Chugging the toast: The ambition of Guided by Voices, now in hi-fi | Hopscotch Guide | Indy Week
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Chugging the toast: The ambition of Guided by Voices, now in hi-fi 

Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices

Illustration by Chris Williams/ Plastic Flame Press

Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices

Guided by Voices deserve a goddamned victory lap. In the early 1990s, Robert Pollard and his band of middle-aged Ohio townies risked failure and humiliation to deliver high-kicking Technicolor rock and roll to fickle, judgmental crowds. When the odds were decidedly stacked in favor of youth, fashion and irony, Pollard succeeded by way of talent, conviction and sheer force of will. He had to believe in Guided by Voices a hundred thousand times harder than anybody else, and he did. And he does. And so should you.

I knew nothing about the band's background when I first heard them in 1997, but their songs resonated with me deeply and immediately. I was 13 years old at the time and quite into classic rock, but the swaggering, humpy riff of "Bulldog Skin" spoke my language. I devoured the band's back catalog, obsessing over songs like "Smothered in Hugs" and "Exit Flagger." I saw Guided by Voices at Irving Plaza in New York when I was 15, and Pollard responded to my request for "Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox" by pouring a beer out over my head and calling me a "good kid." They were my very favorite band in the whole wide world.

But when they released the decidedly hi-fi Do the Collapse in 1999, I was dumb enough to think that Guided by Voices had "sold out." Actually, I was unwilling or unable to accept that Pollard's ambitions had always extended well beyond the Discmen of nerdy, music-obsessed teenagers. The "lo-fi band sells out" story practically told itself, and Pollard's unapologetically lofty goals made it easy to accuse him of compromising his music in the pursuit of fame and glory. In retrospect, the problem with Do the Collapse wasn't the album's studio sheen, but rather that producer Ric Ocasek dulled that sheen in the interest of preserving the band's perceived rawness. Do the Collapse had the songs to be a balls-out, full-production, big-time rock album, but it came out half-baked and uncharacteristically hesitant. Even GBV's so-called "lo-fi" classics sounded like full-on arena rock that just happened to have been recorded in a basement.

If there was any lingering doubt that Guided by Voices' tinniest recordings captured larger-than-life songs, the recent reunion of the group's "classic lineup" has certainly put them to rest. Spot-on renditions of songs like "Gold Star for Robot Boy" and "Game of Pricks" have fully exhilarated quite-big venues like New York's Terminal 5. Here, finally, is a chance for Guided by Voices to extricate themselves from the hedging, low-stakes legacy of "lo-fi." It's a testament to the band's timeless appeal that their reunion shows have felt oddly bereft of nostalgia; their fans are communing directly with the songs, not with memories of the songs.

No matter how many bands employ tape hiss as a fashion accessory, Guided by Voices couldn't be more of an anomaly in 2011. Musicians today are so grateful, so excited, so happy that they can just make music that they like for their friends, man. Ambition seems weirdly tacky right now, while aw-shucks humility is the default pose for nearly every band—especially those with high-powered managers and publicists pulling strings on their behalf. Entire cultural industries have sprung up around attempting to elevate "pretty good" into canonical, and few artists seem hell-bent on making a truly classic record. Robert Pollard wanted nothing less than for Guided by Voices to be a capital-G Great band. He has absolutely, unequivocally succeeded.

More by Matt LeMay


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