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Guided By Voices

Long-standing and prolific underground indie-rock outfit who’ve maintained their DIY ethos and dexterity throughout four decades on the fringes, the variable GUIDED BY VOICES had at least one constant in their corner: workaholic ROBERT POLLARD. As his own parallel, solo/collaborative CV/discography might swallow one whole (of over 100 releases!), GBVs’ conveyor-belt of albums and 7-inchers would weigh down the shelves of any ardent acolyte. Influenced by The BEATLES (in all their carbonated manifestations: more McCARTNEY than LENNON), The WHO, ROBYN HITCHCOCK, HUSKER DU, The REPLACEMENTS, the list goes on and on, GBV were certainly on par with PAVEMENT and in sync with SEBADOH by way of their quintessential lo-fi pop. Where to start? Arguably at the 2003 round-up: HUMAN AMUSEMENTS AT HOURLY RATES – THE BEST OF GUIDED BY VOICES {*9}.
Formed Dayton, Ohio, in 1983, singer/songwriter/strummer Robert Pollard first got together with Paul Comstock (guitar, piano), Mitch Mitchell (bass) and Peyton Eric (drums) for local live gigs, before succumbing, in 1986, to release their debut 12-inch EP, `Forever Since Breakfast’. Falling by the wayside when re-grouping for further studio work, Paul and – during sessions for 1987’s DEVIL BETWEEN MY TOES {*6} – Peyton, subs were found in Robert’s brother Jim Pollard (guitar) and Kevin Fennell (drums), whilst there were early guest spots for the fellow 30-something Tobin Sprout (guitar, vocals) and Steve Wilbur (producer, guitar).
GUIDED BY VOICES duly became something of a cult phenomenon via a series of other independently released, limited-edition vinyl (consolidated with SANDBOX (1988) {*6}), while garnering a reputation for inaccessible lo-fi musings issued under such characteristically long-winded titles as SELF-INFLICTED AERIAL NOSTALGIA (1989) {*6} and the rock opera concept about mid-western drunkards, SAME PLACE THE FLY GOT SMASHED (1990) {*7}. The latter of these saw Robert and Jim recruiting bassist Greg Demos (ex-New Creatures) and drummer Don Thrasher, to supersede Wilbur and a returning Peyton, and introduced pieces `The Hard Way’, `Mammoth Cave’ and the brittle balladry of `When She Turns 50’ and `Drinker’s Piece’; the longest on show by far was the 6-minute+ `Murder Charge’.
Tobin Sprout was finally on board for 1992’s jam-packed, DIY masterwork, PROPELLER {*7}, a home-crafted record of weird and wonderful proportions; and who cared if songs such as `Over The Neptune – Mesh Gear Fox’, `Weedking’, `Exit Flagger’, `Quality Of Armor’, `Ergo Space Pig’ and `Metal Mothers’, were out of tune and as sketchy as the punk-era “Live At The Roxy” LP.
A subsequent deal with US independent, Scat Records, led to 1993’s VAMPIRE ON TITUS {*7}; the trio of the brothers Pollard, and Sprout (plus Wilbur on tinny, lo-fi production duties) not quite sorting out their technical foibles on what might’ve been short-ish seminal beauts, `Wished I Was A Giant’, `Jar Of Cardinals’, `Marchers In Orange’ and `Gleemer (The Deeds Of Fertile Jim)’.
On the back of some quality vinyl-only EPs that included `Static Airplane Jive’, `Clown Prince Of The Menthol Trailer’, `Get Out Of My Stations’ and `Fast Japanese Spin Cycle’ (from which songs would resurface on subsequent collection sets), a 6-piece GUIDED BY VOICES (aka Robert, Tobin, Jim, Mitch, Dan and Kevin) increased their critical clout with BEE THOUSAND (1994) {*8}; incidentally licensed to Matador Records in Britain. In among best bits, `Tractor Rape Chain’, `Hot Freaks’, `Echos Myron’, `Buzzards And Dreadful Crows’ and `I Am A Scientist’, GBV’s angular, surreal sketches recalled – in spirit at least – the same astral plane as MERCURY REV, and drew further comparisons with fellow lo-fi pioneers such as PAVEMENT sharing fantasy-league studio space with the Fab Four while reading Lewis Carroll.
