Welcome 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)
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
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)
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)
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
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)
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)
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