Photo: Mr Hipster
Bob Pollard is something of a God to me. An elementary school teacher with a penchant for the Who and booze, Pollard started “Guided By Voices” as a little hobby for himself and his friends when they were drunk. Most agree that the albums they produced in their early days were “vanity albumsÛ, LPs created for bragging rights and very little else. Eventually, they penetrated the mainstream with Propeller (for reasons I continue to not understand), then rocketed to the holy annals of 90s “not-’94-punk-but-still-alternative” pop-cultural canon with the Bee Thousand LP. The subsequent kicking of elves and tractor-rape-chaining earned the band a gold star plastered onto their foreheads, but what then?
Alien Lanes is, to me, the definitive GBV album. It has the lofi, the experimentation, Pollard’s liquor-swathed tenor as he reaches for another cold brew, but what made this album stand out to me when I discovered it in the 11th grade?
I think it’s the lyrics. Pollard has always been one of my lyrical icons, his range and creativity out-matched by very few others. In one song, he can write stupidly simple and straight (“Teenage FBI” would be a good example, even though it is not on this album); in others, he gives Dylan a run for his money. A good example of this style of writing is, well, this album. It could be his delivery, and, at worse, my sentimentality, but when Pollard sings his words here, meanings sprout wings, pick me up, and fly me over the tundra of mundanity that is everyday life. These phrases chill me, these rhyme schemes inspire me, and they fill my heart with the greatest high I have encountered in music so far. This is an album that depends on the weight of its vocals, and the words these vocals deliver, in equal degree to its instrumentation. This is a raw, blistering orchestration; and, God willing, I love it to death.
With my interest elaborated on fully, I will discuss each song on this LP individually; assisted by Trashcan Sam, our resident connoisseur on all things static, lofi, and generally t r a s h. So, here are our hot takes:
1. A Salty Salute
Milo: The heavy bass line and simplistic, militaristically minimalistic drumming in this song provide an assuring backbone in juxtaposition with the blaring, almost shoegaze-y guitar. As the intensity of its lyrical declaration to drink grows, another guitar, just as paint-peelingly lofi, strides onto the musical landscape, growling with enough crass to make listeners want to ball their fists and strike the air. I only get this feeling towards anarcho-punk Oi, and that genre is designed to be that way. Those are songs for angry, working-class people, populism in its most intense variation. And yet, this song booms with similar emotion; that stridency erupting with its instrumentation. The lyrics serve as a chant to the soul; “we are with you in your anger” and “proud brothers” are uniting in their delivery, with the latter introducing that second guitar as if it were Washington leading his troops across the Delaware. This is a smoldering foreshadow for the rest of the album, and one of my favorite first tracks on any album, period.
Trashcan Sam: Pollard sounds drunk. His singing can be somewhat lazy here, especially at the beginning with a lip pucker so dry that it dampens the increasing static, almost like throwing water onto an old TV. What happens when you do that? It fucks the screen. Here, it fucks the song. You are already wasted without us, buddy, no need to call us over and give you an excuse to continue chugging your damn Rolling Rock.
2. Evil Speakers
Milo: This song is a great example of the GBV experience. Incredibly short at only about a minute in length, the clean tone of the guitar allows the chord progression to leap around with glee, dancing with the bass to the pounding of the ride and snare. Pollard sings as though he were reciting a psychedelic folktale from memory, with a storyteller’s respect and value of his subject. Regardless, his performance is punctuated by the typical dry humor, furthering a sense of fun for this neat little jam.
Trashcan Sam: Despite the length, this seems like it could have been 20 seconds shorter. It takes effort to manage making one of your shortest songs still feel like a drag, but the band seemed to do so without a hint of regret. This leads me to think that Pollard had to have randomly picked up one of his poems one day and angrily demanded his henchmen to write a song lest they tempt his “kicked out of the band” hand. Get a man gargling wine coolers enough and suddenly he’s God.
3. Watch Me Jumpstart
Milo: Garage-badass. I sense that, outside the chorus, there was very little overdubbing for this song! I welcome it all the more for doing so. The guitar rips with a punk brutality, the drums jingle with abrasiveness, and that alone allows this song to thrive in ferocity. Then, there are the lyrics. There’s no stumbling here. Pollard lays his confidence down plainly, not requiring any attitude to get his point across. In fact, one could say he’s even monotonous during the verse. But, that belies the sincere power in his lyrics, letting it be known that he will “bulldoze every bulldozer away” as if we were Moses and he was giving us the Ten Commandments.
