Five Guided By Voices tracks that guitarists need to hear
With very nearly 39 albums under their belt, it can be impossible to know where to start with a band like Guided By Voices – thankfully Start Me Up is here to give you a five-track intro.
Guided By Voices performing live onstage. Image: Anthony Pidgeon/Redferns via Getty Images
Obsessed is a big word, but there’s this one video of Guided By Voices that I’m obsessed with. It’s from a set at the Trocadero in Philadelphia and was broadcast on HBO’s short-lived Reverb show in 2001. “This is our new big hit single all around the globe,” Robert Pollard says at the top. “It’s called…” Then he hits the opening ‘Hey! Hey!’ of Glad Girls a capella, and the band falls in behind him in a stomping, rough-and-tumble mess of distortion and cymbal crashes. It is the most perfect sound – loose and wild and ragged but also precise and loud and vital. No other band, you think, has ever been this good.
Guided By Voices – a rotating cast of musicians out of Dayton, Ohio helmed by former teacher/perma-rocker Pollard for the past 40 years – have been this good at multiple junctures. They’ve also been mediocre and even straight up terrible. Often, they’ll occupy each of these states on the same record. Pollard is always searching for that Glad Girls moment, when noise and melody and feel and the right beer buzz slot together in schlubby alchemy, and he never lets up. The band have released 38 albums since 1987 (the forthcoming Nowhere to Go But Up will make it 39 and three for this year) and hundreds upon hundreds of songs, among them big studio ragers, four-track oddities, psychedelic novelties and 90-second DIY power-pop symphonies.
Selecting five of them as a primer, then, is essentially pointless as far as a sense of completism goes. It’s better to approach Guided By Voices like Pollard does, with curiosity and desire hand in hand with a sense of realism, knowing that your favourite song might be right around the next bend but probably won’t be. There’s always tomorrow, and the next day. “I hope that after I die, I can continue to write songs there, too,” Pollard once told The Onion’s Jeff Stratton. “It’s not like a well that dries up.”
Start Here: Game of Pricks (Alien Lanes, 1995 / Tigerbomb EP, 1995)
Here we have two versions of the same song that will draw a line in the sand. Some will suggest you must exist on one side of it forever – do you like four-track, lo-fi Guided By Voices, or do you like full rawk Guided By Voices? The Alien Lanes take is a trebly, scratchy delight that speaks of a band more concerned with brevity and mic placements that don’t knock over beer cans than anything approaching a sheen. The Tigerbomb re-do is a scything, fuzzbomb masterpiece of pop songwriting, a table-setter for divisive late 90s studio work that has only grown more influential over time in the wake of Big Star and the Replacements morphing from beautiful failures into indispensable indie-rock blueprints.
Then Go Here: Quality of Armor (Propeller, 1992)
In all honesty, Guided By Voices probably should have flamed out into nothingness a long time ago. They nearly did back in the early 90s, with Propeller intended as a swan song that no-one would hear. But, as detailed in James Greer’s rattling biography …a Brief History, it found its way into influential hands as first the indie-rock cognoscenti (your Thurston Moores and Mark Ibolds) and then Scat Records’ Robert Griffin got hold of it.
In his mid-30s, Pollard suddenly had a band that folks actually wanted to hear, even if he’d already shitcanned it. Quality of Armor says everything about the reasons behind his Trojan Horse entry into the rock canon – it is a driving, immensely satisfying burst of power chords and melody, with Pollard at peak-sneer and guitars (played in this “classic” lineup of the band by Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell and Pollard’s brother Jim) that try to out downstroke Johnny Ramone. You can’t ignore songs like this. You just can’t.
Stop Off Here: Back To The Lake (Universal Truths and Cycles, 2002)
Guided By Voices songs are great at making you feel things because of course they are: they’re the Beatles after a couple of six packs. It’s all the more remarkable, though, because Pollard is almost always talking nonsense. When he connects he’s got the wonderful advantage of it carrying the weight of an accident — try-hard it’s not. Take Back To The Lake, a scalpel-sharp study of hurt and resentment hidden among word jumbles. While Doug Gillard’s guitar writhes and smashes, Pollard finds a pocket of calm to intone, “Pick up, for God’s sake…” and it will get you where it hurts. He might be singing to someone, or no-one. It doesn’t matter. This is pure feeling; guitar-pop in a nutshell.
Almost Home: Smothered in Hugs (Bee Thousand, 1994)
When they’re on, they’re on. There are so many hits on Bee Thousand. Echos Myron is a hit. Tractor Rape Chain is a monster hit. Gold Star For Robot Boy is a peerless noise-pop song. Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory is a tearjerker for the ages. But Smothered in Hugs is the one. It’s got a cacophonous edge to it, with a boisterous, mean descending riff meeting a Pollard who’s half interested until he isn’t. When the chorus hits he’s right at the edge of his range, suddenly alive and fizzing with ideas. This is a study in patience from a band whose whole bag is that they can’t sit still — once the hook has blown things open, the considered pacing of the verses becomes apparent. Pollard isn’t bored, he’s waiting.
Nightcap: Fair Touching (Isolation Drills, 2001)
Guided By Voices went big on 1999’s Do The Collapse, drafting in the Cars’ Ric Ocasek to produce. It went fine — the record lacks a certain spark, but it’s better than contemporary criticism will have you believe — and yet Isolation Drills did everything it tried to do, only better. With Rob Schnapf attuned to the bristling, burly energy of the band’s live shows and a settled, effervescent Gillard working in tandem with Nate Farley, this is probably the high point for hi-fi GBV. Chasing Heather Crazy is a banker. We’ve talked about Glad Girls. Twilight Campfighter is a slow-burner to almost match Tractor Rape Chain. Brides Have Hit Glass sounds like a Paul Heaton song performed by Superchunk. Fair Touching opens the thing and sets its stall out beautifully — loping college rock chords are met by a rising chorus vocal that’s eventually held all the way aloft by spiralling guitar notes. This sound is all the rage right now, and it’s testament to how good this is that it would floor indie-pop heads if it was released today.
There are solo records from Pollard, Sprout and Gillard. There are albums by Pollard and Gillard as a duo. Gillard played in Cobra Verde, who subbed in as Pollard’s backing group on Guided By Voices’ Mag Earwhig! record, plus the excellent, forgotten Gem, and made one record with Nada Surf (2010’s The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy). But, really, you’ve got plenty to be getting on with in GBV’s ballpark. Why not get amped up by listening to the glammy Lips of Steel (from their first dip in the hi-fi pool, 1987’s Sandbox) while reading about the time Pollard threw a no-hitter in college?