It’s a big year for Guided by Voices. After calling it quits in 2004, some 21 years and 15 albums into one of the more prolific careers alternative music had ever seen, GBV resurrected in 2010 and, among other things, played the greatest rock ‘n’ roll show I have ever seen in my life. This year, as their seminal record Bee Thousand turns 18 years old, they’re back as both a live act and a prolific studio force, with three albums slated for 2012. Class Clown Spots a UFO landed this month, following the January release of Let’s Go Eat the Factory; the trilogy will conclude with Bears for Lunch in the fall.
Indie music is a cultural quarter obsessed with authenticity, and GBV is one of many recent reunions, following Pavement, My Bloody Valentine, Pixies, Sebadoh, and others that highlight the strange situation these bands find themselves in. They tour on what is essentially a junior circuit of the legacy model that nets bands like Third Eye Blind, Led Zeppelin, and the Pete Best All-Stars their bread. While not quite the radio-friendly, arena-filling presence of REM and the like, GBV is established in indie rock history as pioneers and grandfathers of the genre. With the aid of the digital age, they sell out large clubs, theaters, and outdoor stages in minutes when they once played dive bars in middle-of-nowhere towns like my own (GBV’s performance at State College’s Crowbar is the stuff of legend). Modern indie music is largely characterized by microgenres and the specific scenes and blogs that cater to them, but these reborn veterans stand as the bands almost everyone likes, or at least respects. They’ve finally become cool in that they’re totally uncool; they’re the obvious choices, the essential cuts, the classic rock of a particular generation of slackers and hepcats.
This is the side of GBV that confronted me in the Trocadero Theatre in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania two years ago. The Troc was a packed house, the t-shirts were mediocre, and the audience was a sweater and button-down crowd who’d left their kids and mortgages at home while they reclaimed the underground glory of their early years. Mixed in were the young guns: petite photographers squeezing their way toward front row snaps of Tobin Sprout, crowd-surfing alt-bros brandishing fist pumps to “Closer You Are,” and aloof, cross-armed texters and tweeters. I headed to the balcony and the button-downs, a group with whom I felt more philosophically, if not temporally, aligned. The balcony crowd could’ve easily been mistaken for GBV themselves, or at least a tribute band. Easy style, business casual dress, matched with clear signs of a more hip past: a pair of glasses, a hidden tattoo, what have you. I wondered if I was gazing into my own future, but not for long, because once GBV took the stage, they seized our attention without asking for permission. They played all the hits, an assault of fantastic songs as powerful and unrelenting as a B-52’s payload. I joined the button-downs in a chant for the 64-second masterpiece “Kicker of Elves.” It went unanswered, and I wondered how many other bands could play a 30-song set composed entirely of old favorites and still leave so many hits on the table. The Beatles, probably. Elvis. The Boss.
My night with the GBV reunion was not categorically different from the experience others would have at a Bruce Springsteen show. Old hits, an elder crowd peppered with younger converts, and an overwhelming feeling of authenticity. Like Bruce and other roots-rock gods, GBV’s authenticity in live performance comes from their extreme accessibility, their welcoming attitude, their banter with the fans, and more than anything the fact that they perform, sound, and behave exactly how you’ve always expected them to. I’d heard the stories of GBV’s legendary on-stage beer consumption and generally raucous stage show, and that is exactly what they delivered. Pollard’s rambling song introductions got more and more slurred throughout the night, the band rocked with an unrefined but theatrical swagger, and Mitch Mitchell punched out power chords in the stance of a rock ‘n’ roll king. You got what you paid for and left a happy consumer. It’s a populist model that’s turned the reunion tour into one of the best money-makers in an era where record sales aren’t what they used to be, but it’s also a model that allows bands that didn’t exactly break the bank during their first stint to reunite into a digital world where name concerts sell out almost before they’re even announced. It’s like if penniless Herman Melville came back to find “Moby-Dick” on every required reading list. Melville’s long gone, but bands can rise from the grave.
Examples of Pollard’s endearing song introductions:
Of course, while the model of GBV’s reunion–down to the studio albums that shortly followed (see: Soundgarden, Alice in Chains)–is essentially a miniature version of its mainstream equivalents, they are still a decidedly alternative band and part of a completely different, and contradictory, cultural ideal. Equally a part of the band’s authenticity is their status as an independent, alternative, experimental, lo-fidelity, zany, even slightly deranged outfit, something that does not fit in with the rock and pop of the masses. These independent bands and their fans combine the previously described populism with a sense of elitism and pretension.
The particular nature of this elitism (or “alternativeness”) for each band tends to emanate from its leading man, who acts as a sort of auteur for its vision. Their personas tend to be of the “genius” variety and reflect previous giants of popular music. Stephen Malkmus’s Lennon-esque pop brilliance placed Pavement as the premier songcrafters of the genre, but his detachment and amused strangeness made them largely inscrutable to the masses, who took reluctance and patience for laziness, and all the more fascinating to those who sought to uncover the identity hidden underneath the fuzz. Kevin Shields‘ inaccessibility and obsessive studio production placed him as the quintessential perfectionist of a genre that sounded like aimless noise to the average listener, but produced the Pet Sounds of alternative music for a particular brand of listeners seeking the Joycean masterpieces humankind could actively create (not accidentally stumble upon), with preparation and intellect and endless editing.
