I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.
Every so often I’m going to run across a classic album, and I’m going to have a tough time figuring out my approach to it. Guided By Voices’ name is whispered in the hallowed corridors of indie rock’s elite – I wouldn’t be surprised if frontman Robert Pollard somehow politicks or schmoozes his band’s way onto a Rock N Roll Hall of Fame ballot one day. It wouldn’t be as outlandish as it sounds. Pollard and co. never met a song they disliked enough not to release, and even with filters decidedly gapped, a great percentage of their output amounted to quality listening. Folks, that’s just hard to do. Scrolling through their allmusic.com discography page, I count eleven proper albums, and this doesn’t even consider anything pre-Propeller. There are four releases before that. And several live albums. More compilations than I can count on two hands. EPs and singles? Countless. Probably. I doubt everything they’ve released in one form or another is even compiled on allmusic. And the band has been broken up for the better part of a decade. Pollard and friends have released quite a few offshoot records in that interim. Dude just shits good music. It’s how he is.
OK, reign in breathless enthusiasm. Breathe in … ah. Another reason why it’s so difficult to write about GBV, Bee Thousand in particular, is that a ton of ink has already been spilled detailing their stellar career. Not only is the Internet littered with countless reviews and opinions of the band, there have been some actual books published in praise of Pollard and crew, two of which I’ve actually read and recommend for more in-depth analysis: Mark Woodward’s 33-1/3 series entry Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand (Continuum, 2006), and the Built-to-Spill-ish- and misleadingly titled Perfect from Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life by John Sellers (Simon & Schuster, 2007), which ends up detailing the author’s obsession with and ultimate meeting of Guided By Voices. So I’ve got a lot to live up to, and I think I’ll pass on some of the more obvious history to focus instead on my relationship to this album. Sure, I’ll get in a few hyperbolic statements about how awesome it is, and rehash probably 95 percent of critical appraisal, but when it comes down to it, I don’t think I’ll care.
* * *
1995: 17-year-old Ryan hops on board the GBV bandwagon, only to quickly hop off.
I was reading enough pre-Internet music press at this point (CMJ, Spin, Alternative Press) that I at least knew what was out there, but without the benefit of previewing music, all I had to go on were articles, interviews, and reviews like this one. GBV was popping up in a lot of the same breaths as Pavement, my favorite band and whose Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain came out the same year. So I bought it, sound unheard. And to cut down on the suspense, I didn’t get it. My idea of a good band at that time was one whose members were consistent and had defined roles, not this nebulous collection of dudes whose lineup varied from song to song. Also, the song lengths were way too short – I didn’t understand sub-2:00 songs, if you could believe it! Not only that, I thought the playing was sloppy, and the recording techniques were for the birds. In short, it sounded terrible to me then, save for a few more “songlike” tunes. I relegated Bee Thousand to the shelf.
Key songs: “Hardcore UFOs,” “Echos Myron,” “I Am a Scientist”
* * *
1999: 21-year-old Ryan loses his last vestiges of interest.
And just like that, *poof*! It was gone. To the great record bin in the sky. Or more accurately, to the great record bin at Spaceboy Records in Philadelphia, where I traded it in. I guess for a newer model – I got all kinds of weird stuff at Spaceboy. I want to say Harmony Rockets’ Golden Ticket EP was in that haul. Regardless, my time with Bee Thousand had ended unceremoniously.
Or had it? It kept popping up in my consciousness periodically, and it grew to the point that I wished I hadn’t gotten rid of it, at least to give me the chance to replay it and see if I’d heard it wrong that first go-round. In fact, the ending to “Echos Myron” would flit through my head on occasion, and it was one of those things where you simply have to hear the song to feel right again: “If it’s right you can tell / echos Myron like a siren with endurance like the Liberty Bell / And he tells you of the dreamers, but he’s cracked up like the road / And he’d like to lift us up, but we’re a very heavy load / And we’re finally here / And shit yeah it’s cool / And shouldn’t it be – or something like that.” It struck me for some reason – the imagery was fantastic, and the melody was sublime. The words were mysterious yet meaningful. It felt right, familiar and moving. It was very good.
Key song: “Echos Myron”
* * *
2010: 33-year-old Ryan realizes the mistake he’s made and rectifies it.
And then it happened. I found a used copy of Bee Thousand.
I’d read both books I mentioned above by this point, and I was totally kicking myself for giving up on the record so early. It hadn’t even hit me that saying “bee thousand” aloud sounded quite a bit like “Pete Townshend” with a mouthful of marbles, and that fact alone probably would have made me rethink my decision. (Pollard is a notorious worshipper of The Who.) So thank goodness Double Decker Records in Allentown, Pennsylvania (shout out!), still exists – yeah, it’s a mom and pop. (And yeah, it’s doing quite well, thank you.) I grabbed this from their bin, and was able to dig right into it. And of course I loved it. How could I not? It’s not even all that lo-fi compared to other bands these days, although the shifting fidelity lends it an unmistakable charm. It’s quite clear this was recorded to tape. Blemishes abound, but they are what make the record. The melodies are clear and the playing is perfectly appropriate. It’s, dare I say, subtly ingenious in its complex brevity and considered and limited execution. And Bob Pollard was getting right to the heart of the suburban thirtysomething with questionable direction, his “I am a scientist, I seek to understand me” line the rallying cry for the frustrated male masses who make mistake after mistake yet still try to be good people. I can relate for sure. And over 20 songs and 40 minutes, Guided By Voices tap into that confusion and frustration, and mark the long road to self-discovery with way stations of sympathetic brotherhood, eager to place an accepting arm around the weary traveler and guide them toward the cooler of beer.
Key songs: “Tractor Rape Chain,” “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory,” “Hot Freaks,” “Gold Star for Robot Boy,” “Her Psychology Today,” “Kicker of Elves,” “I Am a Scientist”
RIYL: Sebadoh, The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks