With the announcement of a new studio album and UK date, Getintothis’ Max Richardson looks at the key works by Guided By Voices.
The subversive American LoFi outfit Guided By Voices have recently announced a new studio album, Zeppelin Over China, to be released on February 1, alongside a new track from the album, The Rally Boys.
This is hardly surprising news considering the vast, vast catalogue of works by the band, who often release multiple albums in a single year. To a new listener, this can look like a daunting mountain of material to get through, and, well, quite frankly it is.
If you are a new listener of the band, or an old veteran trying to rediscover their works, stick around and we’ll explore some of their best works. So go on, stick the kettle on.
Guided By Voices are one of those groups who mainly do one thing, but do it exceptionally well. They primarily produce guitar based indie music at its absolute finest, without relying on gimmicks or even excessively single-orientated releases.
Each album by the group feels like a truly cohesive work from start to finish, yet somehow incorporates such a huge scope of stylistic influence without managing to ever feel overwhelming or like too much is happening at once.
With short tracks often around two minutes long, or under, GBV records feel concise and straight to the point, often with as many tracks as possible shoved into a thirty-something minute time period.
Because of just how many albums GBV have produced, it’s really impossible to write about every single record in one article, so this article is just going to focus on a modest selection of the soon-to-be twenty-seven albums produced by the group.
Bee Thousand (1994)
Start here. End of.
This album has it all, boasting twenty songs crammed into a thirty-six minute runtime, all of which are drenched in warm LoFi fuzziness. With callbacks reminiscent of early Bowie on Hot Freaks, Lennon and McCartney on Buzzards and Dreadful Crows and maybe Tommy-era The Who on Kicker of Elves (maybe a bit of a push this one).
The British influence on this album really is prevalent, but Bee Thousand still manages to retain that feeling given only by an American record. GBV perfectly blend the ocean-traversing styles of music, handled delicately so as to not sound too heavy-handed with the incorporation of these different styles.
But if that wasn’t enough to sell you, the fact that the album was recorded in the 90s is frankly audible, bringing the charm of music of that era into this sensational record, with guitar just bathed in Nirvana-reminiscent effects in I Am A Scientist.
This album captures exactly what I love about GBV. The raw, unpolished quality of the album and the recordings just sound ‘real’, in a way that so many albums unfortunately don’t.
Bee Thousand sounds rough around the edges, free from any studio trickery taking away from the charm of the record. Guitars are played just a bit too heavy-handedly, vocals stray slightly away from the intended note, and the entire record is drenched in a fuzzy, unclear wash.
All of these factors produce a truly incredible record, with a real charm unrivalled in any album I can think of. The distinctive character of this record is what sets it apart from any other album I have ever heard and truly puts it in a class of its own.
Class Clown Spots a UFO (2012)
This record follows Bee Thousand in this list simply to demonstrate the different range of styles covered by the band. What I personally love about Bee Thousand, as previously stated, is the unique charm the album offers as a result of the LoFi feel to the record (have you noticed I really do like Guided By Voices?).
2012’s Class Clown Spots a UFO is, in all honestly, one of the albums by GBV I don’t personally enjoy quite as much as the others produced by the group, but is still absolutely deserving of a spot in this article.
Class Clown Spots a UFO is a lot more polished and produced, with an instantly contrasting production that sounds more glossy than much of the other works by GBV. This record showcases a different side to the group, with some longer tracks almost verging on the radio-friendly.
The titular Class Clown Spots a UFO is a simply great track, bringing the group into new territory with light-hearted, jangly guitars and vocals that again maybe hark back to Bowie. Keep It In Motion is another great highlight from the record, with a beautiful tape delay drenching the vocals, accompanied by a crystal clear drum beat and crisp acoustic guitar.
If I previously wrote that influences of The Who were maybe a bit of a stretch of the imagination on Bee Thousand’s Kicker Of The Elves, well it is absolutely no push to imagine Roll Of The Dice, Kick In The Head being sung by Daltrey while furiously swinging a microphone around, much to the dismay of the bemused security stood at the front.
