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[whitespace] Guided by Voices
Elf Kickers: Guided by Voices question the impulse to kowtow to the youth culture.

Stuff and Nonsense

Bob Pollard wins one for bespectacled fat guys singing about science and trees

By Gina Arnold

GUIDED BY VOICES may be the biggest band you never heard of. For the past five years, the name has been a byword among the indie-rock cognoscenti, a synonym for hip, cool and utterly obscure. The band is worshipped wherever it appears.

Why? If, as David Lee Roth once so famously said, all rock critics love Elvis Costello because he looks like them, then how much more will they love Bob Pollard, the 43-year-old leader of GBV, who, until a few years ago, earned his bread as a fourth-grade teacher in Ohio?

Pollard is almost everyone in indie-rock's beau ideal, proving as he does that dreams can come true in America--and that anyone can be a rock star. Over 10 years, Guided by Voices has released a number of fizzy, charming, lo-fi records on a series of teensy labels (20 by my count, if you include EPs). Then suddenly--around the same time that Nirvana was championing the dual virtues of lo-fidelity and tuneful pop--Pollard was unearthed by Spin magazine and Matador Records, and sent on a never-ending tour, during which he was lauded by the collected college radio geeks of the country and made into an alternarock demigod.

But although Guided by Voices' mid-'90s records like B-Thousand and Alien Lanes had their points, they were hardly the stuff that hits are made of. Pollard's long been called a genius, but the man cannot for the life of him finish his thoughts. Each of the songs on those LPs--and Pollard himself has estimated that he's recorded (not just written) 2,500 such songs--lasted fewer than two minutes.

They'd all go "verse, chorus, end"--if you were lucky. Sometimes it was just "verse." Or even just "chorus." In his lyrics, Pollard had a maddening way of refusing to think too hard. Surreality is all very well, but songs like "The Future Is in Eggs" and "Kicker of Elves," amusing though they are, are hardly memorable after they are over, which is probably why, however much ink and devotion Pollard has previously gathered to his bosom, the best he could have hoped for was a novelty hit or a song on a soundtrack.

Alas, even that is no longer in the cards, since the type of hipness that Pollard has long engendered has fast been fading away. In a land where Limp Bizkit is king, there is little room for dorky bespectacled fat guys singing songs about science and trees--and that's a shame.

LUCKILY FOR US, Guided by Voices has finally made a really accessible record that doesn't sacrifice Pollard's unique qualities as an artist--and it's done so right under the wire.

Do the Collapse (TVT) is Pollard's first, last and only bid to be taken seriously not as a hip icon but as a songwriter, and it succeeds better than could be expected. The album certainly contains all the fizzy, tuneful attractiveness of the earlier records, but here some of the songs also have meaning and cohesion.

Indeed, in a perfect world, there'd be room for this quirky LP alongside hits by They Might Be Giants, Ween and XTC because GBV songs are still pretty goofy, but they are now far better produced (by the Cars' Ric Ocasek) and thus more listenable.

Some of them now even have a subtext. On the lead track, "Teenage FBI," for example, Pollard questions the human impulse to kowtow to youth culture, singing, "Someone tell me why I do the things that I don't want to do? When you're around, I'm somebody else, I'm still being followed by the Teenage FBI."

Two other songs, "Hold on Hope" and "Wrecking Now," are downright sentient--and almost every other song is, if not entirely straightforward, a total hum-alonger--stop yourself if you can.

"Zoo Pie" is an overly fuzzy indie-rock entrant in the Sonic Youth sweepstakes, but "Things I Will Keep" makes good use of Pollard's poignant fake English voice and jangly guitars. "Hold on Hope," the record's best chance at a single, has an almost '70s-esque anthemic chorus of "everybody's got a hold on hope," while "In Stiches" is a Big Rock Anthem, complete with R.E.O. Speedwagon chords and Pollard assuming his I-secretly-like-Styx voice.

Since Do the Collapse is produced by former Car Ric Ocasek, these things are exaggerated, but not annoyingly: Guided by Voices has always had a tendency to pilfer from bad sources--mixing it up so thoroughly with crazed lyrics and indie rock values that its essential reliance on syrupy sentimentality is often overlooked. And rightly so.

Being from the Midwest, all GBV is, of course, aiming at Cheap Trickness. But instead it's all faintly reminiscent of the work of artists like dBs, Love Tractor, the Embarrassment, Tommy Keene, the Windbreakers and many other mid-'80s artists who never got their due anyway. The album is thus a bubbly, quick stew of pop guitarsy-ness, but with much more spunk than most of those acts ever mustered.

The hook on "Surgical Focus," for example--an obscurely worded song about looking through your lover's lies--is so hook-sticky you can't believe you haven't heard it before. So are those of "Optical Hopscotch" and "Wrecking Now." But as those titles imply, Do the Collapse has almost as much gibberish as previous GBV LPs, albeit gibberish encapsulated in music so peppy and pretty you'll find yourself singing along anyway--and not really being sorry. One song, "Wormhole," begins, "I am an earthworm," and continues, "la lalalala, it's a lonely night."

But as dumb as that sounds, the song is not just nonsense. Like all Pollard's best songs, its metaphor is applicable to human life, and its language, though weird, is both poetic and interesting--all things that can't be said about 99 percent of the rest of rock music.

Indeed, if Bob Dylan had as good a grasp of English imagery--well, Bob Dylan would be a lot better. Perhaps Pollard does deserve the accolades he's gathered over the years for having combined such a pleasant mix of assets: poesy, lightheartedness and the entire back catalog of Badfinger.

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From the August 25-September 1, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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