Whereas Malkmus and Shields brought genius and perfection to their bands’ images, GBV’s auteur, Robert Pollard, created a persona of manic amateurism. GBV produced amazing songs at an astoundingly fast rate without ever really developing those songs into complete ideas. They were a one-pilot pop machine soaring by at elite speeds: Bee Thousand boasts twenty songs and clocks in at 36:30–an average of 1.8 minutes per song; Alien Lanes averages closer to 1.5; Propeller’s 2.4 minute average, shorter than the shortest song on most records, seems impossibly long by comparison. Their brevity largely comes from an almost complete negligence of established pop structure. Repetition, the heart of the pop song, is almost completely ignored. Pollard spits an idea out at the listener and leaves it for what it is. The building blocks are all there to construct full songs, but he just doesn’t care. He doesn’t even care if the take was flawless. The guitar track of “Hardcore UFOs,” Bee Thousand’s opener, completely drops off partway through the song due to a recording error, but to go back and fix this would take up valuable time that could be better spent belting fresh ideas into the 4-track. Pollard’s persona, always advancing and (seemingly) unconcerned with structure or care, is heedless and childlike. An idiot savant of sorts, Pollard seems to produce brilliance in spite of not actually knowing what he’s doing. He darts by, leaving droppings of lo-fi classics as if he can’t even help it.
This clashes with Pollard’s on-stage manner, however. He performs with such intensity and drunken passion, recalling each track’s record and story as he goes, that it’s clear he views his songs as triumphs, not sketches he is too aloof to complete. Revisiting Bee Thousand shows Pollard wasn’t just flying by the seat of his pants and listening to the voices in his head, as “authentic” as this might make his persona of lo-fi anti-perfection; he was making direct choices for how to construct an amazing alternative album, and he made the right ones. By eschewing repetition and traditional verse/chorus/bridge structuring, but still putting all the necessary building blocks on record, Pollard creates tracks that take seed in the listener’s head and grow into the full songs they could’ve been. Recording the repeats is just redundant. The 25-second introduction to “Buzzards and Dreadful Crows” builds more tension than most full songs manage, and before you can even process it you’re thrown into a chorus that is just as satisfying. When Pollard does indulge in a repeated chorus or a song of some length, such as in the 2:42 “Echos Myron” (an epic by GBV’s standards), it is almost always paired with significant variation in delivery and/or arrangement (compare the last repeat of “Buzzards and Dreadful Crows” to the first). GBV oft reminds the listener that even these semi-songs are rare gifts, with songs like “Kicker of Elves” (or “Pimple Zoo” off Alien Lanes, the classic lineup’s most accessible record) that seem over before they even start and demand consecutive plays in the double digits.
The other side to GBV’s authenticity and Pollard’s savant persona comes from the band’s lo-fi recording approach, but even this approach deceptively paints them as a band that didn’t know what they were doing. The simple recording technique not only proved functional but aesthetically ideal. The raw sound paired perfectly with the band’s writing style–even their live show sounds lo-fi. Well-crafted arrangements lie amidst the buzz, however, and the songs imply intricacy while leaving much to the listener’s imagination. The interplay of frantic acoustic and selective percussion in “Kicker of Elves” is deceptively complex, and “Ester’s Day” combines transitions that trick the mind with rich layers of guitars and voices. “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” is arranged with a subtlety that lends to the song’s beauty; it sounds like a broken and faded statue of antiquity, a past of exquisite beauty lost and reduced to sad dignity and decay. Compare it to the song’s cover by …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, who restored the statue to its lush and implied beginnings and in doing so missed the entire point. The difference of efficacy between these two versions of the same song shows that Guided by Voices is more than a band of manic melody makers following some ethereal call toward chaotic brilliance; they know exactly what they’re doing, and they’ve chosen the superior aesthetic.
Guided by Voices endures more for what they left off the table than what they brought to it, but what they brought were some of the most infectious melodies and soul-blasting anthems alternative music has ever seen. Somewhere in between a brilliant demigod and a drunk, partying grandpa, Robert Pollard and his crew operate in the overlap of conflicting cultural spheres, as both a legacy act and a subversive one. They’re the old guard of a brand of music that’s become a mini-industry in and of itself, but in a genre marked by its paradoxical relationship to populism and elitism, they toed the line better than anyone. GBV’s reemergence within the zeitgeist of indie rock reminds us that genre is about more than what you don’t do (sign a major label contract, go to a professional studio, bother to do a second take or repeat a verse); it’s about forming that negative space into a certain kind of perfection–small and flawed, but thousands strong.