Guided by Voices
Bee Thousand: The Director’s Cut
t’s worth noting that 1994 yielded four entries into the indie rock canon, two of which experienced considerable crossover success: Beck’s major label debut, Mellow Gold (not to mention the other two albums he put out that year, Stereopathetic Soul Manure and One Foot in the Grave); Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain; GBV’s Bee Thousand; and Weezer’s Blue Album. Each has its own peculiar flavor, and all four have the arguably dubious distinction of being pinnacles in each band’s luminous “career”. Most interesting though is how these bands would find their way onto mainstream radio in the month’s following Kurt Cobain’s suicide, as programming expanded to include Beck’s stoner epic “Loser”, the obvious crossover standout; meanwhile, Matador, in cooperation with Atlantic Records attempted to get Pavement onto the then neo-natal alternative/modern rock format radio with their would-be-hit “Cut Your Hair”, only to have Weezer jump into their shoes on the way through that door. Bee Thousand never made it to the mass-market cafeteria.
Like a fourth grader held back a year to mature, Bee Thousand stands a little taller, and is definitely huskier than its classmates. Fully six sides of material, including the album’s conception and birth narrative are included inside the gatefold package, making for a beautiful reissue. We’re told that the songs on the first two LPs officially comprise the second version of the record, of which there were six total. For some, Pollard’s prolixity and productivity grew tiresome, and his albums became less palatable each time he brewed a cup of coffee with the same grinds; for others (and I consider myself a member of this group), it just didn’t matter. So try to think of this reissue as the clothes in which you bury a dear relative, that after several years of wearing dungarees, then devolving to sweatpants and underwear around the house, this record is a tuxedo with a Daffy Duck cummerbund, and a great way to remember the band, for completists and casual listeners alike.
The record itself makes me nostalgic several times over. Spending ten years with anything allows both subject and object to grow together, and this is no exception. In fact, all those aforementioned records, Beck notwithstanding, have found a way into steady rotation since then, and still sound fantastic today, even as we say goodbye to indie rock’s halcyon days. To this day, it’s impossible for me to listen to Bee Thousand without outstretching my arms skyward, hammering the air, and shouting the anthems like a drunken fan, even when sober. Maybe it wasn’t so clear then, but what the paradigmatic indie rock albums had over the incipient alternative mainstream was a profound sense of fun, without necessitating crossing over into the maudlin, at least not for another record or two. Within a year Billy Corgan would re-create himself as an even more menacing guitar savant, his faux melancholia manifest in songs like “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”, and Alanis Morrissette told us what we oughta know. Sure, there were many, myself included, who laughed at ourselves for chanting “despite all my rage / I’m still just a rat in a cage” when after all, the rage is the cage, right?, an adolescent sentiment easily discarded to the “used” bin. Consider the alternative: the contemplative “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” was sandwiched between “Tractor Rape Chain” and “Hot Freaks”, leaving little time to mourn for missed opportunities.
Bee Thousand exemplifies the off-the-cuff ability to produce songs of abject silliness (“Deathtrot and Warlock Riding a Rooster”), anthemic brilliance (“Postal Blowfish”) and quiet sobriety (“Supermarket the Moon”), occupying less than ten minutes total. Although many of these songs sound familiar from live performance, their inclusion on the record makes the reissue a unique artifact—offering insight into the construction and imperfection of what many consider a perfect record. Bridging the gap between novelty and nostalgia can be difficult (one look at the press photos in the Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain reissue tells the tale: those clothes! Those haircuts!) but by offering so much new, while including the old (“Buzzards and Dreadful Crows” didn’t even make the second edition!), it simply astounds.
More than anything else, it’s that “if-you-didn’t-like-that-one-here’s-another” mentality that made Guided by Voices so appealing anyway; their willingness to be consistently entertaining with little regard for polish, and Pollard’s audacity to shamelessly cop an uneven British accent to boot. This collection represents Pollard’s aestheticism as it relates to the creative process, demonstrating that he sends up trial balloons and crafts cohesive sequences of tracks that ultimately become albums, rather than simply putting twenty four songs on tape and cutting a record indiscriminately. It’s this method that confirmed that GBV, among all indie rockers, achieved Bukowski’s laborious efforts to affect the appearance of not trying most accurately. And, in the process, made it indie rock’s calling card.
Reviewed by: J T. Ramsay
Reviewed on: 2004-11-05