Following on from the live CRYING YOUR KNIFE AWAY (1994) {*7} – Greg Demos and James Greer in for SWEARING AT MORISTS-bound Dan Thrasher – GBV kept up their unflaggingly prolific recording schedule on ALIEN LANES (1995) {*8}. Showcasing a marathon 28 vignettes averaging a minute or two, the album veered from the CHRIS BELL/BIG STAR-esque `(I Wanna Be A) Dumbcharger’ to the almost TEENAGE FANCLUB-style harmonies of `Game Of Pricks’, the moribund `Striped White Jets’ and the soar-away pop brilliance of `Motor Away’. The latter was an obvious choice for a single release, while the sublime `My Valuable Hunting Knife’ was hailed as one of the finest songs Pollard had, up to now, penned.
No Greg, and the final throw of the dice for brother Jim, 1996’s UNDER THE BUSHES UNDER THE STARS {*7} moved in an increasingly accessible direction; GBV’s finest 3-minutes, `Cut-Out Witch’, outstripping fellow Matador Records rivals PAVEMENT in its climactic build-up and punky pressure-valve motif. Normally falling flat in his abilities to sing effectively, Robert had obviously worked on his larynx; `Burning Flag Birthday Suit’, `The Official Ironman Rally Song’ and the grunge-y `Lord Of Overstock’ competing with Tobin’s tweeful tunes, `To Remake The Young Flyer’ and `It’s Like Soul Man’.
That same year also saw solo sets from both ROBERT POLLARD (`Not In My Airforce’ the first of many!) and TOBIN SPROUT (`Carnival Boy’), while the GUIDED BY VOICES discography was extended in the shape of the sprawling mini-set, SUNFISH HOLY BREAKFAST {*6}. Regarded as an EP by punters mainly for its low cost, the 10-song/23-minute exercise was effectively a stop-gap affair featuring a version of former 45, `If We Wait’, Jim Greer’s `Trendspotter Acrobat’ and Sprout’s `Jabberstroker’.
Rumours of an imminent split between Pollard and Sprout – who’d in the meantime added a GBV fanclub vinyl-LP, TONICS & TWISTED CHASERS (SAY IT WITH ANGEL DUST) {*7} – were proved correct when 1997’s MAG EARWHIG! {*7} long-player, featured just RP and post-punk glam band COBRA VERDE: a la Messrs Doug Gillard (guitars, piano), John Petkovic (guitars, bass), Don Depew (guitars, synthesizer, bass, organ) and Dave Swanson (drums, maracas), plus a remnant recording (`Are You Faster?’) with Tobin, Mitch, Kevin and Jim P. In comparison to previous giants, highlights were rare at first, until further inspections revealled `Bulldog Skin’, `Portable Men’s Society’, `Sad If I Lost It’ and Gillard’s own `I Am A Tree’ (at nearly 5 minutes!), to be right up there with their finest.
POLLARD again continued on his moonlighting solo sojourn via bizarre but enlightening albums such as `Waved Out’ (1998), `Kid Marine’ (1999), `Speak Kindly Of Your Volunteer Fire Department’ (a 1999 collaboration with Gillard) and `Choreographed Man Of War’ (with his “Soft Rock Renegades”; 2001). Always thought of as a fully paid-up member of GBV, the Michigan-based SPROUT also cracked on with his take on arty-pop with sets such as `Moonflower Plastic (Welcome To My Wigwam)’ (1997), `Let’s Welcome The Circus People’ (1999) and `Sentimental Stations’ (2002), all receiving a glowing response from critics and public alike.
