real Radiohead. You know, they were just starting out and all.”

I took her advice and started with OK Computer, and as I noted in that review, my initial reaction was not favorable. I then skipped ahead to the post-Kid A albums, experiencing a more positive response. Still, I was bothered about the relative blah I felt about the universally acclaimed OK Computer, so I decided to hear it in its proper context—in record release sequence. This time I ignored her advice and started with the allegedly not-Radiohead Pablo Honey.

Goddamn and hallefuckinglujah! Loved every minute of it!

I wholeheartedly agree that Radiohead has done bigger and better things in the years following their maiden voyage. Their trajectory from Pablo Honey to Kid A was a near-vertical line that shot up like a rocket. Nonetheless, they started a lot stronger than many people realize, and I’ve learned over the years that my friend wasn’t the only Radiohead aficionado to ignore Pablo Honey. A surprising number of people I’ve met who got hooked on Radiohead after OK Computer admitted they’d never heard the album. Many probably took the advice of music critics who dismissed Pablo Honey as Nirvana-lite at a time when it seemed every band wanted to emulate Cobain, Novoselic and Grohl. Although I don’t hear much Nirvana influence on Pablo Honey other than heavy distortion, the ghost of Black Francis haunts the album through the frequent use of the soft-LOUD-soft-LOUD Pixies dynamics that Cobain adored. My conclusion is that the critics listened to Pablo Honey on a very superficial level and missed most of what Radiohead accomplished on their first album: they proved without a doubt they were a very talented rock band. I sometimes get frustrated with late-stage Radiohead releases that emphasize slow and slower, finding myself wishing they would kick some ass from time to time. On Pablo Honey, they kick serious ass, with blazing, distorted guitar, attitude-drenched vocals and driving rhythms. Pablo Honey is one of my favorite 90’s rock albums.

Pablo Honey is also one of the few Radiohead albums I would classify as “sexy,” though only in part. There are songs on Pablo Honey I could fuck to all night, and now that I think about it, I have! For those whose sweet spots don’t drip or harden when listening to music, there are several fascinating character studies and a dash of humor. I would also argue that Pablo Honey shows off one of Radiohead’s most enduring traits: commitment. I don’t hear any undertone of “this is our first album and it’s not very good, so sorry about that.” I hear a band strongly focused on delivering the best possible performance of the material they had. While you’re not going to hear something as deep and compelling as “Idioteque” or as mesmerizing as “Reckoner,” you will hear surprisingly lovely melodies and all out bashes played with professional intensity.

The first sound we hear from Radiohead is an arpeggiated guitar duet, a feature they would continue to employ over the years in many memorable passages. Here, though, the arpeggio is merely a set-up for the distorted power guitar and drum crashes that dominate “You.” The verses are soft, the bridges loud, and Thom Yorke’s vocals run the gamut from tender to manic, his voice often melting deliciously into the sustained guitar distortion. The arpeggio returns in the last verse to unify the composition, a verse sweetened by gorgeous harmonies that balance the relentless guitar attack and Phil Selway’s muscular drums. “You” is a terribly sexy song, but also something of a dystopian version of carpe diem—the world’s falling apart, so let’s create our own world and fuck until we drop:

You are the sun and moon and stars, are you?
And I could never run away from you
You try at working on chaotic things
And why should I believe myself not you?
It’s like the world is gonna end so soon
And why should I believe myself?

You, me and everything caught in the fire
I can see me drowning caught in the fire
You, me and everything caught in the fire
I can see me drowning caught in the fire

Why? Whaddya mean, “Why?” There is no why to fucking! Men! Always ruining the moment with their ingrained tendency to overthink things. Just let it go and drown, baby, drown!

