It’s somewhat curious that Guided By Voices has so comfortably settled into its position on the Mount Rushmore of ’90s indie rock. That their brand of junky, compressed pop songs resonated with the slackers in Archers of Loaf T-shirts is hardly a surprise, but under scrutiny, GBV’s similarities with their indie-rock compatriots are mostly surface-level. Unlike, say, Pavement, these weren’t young iconoclasts offering a snide rebuke to rock commercialism; frontman Robert Pollard was an elementary school teacher, a Roger Daltrey-wannabe in his mid-30s, living out a rockstar fantasy in a dingy Ohio basement. That the music ended up sounding like it belonged on Matador Records seems almost by accident. Robert Christgau once called Bee Thousand, their 1994 masterpiece, “pop for perverts” – and though he didn’t mean it as a compliment, he’s right. Intentional or not, their take on the British Invasion is profound in its deviancy, a reimagining of the meaty rock’n’roll of The Who as filtered through the sleaze of Dayton, Ohio. Their music is a bastardization of a distinctly American flavor, crude and beautiful all at once. To hear the sounds of opening track “Hardcore UFO’s” is to feel one’s boots stuck to a beer-soaked basement floor. “Sitting out on your house / Watching hardcore UFO’s / Drawing pictures, playing solos ’til ten,” sings Pollard, his voice awash in out-of-sync guitars and thin, barely rhythmic drum hits. It’s an alienating inoculation, one of their least pleasing pieces of melody, and also perhaps a perfect introduction to the charm of their lousy recording practices: a guitar track famously drops out part of the way through – likely the product of a mishandled cassette tape – and Pollard’s vocals take on an inadvertent shaky quality as they bounce around inexplicably between the left and right channels. There is a palpable brittleness here, a constant reminder of this music’s fragile physicality. It sounds as if it could all fall apart at any moment.
Their music is a bastardization of a distinctly American flavor, crude and beautiful all at once.
Crucial, also, to this delicate balance is Pollard’s surreal, imagistic lyrics. Though the band’s spirit is one deeply entrenched in unapologetic rock’n’roll boneheadedness, his words are something else – fragmented scenes out of a dream, as inscrutable as they are evocative. “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” stands out in that regard, its droney, arpeggiated guitar riff striking an eerie, almost elegiac tone as Pollard recounts a disjointed vision verging on nightmare: “Cold hands, touching my face / Don’t hide, the snake can see you / Old friends, you may not remember / Fading away from you.” He dons a slow, almost slurred affect for “Smothered In Hugs,” an otherwise straightforward rocker made special by his sublime melody. “In the summer that you came / There was something, eating everyone / The sunshine fund was low,” he warbles, conjuring up a specific and keenly felt sense of malaise. He also has the capacity for sincere sweetness, like on “Peep-Hole,” an eighty five-second quickie as achingly gorgeous as anything in their catalog. “I’m looking inside your brain / Christ it’s a cluttered mess / I love you I must confess,” he croons, convincingly. Though Pollard is the dominant creative force here, guitarist Tobin Sprout adds a song or two as well, his most memorable contribution being the lovely “Awful Bliss,” which ends up an inadvertent summation of the band’s appeal. He sings, presumably to a lover, about a “guaranteed sweetness that you found broken,” and while it’s not his intention, what better way to describe this music than as such, as an “awful bliss”? These are raw pop gems deliberately buried in rough, broken melodies, made to be mainlined in two minutes or less and enjoyed in the haze of an aimless Midwestern night.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.