Like most people I first heard Guided By Voices’ music whilst smoking cigarettes and lying prostrate on my friend’s bedroom floor.
If I’m honest it was a fleeting experience. I don’t remember the song (Game of Pricks) having any great effect on my nicotine induced teenage buzz. I didn’t know then that I would devote entire evenings over the next ten years trudging through the thousands of songs Robert Pollard would produce in the hopes of finding something beautiful. I should have known better.
Weeks later I’m thumbing through 12″s at a local collectors’ shop and I stumble across a copy of Guided By Voices’ seminal album Alien Lanes. That’s when I made the mistake of reading about Robert Pollard – the frenetic creative force behind GBV.
Pollard has worked tirelessly and obsessively on Guided By Voices (not to mention his numerous identical-sounding side projects) since 1983. The former teacher from Dayton, Ohio has been known to write, record and release an album of entirely new material in the space of a week. Of course, as is to be expected the results vary massively. From lo-fi treasures to gaudy glam rock, from sentimental self-effacing ballads to power pop parades, Pollard is both a master of songwriting and a cursed hyperactive. The fun, of course, comes in panning the gold from the murkier waters.
As Pollard prepares to release his 23rd album with Guided By Voices, kickstart your very own obsession with my introduction to the essential parts of GBV.
Lips of SteelFrom Sandbox (1987)
Guided By Voices’ second album Sandbox is steeped in alt-rock influences. I hear The Replacements and REM in varying degrees all across the album. I’ve always thought of Lips of Steel as Pollard doing Stipe. I can’t be sure that he was listening to them at the time, but given that both bands were starting to gain audience around then, I think it’s highly likely they were feeding off each other in some way.
Either way, it’s a great early example of Pollard’s skilful songwriting that previews some hallmarks of his finest work.
Gold Star For Robot BoyFrom Bee Thousand (1994)
Bee Thousand was the first glimmer of the trademark noisy pop formula that would pockmark Guided By Voices’ next few albums and propel them to success. Gold Star For Robot Boy is drenched in unlistenable screeches, the timing is just terrible, there’s cryptic, cloying, intensely emotional lyrics and the guitars are basically just so far out of tune it actually hurts.
Sometimes I think it’s the best song ever written by anyone ever.
A Salty SaluteFrom Alien Lanes (1995)
A Salty Salute is where it all began for me – it was the second Guided By Voices song I ever heard and I remember thinking that that refrain was just perfect: “The club is open.”
The song sums up much of what I find so compelling about Pollard’s songwriting; enigmatic, thoughtful and less than 2 minutes long. What more could you want?
My Valuable Hunting Knife (Tigerbomb Version)From Tigerbomb (1995)
Originally featured on Alien Lanes earlier in the same year GBV gave My Valuable Hunting Knife (and the equally iconic Game of Pricks) a rework for their Tigerbomb EP.
The final product is an elated pop song that brought GBV’s sound into a new epoch of polished power pop perfection.
The Official Ironmen Rally SongFrom Under The Bushes Under The Stars (1996)
My favourite thing about this song is the quintessential ‘Pollardness’ of it all. It’s got a chorus with great rhymes and the melody is as good as it gets. In some ways I think it represents peak lo-fi Guided By Voices as it captures the band in crossover mode between experimentation and all out pop.
It all ends with a singalong that’s pretty much never left my head since.
Teenage FBIFrom Do The Collapse (1999)
There’s a school of thought that says Robert Pollard’s genius is massively over-estimated, that really he’s just a simple pop writer unwillingly trapped into some kind of necessary lo-fi aesthetic. 1999’s Do The Collapse is the album that might just prove the point. The band hooked up with Ric Ocasek, best known as the frontman of The Cars, and wrote an album that opens with a track a lot like a collection of unreleased B-sides by The Outfield.
Fortunately I love The Outfield so I think Teenage FBI is kinda brilliant. There are some real clangers on Do The Collapse though. The outrageously smaltzy Hold On Hope, for example, is so emotionally potent it was actually used to soundtrack one of the sad bits in an episode of Scrubs. Think about that.
Glad GirlsFrom Isolation Drills (2001)
In 2001 Guided By Voices released the equally polished Isolation Drills. It’s stand out track – and subsequent live staple – is Glad Girls. It’s a track so full of sunshine it would make Roger McGuinn blush.
You really can’t fault Pollard on Glad Girls. It’s just an instant classic, the kind of song that can make a hungover walk to work feel like a deep tissue massage.
I don’t think I’d be the first to say, however, that it is accompanied by the actual worst music video of the common era.
The Best of Jill HivesFrom Earthquake Glue (2003)
In a surprising return to peak form Earthquake Glue is a late contender for best 90s alt rock album. The Best of Jill Hives is a wonderfully bleak, playful song that sees Pollard flirting with staccato vocal flutters and a bass line that is just completely perfect.
The rest of the album is infinitely listenable and feels gloriously reminiscent of my favourite version of Guided By Voices as well as some of their contemporaries. It was a triumphant record that is still, in my mind, the band’s greatest full-length achievement since Bee Thousand.
Laundry and LasersFrom Let's Go Eat The Factory (2012)
I had to include this as it was the first we heard of Guided By Voices after an 8-year hiatus. It’s not the best song on Let’s Go Eat The Factory but it’s perhaps the biggest statement the band ever had to make and it is one heck of a loud one, announcing the band’s comeback with a stuttering, electronic bleep before drowning layered vocals in swathes of fuzz and mucky distortion.
Class Clown Spots A UFOFrom Class Clown Spots A UFO (2012)
For me Class Clown Spots A UFO marks the peak in Guided By Voices second coming so far. The song is as fun and energetic as anything they recorded in their prime and, let’s face it, that’s a pretty impressive feat for a band in their 29th year and on their 17th album.
Whatever happens next it’s safe to say that Guided By Voices have high kicked their way through a fascinating, sometimes sketchy career. I urge you to investigate. Dig. Get yourself obsessed.