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Dissected: Guided by Voices

Sixteen albums later...

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dissected logo Dissected: Guided by VoicesWelcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of Robert Pollard’s Ohio outfit.

I love the Foo Fighters’ latest album, Wasting Light. It was in my Top Ten for 2011, and it’s the band’s strongest effort in at least a decade. Around the time of its release, however, there was a lot of talk about how it was recorded on tape to give it this “rawer feel.” Well, as great as it turned out, it’s about as raw as a well-done steak. Truth be told, the sound and style they chalked up already hails from a select few garages in Dayton, Ohio; though rather than look up any flights (or count bus fare), one only needs to shimmy through the aisles of their local record store and thumb over to G, specifically Guided by Voices.

We’re a couple of years into the band’s latest reunion, and yet it still feels so good. Not only has Robert Pollard and the “classic” lineup dazzled festivals two times over by now, but they’ve also issued two new albums in this year alone: January’s Let’s Go Eat the Factory and this week’s Class Clown Spots a UFO. In light of all this, Len Comaratta and I decided to revisit the group’s exhausting back catalog, soaking up hours of fuzz and poring over dozens of minute-long tracks.

So, let’s “Motor Away” on our “Hardcore UFO’s” as we rally on the “Tractor Rape Chain” and, oh, did I mention they have some truly random song titles?

– Justin Gerber
Senior Staff Writer

 *Fan club album Tonics & Twisted Chasers will not be featured here, so hold your tongues!

Devil Between My Toes (1987)

guiddbyvoicesdevilbwmytoes e1339524972741 Dissected: Guided by Voices

Hot Freaks (Band Lineup): Robert Pollard, Mitch Mitchell, and Kevin Fennell

Others on album: Tobin Sprout, Payton Eric, Jim Pollard, and Steve Wilbur (who engineered the album and used his studio to record the album)

Number of Songs: 14

Long as the Block Is Black (a.k.a. songs longer than 3 minutes): One, and it’s epic as far as GBV goes. “A Portrait Destroyed by Fire” clocks in at just over five minutes!

Avg. Length of Song: 2:13

Number of Instrumentals: Five

Number of Songs NOT Written Entirely by Robert Pollard: Five, with four of them co-written with Pollard’s brother, Jim (“A Proud and Booming Industry”, “Bread Alone”, “3 Year Old Man”, and “Crux”).

Guided by Sprout or Gillard?: Sprout. Let’s face it. If there is a choice to be had this early in the game, it’s gonna be Sprout… at least until 1998, when Gillard joined up!

The Part in That Song That Makes You Want to Rule the World: The entirety of album closer “Captain’s Dead”.  After hearing the jangle pop sounds of R.E.M. throughout the album, finally here is a hint at what’s to come.

Verdict: Easily the “cleanest”-sounding album with little to none of the lo-fi aesthetic found on later releases and certainly nothing like what GBV would go on to sound like by the time of the “Classic Lineup”. Not since their debut EP, Forever Since Breakfast, has GBV sounded so much like R.E.M. – Chronic Town/Murmur era specifically. “Old Battery” and “Discussing Wallace Chambers” channel Peter Buck’s jangly rhythms, and “Hey Hey Spaceman” has the feel of a poppified “Driver 8” (with far more whimsy). -Len Comaratta

Sandbox (1987)

guidedbyvoicessandbox e1339525226568 Dissected: Guided by Voices

Hot Freaks: Robert Pollard, Mitch Mitchell, Kevin Fennell, and Jim Pollard (Robert’s brother gets full-on band credit!)

Number of Songs: 12

Long as the Block Is Black: 2. “Barricade” and “Get to Know the Ropes”

Avg. Length of Song: 2:16

Number of Songs NOT Written Entirely by Robert Pollard: Four, two of which (“Common Rebels” and “Lips of Steel”) were written by the entire band.

Guided by Sprout or Gillard?: Sprout. Despite not playing or even having a production credit, he is mentioned in the “Additional Thanks” section of the album liner notes.

The Part in That Song That Makes You Want to Rule the World: Pollard channeling The Beatles when the band sings the titular line “He’s a long distance man” with beautiful vocal harmony.

Verdict: The harder guitar sounds are evident from the get-go and do little to help Pollard’s lyrics, and many, including Pollard himself, dislike this album when put up against the remainder of the band’s catalog; but taken on its own, it is a pretty decent early album from a band still trying to find their sound. The R.E.M. sound makes a reappearance on “Can’t Stop”. -Len Comaratta

Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia (1989)

guidedbyvoicesselfinflicted e1339525311862 Dissected: Guided by Voices

Hot Freaks: Robert Pollard, Jim Pollard, Payton Eric, and Steve Wilbur

Others on Album: Former full-time members Mitchell and Fennell get bumped to “additional musical assistance” credits and no mention of Tobin Sprout

Number of Songs: 14

Long as the Block Is Black: 4

Avg. Length of Song: 2:42

Number of Songs NOT Written Entirely by Robert Pollard: Five, with one, “The Qualifying Remainder”, being credited to the same lineup featured on Sandbox.

Guided by Sprout or Gillard?: Neither.  Sprout is officially out of the band at this time. There is absolutely no appearance of Sprout anywhere on this album, musically, literally, graphically… you get the idea.

The Part in That Song That Makes You Want to Rule the World: When the band repeats “He’s alone, he’s alive” a few times during “Radio Show (Trust the Wizard)” and then capping it with “This is not another fad.”

Verdict: GBV are starting to find their sound. Lo-fi techniques are used to the band’s advantage rather than just to see what it sounds like – the hollow, distant voice and revolving guitars in “An Earful O’ Wax”, the fuzzed-out tones in “Slopes of Big Ugly”, the psychedelic harmonies in “Great Blake Street Canoe Race”, and the capstone, combining everything beautifully, “Radio Show (Trust the Wizard)”.  Some of the best stuff in the band’s early catalog. -Len Comaratta

Same Place the Fly Got Smashed (1990)

guidedbyvoicessameplace e1339532737948 Dissected: Guided by Voices

Hot Freaks:  Robert Pollard, Greg Demos, Don Thrasher, and Jim Pollard on all but two tracks

Others on Album:  Liquid Insect Hammer adds vocals on “Pendulum” and “Blatant Doom Trip”, which also features Sprout on guitar.

Number of Songs:  14

Long as the Block Is Black: 3

Avg. Length of Song: 2:16

Number of Songs NOT Written Entirely by Robert Pollard: Nine. Eight were co-written with brother Jim, and one, “Starboy”, was co-written with bassist Greg Demos.

Guided by Sprout or Gillard?: Sprout. Though not an official member at this time, his presence on “Blatant Doom Trip” is felt immediately, adding a fuzzed-out wall of sound hovering over Pollard’s voice.

The Part in That Song That Makes You Want to Rule the World: “And so we drown in the animal sea/ The factory of human pride/ The place where I was born/ The place where my father died” from “The Hard Way”

Verdict: A concept album of sorts telling the tragic story of an alcoholic, SPTFGS is easily the darkest album in the band’s discography. Despite the dark nature of the album, there are some extremely beautifully moments – “Drinker’s Peace” and “How Loft I Am” being two. -Len Comaratta

Propeller (1992)

gbvpropeller e1339532812570 Dissected: Guided by Voices

Hot Freaks: Robert Pollard, Jim Pollard, Tobin Sprout, Greg Demos, and Don Thrasher

Others on Album: Mitch Mitchell and Dan Toohey

Number of Songs: 15

Long as the Block Is Black: 2

Avg. Length of Song: 2:25

Number of Songs NOT Written Entirely by Robert Pollard: Seven. “Red Gas Circle” and “Particular Damaged” were co-written with bassist Dan Toohey; “Lethargy” and “Unleashed! The Large-Hearted Boy” are credited to RP, Tobin, brother Jim, and Mitch Mitchell; Tobin and Robert share “14 Cheerleader Coldfront” and “Ergo Space Pig”; and Jim co-wrote “On the Tundra”.

