Guided by Voices
Guided By Voices ALIEN LANES Matador Some history: At the dawn of the '80s, Dayton, Ohio, fanboys form a band and begin approximating the sounds of their record collections, eventually providing additions to (a very small few) other people's collections starting in '86. The world spins on, untroubled by their experiments, which remarkably mirror the interests of a thousand record-store clerks across the decade: "Radio Free Europe" to Black Snake Diamond Role to Boodle Boodle Boodle. (Note No. 1: if you've never heard of any of these titles, proceed to final paragraph now.) Seven years and six albums later, obscurity barfs Guided by Voices into the indie mainstream with releases on Scat Records and finally (trumpet fanfare) Matador. Critics roar. Scat unveils a stylish box set of GBV recording history for tardy fanboys (and, um, girls) everywhere. Some details: In their current incarnation, GBV present very short songs. Their new album Alien Lanes, for example, supplies 28 tracks in 38 minutes. GBV singer/songwriter Robert Pollard seems to sing with a British accent. His tuneful melodies appear to owe a great debt to first- and second-wave British Invasion bands such as the Beatles, the Hollies, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Herman's Hermits, and the Kinks. His fanciful, nonlinear lyrics appear to owe a debt to scissors and paste. Pollard is either 39 or 37 years old, and was for a long time an elementary-school teacher. (Note No. 2: Are these last facts germane? I don't know, but GBV reviews usually emphasize them with some reverence.) GBV record exclusively on 4- and 8-track. Some theories: 1) Along with Pavement and Strapping Field Hands, GBV signify the genesis of short-attention-span pop deconstructionism. (Note No. 3: If you're really sick of this shit, skip to theory No. 2.) "Authenticity" and "originality" are old ruses: be honest, show your seams. Memory rises in shards. Tape hiss, nonsensical words and abbreviation turn a familiar melody sideways: look wholeness (history) lies. Pollard burbles gently in "Chicken Blows" under a watery reflection of the Beatles' "Sun King": "I'm not here to drink all the beer in the fridge." DING! Next song. DING! Next song. Just gimme some truths! 2) Listening to GBV is like seeing a TV commercial for the K-Tel collection 80 Great Songs of the '80s Pop Underground!. Five seconds of the Soft Boys, four of the Fall, a snippet from the dB's "Amplifier," the chorus of "Oh Dana" (Paul Westerberg loves Big Star!), a bit of the Chills' "Flamethrower," toss in some Cure and Echo and the B-men, why not? Not too much of anything (it's never as good as you remember it) all on one convenient CD (you never have to get up!). Wacky, fun, and just as comfortable as that well-worn white SST T-shirt. 3) Pollard is a _______ genius. To fill in the blank, choose: a) musical, b) lionhearted, c) crazy. Those who pick a) thrill to GBV's mastery of (I'm paraphrasing) utterly devastating hooks, which seem so familiar and dear and yet elusive, sorta (I'm guessing) like Julie Delphy in Before Sunrise. The word perfect has been thrown around. Those who choose the b) option see in Pollard an uncanny and heroic ability to carve his fundamental sadness into jewellike moans, transforming personal misery into collective catharsis as only the very best rock & rollers know how to do. The c) crowd anoints Pollard as another clown prince in the lunatic-fringe cast of Daniel Johnston, Syd Barrett and Jonathan Richman. His magic, then, is intuitive and a holy confusion which instructs us all. 4) GBV tie up their infectious melodies in lo-fi haze and brevity because they're elitist assholes demanding that you work to earn the privilege of loving them. Call this theory the Christgau Complaint. (Note No. 4: How Dave Marshian!) Some stuff you might wanna know: Alien Lanes sticks to the rules GBV's last album, Bee Thousand, set up. Pollard still sounds like Ray Davies sometimes, like Paul Weller at others, and occasionally like David Bowie and Marc Bolan and John Lennon. The hooky tunes rob the usual graves and are just as abridged. If anything, Alien Lanes blows by as GBV's most fractured fairy tale yet, a pell-mell channel changer that 10 songs for a peaking, teeth-rattling Abbey Roadesque tangle (angular "Cigarette Tricks" standing in for "Polythene Pam"; two-faced "Pimple Zoo" for "You Never Gave Me Your Money"; swingin' "Closer You Are" for "She Came In Through the Bathroom Window"; stately "Auditorium" wrapping up "The End"). In the one surprising move, Pollard and multi-instrumentalist Tobin Sprout chip in with three songs clearly about fame. Singing, "As we go up we go down." And, "This is just the way we want to be." (Note No. 5: Um . . . whatever.) Some (personal) impressions: I like the po-mo slacker idea of theory No. 1, but I can't make such self-consciousness fit (it's like a shiny shell around a void). Pavement, yes. Beck, okay. But GBV don't seem to even have the point of view that non-point-of-view requires. Incoherence doesn't necessarily mean subversion of The Authentic Voice. Sometimes it means incoherence. Maybe they do just have tiny attention spans. Maybe they just feel repetition (verse-chorus-verse-chorus) is tedious. Maybe I would give them more credit for thought if they'd crawl out of their own short-sharp-sweet rut once in a while and shake up the flow. I know this: constant interruption creates its own tired expectations. Plus, I've looked up and down for some truths, and, frankly, GBV stumps me. Cleverness as its own reward? When does dismantling feel like dissembling? They don't write pop tunes like they used to? Is to irritate profound? Their songs glance by me like litter in the wind, empty plastic bags that used to carry that weight and now only press themselves thinly against us. I hear a Jam song in "Blimps Go 90" and think, "Wouldn't I rather be listening to Setting Sons?" I hear Pollard playing poncy English folkie in "My Son Cool" and remember Ween destroying/exalting that voice in "Squelch the Weasel" until it was indeed squelched. There always seems to be a brighter, funnier, heftier story just around the corner from a GBV song: I seldom think of GBV when I hear GBV. Regarding theory 3(b), I don't know where people find "melancholy" in this references to melancholy, maybe, in the lift of a chord change from Chilton or Davies. As for Pollard's claim to cosmic foolhood, he'd better sharpen those scissors, 'cause genius is not the word I'd use to describe "Temptation comes to you like rapists in the night." Or "I remember the faces that cry/And they're pulling me back so I have to die" (hmmm . . . perhaps that's a Donovan steal). The lo-fi business certainly isn't the problem. (Note No. 6: Question: When did tape hiss become revolutionary? Answer: The year punk "broke.") The bouncy melodies communicate themselves, if nothing else. But that's just it: they're lures to not analysis, not emotion, not beyond that self-satisfied bounciness. The last two GBV albums reduce into libraries of condensed hooks, gathered and classified for preservation's sake. Watching Alien Lanes flee past me, I wonder not for the first time what exactly music is for. The usual connection, catharsis, seem to depend on some kind of shared vocabulary, and in this case, I don't understand the verbs. I get the nouns, the referents, the building heck, I was a geeky record-store clerk too. But looking in through the glass (Note No. 7: Call this theory No. 5), I see a small predominantly white of collectors, shaking hands, congratulating themselves on having perfected the game that keeps their collections valuable. And the sweetness in their mouths speaks of an authority preserved.