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Quarantined by Voices: A Day with Robert Pollard

Quarantined by Voices: A Day with Robert Pollard

For a long time I was fond of, but not obsessive over, Robert Pollard’s cultural institution Guided by Voices. This vaguely contrarian position was intentional. Knowing the tendencies of my brain and their depths of their catalog, I could see the path laid out before me: tracking down limited-run split singles for the “real classics,” spending weeks with each 100-song Suitcase supplement, eagerly awaiting solo albums and side bands. Truly becoming one of the “But have you heard ‘Dirigible Luggage Compartment’ from the Warlocks in Crevices EP? That’s one of his best songs, you have to hear it” guys. I pushed off this inevitable fate as long as I could, sticking with a half-dozen of the readily available albums that I’d picked up over the years.

My push off the ledge came late in 2015 when my friend Scott mailed me his extra copy of Propeller, which was not one of the half-dozen, readily available albums with which I was familiar. I decided to consume as much of the Pollardverse as I could over the next year, trading assessments with Scott as I moved from album to album. I intended to write about the experience at the time, but despite listening to the vast majority of the band’s output released to that point, I never stopped to collect my thoughts. I couldn’t—Pollard never stops. By April of 2016, there was a new Guided by Voices reunion, a new Guided by Voices lineup, a new Guided by Voices album. I still had Suitcases to unpack, Circus Devils to wrangle, post-2005 solo albums to dutifully digest. It had taken a year but I was finally overwhelmed, finally defeated by his boundless output. I’ve seen Guided by Voices three times since 2016 and I’ve learned a key lesson around the two-hour mark of those sets: Pollard will out-rock anyone.

Given my ongoing lack of anything better to do on a Saturday, I’ll spin as many Guided by Voices records as I can in one day, compiling my current thoughts on the individual albums and finally relaying whatever wisdom I accrued from my deep dive four years ago (I admittedly failed the test for recalling the finer details from extracurricular material like James Greer's Guided by Voices: A Brief History, Twenty One Years of Hunting Accidents, fan-excavated song histories, and consensus-probing review assessments). I can only play what I own on vinyl, so nothing before Propeller, but there aren't enough hours in the day for me to get through what I do own.

Propeller, 1992

Guided by Voices' Propeller

Propeller isn’t a hidden gem. People know it’s good. Many of its songs still grace their set lists, including the opening chant of “G! B! V! G! B! V!” from “Over the Neptune / Mesh Gear Fox.” But unless you stroll into a portal to 1992, you will not find it on vinyl for a reasonable price at a record store. Its initial, self-released pressing of 500 copies featured unique, hand-made covers, and the top selling price on Discogs for one of these numbered editions is a whopping three grand. Later pressings—an inclusion in the 1995 Box along with their other early records, the 2005 Scat reissue—are neither plentiful nor cheap, and a $20 reissue would be a godsend. (It might happen—a long-overdue reissue of 1993’s Vampire on Titus is coming as an unofficial Record Store Day title this year, whenever Record Store Day ends up occurring.) You can, of course, hear Propeller on Spotify or buy it on CD (perhaps a used copy of the combo edition with Vampire on Titus), but where’s the fun and tremendous expense in that?

Propeller is an aptly-titled shove down the path to obsession. With apologies to Box-enclosed titles like Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia and Same Place the Fly Got Smashed, Propeller is when Guided by Voices became GBV, when Pollard both authored and lived up to his self-mythology. It’s when his penchant for cut-and-paste palimpsests came to fruition, when fist-pumpers like “Exit Flagger” could transport the band from a Dayton garage to a packed football stadium, when a gentle Tobin Sprout contribution like “14 Cheerleader Coldfront” could complicate attempts to derive a specific formula for the band’s greatness. Is it the band’s best album from front-to-back? Probably not, but it’s astonishingly close.