Guided by Sprout or Gillard?: Sprout. He marks his return to the fold and the beginning of the classic era.

The Part in That Song That Makes You Want to Rule the World: “I promise to leave you one of these days/ I promise it’ll be real soon,” accompanied by pounding percussion on “Exit Flagger”

Verdict: Propeller was meant to be the band’s farewell album (until it became successful) despite it being the most GBV-sounding album to date. This album also marks the first time the band used lo-fi techniques as actual instruments unto themselves and not just accoutrements. -Len Comaratta

Vampire on Titus (1993)

gbvvampires e1339532878380 Dissected: Guided by Voices

Hot Freaks: Robert Pollard, Jim Pollard, and Tobin Sprout

Others on Album: No one

Number of Songs: 18

Long as the Block Is Black: Zero! With three clocking in at less than a minute!

Avg. Length of Song: 1:42

Number of Songs NOT Written Entirely by Robert Pollard: Ten, with one credited to the brothers, three to Sprout/Pollard, three to Pollard/Sprout/Pollard, and two solely to Sprout (“Donkey School” and “Gleemer (The Deeds of Fertile Jim)”)

Guided by Sprout or Gillard?: Sprout is all over this piece. His two solo writing credits mark the first time in the GBV catalog that Pollard did not contribute.

The Part in That Song That Makes You Want to Rule the World: Pollard’s voice is best heard on “Marchers in Orange”, but it’s the spiraling, swirling guitar lines in the following track, “Sot”, that steal the show.

Verdict: Ding! Ding! Ding! We have a winner.  This is the album considered to be where GBV achieved its sound and was the first in a series of releases showcasing GBV/Pollard’s rough genius. VoT is the result of a band far greater than the sum of its parts. -Len Comaratta

Bee Thousand (1994)

gbvbeethousand e1339532978441 Dissected: Guided by Voices

Hot Freaks: Robert Pollard, Jim Pollard, Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, and Don Thrasher

Others on Album: Dan Toohey, Kevin Fennell, and Greg Demos

Number of Songs: 20

Long as the Block Is Black: One. Barely. “Tractor Rape Chain” clocks in at 3:04, while “Smothered in Hugs” falls a second shy of 3:00.

Avg. Length of Song: 1:50

Number of Songs NOT Written Entirely by Robert Pollard: 10, four of which are all Sprout.

Guided by Sprout or Gillard?:  Still Sprout (after all it’s only 1994) with his contribution to glam throwback and eventual band classic “Hot Freaks” and his elegant 30-second closer, “You’re Not an Airplane”, which is more a perfect tease to what could be the beginnings of a great song only to simply end with the sound of the recorder clicking off.

The Part in That Song That Makes You Want to Rule the World: “I am a scientist – I seek to understand me/ I am an incurable and nothing else behaves like me” from “I Am a Scientist”. This song is filled with empathic, emotive lyrics that lead us to this question: “With lyrics as elegant, soulful, and introspective as those in this song, why did we ever need emo?”

Verdict: This is the biggest turning point in the band’s career thus far and the most GBV-sounding album, taking what they learned from VoT and improving upon it.  Bee Thousand is a prime example of a band (and an audience) embracing the flaws as much as the perfection. Breaking out of the underground and onto college radio, Bee Thousand opened the door to larger distribution and an actual label (Matador). -Len Comaratta

Alien Lanes (1995)

gbvalienlanes e1339533085293 Dissected: Guided by Voices

Hot Freaks: Robert Pollard, Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Greg Demos, and Kevin Fennell

Others on Album: Jim Greer, Jim Pollard, and Pete Jamison

Number of Songs: 28

Long as the Block Is Black: Zero

Avg. Length of Song: 1:28

Guided by Sprout or Gillard?:
 Sprout. He takes lead vocals on the awesome-in-a-little-over-a-minute “A Good Flying Bird”. Pollard isn’t the only one shouting “yeah” during the song. You’ll feel compelled to join in.

