Guided By Voices
"Bee Thousand" CD (Scat)
Periodically, something appears and makes perfectionist production tendencies irrelevant. It sounds like shit and is much better for it. To wit, Guided By Voices' edgy jangle-pop would probably suffer at the hands of a producer. As it is, almost anyone could record an album with similar sound quality. Whether anyone could live up to the musical standards Bee Thousand sets remains to be seen. If GBV could get a break like Pavement did, people might be singing "Gold Star For Robot Boy" while puzzling over the esoteric lyrics instead of lionizing the newest rock icon thrown onto the pop pyre.
"Tigerbomb" 7" EP (Matador)
I'm going to try to review this 7" without praising it to the point where hyperbole and admiration become inseparable, but I think the re-recorded version of "Game of Pricks" is going to make that impossible. See, I'm rapidly coming to believe that GbV is the most brilliant pop band since the Beatles. They reconstruct pop music; they reify it. They restore all those promises broken by years of major label interference in simple, glorious blasts of pop history beamed straight into the brain at 45 r.p.m., transferring secret musical histories from 4 tracks to the soul and I still don't understand how the fuck they do it. I'm rapidly getting obsessed with trying to apprehend how one band can manage to take even their own songs and rework them in such a fashion as to make them even more soaring, even more magnificent, and still have a down to earth, "Aw shucks" attitude when they're doing nothing less than radicalizing the form and showing people that the best bands in the world are, truly, recording in basements. I'm primarily only going to talk about "Game of Pricks," which is the song that I've been listening to for about 20 minutes now. That means 10 trips from my desk to the stereo to put the needle at the beginning of the song. Again. And again for that matter. It's filled with power chords, ringing notes, soaring riffs that strip away all the bullshit and reveal what is really at stake in pop music these days. It's not about noise for the sake of noise anymore; it's not about being less commercial than other bands and intentionally obscure. What GbV discovers in these two minutes, and the rest of the band's recorded history for that matter, is that pop can still be about what it was always about - an innocent, unironic expression of those things which all people share: love, fear, loneliness, rejection, trying to cope with an increasingly nonsensical world, regardless of anything else. I think I'm down for the count on hyperbole, but fuck if I care. This is the music of my life. This is the jackpot of pop; the payoff that the Las Vegas of music always suggested was possible but never spewed out of a slot machine/jukebox; the alpha and the omega; fuck it, it's the apotheosis. The fact that the rest of this is delightfully weird is just a bonus. Oh, by the way, "Dodging Invisible Rays," in its own mid-1960s, Beatles-esque psychedelic fashion, is almost as good and if GbV were a lesser band, might be their magnum opus.
"Under the Bushes Under the Stars" CD (Matador)
The heat and exhaust were shimmering off the asphalt like a hypothetical quark trying to decide whether to reveal itself as I drove to the record store to get this little gem. I could feel my stomach clenching in anticipation and fear; it's pretty much the same thing. See, I have become a GbV acolyte. I walk the streets, wearing nothing more than robes made of coarse cloth and sandals woven from reeds, spreading the GbV gospel. Why? It's something to do, I guess. Or maybe it's that GbV constructs some of the most amazingly historically informed pop songs. Maybe it's because they tear music apart, steal the best bits from forgotten tunes, and then put it all back together again so it sounds brand new, but still stunningly familiar. I'm not sure there's any way to adequately explain GbV's magic and I'm not sure there should be. I've been sitting here for almost an hour now, staring at this disc, afraid to put in my CD player because, after the "Tiger Bomb" EP and "Alien Lanes," I'm wondering exactly how they can keep improving. It's now about two weeks after I wrote that. I'm not wondering anymore. "UTBUTS," although differing drastically from their more lo-fi efforts in its rich sonic palette, carries all the majestic chords, hooks and sentiments of great rock. Songs like "Atom Eyes," "No Sky," "Lord of Overstock," "Your Name Is Wild" and the amazing "Ghosts of a Different Dream" raise the stakes in GbV's musical poker game yet again. Everyone else has folded, no one can even come close to competing with this hand. So the Sad Freaks sit alone at their green felt table, in a card game only they can win, much less play in. They make rock criticism irrelevant because their music is its own critique and most astute analysis of postmodern rock; it simultaneously dissects pop history and plays with it like linguists use language fragments to try to reconstruct a lost tongue. In short, GbV are the premier linguists of rock, inventing a new vocabulary for people to use many years from now. They've made it real again, they've made it fun again and I can't thank them enough for doing so.
"The Official Ironman Rally Song" 7" EP (Matador)
Godhead. Absolute fucking godhead. They ROCK, they have ROCKED, they will continue to do so.
"Mag Earwhig!" CD / "Sunfish Holy Breakfast" CD EP / Robert Pollard "Not In My Airforce" CD / Tobin Sprout "Carnival Boy" CD (Matador)
There are a few lessons to learn from these releases - 1. Bob Pollard is the artistic one. 2. Tobin Sprout is the pop perfectionist. 3. GBV is more than the sum of its parts. Pollard's album is the more experimental of the two solo discs, scuffed and scratched up much like some of the noisier contributions to "Bee Thousand." Sprout's is much poppier and polished, lush and wistful. There's something which lingers in the air after the notes contained within Sprout's songs finish resonating. See, the best way to compare these two albums is by likening them to friends - Pollard's is that younger buddy you have, the one who gets too drunk and does stupid things and then laughs about them later, but somehow always makes it through. Sprout's is that cool older friend you have, the one who clues you in on how to dress and how to talk, how to grin and how to walk. As with the other GBV EPs I've been able to find, "Sunfish Holy Breakfast" is a hit or miss effort. Songs like "Canteen Plums," "Cocksoldiers and Their Postwar Stubble," "A Contest Featuring Human Beings" and "Trendspotter Acrobat" are great, melodic pop songs which wouldn't have sounded out of place on "Alien Lanes." The rest may grow on me, but I doubt it. After all, it's been 10 listens now and while they're catchy and enjoyable, there's nothing on this CD which packs the same emotional punch as the re-recorded version of "Game of Pricks." So what? Get all of it anyway. Finally, "Mag Earwhig!" is probably the single most non-essential work Pollard has recorded. It's not that it's bad or awful, it's just that very little stands out. Cobra Verde as a backing band wasn't exactly an inspired choice because they cohere too much and one of GBV's charms was the differences between the members - straight-laced Tobin, dreadlocked Mitch, drunk Bob, the bassist du jour and Kevin Moon ... er, Fennell, pounding the shit out of the drums. They were all different and it gave the songs, and especially the band, character. Yet with Cobra Verde, GBV is reduced to, as several friends of mine said at the show, a very average band. Frankly, Chavez would have been a much better choice as a backing band. After all, Matt Sweeney already knows the songs.