Surrender Your Poppy Field, 2020

Guided by Voices' Surrender Your Poppy Field

A few months ago I reserved a copy of the newest Guided by Voices album at the record store, and enjoyed an interaction in which neither of us could initially remember the title, and just before I pulled Surrender Your Poppy Field out of the deep recesses of my brain, I joked that “I could say almost anything right now and it would be plausible.” It’s easy to envision Robert Pollard extracting twenty new songs from a large hat of classic rock / British Invasion variables and a dog-eared dictionary, and his idiosyncrasies lend themselves to parody (Tim Heidecker’s GBV homage is heartily recommended). But however loving and/or potentially accurate they may be, such casual dismissals ignore the reality of the current renaissance blossoming in Guided by Voices’ catalog. Sparked by the return of once-and-future lead guitarist Doug Gillard, the last half-dozen records (three of which were released in 2019!) are consistently strong. Pollard’s voice has returned to form after aging into a slight croak over the Reunion Round One albums, the backing band featuring Gillard, Bobby Bare Jr., Mark Shue, and veteran drummer Kevin March is thoroughly up to the task, and hypothetical hits like “Volcano” immediately settle into their repertoire like a well worn pair of jeans. I hit a point after Please Be Honest when I needed a break, and so I had to circle back to albums like August by Cake and Space Gun (again, I could say anything here), but Surrender Your Poppy Field only serves to replenish my supply of enthusiasm for future material. (Mirrored Aztec appears to be the title of the next Guided by Voices album due in 2020.)

Do the Collapse, 1999

Guided by Voices' Do the Collapse

Upon its release in 1999, Do the Collapse was controversial in stereotypically ’90s indie ways that should have already dissipated. They left Matador! They have polished production from Ric Ocasek! The songs are angling for radio play! (A quick clarification here: GBV had signed to Capitol, who repeatedly delayed Do the Collapse, so the band moved onto large-scale indie TVT. Capitol technically owned 49% of Matador from 1996 through 1999, and Matador had a prior agreement with Atlantic to promote certain titles.) Plenty of beloved bands had made these moves by 1999, so it wasn’t like Guided by Voices were venturing into uncharted waters, but the devotion of their cult and the nature of their prior aesthetic fueled an unfair rejection of Do the Collapse. (Pitchfork gave it a 4.7.) The turn against them wasn’t as severe as Jawbreaker’s Dear You—I had a copy of Do the Collapse as a freshman in college, and saw them that November in a full club in Columbia, MO—but neither of GBV’s two TVT LPs received a proper critical assessment, let alone a full commercial breakthrough. It helped them make some new fans—“Hold on Hope” was featured on an episode of Scrubs, a Wikipedia note which does not apply to “Tractor Rape Chain”—but despite the honed hooks and power-pop sheen, it did not take over the airwaves. (1999 was an absolutely morbid time for “modern rock,” as evidenced by this chart.)

So is Do the Collapse a misunderstood classic? Not quite. The production is a strength, not a hindrance, lending smart flourishes to highlights like “Teenage FBI,” “Things I Will Keep,” “Surgical Focus,” and “Wrecking Now.” Ocasek was an inspired pick, and the ways that the vocal melodies are tightened work for Robert Pollard. The two big issues I have with Do the Collapse are 1. “Hold on Hope” is absolute treacle 2. A number of the songs suffer from ill-fitting, shoehorned sections. For instance, “Liquid Indian” has a superlative chorus and tedious verses, and whereas older Guided by Voices records might cut the verse out entirely, leaving only the good part, on Do the Collapse you’re going to hear that verse a second time. In spite of these issues, I still like Do the Collapse, perhaps because it doesn’t sound like any other record in the band’s discography, even Isolation Drills.

Let’s Go Eat the Factory, 2012

Guided by Voices' Let's Go Eat the Factory

Guided by Voices’ “classic lineup” of Pollard, Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Greg Demos, and Kevin Fennell reunited for concerts in 2010, only six years after a different lineup accompanied Pollard for the band’s “final” show on New Year’s Eve 2004 at the Metro in Chicago. (The DVD release of this four-hour, 63-song performance, The Electrifying Conclusion, came out in 2005, and is worth picking up if you don’t want to flip records every twenty minutes.) This lineup had produced the band’s most loved records, the mid-’90s trio of Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, and Under the Bushes Under Stars (accompanied, at times, by Dan Toohey, Pollard’s brother Jim, future GBV biographer James Greer, and others—not quite The Fall, but getting there), and their return for Matador’s 21st Anniversary shindig in Vegas was significant. After the initial string of dates, Let’s Go Eat the Factory was announced, and it ended up being the first of six full-lengths from this lineup over the next three years. (B-sides from the accompanying singles account for another double-LP worth of material, some of which is, predictably, as good as songs deemed album-worthy.)

