Guided By Voices
n First Listen is a regular column that forces our regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.
I don't know how I managed to miss Guided By Voices for so long. From all I've heard—which has consistently not been much, especially with their recent disbanding—they've got exactly what I want in a band: smart lyrics, lo-fi production, and pop-songwriting filtered through indie sensibilities (in the good way, though I'm self-conscious enough of my indie-dorkness to acknowledge that I don't always see the negative side of this aesthetic). GBV also draws frequent comparisons to the Who, which I still consider my favorite band, even as I listen to them less and less. What I expected was a sort of Pavement-like sound, but with more arena in it. Think "I Can't Explain" updated by 25 or 30 years.
After the first few tracks of The Best of Guided by Voices: Human Amusements at Hourly Rates, I felt I wasn't far off in my assumption (except for the Pavement thing being mostly inaccurate). I did expect some more aggression, or at least dark-sounding angst, and that never really shows up. The guitars lack reverb for the most part, fitting in more with the jangles of the late '80s (when GBV started) than the post-punk sounds of the first half of that decade. "Captain's Dead" (originally on the first full-length, Devil Between My Toes) has the dirty guitar sounds I anticipated, but the vocal harmonies keep it out of the gutter. Although the music never turns to bubblegum, GBV definitely has more of pleasant pop sound than I had expected.
Using a compilation for my first listen provides the opportunity to hear the band's sound grow and progress. Human Amusements, though, doesn't offer that chance, because the songs aren't sequenced chronologically (or in any way that particularly makes sense to me). I had read enough about the polishing of production after the group signed to Matador, but it's hard to believe that really happened. I know Pollard kept the recordings bedroom-y, and there isn't a noticeable gap in sound or production quality on this disc.
Alongside with the consistency in production lies the sense that Pollard (who, more or less, seems to be the source of GBV) never grew much as a songwriter. The fact that these tracks could be thrown together in any order is a testament to their strength, but also suggests a stagnation in writing and performance. The songs are great—I'm not denying that—and there are various kinds (it wouldn't be fair to say he was limited). It's just it seems as if Pollard was cranking out Pollard songs for 20 years without every really thinking about where he was going with each new album, except maybe in terms of how much overdrive to put on his guitars.
As much as I enjoy this collection, I'm not sure that I've heard anything that would make me want to rush to get various era GBV stuff to suit my different moods. I don't feel like there's an artsy era and a nostalgic era and a melancholy era, etc. Obviously, I could be missing some key stuff—perhaps these tracks were assembled for coherence, in which case my hope of a narrative (progress or otherwise) would be irrelevant to my current listening.
On the other hand, though, when the songs are this good, why wouldn't I want more more more? Even if the group lacks a dramatically changing sound, it seems like I might want to have more music on hand (32 tracks on Human Amusements equals only 77 minutes). Where to go, though? I can't tell what period anything is from, let alone what album. My four favorite tracks ("Captain's Dead," "Game of Pricks," "The Best of Jill Hives," and "My Valuable Hunting Knife") come from three different albums and three different decades.
My challenge is to determine if this uniformity is a product of an essential songwriting element in Pollard or of the crafting of the one disc I have to spin. Certainly the earlier tracks are a little dirtier and more aggressive, so I can start there if that's my mood, but nothing's convinced me that that would be the most fulfilling era (after all, everyone talks about Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes). Greatest hits packages are supposed to be entry points, but I can only feel that this one's a definitive statement. Removed from the poor tracks that I hear flit throughout nearly all of the albums, these songs stand up brilliantly, and suggest to me that Pollard's a songwriter possibly on par with David Kilgour (the Clean frontman and artist who GBV has most reminded me of). They also make me think, though, that I've pretty much heard it all in this one 77-minute burst. I hope I'm wrong—too many of these songs are too good, and it makes me think maybe I'm missing something if the sum of the parts is actually more than the whole. So I'll head off for Alien Lanes or maybe, I don't know, Vampire on Titus. It's just that it's hard to have much confidence in someone who makes you feel like their whole, prolific creative output can be so easily captured.