Meanwhile, back at the GBV ranch, things were looking up via a fresh deal with major TVT Records. The RIC OCASEK-produced DO THE COLLAPSE (1999) {*5} was dismissed as a little amateurish and predictable; the album title a little too poignant for its own good. With many of the songs sentimental and simplified (Robert was joined by Doug, Greg and ex-BREEDERS drummer Jim Macpherson), their trip up the corporate ladder bore no fruit with the exception of opening pop salvo, `Teenage FBI’.
Getting back to basics with Rob Schnapf at the decks, Pollard (plus Gillard, bassist Tim Tobias and guitarist Nate Farley) was back to his songwriting best via 2001’s twelfth album proper, ISOLATION DRILLS {*8}. Augmented by ELLIOTT SMITH somewhere or other, the songs was stronger, the instrumentation was tighter and, in the process, GUIDED BY VOICES were filling a gap left by CHEAP TRICK and/or BIG STAR; check out the wonderful `Chasing Heather Crazy’ (the best song never to be written by TEENAGE FANCLUB), `Frostman’ and Glad Girls’.
If Pollard and Sprout had completely fallen out, that wasn’t apparent on their subsequent collaboration as AIRPORT 5; another lo-fi workout in the studio that produced a couple of sets, `Tower In The Fountain Of Sparks’ (2001) and `Life Starts Here’ (2002). Workaholic POLLARD, of course, continued to balance a mighty solo schedule and collaborations (CIRCUS DEVILS among them) with group sets.
With a welcome mat put out by Matador Records once again, GBV hit the indie trail courtesy of 2002’s UNIVERSAL TRUTHS AND CYCLES {*6}. Although reaching the Top 200 for the second and last time, the record lacked the coherence and quality control of their previous album, but for immediate mini-gems such as `Eureka Signs’, `Cheyenne’, `Back To The Lake’, `Everywhere With Helicopter’ and `Christian Animation Torch Carriers’.
With their album tally now well into double figures, GUIDED BY VOICES remained one of America’s more enigmatic indie institutions – just ask Roy and Maurice (alias actors Chris O’Dowd and Richard Ayoade) – who’d inadvertently given rise to British interest when sporting a GBV t-shirt in an episode of The IT Crowd.
Swapping Macpherson for ex-DAMBUILDERS sticksman Kevin March, the composite gel of GUIDED BY VOICES was intact on EARTHQUAKE GLUE (2003) {*7}. Dispensing with short-cut songs under a minute, a sharper focus was in place for accessible indie-pop pieces, `My Kind Of Soldier’, `Beat Your Wings’, `The Best Of Jill Hives’ and `Mix Up The Satellite’; but then again, every fan had their own fave according to their, and Robert’s, mood-set.
2004’s HALF SMILES OF THE DECOMPOSED {*6} wrapped up GBV’s extensive CV in fourteen Todd Tobias-produced songs. Typically melody-driven and blissfully simplistic, Pollard and Co signed off significantly with the glam-retro of the wistful and witty `Everybody Thinks I’m A Raincloud (When I’m Not Looking)’, `Girls Of Wild Strawberries’, `Sing For Your Meat’ and `Huffman Prairie Flying Field’. The commemorative farewell gig in November 2004 was belatedly documented in 2007 on LIVE FROM AUSTIN TX {*7}.
For several years, ROBERT POLLARD stuck to his indie/DIY guns by delivering a plethora of solo and collaborative albums, but as sure as eggs is eggs and the day is long, his resistance to keep GUIDED BY VOICES at bay was obviously too hard to contemplate for good. Roping in the classic mid-90s GBV veterans (Sprout, Fennell, Mitchell and Demos), the band performed at the Matador Records 21st Anniversary festival in 2010. Working well within the dicey constructs of a band format, Robert scratched the 7-year itch syndrome by releasing a self-financed “comeback” set, LET’S GO EAT THE FACTORY {*7} in the first month of 2012.