The song that first brought Radiohead into the limelight comes next, the unforgettable exploration of the psyche of a human being who knows he/she is viewed as a misfit and whose mind oscillates between unreal fantasy and poisonous hatred regarding the object of desire. Thom Yorke had written “Creep” years before about a girl who latched onto Radiohead and showed up unexpectedly at concerts. I’ll bet that the majority of listeners assume that the creep who sings the song is a man, since most of our knowledge of creeps comes from news stories about predatory males. Even without access to the backstory, listening to the song from the perspective that the creep is a woman somehow makes it more disturbing and uncomfortably universal. We have to deal with the reality that there are many people of all genders whose looks and personality fail to live up to our standards of excellence or even normality—and some of those people have deep, dark, angry feelings about their status, living like bombs waiting to explode:

When you were here before,
Couldn’t look you in the eye
You’re just like an angel
Your skin makes me cry
You float like a feather
In a beautiful world
I wish I was special
You’re so fucking special

The music is soft and dreamy until “You’re so fucking special,” where the bitterness in the language is brilliantly emphasized by three bursts of distortion, calling up the image of a brain that has been short-circuited by an overload of hatred. The chorus features the creep acknowledging the bitter reality of how he/she has been victimized by a cruel society—a victimization that feeds the hatred and deepens the alienation, supported musically by intense, droning distortion:

But I’m a creep
I’m a weirdo
What the hell am I doing here
I don’t belong here

The second verse finds the creep obsessing about his/her flaws that categorized him/her as one of society’s losers. Surrounded by pictures of models and stars with perfect bodies living an apparently serene existence, the creep feels helpless, out of control and intent on finding a way to exert power over the object of their distorted affection:

I don’t care if it hurts
I wanna have control
I want a perfect body
I want a perfect soul
I want you to notice when I’m not around
You’re so fucking special
I wish I was special

After the last chorus, we hear a sort of bridge—a lyrical fragment that could be interpreted in multiple ways, depending on how you perceive the creep’s gender:

She’s running out again
She’s running out
She runs runs runs

As a woman, I automatically call up an image of a woman fleeing to safety; however, if the creep is a heterosexual woman, her running becomes a way to draw attention. The latter makes sense in the context of the song’s last line, “Whatever makes you happy.” Regardless of how you choose to interpret the song, “Creep” deals with a myriad of human problems that human culture has failed to address in any meaningful way: standards of beauty that automatically define the majority as inadequate; norms that create outcasts who become dangerous to self and others; the sick belief held by many otherwise “normal” people that they have the right to invade another person’s space or body if they feel like it.

“Creep” also has deep personal meaning for me because of something my mother told me when we had our first talk about sex, a moment recorded in my erotic biography—a piece that I had to remove from the blog because of . . . creeps:

Ari, the first thing you need to understand is that you are going to be very beautiful someday. That is a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because it will give you many choices and open many doors. It is a curse because some people will hate you for it because they are jealous, or try to have you for their own as if you were their property. Remember two things: first, beauty does not last forever, so enjoy it while you can and accept it when it goes. Second, always remember that you own your body and no one has the right to it unless you give your body of your own free will.

Her words proved to be quite prophetic. I’ve encountered many women who automatically despise me because of my looks (men tend to despise me when they find out I have brains). I’ve had many creeps invade my space and stalk me; on one occasion, I was forcibly abducted by a disturbed young man (an experience I only talk about when I’m volunteering at domestic violence support clinics and one that forced me to take martial arts training very seriously). I find the limitations placed on me by genetic blind luck very frustrating, because my natural urge is to be free and open with everyone. That’s why I posted several nude pictures of me on the blog—I feel good about my sexuality and believe sexuality should be openly celebrated. My mother warned me I was making a mistake, and sure enough, I was inundated with crude propositions, threats and hateful messages. I will fully admit that I was dumb to post the pics, but I remain deeply resentful that I live in a world where I cannot follow my impulses and share the un-Photoshopped version of my body . . . all because we repress sexuality and define beauty so narrowly that we create legions of creeps.

Deep breath, move on.

One of my favorite songs on Pablo Honey is one of the shortest, and damn, I wish they’d extended “How Do You” for one more verse. Thom Yorke’s vocal is an absolute delight—sassy, sneering but almost on the verge of laughter as he sings this tale described on Songfacts in one terse sentence: “This song is about a bully attempting to steamroller his way to success.” Written a quarter of a century before the ascension of Cheeto Jesus to the presidency, I’ve rarely read a more accurate biography of the man than that depicted in “How Do You”:

He’s bitter and twisted
He knows what he wants
He wants to be loved and
He wants to belong
He wants us to listen
He wants us to weep
And he was a stupid baby, turned into a powerful freak . . .