Processing the amount of material Pollard puts out in a given year is a difficult task, even in hindsight, and there’s a lingering temptation to wonder if he would have been better off holding the best songs from three albums released in a calendar year for a single album of keepers. A large part of Pollard’s appeal comes from his bewildering ability to pull perfect songs from the ether at any given moment, but his process changed over the years. The “classic era” is notable for having different tiers within his releases: for every Alien Lanes, there’s a bounty of supplemental releases that are optional for some (and essential for others). Until 1996’s Not in My Airforce, Guided by Voices was the sole receptacle for his songwriting, but after that point, numerous solo albums, side bands, and collaborations took their swigs from the bottle. In 2012, Pollard was still releasing solo albums (two that year, three the next), Circus Devils albums (two in 2013), and other material. So when I say that the six albums from the “classic lineup” reunion are spotty, there’s a clear reason why.

Even a spotty Guided by Voices album is worth my time, however, and Let’s Go Eat the Factory is no exception. “Unsinkable Fats Domino” is one of those perfect peaches plucked from the branch, Tobin Sprout comes to play with highlights “Waves” and “Spiderfighter,” and the curious “Doughnut for a Snowman” includes a surprising name-drop of “Krispy Kreme” but remains endearing. There are seventeen other songs, some of which are fragments recalling the band’s compositional approach of the mid-’90s, some of which are stiff and tuneless, and it’s awfully tempting to mentally construct a best-of double-LP from this era of the band.

King Shit and the Golden Boys, 1995/2015

Guided by Voices' King Shit and the Golden Boys

Originally included in the 1995 Box, this compilation of previously unreleased material was reissued outside of that set in 2015, allowing more listeners to hear outtakes from Bee Thousand (side two) and the earlier records (side one). The title should ring a bell as a lyric from the Under the Bushes Under the Stars classic “Don’t Stop Now,” which appears in an earlier version here. That point is significant in terms of Robert Pollard’s approach to unreleased material: sometimes a song is just waiting for the right home, or fresh ears, or different musicians. Having listened to the majority of the band’s official releases before starting on the Suitcase collections, I was amazed by how many times I’d recognize a song that had popped up ten, even twenty years after its original composition on a different record, from a different band (a few of the best Boston Spaceships [Pollard’s flagship outfit from 2008 to 2011] songs appear in demo form on a Suitcase). He never forgets or completely abandons old material, so the evolution of “Don’t Stop Now” from a buzzing, acoustic fragment to its final form as a majestic ode to the continuing spirit of his rock band makes sense. If anything, the surprise is that the evolution only took two years.

King Shit and the Golden Boys is by no means a recommended starting point. There are some keepers, of course—I’m fond of “Sopor Joe,” “Indian Was an Angel,” “Scissors,” and a rough version of live staple / contribution to Kids in the Hall’s Brain Candy soundtrack “Postal Blowfish”—but the general appeal of King Shit comes from there simply being more. Some of the Bee Thousand outtakes were reinserted into the album for the 2003 Director’s Cut, but my brain rejected that tapestry being unraveled and reworked. I’d rather hear outtakes as outtakes.

Half Smiles of the Decomposed, 2004

Guided by Voices' Half Smiles of the Decomposed

As I noted when I picked up the reissue last September, there’s an amusing hype sticker on Half Smiles of the Decomposed which reads “The Final Album: The last chapter in the storied career of Robert Pollard’s merry men is another idiosyncratic rock masterpiece.” At the time, sure, they meant it, but putting that sticker on the reissue when twelve new Guided by Voices albums had appeared since its original 2004 release is a welcome bit of levity.

By no means am I begrudging the reappearance of their swan song, unsung. The last of a trio of albums marking their early ’00s return to Matador, Half Smiles of the Decomposed is an underrated title in the group’s catalog. The highs are high: the record starts off exceptionally well with effervescent pop song “Everyone Thinks I’m a Raincloud (When I’m Not Looking),” twitchy post-punker “Sleep Over Jack,” and wistful strummer “Girls of Wild Strawberries,” and finishes remarkably well with the would-be career-closer “Huffman Prairie Flying Field.” In between those sections, however, there are some unmemorable, tired-sounding songs, with only “The Closets of Henry” standing out as a song worthy of consideration for the 100-song best-of mix I compiled sometime in 2015 (which, of course, is now woefully out of date). Most of those tracks aren’t bad, so this lack of consistency isn’t as egregious as the initial run of reunion albums. Matador Records, reissue Earthquake Glue next.

