By Lauren Wise
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By Derek Askey
Guided by Voices
Under the Bushes Under the Stars
One listen to Guided by Voices' latest release, Under the Bushes Under the Stars, is convincing proof that GBV is something special. Front man Robert Pollard--a former high school football star and fourth-grade teacher turned general of the Ohio indie invasion--is a master of pop songs in miniature. He writes tunes suffused with killer hooks and loopy lyrics structured to come together in tantalizing, abbreviated bliss. As an enhancement, Pollard and his bandmates--guitarists Tobin Sprout and Mitch Mitchell, along with drummer Kevin Fennell--still record their songs the old way, in glorious lo-fi. The band's rec-room-recording technique renders GBV's startlingly brief and catchy songs with a compelling sense of the grotesque; like listening to an old Electric Light Orchestra album with Hieronymous Bosch ears.
All told, Guided by Voices has released nine albums and a boatload of singles over the years. But things didn't really start to connect until 1994's Bee Thousand, a recording on the Midwest-based indie Scat Records that came on like a poorly recorded demo tape from some forgotten U.K. pop band of the '70s. Songs like "Gold Star for Robot Boy," "Kicker of Elves" and "The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory" were even stranger than their titles with Pollard singing overmodulated strings of non sequiturs, his imitation English accent leading melodies that soared in crooked patterns before burning out in midair.
Pollard has long said that GBV records in primitive lo-fi because the band could never afford a big studio. That was supposed to change with Under the Bushes Under the Stars. The original version of this CD was produced at a major-league 24-track studio in Memphis by fellow Daytonite Kim Deal, of Breeders fame. Close to 60 songs were recorded there, but the project was scrapped because Pollard wasn't happy with the results. His first instincts were to go back to his four-track in the basement, but the band members found a 24-track studio in Dayton they say felt like a living room. GBV went in and spent a grand total of two days recording a batch of freshly written lo-fi songs in the homey hi-fi studio. Five remastered tracks from the Deal sessions made the final cut, including the new CD's first single, "The Official Ironmen Rally Song." The disc also includes two cuts overseen by infamous indie producer Steve Albini, credited in the liner notes to "Fluss," Albini's cat.
The heightened production on Under the Bushes clearly enhances GBV's D.I.Y. sound. It also opens new opportunities for GBV weirdness. "No Sky," an oddly metered song of perfectly off-balanced stops and starts, comes complete with the popping and cracking sounds of old vinyl between Pollard's melancholy vocals. And the hypnotic "Acorns and Orioles" is garnished with beautifully echo-drenched vocals that hover over acoustic guitars, bongos and the ominous drone of distant feedback.
Lyrically, Under the Bushes is typically over the top in scattered poetic images. Pollard starts "Bright Paper Werewolves" with the line, "Come all polluted eyeballs/Stop scouting out the field." The track ends with him singing of unnamed desperate people who "want to get out of here, but they can't find the exits" and who "finally got recognized, so they left in obscurity and misery." The line could easily refer to the growing backlash against GBV. The band has its doubters among the rock-crit crowd, most notably the Village Voice's Robert Christgau, who once said he wouldn't want his fourth-grade kid being taught anything by someone like Pollard. Others are wary of the band's beer-chugging, weekend-athlete, wanna-be rock star pedigree.
With or without naysayers, GBV recordings should continue to litter the landscape. Some of the unused material from the ill-fated Deal sessions in Memphis, for example, is supposed to be released over the next few months as B-sides on singles. Other songs from the sessions will be included on a couple of EPs: the six-song Plantations of Pale Pink, which comes out next month, and the ten-song Not in My Air Force, set for release in August. The rest of the original recordings with Deal will be relegated to the nether world where discarded GBV songs go to die.
Dumping material is nothing new for Pollard. He claims to have penned more than 2,000 songs, most of which he's forgotten, thrown away or otherwise deemed unworthy. That staggering number becomes more believable when you consider that many GBV tunes are less than a minute long, with few breaking the three-minute barrier.
With so many songs in the GBV catalogue, the band has whittled down its road-show repertoire to 50 selections, with certain songs performed every night and the rest revolving from show to show depending on requests.
The most crucial factor in any Guided by Voices show, though, is beer. Pollard and his buddies were derisively dubbed "Guided by Beer" by other acts on a Lollapalooza tour a couple of years ago, and Pollard is rarely seen holding a microphone in one hand without a bottle of beer in the other.
The band's love of brew was rumored to have been a factor in GBV's cancellation of its long-awaited Arizona debut last year at Gibson's in Tempe. State law prohibits musicians from drinking onstage in Arizona, and Pollard has said that the band members canceled because they wouldn't be able to suck brew onstage. Guitarist Tobin Sprout, though, recently offered a more plausible explanation: His wife was ready to give birth back in Ohio and he wanted to be there.