Thursday, April 19, 2007

Notes From Underground—Guided By Voices


(This will be my last musical post for a while. I know there are about four souls who give a shit. I have a bit of academia to catch up with, and sadly it has nothing to do with GBV or rock and roll. Please check in periodically, as I have no plan to abandon my sad pursuit. Anyhow, thanks to those who looked...)

In my last post—a gushing reassessment of Guided By Voices in general and Alien Lanes specifically—I somehow forgot to mention a single song. Separating the wheat from the chaff is nearly an impossible task on an album that is as full of bonafide rock hits as Alien Lanes is, but I’ll try and whittle.

Quickly, here is the chaff: “Ex-Supermodel,” which is accompanied by the sound of an awful snore, a total failure of insolent and beer-drunk decadence.

There is filler, but it is all quick and bracing, and “Alright” is an ideal closing track—instrumental and anthemic.

Here are several of the best.

“Closer You Are”-With an album that is this close to you, the mythical favorite song seems to be in a constant state of rotation. Lately, this has been mine. I was doing laundry and walking back down the Jones Street hill singing: “You play the heavy/it’s a real slick movie move/‘Stoned at the Alamo Tonight’/ the closer you are/the quicker it hits ya-ah-ah,” and I wondered how good a movie Stoned at the Alamo Tonight would be.

“Game Of Pricks”-This may be one of the best songs that Robert Pollard ever wrote, but how could you tell? He’s only written a thousand good ones. “Game of Pricks” taught me how to play C#m on the guitar, a chord I never used again.

“Chicken Blows”-The implicit Beatles reference on the album, and a stellar example of how good strings work in pop music, no matter how crudely recorded. Plus, I have never heard such a sublime harmony triggered by such a seemingly sophomoric lyric: “I’m not here/to drink all the beer/in the fridge…” But as is sometimes the case with stream-of-conscious types—first glances can be deceiving.

“My Valuable Hunting Knife”-After years of listening to this song, I cannot tell if there is a bass and a guitar or just multiple guitars. There is an echoey snare that may or may not be produced by a machine. It is stunning though, how they could construct such pure pop bliss out of scraps and largely fragmentary sounds.

“My Son Cool”-Not that Alien Lanes and Bee Thousand are so different, but this is the type of song that would have sounded at home on the latter, with like minded punk(ish)/wall of sound gems, “Smothered in Hugs” and “Echoes Myron.” “My Son Cool” also references the one Ron Howard movie that does not suck…besides Splash.

“Blimps Go 90”-Yet another example of strings being handsomely incorporated into GBV’s almost junk yard sound; and this song introduced me to Gentleman Jack—the premium brand of Jack Daniels whisky, which I still can not afford to drink.

“A Good Flying Bird”-Sometimes in my head, I picture the relationship between Tobin Sprout and Robert Pollard as vaguely reminiscent of that of Lennon and McCartney, but there is a danger in referencing that relationship, and an impulse in many to make that comparison, even when it is not apt. Tobin Sprout seemed to be an obvious unequal partner, but, as songwriters, they were so different. Tobin Sprout seemed to crave a simplicity that Robert Pollard appeared to abhor. Tobin Sprout never engaged in the same lyrical esoterica or musical fist-pumping that Pollard gloried in; his songs were catchy, extremely succinct, and terribly brief (“A Good Flying Bird” clocks in at just over one minute). His spate of solo albums paint a slightly different portrait, but his work with GBV is terribly economic, poppy and beautifully to the point.


Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Guided By Voices-Alien Lanes, 1995

Guided By Voices
Alien Lanes


Not much is said anymore of Guided By Voices. I am aware that they have broken up; the chatter though, had been just so incessant. Now that the dust has settled, and many have moved on to those more current, I think it is time to celebrate a band that was the most economic, prolific, durable and fortified of the rock thoroughbreds.

There was perhaps, never a band whose sound was so affirmed by their recording technique, and whose recording technique did so much for the egalitarianism of their musical age. The logic there may seem unsettled, but while it has been famously said (and perhaps too many times) that each person who heard the Velvet Underground went out and started a band, in the case of Guided By Voices, it can be put, just as hyperbolically, that everyone who heard a Guided By Voices record (before 1996) went out and recorded one them self; or at the very least, tried.

Guided By Voices was proof—in the age of major label hegemony—that one need not be David Geffen or Butch Vig to shepherd a (perhaps the) signature record of your generation. And possibly that will be their legacy; instead of the many thousand anthems, songs, fragments and other musical detritus that they recorded and released over two decades with the endurance of a long distance runner and the mindset of a sprinter.

They were amateurs with the type of tendencies that made them seminal rock radicals and critical darlings. I should say that their amateurism ceased at the quality of their basement recording—Robert Pollard, and to a lesser extent, Tobin Sprout, were brilliant, oftentimes devastating songwriters, and their band was top-notch. Though Pollard and Sprout were deadly with a melody, lyrically it was a scattershot affair, and the truth be told, I would need a year to comb through Pollard’s brain-fried lyrics to decipher his Labatt’s-influenced meanings.

They pointed the way down a DIY path where the ends seemed to always justify the means. To be sure, many acts over the years breathlessly recorded themselves in hopes of breaking through the glass ceiling of major label stardom, but few hung on to the handmade ethos for so long—Alien Lanes was GBV’s eighth album. They did so with a flourish of Dylanesque stamina, along with a like-minded lack of shame that would produce so much cobra-quick greatness, so much good feeling, and also, so much beery-eyed meaninglessness.

So what of this recording technique? They recorded on 4-track tape, with a limited coterie of confederates, trained only in the knotted-guitar chord frustration of the often vexing experience of small-scale recording in the privacy of a cramped bunker. For those who warmed their ears on The Beatles and George Martin’s limited multi-track bliss though, this was decidedly different.

To those uninitiated with modern day self-recording—with what the prevailing scribes termed “lo-fi”—Guided By Voices could sound a bit rough, and at times almost poor. Alien Lanes though, was an upgrade on the slapdash, but flawlessly written hazy pop encyclopedia, that was Bee Thousand.

After all the good feelings and copy that trailed in Bee Thousand's wake, Guided By Voices seemed to take their next album a bit more seriously; and it remains one of the quintessential examples of 4-track recording.

Alien Lanes is a swift flash of rock’s long history—garage, British invasion, power pop, psych, folk nonsense, punk, and post-punk—buoyed by the seemingly everpresent humming buzz of an ungrounded chord. It was a brilliant compendium of musical high water marks and rock impressionism; and they all the while demonstrated a staggering ability to sound salient while looking toward rock’s rich past without donning the Nehru coat of revivalism.

Sadly, Alien Lanes was the last of Guided By Voices’ home-recorded albums. Robert Pollard and his rotating cast of associates continued recording at the speed of sound, hitting the mark often (Waved Out (solo), Mag Earwhig!, Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department (with guitarist Doug Gillard)), and also producing their fair share of messes.

Though they/Robert Pollard bounced from the ignominy of self-recording to the center of Ric Okasek’s glass box, they/he would never again capture the immediacy, the brevity, or the laconic raw nerve that made Alien Lanes one of the last great albums of the Twentieth Century—a record that sounded as if it could tell the long and labyrinthine history of rock and roll in the space of 28 well paced shocks.

To the last of the great rock thoroughbreds.

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