Trashcan Sam: Sometimes this song can be too wordy, stuffing a mouthful into Pollard’s maw. This takes away from the almost live, barely two-track recording, converting the DIY ethos into amateur hour. Also, if this wasn’t GBV, I would despise the chorus; that held note would not sound very good under any other recording conditions.
4. They’re Not Witches
Milo: It’s about penis envy, but through a GBV kaleidoscope. Who knew adolescent anxieties could be recaptured in such an overly complicated but nonetheless pathos-charged mini-song? I wrongfully assumed that the drum-less, acoustic guitar-centered instrumentation meant that we had an art-fart effort, but nah. It’s like a prank; the Pollard brothers, having written this together, were probably snickering throughout the recording. So was I, listening.
Trashcan Sam: I believe the humor allows this song to be the bastard step-brother to “Evil SpeakersÛ, but also because they share the same problems.
5. As We Go Up, We Go Down
Milo: A great plus to working low fidelity is how instruments blend together in the sound, breathing like a living creature over functioning like a machine. This allows musicians the chance to wreathe a creative coat over their product, as, while this concept of an organism still applies, each individual part must have its own distinct sound. Otherwise, we’ll have a creature, sure, but it may as well be in a coma. GBV is the master of this kind of songwriting, and that is certain here. The acoustic melds with the drums, and each strum of a bass string is the next, lucid breath for their creation. It’s static, ecstatic, and is toned to the atmosphere of a fever dream, one that you don’t want to leave.
Trashcan Sam: It sounds like the Beatles dropped too much acid, had sex with the Seeds, and birthed a sociopathic pop-baby trying desperately to fit into bell-bottom jeans. It’s trying to be an artifact, and each “yeah” only solidifies that for me. I never liked that trope in the first place, but GBV has wet dreams about the sixties, so maybe this song is just a Freudian slip.
6. (I Wanna Be A) Dumbcharger
Milo: There’s spookiness to this one. The guitar and bass heave menacingly, like a monster following you down a city street. The echoing chorus allows the song to a post-punk vibe.
Trashcan Sam: The vocals and words are just annoying. This song isn’t very fun to listen to. I came in thinking this was a Ramones tribute because of the title, left thinking Tame Impala actually does deserve my respect.
7. Game of Pricks
Milo: THIS! SONG!! IS!!! MY!!!! ANTHEM!!!!!
Trashcan Sam: The Tigerbomb version was better.
Milo: YOU AREN’T ALLOWED TO TALK.
Anyway, this was the song that introduced me to GVP, and what allowed me to fall in love with this band in the first place. In my opinion, this is the best song Pollard has ever penned, it is his Magnum Opus. The lyrics are relatable, to-the-point one second, and aesthetically emotional the next; there is never a time within the length of the song that Pollard isn’t allowing a door to his soul for the audience.
There’s genuine pain here, mourning at one’s own situation, but with the Pollard tongue curl that adds a chime to the instruments that hug it tight within a static storm. There’s an adventure to be found against all the sonic adversity that causes the narrator to “weep to water the treesÛ, switching moods as they are called down by a friend, by someone.
We leave our protagonist to the sound, diving into the fathoms of dotted, ripping chainsaws, a collected but wild drum beat, until mountains and sandy grass form and scent the world you have entered. This is the world of Pollard, of dry humor, high dreams, of vastness. As his voice returns to repeat the chorus, countdown begins for the song to end. The desperation in his wail, the intensity of the instruments, the sanguinity found in an anxiety, pervade totally triumphant to a climactic final “You owe that to meÛ, leaving a blasted ear and a kid who believes they are finally understood in this world.
A kid who still can’t properly put words to the beauty of this work.
It peeled open my soul, taped it back together, and patted my head to wish me good luck, standing small against the angry wave of life about to strike. But, it also filled my boots with the crumbling shred of bee buzz, pushed me upwards with stilts of soaring notes, and kicked me over it with another grainy punch of its verse as I went to replay the song a 6th time. I’ve lost track of the number of sessions where I lost track of how many number of repeats of this song I was on. I hope this continues to be the case.
