Unnecessary affection (or the post that might garner a comment)
For the most part I don’t much care for Guided By Voices. In the arena of disgustingly prolific songwriters, Robert Pollard lands low on my list. Since 1987 he’s been stricken by a case of aural diarrhea, releasing album after album of forgettable, snoring rock and roll tunes further lionizing the bloated and busting Beatles and Who. No, not everyone can keep creative after nearly 20 years, and not many really should. But with a career that long, there are bound to be a few gems.
Human Amusements At Hourly Rates, Bob’s personally assembled best of, does a decent job of trimming away the lo-fi gristle (even he knows he’s pooped out more than his share of turds), and is still a good 15 songs longer than my line of patience. With that in mind, I’m profoundly thankful that my two favorite GBV songs are tracks three and four. And oh how contrary, I love them so.
“Everywhere With Helicopter” from 2002’s Universal Truth and Cycles was the first GBV song I heard, downloaded nearly five years ago from the once attractive Insound mp3 vaults. The snearing menace of the opening bars catches the ear with its stylistic familiarity, but is ultimately snottier than the historical jangle inspiring it (so is Pollard’s whining announcement of the song’s title). Giving way to a flood of buzzsaw guitar licks (if you listen deeper, the two guitar lines rub against each other like frenzied siamese twins) and avid, almost extracurricular snare hits, it’s one of the better revisions of the British Invasion to sound so retroactively modern. Pollard achieves a satisfactory whine while piddling out non sequiturs, his voice more an instrument than narrator, his energy solidly behind the songwriting instead. Less of a centerpiece than an off ramp to the next verse, the chorus is just ok. I’m more interested in the ripchord lead and nashed teeth that steals dance partners sandwiched between the chorus and verse. If you’re not imagining a serious case of solo face, well, there it is. The bridge is no more than the intro, accruing melodic force enough to power through the rest of the song. And there you have it: you’ve gone everywhere in helicopter.
My feelings for “I Am a Tree” (from 1997’s Mag Earwig!) are even stronger than for “Everywhere…”, as Pollard is merely the singer. Written by guitarist Doug Gillard, the tune most resembles its subject matter: a thick and singular trunk of repetitious melody, gnarly branches of harmonic accompaniment, and an old, wise-sounding voice to give the vegetation personality. And wow, ol’ Bob really pulls through. Solemnly intoning lines like “Don’t strip off my bark — I have been stripped of it before” and “Get off my limb — for I will break before I bend,” the line between Pollard and pine is wonderfully unclear. The galloping prechorus hurls wind into the equation and hints of prog precision, still whirling as Bob yelps key lyrics over the noisy gusts: “I’m planning to see / I’m planning to feel you all over me / So climb up my trunk and build on your nest / Come and get the sap out if me.” They pull the same “intro as bridge” trick again but with a much more powerful, raging solo that slowly recedes into the still thrumming rhythm guitar line. It’s one of those exhaustive songs causing ragged breathing and maybe a few beads of sweat and burns off a slew of emotional calories for the listener’s efforts.
The two songs don’t have much in common besides my random attachment. They just stand out from Guided By Voices’ extensive and oftentimes droll catalog (and yes, I’m well aware my opin is in minority standing there) as well executed, clearly presenting Pollard’s (and Gillard’s) vision. I might be a bit hard on the group, but I will stand behind these two songs like the most selective fairweather fan you’ve ever known.