Number of Songs NOT Written Entirely by Robert Pollard: 11, three of which are all Sprout.

The Part in That Song That Makes You Want to Rule the World: “And I want to shout out our love to the world/Hit it!” in “My Valuable Hunting Knife”

Verdict: I can’t say enough about this beast. Alien Lanes is the middle of the “classic era” of GBV, and justifies its “classic” label. Just about every song is a build-up to the next build-up; one runs directly into the next for about 45 minutes straight. “Striped White Jets” may garner the most repeats from this here writer. “Sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh, cover them all in black!” -Justin Gerber

Under the Bushes Under the Stars (1996)

guidedbyvoicesunder e1339533170255 Dissected: Guided by Voices

Hot Freaks: Robert Pollard, Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Greg Demos, and Kevin Fennell

Number of Songs: 24

Long as the Block Is Black: 4

Avg. Length of Song: 2:19

Guided by Sprout or Gillard?:
 Sprout. His lazy-afternoon wind down of “To Remake the Young Flyer” is a fine send-off. Under the Bushes would be his last album as an official member of GBV until early 2012’s Let’s Go Eat the Factory.

Number of Songs NOT Written Entirely by Robert Pollard: Five, four of which are all Sprout.

The Moment Where They Read Fans’ Minds: The repeating of the song’s title in “Don’t Stop Now”

The Part in That Song That Makes You Want to Rule the World: The rally in “The Official Ironmen Rally Song”: “You won’t see me turn my back/With my head against my stack/Spitting teeth and breaking open skin/Official ironmen you are free/Champions officially.”

Verdict: Time has been kind to Under the Bushes, which is unfairly compared to the two albums preceding it. The run from “Cut-Out Witch” to the aforementioned “To Remake the Young Flyer” is as good as any four-song run on any GBV release, and there are a lot of combinations to cull from. -Justin Gerber

Mag Earwhig! (1997)

mag earwhig Dissected: Guided by Voices

Hot Freaks: Robert Pollard, Doug Gillard, John Petkovic, Don Depew, and Dave Swanson

Others on Album: Tobin Sprout, Jim Pollard, Mitch Mitchell, Kevin Fennell, Joe Buben, Johnny Strange, John Shough, and Chad Stanisic

Number of Songs: 21

Long as the Block Is Black: 4

Avg. Length of Song: 2:11

Guided by Sprout or Gillard?: 
Gillard. Sure, Sprout appears here and there, but it’s definitely a new era. Pollard’s new lineup consists of the band Cobra Verde, with Gillard on lead guitar. He makes his presence known on the arena-ready heroics of “I am a Tree”. Fruitless and free.

Number of Songs NOT Written Entirely by Robert Pollard: Three, with Gillard getting full credit for the aforementioned “I am a Tree”.

Most Heartbreaking Moment in a Garage Band from Ohio’s Discography: “Say that you’ll never run too far away/Even with all the answers out there/Where it’s brighter but no one will care/Half as much as I care about you” from “Learning to Hunt”

The Part in That Song That Makes You Want to Rule the World: That drum/vocal rat-tat-tatting in “Not Behind the Fighter Jet” (“I’d much/ra/ther back/a simple girl”).

Verdict: As hi-fi as they’ve ever been, Mag Earwhig proved Pollard could continue on without the old guard. “I am a Tree” is long and awesome, while “Mute Superstar” is short and, well, also awesome. A happy balance was found with this release. That said, farewell, Mr. Sprout! Your contributions will not be matched in the future, though they will come close. -Justin Gerber

Do the Collapse (1999)

gbvcollapse e1339534057326 Dissected: Guided by Voices

Hot Freaks: Robert Pollard, Doug Gillard, Greg Demos, and Jim Macpherson

Others on Album: Brian Sperber and Ric Ocasek

Number of Songs: 16

Long as the Block Is Black: 6

Avg. Length of Song: 2:44

Guided by Sprout or Gillard?:
 
All Gillard all the time. “Things I Will Keep”, which may be the best song on this album of not-so-great-songs, earns Gillard points for keeping things afloat.

