Tuesday, April 27, 2004

The end is here: Guided By Voices is calling it quits.

Man, Mondays start with a bang, don't they? "Gbv" as us fanboys call them have been one of the quirkiest, most enjoyable pure pop bands in America for the better part of 15 years now. They passed their peak a while ago, but it's still bittersweet to see the band ending, although frontman and the band's driving force Robert Pollard promises to keep making music.

I came upon GbV in 1994 when I was doing an internship at Billboard magazine, and found the EP 'Fast Japanese Spin Cycle' in the "freebie" bin of review copies. I'd never heard of Guided By Voices, but the album looked interesting, so I took it back to my NYU dorm room and gave it a listen. It sounded like music beamed from another planet, as if the aliens had listened to radio from Earth and tried to play it back their way. The song "My Impression Now" is what won me over, a quick (most GbV songs average under 2 minutes), jaunty tune about nothing in particular and everything all at once. GbV were never a message band — they were pop and rock at its most basic -- sweet sounds in great numbers.

After listening to that EP, I found a copy of 'Bee Thousand,' widely acknowledged by fans to be their finest hour. You know how lots of songs have a "good part"? GbV perfected the art of making songs that were all good part. While they had their share of klunkers, when they hit they made a song that sounded like a perfect mix of Beatlesque pop, Who rock and indie wacked-out low-fi style. "Bee Thousand" is the place to start if you've never heard them -- it's a masterpiece, a mix tape of "good parts" and Pollard's trademark surreal, wandering lyrics. Tunes like "Tractor Rape Chain," "Gold Star For Robot Boy," "Postal Blowfish" or "Buzzards and Dreadful Crows" will infuriate anyone looking for pat answers in their songs, for folks who don't like music to get any more complicated than "I Will Always Love You." Yet the genius of Gbv is how they make the nonsensical words matter, with Pollard singing with conviction words that he's likely making up as he goes.

I mean, read this lyric, to the song "Hot Freaks," and it sounds like gibberish:
"i walked into the house of miraculous recovery
and stood before king everything
and he asked me to join him in the red wing
took me to pie land
said, "i'm a thigh man"
i will be eternally hateful

...Yet marry it to bouncy guitar, a brooding solo and heart-on-my-sleeves singing, and somehow it becomes one of GbV's most eerie, memorable tunes. What's it about? Hell if I know. You can make the songs mean whatever you want. And that rich mutability is what made Gbv my favorite band for a time, over a course of terrific mid-1990s albums that spun golden tunes. I love Pollard's gift for marrying off-the-cuff nonsense to meaning -- in the end, creating art out of babble. Guided By Voices might be the world's best dadaist band.

Guided By Voices released more than a dozen albums in the last 21 years, averaging about one a year -- and that's just their main output. Pollard is a man who's so prolific that a box set of just his outtakes ran to 4 CDs and 100 songs. See this discography. Pollard, never content with editing himself, also has released many, many solo CDs on the side in the "Fading Captain" series, which vary from as good as Gbv to indulgent fluff. I long ago gave up on GbV completism -- like most obsessions, it's easy to overwhelm you and it's not always worth it. GbV's biggest flaw was probably their inability to separate the great from the just OK.

The last few GbV albums had some good tracks, but a lot of meandering, pontificating filler, too. I had pretty much decided after their last, the mediocre 'Earthquake Glue,' I'd not pick up their next unless the reviews were outstanding. But I'll get their swan song this year for sure.

Their last truly great album was probably Mag Earwhig!, but their best remains the one-two punch of "Bee Thousand," 'Alien Lanes' and 'Under The Bushes, Under The Stars. They also have a very compact "best of" collection -- seemingly impossible considering the thousands of songs they've put out -- 'Human Amusements At Hourly Rates.'

I'll miss GbV, but I did get a chance to see them live once in an excellent show in Berkeley, and I could easily spend my remaining years just hunting down the albums they put out I don't own. But in the end it's better to know when it's time to end the band.

Rest in peace, GbV. The postal blowfish salute you.

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