Alien Lanes, 1995

Guided by Voices' Alien Lanes

Guided by Voices had released six official full-lengths by 1993, but their list of tour dates didn’t start to accumulate until that year (the GBVDB is an exceptionally useful resource for concerts, song histories, abandoned alternate albums, and so forth). When I put on Alien Lanes, I immediately think of seeing Guided by Voices live, understandably since opener “A Salty Salute” has declared that “The club is open” at countless performances. Much has been made of James Greer’s mention that despite the album’s near six-figure advance, it’s unlikely that more than ten dollars was spent on its recording if you leave out the beer (which is frankly misleading, I wholeheartedly believe that Pollard’s spent a hundred grand on beer), but Alien Lanes sounds like a band playing live rock music in ways that Vampire on Titus and Bee Thousand often did not. It teeters on mid-fi, with songs like “Closer You Are” packing a punch that most lo-fi reference points can’t muster. Propeller fantasized about performing those songs in front of adoring crowds; by Alien Lanes, it wasn’t a fantasy except for scale.

Over its 28 songs, Alien Lanes skips between off-the-cuff (yet instantly memorable) fragments and surprisingly robust songs that immediately evoke a buzzed crowd belting out every word with their fists in the air. I won’t lie: hearing “Game of Pricks” and “My Valuable Hunting Knife” here makes me immediately yearn for the re-recorded, “professional” versions on the Tigerbomb EP, and if there’s any knock against Alien Lanes vs. its “classic era” neighbors, it’s that both Bee Thousand and Under the Bushes Under the Stars offer less monochromatic production palettes. That’s a minor quibble, however, for a thoroughly enjoyable album.

Please Be Honest, 2016

Guided by Voices' Please Be Honest

Please Be Honest marked the second return of Guided by Voices, two years after Robert Pollard’s relationship with the “classic lineup” had fizzled in 2014. It’s most notable for having Pollard play every instrument on the album, which might lead one to incorrectly assume “Oh, so it’s a solo album.” But something I learned from trying to make my way through Pollard’s solo catalog before tapping out somewhere in the late ’00s is that they are solo albums in name only. Starting with 2004’s Fiction Man, producer Todd Tobias handled the instrumentation for Pollard’s solo albums (until Ricked Wicky and later Guided by Voices guitarist Nick Mitchell took over on 2016’s Of Course You Are), while Pollard handled the lyrics and vocals. It’s why there’s such a sharp drop-off in my interest in Pollard’s solo work after the initial run of Not in My Airforce, Waved Out, and Kid Marine, on which Pollard did play many of the instruments.

Please Be Honest gets at the heart of the Robert Pollard / Guided by Voices enigma: at his core, he is Guided by Voices, more than he is Robert Pollard. It is, assuredly, a Guided by Voices album, even if it is not a great Guided by Voices album. It is a better Robert Pollard album than the vast majority of his solo albums, but it is not as good of a Guided by Voices album as most of the albums featuring a capable sideman like Tobin Sprout or Doug Gillard. It’s a necessary reset of priorities, with no more solo albums, no more Ricked Wicky albums, and only one Circus Devils album appearing since its release. Robert Pollard is Guided by Voices, Guided by Voices is Robert Pollard, and Please Be Honest recognizes the primacy of that relationship. It may not be a great Guided by Voices album, but it was a necessary step to making great Guided by Voices albums again.

I listened to Please Be Honest a lot in 2016 because it’s an interesting album to get a handle on. I can’t easily picture Robert Pollard playing an instrument—there was a clip from a GBV documentary of him playing the guitar part from Kid Marine standout “Far Out Crops” on his porch which blew my mind—and yet he does all of them here. The drums are simple and skeletal. The guitars have a strange energy to them, whether they’re single-tracked acoustics or brittle electrics. There are highlights, sure—the mid-tempo strummed pop of “Kid on a Ladder” could fit on Let’s Go Eat the Factory, guitar-and-vocals-only creeper “The Quickers Arrive” would fit on a number of mid-’90s seven-inches, the yearning title track smuggles in an earworm—but as a whole, Please Be Honest feels distinct from the rest of the band’s catalog, closest in spirit to the near-solo Vampire on Titus than anything since then.