Number of Songs NOT Written Entirely by Robert Pollard: Zero. Zero, I say!

Lo-Fi “Teenage FBI” or Hi-FI “Teenage FBI”: I heard the hi-fi version first, so I’m inclined to lean towards that version. But there is something short-and-sweet about the lo-fi version, as is the appeal with 85% of GBV tunes.

The Part in That Song That Makes You Want to Rule the World: Of course it’s the chorus of “Hold on Hope”! It’s the last thing that’s holding me.

Verdict: Goodbye, lo-fi. Hello, hi-fi. With The Cars’ Ric Ocasek behind the knobs, we get a GBV record by way of Weezer, which results in an album with some gold (ex. “Teenage FBI”, “Hold on Hope”, and “Surgical Focus”), but not enough tape to keep it all together. The band would recover in the 21st century. -Justin Gerber

Isolation Drills (2001)

isolationdrills Dissected: Guided by Voices

Hot Freaks: Robert Pollard, Doug Gillard, Nate Farley, Tim Tobias, and Jim Macpherson

Number of Songs: 16

Long as the Block Is Black: 8  

Avg. Length of Song: 2:55

Guided by Sprout or Gillard?:
 Gillard. He does R.E.M. proud with the jangly gems “Chasing Heather Crazy” and “Twilight Campfire”.

Number of Songs NOT Written Entirely by Robert Pollard: Zero.

Number of Times Pollard Says, “The Queen’s prize awaits/She might rub her legs.”: Six glorious times. “Fair Touching” is one of their best tracks to kick off an album. Leading directly into the classic rock of “Skills Like This” doesn’t hurt its status, either.

The Part in That Song That Makes You Want to Rule the World: Strangely enough, it’s found in a song called “Unspirited”. There’s that brief breakdown between the chorus and the second verse. It proved that whatever changes the band had gone through, the music was still substantial.

Verdict: It’s what Do the Collapse should have been. Definitely a “proper” album in terms of production, but not over-produced as its predecessor was. Isolation Drills may be the band’s most accessible album, with the above tracks as well as the infectious “Glad Girls” and the drunken mess of the appropriately titled “How’s My Drinking?” -Justin Gerber

Universal Truths and Cycles (2002)

gbvuniversal Dissected: Guided by Voices

Hot Freaks: Robert Pollard, Doug Gillard, Nate Farley, Tim Tobias, and Jon McCann

Others on Album: Todd Tobias and Suellen Ogier

Number of Songs: 19

Long as the Block Is Black: 5

Avg. Length of Song: 2:27

Guided by Sprout or Gillard?:
 Gillard. His best work yet–through the menacing lanes of “Car Language” to the sweet solo work in “Cheyenne”.

Number of Songs NOT Written Entirely by Robert Pollard: Zero. I sense a trend…

Here’s the Long and Short of It: While there are lengthy tracks on Universal, there are quite a few that clock in under two minutes, something rarely seen since the days of Mag Earwhig!

The Part in That Song That Makes You Want to Rule the World: “Everywhere With Helicopters”, with Pollard’s howl before Gillard’s short-and-sweet solo.

Verdict: The best of new-era GBV: a perfect combination of lo-fi and hi-fi, of slow burners and immediate pop songs. “Back to the Lake” and “Everywhere With Helicopters” are classic GBV tracks now, while “Storm Vibration” and “Christian Animation Torch Carriers” take unexpected (and welcomed) turns during their respective run times. -Justin Gerber

Earthquake Glue (2003)

guidedbyvoicesearthquakeglue Dissected: Guided by Voices

Hot Freaks: Robert Pollard, Doug Gillard, Nate Farley, Tim Tobias, and Kevin March

Others on Album: Todd Tobias

Number of Songs: 15

Long as the Block Is Black: 6

Avg. Length of Song: 3:01

Guided by Sprout or Gillard?:
 Gillard. “Useless Inventions” is vintage, er, new-era GBV, and “Beat Your Wings” is pure sludge. Sludge, but awesome in its murkiness.

