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Listen to Them Again: Re-evaluating Guided by Voices

17 July 2006

Listening to all my CDs in alphabetical order has given me a good chance to re-evaluate the entire discographies of some musicians. The latest is GUIDED BY VOICES, a band I’ve often considered one of my absolute favorites. It’s hard to briefly explain how obsessed I was with their music, especially in the second half of the ‘90s. Overall I saw them in concert 20 times in half a dozen states, traded tapes of their live performances with other fans, and tracked down every 7”, CD single, compilation track, unreleased song, box set, etc. that I could find.

So here in my collection, I have 39 CDs by Guided by Voices (not counting those under other names), and I’ve recently listened to almost all of them, in chronological order. Doing so has helped me reassess their music and legacy, reacting to it all again, coming up with some new conclusions while having others reinforced.

Listening to that much GBV in a row was never tedious; instead, I found it consistently exciting. I was reminded of how many truly great songs ROBERT POLLARD has written, and of why I found albums like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes so extraordinary. At the same time, albums I praised in writing at the time, defended against detractors, impressed me less now. It all led me to two general conclusions about Guided by Voices’ legacy:

  1. The people who say GBV got worse after the “classic line-up” disbanded around 1997 are right.
  2. The people who say Bob Pollard releases too much music are wrong.

I’ll start with the first. Listening through them all, it’s crystal clear to me that the albums up to and including Under the Bushes, Under the Stars contain a sense of mystery and magic that just isn’t present on the albums after it, as good as they are. That latter point is important: all of the albums after that point are good… great, even. I always defended them against people who said they weren’t good, and I was right to—they’re solid rock albums with excellent melodies and unique lyrics. They stand apart from the crowd. They contain songs as good as anything Pollard has written.

At the same time, there’s an indescribable something to the earlier albums that was never again reproduced. Whether it was because of the homemade recording approach, the songs themselves, or something else, I can’t say—no doubt it’s probably a combination of those and other factors—but to my ears it’s undeniably true. There is that same type of mystery, of ambiguity, of weird beauty, to some of the recordings Pollard has made under other names besides GBV, but more often than not, the songs weren’t quite as strong.

On the other hand, an aphorism about Pollard is that he releases too much music, that he needs a better sense of what’s good and bad. This is a notion with which I strongly disagree, and listening through it all again made me feel even more strongly about it. The thing is, many of Pollard’s best songs—to my ears, at least—are found on more obscure releases like EPs and singles. There’s so many great songs scattered throughout the years, and not necessarily in plain sight.

Some people take this as the very reason he needs an editor, to bring these good songs together and get rid of the rest. But I’m not sure there are any two people who would agree on which songs are the good ones. That’s why I prefer to get it all. I don’t trust Pollard to judge which of his songs are best, and I don’t trust his most devoted fans either. I’d rather hear it all and decide myself. That’s one of my favorite things about Pollard and GBV: with so much music released, there are so many nooks and crannies to find, so many hidden gems.