Mag Earwhig!, 1997

Guided by Voices' Mag Earwhig!

Perhaps I would have become a Guided by Voices obsessive far earlier if the first full-length I picked up wasn't Mag Earwhig!, Robert Pollard’s first Guided by Voices album after the dissolution of the “classic era” lineup. (It's not quite a clean break—Tobin Sprout gets a couple of writing credits, “Jane of the Waking Universe” is a glorious final hurrah for the previous lineup.) Mag Earwhig! is an odd mix of comparatively polished classic rock, solo vocal-and-guitar fragments, and occasional reminders of the previous three albums’ melodic indie rock. Hiring Cobra Verde as his new backing band was not wholly unfruitful for Pollard, as it started a long-term collaborative relationship with guitarist Doug Gillard, but it didn’t stick, and soon Pollard was off to find a new lineup.

To put it diplomatically, Mag Earwhig! is a less-than-ideal introduction to the band. Lead single “Bulldog Skin” is one of my least favorite Guided by Voices songs, a lunkhead rock anthem with a remedial rhyme scheme. The album’s most lasting song, “I Am a Tree,” was penned by Gillard for his previous band Gem, and while I enjoy it as a showcase for the group’s new guitarist, it's essentially a cover. Many of the full-band songs sound like a car stuck in second gear trying to go up a hill. Some of the solo snippets could correctly be dismissed as filler. Situating these two styles next to each other is far more jarring on Mag Earwhig! than on previous records.

Patient listeners will be rewarded, though. (I was not a patient listener at seventeen, and I certainly did not know the context of the album.) “Learning to Hunt” is a spectral ballad that, if memory serves, had been floating around Pollard’s brain since the ’80s (there was also an aborted 1988 album called Learning to Hunt). It’s one of my all-time favorite GBV songs. The melancholic “Sad If I Lost It” is an excellent mid-tempo rock song with deeper production values than GBV had previously employed. “I Am Produced” lasts just over a minute, but makes a complete statement in a way that few other songs here do, short or long. “Portable Men’s Society” splits the difference between meat-and-potatoes classic rock and prog-rock flourishes. The previously mentioned “Jane of the Waking Universe” could fit on a half-dozen other GBV albums and shine. And the tidy, alt-rock strut of “Mute Superstar” is surprisingly successful. Mag Earwhig! isn’t a complete disaster, but one of Pollard’s contemporaneous solo albums would offer a more consistent, rewarding listen.

Warp and Woof, 2019

Guided by Voices' Warp and Woof

The second of Guided by Voices’ three full-lengths from 2019 (Robert Pollard would be the first one to remind you that Zeppelin Over China was a double album), Warp and Woof grabbed me in a way that the half-dozen albums which preceded it did not. Most likely my brain had finally recovered from the massive dosage of Pollard compositions from 2015 to 2016 and was simply ready to give a new Guided by Voices album a proper listen. I’ve done similar deep dives with other artists, and while I generally believe that immersion in an artist’s catalog is beneficial, encouraging connections between songs, between albums, there’s usually a point when my capacity to process additional material shuts down. When I fully committed to The Fall a few years ago, it happened during their early ’00s albums, and I recognized that continuing would be a disservice to the remaining albums. I will listen to those albums at some point, just like I circled back to all of the post-Please Be Honest GBV albums last year, and hopefully I’ll enjoy those later Fall albums as much as the recent GBV releases.

Putting aside whether my initial appreciation of Warp and Woof had as much to do with timing as anything else, there’s another clear reason why it worked for me: the songs are all short. 24 songs in 38 minutes! Only two songs top two minutes! The benefit of this approach is most apparent in “Dead Liquor Store,” a song I enjoy except for one tremendously irritating section. That section lasts a whopping twelve seconds and does not repeat! Who cares! Not every song on Warp and Woof is as compelling as “Angelic Weirdness” or “Mumbling Amens,” but the return to the classic era’s penchant for brevity is welcome.