. . . He’s a dangerous bigot
But we always forget
A-and he’s just like his daddy
‘Cause he cheats on his friends
And he steals and he bullies
Anyway that he can

I love Thom Yorke’s hiccup on the “A-and,” demonstrating unusual command for a rookie lead singer. “How Do You” rocks like a bastard, the guitars filling my headphones in stereophonic cohesion, the drums and bass thrilling me to the core. This is one song I would have absolutely loved during my time in the mosh pits, for “How Do You” is as close to punk as Radiohead would ever get. Even with its relative roughness, the fade on “How Do You,” a marvelous mess of dissonance and snippets of a Jerky Boys tape, anticipates a more experimental future.

Thom Yorke would reject vertical melody for a more horizontal approach on Kid A, but his early work is full of lovely melodies that stretch the scale. “Stop Whispering” features such a melody, soaring over outstanding rhythmic support from Phil Selway and Colin Greenwood. The Pixies influence of soft-LOUD is present, but here it’s a more gradual build from relatively gentle to all-out bash. The song is a note to self to buck up when questioning authority and expertise, a reminder that so-called authorities are often threatened by alternative viewpoints that endanger their comfortable existence:

And the wise man say I don’t want to hear your voice
And the thin man say I don’t want to hear your voice
But they’re cursing me, and they won’t let me be
And there’s nothing to say, and there’s nothing to do

Stop whispering
Start shouting
Stop whispering
Start shouting

In contrast, the dynamics of “Thinking About You” are strong and steady, with the rhythmic movement defined by an intense acoustic strum. The song is an anti-paean about lost love, in this case a lover who has abandoned the small potatoes of real life for the glittery world of stardom. In contrast to Stewart Murdoch’s complex psychological treatment of that scenario in “Dress Up in You,” this is a more straightforward expression of bitterness and frustration that gets a bit tiresome after a few spins, though it does serve as a restful moment in a relatively intense musical journey. That intensity is on full display in “Anyone Can Play Guitar,” notable because it’s one of the few Radiohead songs that actually make me laugh. Anticipating the inherent absurdity of the video game series Guitar Hero, Radiohead challenges the ridiculous notion that becoming a rock star will somehow transform you into someone, as if becoming a human being has everything to do with the adoration of others and nothing about self-awareness. The future guitar hero in the song wavers between an extreme sense of entitlement and pathetic ambitions:

Destiny, destiny protect me from the world
Destiny, hold my hand protect me from the world

Here we are with our running and confusion
And I don’t see no confusion anywhere

And if the worm does turn
And if London burns I’ll be standing on the beach with my guitar
I wanna be in a band when i get to heaven
Anyone can play guitar
And they won’t be a nothing anymore

The passage that makes me shake with laughter highlights Thom Yorke’s absolute disgust with the worship of Jim Morrison. His delivery is perfect, alternating between dreamy self-delusion and desperate desire to become the iconic rock star. According to Songfacts, Yorke shouted “Fat-Ugly-Dead” in the Morrison verse when Radiohead played this song on MTV Beach House:

Grow my hair, grow my hair
I am Jim Morrison
Grow my hair
I wanna be wanna be wanna be Jim Morrison

Although Jim Morrison wrote some great stuff early in his career, it fucking blows my mind that he has such elevated status in large part due to an early self-inflicted demise. As I’ve observed elsewhere, elevating any other human being to mythical status because of fame or fortune is the ultimate definition of stupidity. People! Stars are just people who got a lucky break! They deserve no more consideration than you would give to any other human being! Stop being stupid!

One last comment: if the guitars on “Anyone Can Play Guitar” seem overwhelming, give Radiohead credit. Apparently, they allowed everyone in the studio—musicians, hired help, catering staff—to get their licks in. What you may miss in the cacophony are the multiple rhythmic shifts, placing great demands on Phil Selway to hold it all together (mission accomplished).

We move on now to “Ripcord,” one of my favorite pieces on Pablo Honey. The soft-LOUD dynamics are employed as a variant of call-and-response in the verses, where the band explodes after every line. “Ripcord” has fabulous, ass-shaking movement, with Phil Selway sounding like he’s having the time of his life adjusting to the varying sonic and rhythmic demands. The layers of rough guitar come together in heavenly unison, particularly in the final passage where the harmonics really shine. This is the beginning of Thom Yorke’s fascination with life-saving devices, a trope he would bring to full flower on OK Computer. “Ripcord” is solid evidence that Radiohead was already working at a comparatively high level of musicianship at a very early stage, and in retrospect, it should have come as no surprise that these guys would move on to more challenging approaches to music.