As summarised by many pundits as a 60s-fixated act (whether British invasion or not), GBV’s long lay-off had moved them on in similar aspects by way of Bob Pollard’s prog-styled motifs (think PETER GABRIEL fronting The WHO!). Reverting, at times, back to their 4-track sound, Sprout was allocated a handful of tracks, including `Spiderfighter’ and `Who Invented The Sun’, but mainly it was down to the crafty Pollard on his irreverent tunes, `Laundry & Lasers’, `Doughnut For A Snowman’, `The Unmistakable Fats Domino’ and `We Won’t Apologize For The Human Race’.
Released in only a matter of five and ten months respectively, CLASS CLOWN SPOTS A UFO {*7} and THE BEARS FOR LUNCH {*7}, continued Pollard and Co’s search for quick-fire perfection. Benefitting from the sold-out, limited-edition 7-inch singles `Keep It In Motion’, `John The Croc’ and the title piece, the first of these sets seemed to be aligned through Britpop, which itself was sound-of-the-swinging-60s affiliated. With no apparent link the latter album mindfully re-tread the pages of yesteryear on The BEATLES-meets-SPARE SNARE-esque cuts `Waving At Airplanes’ and `Dome Rust’, the WIRE-ish `White Flag’, and other retro indie-poppers `She Lives In An Airport’ and opener `King Arthur The Red’.
Bolstered by the almost obligatory 7-inch companion 45s, `Flunky Minnows’, `Islands (She Talks In Rainbows’, `Trash Can Full Of Nails’, `Xeno Parish’ and `Noble Insects’ (not necessarily the album’s best bits), ENGLISH LITTLE LEAGUE (2013) {*6} was a somewhat bleaker and fractured set.
2014’s MOTIVATIONAL JUMPSUIT {*7} had further elements of early-70s GENESIS, albeit stretched out by way of punk and jangly power-pop. Anthemic in nature and reverberating in a sprawling, lo-fi, psych-pop pattern (WIRE came to mind again), the set was peppered with mini-gems such as `Planet Score’, `Jupiter Spin’ (very “Tomorrow Never Knows”), `Save The Company’, `Calling Up Washington’ and `Vote For Me, Dummy’.
When Fennell attempted to sell his drum-kit on-line, the unimpressed Pollard proved unsympathetic and dismissed him forthwith, replacing the man with the returning Kevin March for the COOL PLANET (2014) {*7} exercise. Probably as close as they’ll get to an un-segued GENESIS’ “Supper’s Ready’ trailer, or indeed a single-set serving of The BEATLES’ “White Album” (at a push!), GBV came in from the Midwest climes on the hook-laden `Authoritarian Zoo’, the Ziggy Stardust-cloned `Psychotic Crush’, the grunge-y `Table At Fool’s Tooth’, `The Bone Church’, the MOTT THE HOOPLE-esque `All American Boy’, and the jangly and cornily-titled `Ticket To Hide’.
GUIDED BY VOICES – in terms of Mk.? – were put on hold for a while as Bob embarked on moonlight projects such as RICKED WICKY, TEENAGE GUITAR, and his own solo sets. As an all-new GBV readied themselves for a tour (RP and March recruiting Bobby Bare, Jr. and Nick Mitchell on guitars, and Mark Shue on bass), POLLARD body-swerved keening critics by releasing his own solo set, `Of Course You Are’, a month prior to the band’s enterprisingly bountiful return set, PLEASE BE HONEST (2016) {*8}.
Funnily enough, but hardly surprising, the record was performed entirely by the autonomous ringleader himself, therefore, what constituted a solo set or a band set was misleading. Of course, this was secondary to the songs on board, like `My Zodiac Companion’, `Kid On A Ladder’ (R.E.M. meets The WHO), `Come On Mr. Christian’, the testing and tinny `The Grasshopper Eater’ and `I Think A Telescope’, not forgetting the classicist buzz-friendly `Glittering Parliaments’, the BOWIE-ish `The Caterpillar Workforce’ and the VAN DER GRAAF-like `Hotel X (Big Soap)’. Certainly one that’ll grow with time – no change there then.
© MC Strong 1997-2003/GRD series // rev-up MCS Apr2016

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