Under the Bushes Under the Stars, 1996

Guided by Voices' Under the Bushes Under the Stars

Similar to Frank Black’s 22-song Teenager of the Year, it took me longer to get into Under the Bushes Under the Stars because there’s simply so much to hear. Teenager didn’t click as a whole until I started listening to its second half as a separate album, and so I tried the same approach with UTBUTS (a time-saving acronym, yes, but also quite enjoyable to say), and it worked wonders. It also helped that many of my favorite songs here—“Don’t Stop Now,” “Office of Hearts,” “Big Boring Wedding,” “Redmen and Their Wives”—appear in the home stretch. If UTBUTS isn’t my favorite GBV, it’s a close second to Bee Thousand. It depends on the day and which album I played most recently.

Given that status, it is interesting how much Pollard and company struggled with recording this material. There are numerous drafts of this era of material with alternate titles like The Power of Suck (when Pollard envisioned it as a concept album about a band dealing with unexpected adulation and the temptation to sell out, with “Don’t Stop Now” as its closer), and the final version credits four producers including Steve Albini and Kim Deal. In contrast to the nonexistent recording budget for Alien Lanes, UTBUTS brought the group to 24-track studios for the first time. Even after the album was ready for release, there were still doubts about its track listing, with the final six tracks (conceived of as a separate EP) not listed on the back cover. It’s clear that Pollard felt the tremendous pressure to succeed, which drove both the material (even after the concept album was abandoned) and the logistical decisions. While this pressure surely contributed to the end of the “classic lineup,” it’s hard to argue with the end product.

Tigerbomb EP, 1995

Guided by Voices' Tigerbomb EP

It’s exceptionally rare that a re-recorded song will improve upon the original. In most cases, it feels like an admission of defeat—the label doesn’t believe we can write anything as good as a song from our last album—so even when the new version is passable, like Shudder to Think’s polished take on “Red House” on 50,000 B.C. (their third version of a song that originally appeared six years earlier on 1991’s Funeral at the Movies), I can’t help but wonder whether it needs to exist. Guided by Voices did it a couple of times in this era, with a single mix for “Motor Away” that failed to improve on the Alien Lanes original, but they hit it out of the park with new versions of “My Valuable Hunting Knife” and “Game of Pricks” (a top-five GBV song by any measure). I don’t know if they got any grief for this move at the time—anecdotal evidence suggests most people prefer the Tigerbomb versions—but I suspect the impetus for new versions came as much from Robert Pollard as Matador Records. He knew those songs could sound bigger, could sound bolder (the more important distinction), and there’s an energy to the new takes, especially on “Game of Pricks” that’s enthralling.

Of course, given that it’s Guided by Voices in 1995, there are four other songs on this seven-inch, with two notable tracks to mention. “Mice Feel Nice (In My Room)” features the first appearance of future mainstay Doug Gillard on guitar, while Tobin Sprout’s “Dodging Invisible Rays” is every bit as good as his stellar contributions to Under the Bushes Under the Stars. I'm generally reluctant to play the "Why didn't this make the album?" card but it stands to reason here.

Guided by Voices' Get Out of My Stations EP

Get Out of My Stations EP, 1994

I’m not a completist for Guided by Voices’ seven-inch singles by any means (that’s practically a full-time job), but during the early-to-mid ’90s, the band had a welcome penchant for putting only non-album material on their singles, so I’ll pick such titles up when I find them at reasonable prices, which I’ve been fortunate to do at stores like Mystery Train and Amoeba. (With few exceptions, this EP-only trend went away in the late ’90s and did not come back, and no I’m not going to collect all of the first reunion era singles with one or two b-sides on each, let alone indulge the band’s new habit of releasing its new albums over four seven-inches.) The band had a seemingly infinite supply of short, occasionally inspired songs that sound like they were recorded in a basement bathroom by a mic on the first floor. (That supply was furnished by years upon years of low-stakes home recording during weekend hangs with his friends/band.) If Guided by Voices ever truly earned the lo-fi label, it was on these singles.

Get Out of My Stations features seven tracks “recorded by Tobin Sprout in the Snake Pit,” although unless Robert Pollard had an infestation, that's just his basement. The two keepers are on the b-side: the languid strummer “Dusty Bushworms” offers a lovely chorus melody, while the delicate “Spring Tiger” uses two of its four tracks on carefully arranged vocals. If you’re in the mood for a flight of fancy that could have been written as it was being recorded, the British Invasion play “Melted Pat” will hit the spot.