“Vegetable” is a deceptively dark song, a dramatic monologue from a batterer who blatantly refuses to exercise self-control. As referenced above, I’ve spent a good amount of time volunteering in domestic violence shelters, from San Francisco to Côte d’Ivoire, and no matter how many women I see with crushed, bruised, bleeding faces or limbs twisted into excruciating, distorted positions, I never get over the feelings of shock and horror. The man in “Vegetable” views his lack of self-control as proof of his humanity—a despicable distortion of the concept of free will:

I never wanted any broken bones
Scarred face, no home
Your words surround me and I asphyxiate
And I burn all hate
Every time you’re running out on me
Every time you’re running I can see

I’m not a vegetable
I will not control myself
I spit on the hand that feeds me
I will not control myself

The waters break, the waters run all over me
The waters break, the waters run and this time you’re gonna pay

Thom Yorke plays the role to perfection, imbuing his performance with the spirit of a man boiling over with inner contradictions. The guitars on this piece are exceptionally strong, combining fragments of blues licks, dissonant bends and screaming distortion. “Vegetable” is as uncomfortable as “Creep,” but I admire the hell out of Radiohead for not avoiding the real shit that goes down in this world every goddamned day.

The lyrics to “Prove Yourself” takes Gen X self-pity a bit too far for my tastes with its sub-chorus of “I’m better off dead.” However, from a musical perspective, this is one of the most interesting pieces on Pablo Honey. The soft-LOUD shift from the first verse to the first chorus is executed with powerful precision, making the repetition of the title phrase in the chorus feel more like a cold demand than an encouragement. Once Jonny Greenwood’s soaring solo fades into another repetition of the sub-chorus, Phil Selway shifts his attack to the toms, expanding the space for Thom Yorke’s deliberately tired, defeatist vocal. Although the message seems pointlessly dreary, the music qualifies the song as a keeper.

“I Can’t” features one of the lovelier melodies on the record, but I pay a lot more attention to Jonny Greenwood’s intro and rising bends in the instrumental passage. Unusual for Pablo Honey, the song’s dynamics are steady LOUD after the intro, with only slight variation on the last lines of the verses. As such, this is the song on the album that sounds the most crowded to me, and I think less intensity and more space in spots could have improved the overall sound. It’s followed by “Lurgee,” a word invented by Radiohead to describe the “illness” that we experience after an important relationship has gone sour. Here we get more of the minimalist lyrical style that would mark many Radiohead songs in the future, a technique that tells the listener that Radiohead is trying to communicate more through mood than word. When you listen to “Lurgee” through that filter, it becomes a much more satisfying listening experience. The steady, relentless beat, the wandering melody and the decisive, restrained guitar riffs remind us how our constant self-assurance of “I’m all right” after a loss is a flimsy container for that stew of emotions brewing inside. While the song lacks the complexity of later Radiohead mood-pieces, “Lurgee” is the seed of a style that Radiohead would master in the years ahead.

Pablo Honey comes to a close with “Blow Out,” another of the more musically complex pieces on the album. The opening chord progression of Em9-G-Asus2 results in a drone baseline on the open B, giving Colin Greenwood lots of room to maneuver in the opening duet with acoustic guitar set to a bossa nova beat. From its relatively quiet opening, “Blow Out” expands to include a range of soundscapes, gradually moving from coffee-house to rock bash to brief moments of stillness emphasizing layered vocals—all building to the rising scream of guitars as they move up the scale in a 90’s version of the crescendo that ends “A Day in the Life.” If there’s one song on the album that tells you where Radiohead is going next, it’s “Blow Out,” and based on the thought, care and collaboration that went into this piece, they absolutely had to go there.

Pablo Honey is a highly enjoyable experience from a group of talented musicians at the beginning of their career. The mastery of common rock formats and styles they displayed on Pablo Honey should have told the critics of the day that this was not a band likely to stand pat and produce formulaic grunge albums to please the fickle masses. Radiohead has never been satisfied with just being “good enough,” and as we have seen in the progression from Pablo Honey to The Bends to OK Computer to Kid A and beyond, they have the rare ability to produce deeply satisfying music and a restlessness that drives them forward to the next challenge.

And it all started here.

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