The Guided by Voices 100: Vol. 2
Welcome back to the second of ten installments on Guided by Voices, where I have undertaken the sadistic task of narrowing down the band's catalogue into my 100 favorite songs. Normally, picking even 20 of your favorite songs from any other artist could be a manageable task. Daunting, sure, but doable. Most other artists have about 1/10th to 1/20th of the songs in their catalogue. Most artists will never write a song as catchy as Robert Pollard's "Teenage FBI." And yet, that song isn't even in my top 100.
Luckily, I have my own historical insignificance to rely on here. No one knows who I am (and hopefully, few of you even give a shit), so I don't have to be "definitive." This isn't going onto the cover of Rolling Stone. In a perfect world it would, but this world sure ain't perfect. And really, the point isn't so much that these are my 100 favorite... the point is that you should buy all of these albums, EPs and more... and decide for yourself.
(For your reference, the previous 10 songs I posted: Big School, Gonna Never Have to Die, My Thoughts are a Gas, When She Turns 50, Tractor Rape Chain, Land of Danger, June Salutes You!, Smothered in Hugs, Now to War, A Crick Uphill)
I mentioned in my previous post my disappointment with DO THE COLLAPSE, the band's first "major label" release for TVT Records. I found the record to be a little too glossy and overproduced. Sanitized. Sober. Rumor has it that Ric Okasek, former frontman of The Cars and producer for bands like Weezer and Bad Brains, kept the band's drinking and partying out of the studio. While I'm sure all that drinking was disruptive to the studio process, at least the band would have sounded like they were having fun. One of the few songs I do like from that album (and the only song from the record to make this list) is "Things I Will Keep". I saw GBV play the Bowery Ballroom in NYC one hot July night before this album came out, and it was one of the best concerts I'd ever seen.
What do you call a real Guided by Voices geek? A postal blowfish. What does that mean, I don't know, but it's in reference to one of the greatest, most simple rock songs in the history of the genre: "Postal Blowfish". The whole song is basically a chord and a half. If you wanted to learn guitar this afternoon, you would have this song down within one hour. And like all great punk rock, that's all you need... a chord, a variation, and a whole lot of great lyrics to yell, like "Hold your tongue! Brace yourself!" Originally intended for the BEE THOUSAND album, this track found its way onto the KING SHIT AND THE GOLDEN BOYS bonus disc in the bands BOX set of albums. A second version was recorded for inclusion on the soundtrack to the bizarre and hilarious Kids in the Hall movie, BRAIN CANDY.
Here's a gear shift jarring enough to give you a nosebleed: "How's My Drinking?" We go from the previous simple ditty into an area of a little more emotional complexity. ISOLATION DRILLS was the band's second (and final) album for the TVT label. While the production was still top notch (and, for some fans, too glossy), the music on this album came from a far more personal place for Pollard. His marriage was on the rocks and he was separated from his wife. ISOLATION DRILLS is essentially his "divorce album" in the way that BLOOD ON THE TRACKS was Dylan's divorce album and HERE, MY DEAR was Marvin Gaye's.
We'll keep it mellow for another few minutes with "The Tumblers", from one of the band's earlier albums, DEVIL BETWEEN MY TOES. This song was recorded to 8-track in a garage, with Pollard on vocals and guitar, Mitch Mitchell on bass and Kevin Fennell on drums. I love the production here, and the way the song's bass and tempo emulate the tumbling in the title of the song. Pollard has a few songs with lyrics that seem almost like beat poetry (Richard Brautigan comes to mind): "House pet chasing birds across/the earth, big ground fading now - scope, span, girth."
"Lethargy" is a quick, sludgy dose of punk rock from 1992's PROPELLER. While I like the albums that came before this, PROPELLER seemed to be a sort of new era for the band, with faster, more rocking songs like "Exit Flagger" and "Under the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox." They must have found it special because in the first printing of 500 copies, the members of GBV hand-designed every single album cover. If you visit The GBV Online Database, you can find scans of dozens of these covers. The photo that ends this very post is one of those album covers. "Lethargy" is one of the most fun songs to see (or, I guess, to have seen) GBV play in concert. I wish I would have written the line, "I wish I could give a shit. Just a little bit."
It may only be a minute and a half in length, but "Game of Pricks" is a big fat melodious chunk of garage rock that immediately sticks in your brain. A live favorite, this track comes from ALIEN LANES. Sometimes Robert Pollard's lyrics can be mysterious and up for interpretation, and other times he can be an incredibly blunt, honest writer. This song has a little of both, "I've never asked for the truth, but you owe that to me."
UNDER THE BUSHES UNDER THE STARS is one of my favorite Guided by Voices albums. I finally got to see them live at a show in Columbia, MO, the year this album came out. It was a fantastic show, and more fun and rambunctious than any indie show I had been to at the time (save maybe the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion). I remember the band diving into "Lord of Overstock" and me thinking, "Wow, these guys are fucking heavy metal, too." It would be a few years before I'd hear "Lethargy," of course. Great bassline, great fuzzy guitar. I checked the GBV database and found that Robert Pollard is listed as playing every instrument on this song. Can any GBV fans out there confirm this for me?
Guided by Voices dug deep into their catalogue on their last few nights as a band, and one of the tracks they dug up was"Do the Earth". This track was a B-Side from the band's "I am a Scientist" CD single and is a great example of one of their early forays into a sort of garage/prog rock. It's sloppy and full of great lines like "Penetrator like a space invader -- Do the Earth!" A fun song to see played live.
I'm sure some of the Blowfish out there are wondering, "Dude, where is Tobin Sprout in all of this?" For years, until Pollard split the band after UNDER THE BUSHES, Sprout was the other songwriter in Guided by Voices. Tobin was quite gifted with a melody himself, as you'll see in "Ester's Day". This song originally appeared on BEE THOUSAND, and is the sole creation of Mr. Sprout (that is, of course, if you don't include the nutty introductory bit where Bob goofily sings about Jimmy the fly and his skin-tight buffoonery).
As far as I know, the only time Guided by Voices ever released the gorgeous "Mother & Son" was on the band's HARDCORE UFOs box set last year. As a pretty big fan of the band, I had already accumulated a lot of what was on that box set, but unreleased songs like this make the set worth every penny. I thought this would be a good song to end with for this week's GBV collection.
For more on Guided by Voices:
GBV Radio from Largeheartedboy
My ISOLATION DRILLS-era interview with Bob
Guided by Robert Pollard