The Grand Hour EP, 1993

Guided by Voices' The Grand Hour EP

This early Guided by Voices EP features an actual classic in “Shocker in Gloomtown,” a charging, drum-led crowd-pleaser that remains in their sets today. It was later covered by The Breeders on the Head to Toe EP (peep the video with GBV peering in on The Breeders), alongside a rendition of Sebadoh’s “Freed Pig.” Kim Deal’s later band The Amps covered Guided by Voices’ as-then unreleased “I Am Decided” on their lone, highly recommended 1995 album Pacer as part of an arrangement for Deal’s production services on Under the Bushes Under the Stars.

The Grand Hour is also noteworthy for featuring the title tracks for their next two albums, “Bee Thousand” and “Alien Lanes,” and if you are wondering whether these songs should have been saved for their namesake LPs, no, dear reader, it’s a clear no. “Alien Lanes” is a noisy (well, noisier) garage-punk headache, while “Bee Thousand” alternates between a half-baked song and a “Wubba-wubba-wubba” sing-a-long that my dog did not understand in the slightest.

Plantations of Pale Pink EP, 1996

Guided by Voices' Plantations of Pale Pink

Plantations of Pale Pink bears a few interesting distinctions from the previous two EPs: it came out on Matador instead of a much smaller indie label (skimming through Discogs, it seems like any label that wanted a piece of Guided by Voices in 1993 or 1994 got something to release); it’s chronologically tied to Under the Bushes Under the Stars, an album which produced no shortage of non-album material; and it flirts with mid-fi production values at times. Most of the songs appeared on earlier drafts of UTBUTS (as listed on GBVDB), although oddly not the EP’s best track, “The Who Vs. Porky Pig,” which could have easily possessed a different title until Pollard came up with that gem. “Subtle Gear Shifting” is close to a keeper but the pulsing guitar part going in and out of phase with the rest of the song made me leave the room for a minute.

There are plenty of blogs devoted to covering every piece of Guided by Voices ephemera in detail, and while I appreciate their commitment and read countless posts when I initially ran through all of the singles, I can’t quite muster their level of enthusiasm for Pollard’s outtakes (of outtakes of outtakes of outtakes). Yes, Plantations of Pale Pink holds together reasonable well as a piece, and yes, there are a couple of songs that stand out, but aside from Tigerbomb, I only find myself putting on the EPs if I’m specifically playing the EPs. I’ll always reach for an album first.

Bee Thousand, 1994

Guided by Voices' Bee Thousand

I was exceptionally lucky to grab both Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes on vinyl from Parasol Records in Urbana when I did; Parasol never had many used LPs for sale, and whoever priced those records at five dollars apiece did me an exceptional favor. I bought them when CD was still my default format (the full switch to vinyl occurred a few years later), and I’m not sure if I would’ve appreciated these albums in the same way if they’d been on CD. I might have been tempted to skip around to the crowd-pleasers, to play “Gold Star for Robot Boy” a couple of times in a row before switching to another disc, like I did with the inconsistent Mag Earwhig!. To repeat common wisdom, Bee Thousand works as a whole far better than individual parts, many of which are thoroughly odd when removed from the precise tapestry of the album.

That isn’t a new or profound insight. The 33 1/3 on Bee Thousand even mimics the album’s woven-together fragments for its approach (the end results do not match; that book is more tedious than ingenious). But it’s interesting hearing Bee Thousand after playing its outtakes on King Shit and the Golden Boys and a few of the early ’90s singles (with the distant buzz from the first Suitcase echoing in the back of my mind). Maybe the next level of Guided by Voices obsession is being able to mentally substitute in songs from the back half of King Shit for “Demons Are Real” and understand how that would ripple through the rest of the album, a kind of armchair GMing for a band's catalog. (Pollard did throw a no-hitter, after all.) I don’t suspect I’ll ever reach that point, especially considering how much the Director’s Cut of Bee Thousand bugged me. I appreciate the editorial acumen of the original version too much. It’s true that some deep-cut b-sides are better than songs that made Guided by Voices’ big albums (Deeming “Shocker in Gloomtown” better than “Demons Are Real” doesn't feel like a hot take), but being able to recognize the right songs, when you have that many songs to choose from, is a far more impressive skill than just sifting out the gold.

