You may have heard of these guys, but have yet to experience the saga that is Guided by Voices up close and personal. Maybe you’ve been a tad gun-shy. Sure, who can blame you? Aside from the baffling origin story—30-something schoolteacher and a rotating cast of beer-fueled buddies record British Invasion-influenced, minute-plus, fascinating tunes in a basement, on boom boxes and 4-track tape machines, toiling in obscurity for a decade—there’s the weird song titles; the crushing low fidelity of their first eight albums; the huge catalog...take your pick. After all, the Robert Pollard-led outfit’s body of work is staggering in sheer size—22 studio albums, 17 EPs, 39 singles, 6 box sets(!) and 6 compilations, in addition to various split EPs and singles—as well as reverence and reputation. But we’re here to help.
Because it’s been a bit of a GBV listening marathon ‘round these parts lately—aided in part by reading former bassist Jim Greer’s book on the band, Guided by Voices: A Brief History: Twenty-One Years of Hunting Accidents in the Forests of Rock and Roll—coupled with our desire to share our love for the Dayton, OH indie rock institution and lo-fi avatars, we started wondering what could be the gateway album for neophytes. This led to putting together a primer on how to immerse oneself in Uncle Bob’s best known exploits. And so here we are. (Note: we’ll be focusing on the studio albums exclusively. You can do the rest of the digging yourself. That’s half the fun anyway, right?) So, shall we?
Where To Start:
There’s some choice stuff among the early albums, but some people you just can’t start ‘em off on a lo-fi tip. Meanwhile, Do the Collapse [TVT-1999], although a solid record, is quite polished and overly produced—what’s up, Ric Ocasek?!—so it’s not the most accurate introduction for a newbie. The Rob Schnapf-produced Isolation Drills [TVT-2001] has the highest quality sound to quality song ratio in the GBV catalog (“Unspirited”, “Glad Girls”, “Privately”) which makes it a perfect starting point. It’s also the studio album that comes closest to capturing the energy of their legendary live shows. (Isolation Drills features Elliott Smith playing keyboards on a couple of tracks.)
1997’s Mag Earwhig! [Matador] is the big anomaly in the band’s catalog in that Pollard fired the prior incarnation and replaced them with Cleveland’s Cobra Verde, lock, stock and barrel. As such, the lone ‘Guided by Verde’ album is a muscular one, chock full of great tunes (“Sad If I Lost It”, “I Am a Tree”, “Bulldog Skin”) and should be your next stop.
Once you are certain this band is to your liking and you are willing to withstand some hardcore lo-fi recording, it's time to move on to what was thought to be the band's final album, one noted for both its songs and the insouciance behind the making of the album itself. Recorded on portable 4-tracks and boom boxes, the lo-fi, basement sound of indie rock landmark Bee Thousand [Scat-1994] (which includes the classics “Tractor Rape Chain” and “Gold Star for Robot Boy”, as well as "I Am a Scientist"), was more the result of financial constraints and dissatisfaction with proper recording studios than an aesthetic (which they fully demonstrated later on when they came into actual recording budgets and name producers) and further proof that great tunes can't be stopped, no matter the circumstances. Named during a marathon weed smoking session—its title approved by Uncle Bob for its resemblance to famed Who guitarist Pete Townshend—this tribute to the British Invasion and Pollard’s “four Ps”: pop, punk rock, progressive rock and psychedelia, remains the single most beloved piece of GBV's musical output.
Even though the success of Bee Thousand led to signing with Matador and, consequently, exposure to a much larger audience, GBV chose to stick to their lo-fi guns and came up with an almost equally stunning followup to its predecessor in Alien Lanes [Matador-1995], home of “A Salty Salute”, “Game of Pricks” and “Motor Away”. Quite the tour de force, Alien Lanes is along with Bee Thousand, the foundation upon which the GBV mythology is based.
What to Avoid:
Every GBV record has gems, but leave the 6 albums from the 2012-2014 span of their reunion for absolute last. (The band first broke up in 2004, went on an extended hiatus, reunited in 2010 and then broke up abruptly in 2014.) Collectively, they sound like the band is trying too hard to capture their "youth" and not being too convincing at it, either. English Little League [GBV-2013] is probably the best among that latter bunch.
Devil Between My Toes [Schwa-1987] Sandbox [Halo-1987] Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia [Halo-1989] Same Place the Fly Got Smashed [Rocket #9-1990] Propeller [Rockathon-1992] Vampire on Titus [Scat-1993] Under the Bushes Under the Stars [Matador-1996] Tonics & Twisted Chasers [Rockathon-1996] Universal Truths and Cycles [Matador-2002] Earthquake Glue [Matador-2003] Half Smiles of the Decomposed [Matador-2004] Let's Go Eat the Factory [GBV-2012] Class Clown Spots a UFO [GBV-2012] The Bears for Lunch [GBV-2012] Motivational Jumpsuit [GBV-2014] Cool Planet [GBV-2014].