Before this week, I had never listened to Guided By Voices’ 1994 album, Bee Thousand. For many, this is not such an egregious omission on my part; I know plenty of die-hard indie fans who never really went though a Guided By Voices phase. They are the kind of band that everyone always has in their peripherals at the very least, but I think for many go mostly unexplored. My first real memory of Guided By Voices was my junior year of high school. I recall this senior girl who I sort of knew sitting slumped in the hallway in front of her locker. She would always wear jeans and a rotation of about five band t-shirts, all of bands that I considered somewhat superfluous since I was pretty much listening to the Velvet Underground and Pavement exclusively at that point in time. Someone approached this girl, asking what was wrong. She responded, “Guided By Voices broke up!” My thoughts, if I remember correctly, were, “Hm. They’re a current band. Well, they can’t be any good.”
Oh boy was I wrong (not to mention that this girl was wrong, too, because Guided By Voices is more of an idea of a band than an actual band that can break up, in my opinion). Bee Thousand is an absolute masterpiece, and Robert Pollard (the guiding force and only constant member of the band) is a genius. It’s funny that I thought of them as a current band at any point in 2004, because I now identify them with the early nineties (ironically, much like the Pavement I was enjoying at the time). I can’t emphasize enough the importance of listening to this album in order to understand indie rock music today. My first impression when I pressed play was, “Wow. This sounds horrible. They weren’t kidding about the lo-fi thing.” GBV is known for their basement recording methods, and are often credited as coalescing the lo-fi genre, a term you’ll hear me tossing around this blog frequently. That’s all well and good, but is by no means the most exciting thing about this album for me. Bee Thousand is thirty-six and a half minutes long and has twenty tracks, the longest of which is three minutes and five seconds. Robert Pollard doesn’t write songs; he writes ideas and turns them into little gem nuggets of music. The man entirely reinvents what the word song means. Holy crap. Take the “Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” for example. Pollard writes an angsty little melody that is so achingly beautiful I never want to stop listening to it. He rides it out for a minute and forty five seconds. It’s a fragment of beauty rather than a finished idea, and it is so much better that way.
Pollard is also an out-of-this-world lyricist, in more ways than one. First of all, you have to love an album who’s catchiest song is a minute long and consists mostly of “Doo doo doo doo doo doo kicker of elves.” Let’s not forget the absolutely bizarre/fanciful lyrics of “Gold Star For Robot Boy” and the song title “Tractor Rape Chain.” But the thing that really kills me, the real kicker in all of this superb lyrical madness, is that every so often there’s a moment of such stark clarity it absolutely takes you by surprise. My favorite song on Bee Thousand (I think, maybe) is “I Am A Scientist.” “I am a scientist/ I seek to understand me/ All of my impurities and evils yet unknown/ I am a journalist/ I write to you to show you/ I am an incurable/ And nothing else behaves like me.” That strikes me as so honest. To assert your own absolute uniqueness in a song like that takes a lot of guts and intimacy, and you don’t hear that too often- especially sandwiched between elves and robot boys.
Listening to this album makes me think of some of the rhetoric around one of the latest contenders for top ten albums of 2009, The Pains of Being Pure At Heart’s self-titled debut. Many critics are saying that the noise-pop album is a complete throwback to the very early nineties, merely an album derivative of bands often grouped together with Guided By Voices, like the recently reunited My Bloody Valentine. Most are saying that even so, the album does what it does very well. One sentence from the Pitchfork review (who are very pro-POBPAH) particularly sticks out to me. “The Pains of Being Pure at Heart simply made a slyly confident debut that mixes sparkling melodies with an undercurrent of sad bastard mopery, and you’re just being a dick if you think the past has some kind of patent on that. That’s just the way good pop music works.” Aside from the fact that Ian Cohen called you a dick if you happen to disagree with him, this is a really interesting idea. Does music need to be original to be considered great, or does it merely need to be great?
Bee Thousand is not only great because it has that unspeakable quality of awesomeness that makes your stomach turn when you hear certain fuzzy chord changes or distorted lyrics, but because it’s entirely innovative. Pollard, like the Ramones before him, deconstructed the idea of a song. He wasn’t the first person to write short songs (I just mentioned the Ramones, and there were plenty before them, too) and he certainly wasn’t the last (every other band that came after the Ramones), but what was done on this album, in the particular time and space of the early nineties, was groundbreaking and brand new. So while we can appreciate POBPAH as a really good new album, I think that looking back at old albums like Bee Thousand shows us that we can’t discount the fact that it is retreading well-worn territory. POBPAH is a very good album, in my opinion, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to hold our music up to a standard of absolute ground-breaking perfection. I’ll enjoy this recent release for now, but I’m still waiting for something great. Thanks Robert Pollard. I’m particularly glad that this was the first week I listened to Bee Thousand.