Isolation Drills, 2001

Guided by Voices' Isolation Drills

The second and final album from Guided by Voices’ brief tenure on TVT (a label I foremost associate with Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine, and I'm giggling from the thought of a GBV cover of "Terrible Lie"), Isolation Drills brought the production values back down to earth after Do the Collapse’s perceived new wave / Big Rock excess. Employing Rob Schnapf, best known for his work on Elliott Smith’s records, Robert Pollard found a level of polished rock production more attuned to his liking. Schnapf even recruited Smith to play piano on the album’s penultimate track, “Fine to See You,” one of several tastefully applied supplements (the Soldier String Quartet returns from Do the Collapse, longtime friend Tobin Sprout plays piano on “How’s My Drinking,” and future producer/“solo” collaboration Todd Tobias adds “noises”). It’s an immediate, satisfying sound, although the readily available demos for this album, recorded at Dayton’s Cro-Magnon Studios, might appeal more to some longtime fans.

Isolation Drills holds a different status with me than many of the Guided by Voices full-lengths I’ve played today. It falls a touch short of the unimpeachable classic territory of Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, and Under the Bushes Under the Stars, but it’s excellent through and through, escaping the inconsistency that dings many of their post-UTBUTS LPs. It’s a focused rock record with only a couple songs falling under three minutes. There are clear highlights—“Glad Girls” is an enthusiastic sing-a-long, the melody of “Chasing Heather Crazy” is infectious, “Twilight Campfighter” hangs in a wistful breeze—but the rest of the songs keep pace. Consistency is a strange concept in Robert Pollard’s world. I wanted to hear all six of the initial reunion records, even if most of them are noticeably spotty, because I knew Pollard (and Sprout) would divvy out a few gems on each one. There was a consistent reward to those albums and some of his later solo records, even if the records themselves do not offer a consistent level of quality. I’ll gladly take the middling material if it means I get a “White Flag” on The Bears for Lunch. In a weird way, I engage more immediately with those albums than Isolation Drills or the most recent half-dozen LPs, which maintain a baseline level of quality in a way that doesn’t showcase the gems as clearly. With a spotty record, my ears perk up when a great song pokes it head out of the brush. It takes me longer to fully appreciate a consistently solid Guided by Voices album.

Guided by Voices' Space Gun

Space Gun, 2018

I could fit one more Guided by Voices album in today, and even with thirteen LPs and four singles down, I still had plenty of options. My main goal was to play the classics and represent the different eras that could be represented (apologies to the pre-Propeller years: my quick take on those records is that hearing GBV start off as R.E.M. college rock on 1986’s Forever Since Breakfast was a surprise, the next couple of albums had their “finding our way” charms and some muffled keepers mixed in, and I found Same Place the Fly Got Smashed to be better in theory than execution, a point of disagreement in my email chain with Scott, a staunch proponent of that album), and having done that, the last couple of albums I pulled were simply ones I wanted to hear. Space Gun feels like the right choice: Scott gave me a copy of it for my birthday last year and, like Isolation Drills, it doesn’t fuck around.

Perhaps this sense comes from having already played 273 Guided by Voices songs before throwing it on, but Space Gun is an often hilarious album. There’s an ecstatic silliness to the opening title track, in which Robert Pollard insists “You are Space Gun!” over Doug Gillard and Bobby Bare Jr.’s lava-flow riffage, so ecstatic that they run by the four-minute mark without me even noticing. “Colonel Paper” offers the nonchalant “Cigarette eater / Eat a cigarette, man.” “Blink Blank” is positively loopy, with utterances like “I lost an umbrella / Looking for you in a shit storm,” “Experts are pondering a lost monocle,” and “Gonesville station / It’s Zonksville nation” building up to “I’m going blink blank / In a shit storm.” I previously mentioned how ripe Pollard’s poetic reverie is for parody, but I don’t think that finding these songs funny is dismissing their merits. They are funny, just like “Learning to Hunt” and “Things I Will Keep” are profound and wistful, just like “Game of Pricks” is defiant.