Guided By Voices
In college, I had a roommate who made personalized bumper stickers
for his friends. Mine? "I want my GBV!" From the moment I first
heard Guided By Voices--the strange,
low-fi band headed by ex-fourth grade teacher and beer enthusiast
Robert Pollard--I've wanted my GBV. Just one problem: I can't find
This isn't for a lack of records released appearing from a band
called "Guided By Voices." As you can see by the little box just
above this, there's a new record out from GBV. But the band of merry
men that stuck with Pollard through the early years are long gone,
replaced by others who have been replaced in turn. And Pollard?
These days he sounds more like an over-confident, slightly bored
Michael Stipe than the Bud-drinking, Brit-intoned genius from Dayton,
Ohio of yore.
Early GBV was branded by Pollard's distinctive brew of nonsensical
lyrics. Allusive to
nothing, yet strangely evocative of something familiar, at their best
Pollard's songs inspire a soft nostalgia or, more generally, a feeling
of personal identification with an unspecified (or out-of-sight) object.
Preoccupied with boy's things like UFOs, rock 'n' roll, atoms and
airplanes, both Pollard and former sideman Tobin Sprout wrote 90-second
songs that pulled your heart strings in the strangest directions.
"Hey, have you seen
where our tunes went?"
The early tunes are filled alternately with apology and strength;
most, unlike so much indie-schlock, are love songs of a sort. "I
Am a Scientist" from Bee Thousand (1994) is a kind of explanation
of shortcomings to a lover; the song delivers a sweet, twangy little
pop melody (guitar and drums only) and lyrics teeming with the self-awareness
and self-pity that marks so many indie-rockers ("I am a journalist
/ I write to you to show you / I am an incurable / and nothing else
behaves like me"). On the flip side, "As We Go Up, We Go Down,"
a modernist masterpiece on Alien Lanes (1995), bursts with
Hegelian lyrics, declaring: "And see the truth is just a lie / I
speak in monotone 'leave my fucking life alone' / As we go up we
go down." Always the singer is misunderstood; sometimes he wants
help and sometimes he doesn't.
But all was not pop; on the early records, bouncy melodies were
tucked between more sinister, distorted guitar-focused songs with
lyrics muffled or yelled. Sometimes they were kind of good (Bee
Thousand's "Her Psychology Today") and others not. But as the
spaces between tracks were limited to about a half-second, those
records felt like one big song with different movements. This changed
with 1996's Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, though not
yet for the worse. Better produced, many fans defected from this
record, complaining that GBV had gone slick. Although the record
is more polished--as if for a special occasion--it's full of images
and stories worthy of the early days. In 1997 the band put out Mag
Earwhig!, a record notable for its tentative return to a low-fi
Which brings us to the two most recent GBV releases, 1999's Do
the Collapse and the new Isolation Drills, both released
on the TVT label, a move away from the independent tastemakers at
Matador Records. Both critics and fans complained that Do the Collapse
was over-produced, but that album (said over-production by Ric Ocasek
of The Cars) at least had a handful of pretty decent songs on it.
"Teenage FBI" is a winner on the merits of its title alone, and
"Surgical Focus" has the signature swells and tensions of Pollard's
best. Most of the others are throwaways, but they aren't nearly
as boring as the stuff of Isolation Drills.
GBV have left Ocasek behind for Rob Schnapf, who has done terrific
work before with the likes of Elliott Smith and Richard Thompson.
But what he's done with Pollard here is make a record that sounds
like other bands--REM, the Who, Big Star--instead of something that
sounds like GBV. It's not just the production, though. It's Pollard
getting a little too comfy; his lyrics this time around sound like
someone trying to write a song that sounds like Robert Pollard.
"Glad Girls," the first single from Isolation Drills, is
a good example. Pollard repeats "Glad Girls / Only want to get you
high" about 60 times before the song finally gives up. "Twilight
Campfighter," probably the most promising tune on the album, just
peters out. Each tune sounds so much like the last one.
On the second track on Isolation Drills, Pollard sings,
"How's my drinking? I don't care about being sober." Maybe that
explains it; Pollard, finally a rock star, has taken the Bud from
the stage to the studio, and written an album that reflects it.
But don't hold out for anything better. He winds up simply, with
uncharacteristic directness, "I won't change."
Hillary Frey is assistant literary editor of The