Friday, December 04, 2009

Guided by Voices: A Brief History, by James Greer (Black Cat)

I’d always imagined that unravelling the story of Guided by Voices would be a difficult task. Back when I was a SPIN-reading youth, before I’d heard their music, GBV’s initial appeal lay in their obscurity and the romance of their unlikely rise from the basements of Dayton. How would you get access to that? It’d be a task akin to archaeology, digging through the mountains of 4-track tapes and Bud Light empties. However, because author Jim Greer actually once played bass in GBV, he’s the man for the job.

I got into Guided By Voices with Bee Thousand and bought each new release on sight (except for Mag Earwig!, which I caught up with during their TVT Records period). I enjoyed the music without giving much thought to what was going on behind the scenes. That's where Greer heads right from the opening chapter, set backstage at the final GBV gig. With the dozens of lineup changes and the band’s indie-to-major-back-to-indie trajectory, there’s a heap of stories and intrigue—divorces, feuds, fistfights and drugs aplenty. Greer’s pursuit of the methods behind Robert Pollard’s prolific genius also provides plenty of fodder for the book.

Fittingly, this is not a straight-up chronological bio. Greer takes a scattered approach, and includes contributions (not just quotes) from Pollard’s son Bryan, Dennis Cooper, rock critic Richard Meltzer, and fuckin’ Bun E. Carlos. There is a thread of standard album-by-album rock band narrative—I almost wish there was more discussion of the music and the songs. Greer does include a chapter devoted to Pollard’s explanations of selected songs, some of which are more illuminating than others. It’s kinda refreshing to find out that some of them are just random nonsense (many songs can be boiled down to “doesn’t really mean anything.”). The stories behind certain song titles are interesting, though.

To sweeten the deal, Greer includes a discography, which even in its “selected” form takes up the last third of the book.

(Greer describes the last three GBV albums for Matador Records as “quite likely the best records of the band’s career.” I couldn’t ignore this claim, and went back to listen to them.)

Universal Truths and Cycles (2002)—This is a good record, but it’s probably the weakest of the last three Matador albums. It’s short of hits and the band sounds tired on MOR numbers like “Pretty Bombs.” “Skin Parade” has some drive, as does “Christian Animation Torch Carriers.” “Storm Vibrations” is powerful but too long. To me, “Everywhere with Helicopter” is the classic kind of GBV bopper you expect to hear. “Eureka Signs” too, with its grit and muscle and slashing chords, really invites comparisons to The Who. Where previous albums delivered the experimental, less successful tracks in minute-long bursts, here they’re lengthy and in your face with good production, like the droney “Car Language” and “From a Voice Plantation.” The last third of the album loses me. Maybe after having blown the doors off with their last TVT release Isolation Drills (a personal favourite), they had nothing left to give, and this puzzling, low-key release was their way of easing back into the indie world.

Earthquake Glue (2003)—GBV sound like they’ve found their feet again. Pollard’s collage cover art puts us at ease right away. His songs induce the characteristic GBV ecstasy: “I’ll Replace You With Machines” and “She Goes Off at Night” off the top are both brilliant. “Useless Inventions” tops them all; its mad rush recalling Husker Du. The band goes wistful on "The Best of Jill Hives," and gets proggy on "Dead Cloud" and "Mix Up the Satellite." This album touches on a number of different styles and triumphs every time.

Half Smiles of the Decomposed (2004)—In many ways this is the most conventional Guided by Voices record. Pollard avoids the song fragments and noise, and focuses on nothing but substantive, flat-out excellent songs. “Window of My World” in particular is a song for the ages. The album it most reminds me of is Mag Earwig! Pollard, as I learned from the book, was divorced and in a happy new relationship (“Tour Guide at the Winston Churchill Memorial” is about his new lady Sarah), which accounts for the general vibe of contentment. Half Smiles... saw the band making an unexpectedly graceful but satisfying exit.

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