8. The Ugly Vision
Milo: This is the closest GBV will ever get to playing country and synthpop music. Yes, country and synthpop. Pollard sounds like a cowboy sitting on a porch with one hand down his trousers and the other clutching a cold one on a crate, one hay propping itself over his mouth. The lingering notes and sounds paint a picture of a heated sky, one’s vision warping with the mirage produced by the warmth. Yet, trails of planes flick across the sky, and bring a disturbance to this “visionÛ; machination against a proverbial desert land. This is corrosion at its sweetest.
Trashcan Sam: Nobody ever let Tobin Sprout near synths again. That man isn’t to be trusted.
9. A Good Flying Bird
Milo: I listened to this one during and after a break-up. It is one of those few sad songs that somehow are happy, or it is one of those few happy songs that somehow are sad. The strum pattern of the heavy first guitar helps enrichen the noise of the second guitar’s bright join-in, and the occasional bass grounds an upward- focused work into a chunky reality. The lack of drums puts the rhythm into the strings’ hands, but the sound is still full. Lastly, the words are pointed forward, realistic as much as they are optimistic and understanding as much as they are proud. This is what a broken heart sounds like after years-worth of mending, or what happens to the tears marks that run down a person’s face when they do not wipe them way. They dry there, leaving a brief road to walk on, rely on; above the outermost layer of one’s skin, until the tears dissipate entirely. This is the last gasp of that pain, the remaining residue of something that was beautiful, even if only in memory.
Trashcan Sam: WHAT IS WITH GUIDED BY VOICES AND SAYING “YEAHÛ? Any legitimacy was canned as soon as that chorus starts piping up with the exclamation. YEAH! YEAH! YEAH! YEAH! NO? NO?! HOW ABOUT NO?! HOW ABOUT FUCKING NO?!
10. Cigarette Tricks
Milo: 21 seconds and I have literally no idea what’s going on. Solid singing and drumming, though! Overall, this is essentially filler, but good filler at that.
Trashcan Sam: Is this the transition in “Baba O’Riley” to “Teenage WastelandÛ? When did we switch to the Who’s discography? Does Pollard even know what he is saying, or is he reeling in shock like we are? Was the synth supposed to sodomize our temples? Was its sidekick, “Keith Moon is Rolling in His GraveÛ, supposed to help make this noisy gangbang sane? Is this the result of an indie rock band having a collective seizure and deciding to record it? The answers may surprise you!
11. Pimple Zoo
Milo: Great title. I’d like to the think the lyrics are purposely tongue in cheek.
Trashcan Sam: Wow, what a mess. You use 45 seconds to confusingly glue soft acoustics to “Watch Me JumpstartÛ-esque instrumentation in conjunction with a jarringly higher quality vocal? And finally apply fade out when there’s 20% of the song left? I ask these questions because there has to be a logical reason for this lazy songwriting, let alone editing. Yet, I don’t think there is.
12. Big Chief Chinese Restaurant
Milo: Cute psych- folk. I love it when GBV use acoustics in this album! The recording quality always mutates the strumming into a crinkling acid trip. And when that electric guitar soars in, I feel swept away by a speeding wind.
Trashcan Sam: Still filler-y. We aren’t provided anything interesting in this track.
13. Closer You Are
Milo: The multi-tracking for the vocals is very Beatles, and the structure of the piece suggests this was purposeful. It is lively pop rock, easy listening.
Trashcan Sam: The solo vocals towards the middle sound misplaced, or too short for this composition. In fact, the vocals are generally quite average, painfully so when Pollard sings “dreamingÛ, “schemingÛ. Pollard is stretching his throat instead of actually singing during these bits. He’s also stretching my nerves with the subpar lyrics.
Milo: The opening delivery from Pollard is a verbal brawl, each word a swing. Background voices pitch in as if our performer was standing in an actual auditorium, but the echoes fly from him rather than out, alive on their own and spilling into his chugging knot of speech. Carrying this platoon is a crackling guitar, with no help or need for it anyway.
Trashcan Sam: I’m listening to a highschooler willingly sacrificing his social life to play at his school’s talent show, signing up last minute and not having practiced his performance even once prior. Boo, I say! Boo!
Read Part 2 Next Week!