Number of Songs NOT Written Entirely by Robert Pollard: Zero…

The Part in That Song That Makes You Want to Rule the World: The 3:17 mark of “Secret Star”. Uncle Bob, please send no more joy, no more light. It will always come.

Verdict: Doesn’t hold a Christian Animated Torch to its predecessor, but along with the aforementioned tracks, Glue features the great album opener, “My Kind of Soldier”, and the echoing, bass-driven “The Best of Jill Hives”. Of special note: the first album where the average length of song is more than three minutes. Somewhere, Pink Floyd laughs. -Justin Gerber

Half Smiles of the Decomposed (2004)

gbvhalfsmiles e1339534361253 Dissected: Guided by Voices

Hot Freaks: Robert Pollard, Doug Gillard, Nate Farley, Chris Slusarenko, and Kevin March

Others on Album: Todd Tobias

Number of Songs: 14

Long as the Block Is Black: 7

Avg. Length of Song: 3:02

Guided by Sprout or Gillard?:
 
Gillard. “Tour Guide at the Winston Churchill Memorial” is a perfect example of how Gillard can contribute without arena-like theatrics (not that I don’t appreciate most of those 21st century solos).

Number of Songs NOT Written Entirely by Robert Pollard: …and Zero! No co-writing or solo efforts from anyone but Pollard since Mag Earwhig!

Part That Almost Made Me Cry During Their Last Performance: It’s a bit of a cheat, but there was an instrumental version of “Window of My World” played before they hit the stage for the (at the time) last time. I wasn’t there, but you can see it in The Electrifying Conclusion DVD.

The Part in That Song That Makes You Want to Rule the World: Nothing could be finer, yeah, than “Asia Minor”, yeah.

Verdict: A fine way to go out. The folky bounce of  “Gonna Never Have to Die” and one of their best opening/closing combos: the jaunty “Everybody Thinks I’m a Raincloud (When I’m Not Looking)” and the beautiful fade-out during the refrain of “before too long” at the conclusion of “Huffman Prairie Flying Field”. At the time, it was hard to believe that Pollard was really hanging up the GBV name, and, ultimately, it was indeed an impossibility. “Before too long,” the band would return. -Justin Gerber

Let’s Go Eat the Factory (2012)

guided by voices factory e1339534477276 Dissected: Guided by Voices

Hot Freaks: Robert Pollard, Tobin Sprout, Greg Demos, Mitch Mitchell, and Kevin Fennell

Others on Album: Jim Pollard

Number of Songs: 21 (most in 15 years)

Long as the Block Is Black: 3 (fewest in 17 years)

Avg. Length of Song: 1:59 (shortest in 17 years)

Guided by Sprout or Gillard?:
Sprout. Sprout? Yep, Sprout returns to great results. See the remainder of this feature for more details.

Number of Songs NOT Written Entirely by Robert Pollard: 9 (most in 17 years)

“Old Bones”, sing for the tee-ar!: Special word here. All keyboards, with aging vocal effects on Sprout. Simplest lyrics you’ll find anywhere delivered with complete sincerity by the welcomed return of GBV’s once and current secret weapon.

The Part in That Song That Makes You Want to Rule the World: All of “Waves”. All of it.

Verdict: More than just a reunion album. There are strong tracks on a strong album that no one saw coming (well, at least before their Matador Anniversary performance). It’s no longer just “The Uncle Bob Show”. Sprout shines throughout, providing the strongest tracks on the record (“Waves” wins for best GBV song in about a decade) and leading his other returning mates from whatever the hell they’ve been up to for 15 years. Guided by Voices is once again, dare I say, a democracy. -Justin Gerber

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