Guided By Voices have released two albums this year, virtually back-to-back. This in itself is not unusual as GBV honcho Robert Pollard has released a lot of albums. Many albums. August By Case, the first of 2017’s records was his 100th official release (including solo albums, pseudonyms and other groups), and all this leading up to his 60th birthday in October.
So he’s put out a lot of albums, why are these new two special?
Starting out in Dayton, Ohio in 1983, Guided By Voices are an American indie rock institution, gaining notoriety in the mid-90s thanks to the breakthrough albums Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes—two timeless masterpieces that continue to win over new fans.
After a brief reunion and a handful of albums by the classic lineup that appears on Bee Thousand, a further iteration of the band and a new line-up being announced was a surprise in itself. When initial reports of live shows to promote the 2016 GBV album Please Be Honest started hitting the internet, excitement levels went into the red.
But here’s where it gets tricky.
Once you dive in and start to lap up this band, once you actually ‘get’ what Pollard is doing and it clicks, it’s a slippery slope into madness. As well as the 101 official albums, there’s probably another 100 EPs, bootleg live recordings, fan made compilations—it starts to get ridiculous. There’s only so many hours in the day? How is it possible to listen to all this?
This extremely large back catalog, decade-spanning mythology and the endurance of Pollard and the various bands leads to some kind of indie-Grateful Dead style obsessive fandom. There used to be a common trope in reviews for GBV that Pollard was a bad editor, that he released so much music because he didn’t know what his good material was. Problem is, if you listen to literally any of his releases a couple of times, the songs sink and you realize that it is actually brilliant as well.
Never mind being a completist (the 500 hand-crafted, unique album covers of the original Propeller album make this literally impossible)—even just a casual interest to grab some on vinyl is a slippery slope. Try and get anything outside the few albums still being pressed is going to hurt the Paypal account. Small pressings make the records even more collectible, it’s not unheard of for even Pollard solo albums to go for $300 – $400. Depressing.
Here’s the other kicker: Guided By Voices do not tour outside of America anymore, and haven’t for many years. I once tracked down Bob’s booking agent and said I represented a ‘wealthy consortium of indie rock fanatics’ who were willing to match any price Bob might put on for a return visit to Australia (following their only 2000 tour) The agent replied, mercifully (certainly not believing my pitch) and was friendly enough to offer the devastating news that Guided By Voices would certainly never tour outside of the US again. It seems that even if Bob did decide to get once more board an international flight, there would be lucrative offers from European festivals eager to host the world’s greatest rock and roll band and that Australia might not be a priority.
So here we are in 2017. Guided By Voices is a new band with a new life, and have released two of the greatest albums of Pollard’s career.
August By Cake is a sprawling two-album affair which resembles a ‘traditional’ GBV album (ie Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes) in its arrangements, although with a production aesthetic of studio and home studio quality, rather than the lo-fi tape recordings that made those albums the cult holy grails they are. How Do You Spell Heaven is a tight single-album recording that has been compared to the mid-2000s era, but actually goes well beyond that, and certainly realizes Bob’s dream of being in a proper rock and roll band. Is it possible that 100 albums worth of experience have been distilled into two albums of perfect rock and roll? Apparently yes. At this point the GBV superfans are starting to click and realise exactly what’s happening right now.
The global Guided By Voices community have sought each other since the earliest days to debate and trawl over the minutiae of every release. A mailing list called Postal Blowfish morphed into online discussion groups, and eventually (like everything else) Facebook groups. Every show is documented in excruciating detail and checking the GBV Facebook groups in the morning has become a self inflicted beautiful, painful routine of the worst kind of unavoidable FOMO. Set lists are shared, blurry videos pored over and rabid fan testimonials of three-hour concerts of singalong insanity are studied with a tear in the eye.
Watching your favorite band celebrate an improbable late innings home run (I have no idea if this baseball analogy is accurate, but it’s appropriate) is bittersweet and heart wrenching to watch when the likelihood of witnessing it first-hand slips away, keeping me awake at night. Who knows what the new band members are capable of talking him into.
At least we can be grateful for the records, and I’m big enough to feel joy for our American comrades in rock who are getting to experience this marvel in their hometowns.
I hope they realize how lucky they are.
Chris Yates is a Sydney writer and musician. Follow him here.
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