The twenty-one song track listing of the album flies by in no time, speaking volumes of the coherence that GBV are able to create in a record, never once sounding boring or lacking in pace.
Class Clown Spots a UFO is an ideal record for a long bus journey, carrying that perfect blend of energy and tranquility that is so rarely found in albums when listened to as a whole, single piece of work.
Class Clown Spots a UFO is almost dream-like in its delivery, with the album softly swaying from song to song, style to style, leaving you with a feeling of euphoria as it moves so quickly from one place to another, never quite settling comfortably in one specific style.
Alien Lanes (1995)
You may have noticed by now that I’m making a deliberate effort to include the number of tracks and the run time of each record discussed in order to show just how blisteringly frantic each record by the band can be.
Well we have a clear winner in Alien Lanes, which somehow manages to cram a mighty twenty-eight tracks into a forty-one minute run time.
The shortest of these tracks, Cigarette Tricks is a measly nineteen seconds long, while the longest, Alright lasts an impressive (by GBV standards) two minutes and fifty-nine seconds. Evidently, while the group take influence from British artists, Pink Floyd’s epic twenty minute tracks have not made their way into their catalogue.
Alien Lanes is a scorching record, leaping gracefully from electric tracks to acoustic in the blink of an eye, handled with the delicate precision expected from the band.
Standouts include As We Go Up, We Go Down, a light-hearted track carrying a sense of nostalgia or sentimentality, Auditorium, a minimal track free from drums heavily relying on the excellent lyrics of frontman Robert Pollard, and the following track Motor Away, a one of the slightly more biting tracks on the album.
This record is truly sensational, capturing the excellent blend between the two styles shown contrasting in Bee Thousand and Class Clown Spots a UFO, that of polished, highly attuned songwriters combined with rough recordings swathed in a warm glow of sentimental fuzz.
Alien Lanes is among the more prolific works of the group, and for good reason. The album displays a real sense of progression, the evolving style of a group still playing with different techniques and strategies regarding the recording of albums, which really shines through in the music created, with a real sense of fun and joviality audible in the record.
Devil Between My Toes (1987)
One of the groups self-funded early releases, originally only distributed to a small number of friends and family, Devil Between My Toes leisurely fits fourteen tracks in thirty-one minutes, allowing for plenty of breathing room unlike much of the rest of the groups catalogue.
It’s truly a great experience to go back to the start with Devil Between My Toes, to audibly hear the progression of a group from their absolute beginning through to the present day.
I honestly couldn’t explain why, as I don’t think the styles are really that similar, but this record strongly reminds me of Joy Division’s immortal Unknown Pleasures – and as I say, I have absolutely no idea why. Maybe something about the melancholy nature of tracks such as Cyclops perhaps reminding me of Curtis. If you agree or disagree with me, please do feel free to let me know somehow!
This record includes one track with a length of five minutes and ten seconds (!!!), A Portrait Destroyed By Fire, a truly great display of the raw energy and passion found in the music of the band, with whispered lyrics almost inaudible in the first half of the track, and a lengthy introduction of around two minutes showcasing the instrumental skills of the group.
Devil Between My Toes is a standout work by the band for me, really showing the groundwork build on in the rest of their careers. Amazingly, as with much of their catalogue, the music has a timeless quality, unable to be pinned down to a specific period.
Honestly, if this album was released today it would not sound drastically out of place in a contemporary climate, as with much of their catalogue – a testament to their skill at developing a unique style.
Suitcases I-IV (2000, 2005, 2009, 2016)
So, nearly every band has ‘that’ collection of b-sides and other recordings that never quite made the cut. Amazingly, GBV’s collection of such recordings spans a (presumably unfinished) set of four collections so far, each with precisely one hundred tracks on, for a total of four hundred tracks.
To even be able to have four hundred tracks in the vault away from the public eye is just unthinkable, and shows the work ethic of the group, with such a huge collection of songs having been written and recorded but not used.
Even more astounding is that some of these tracks are truly, truly stunning, with the first track of the very first collection of such tracks, Suitcase – Failed Experiments and Trashed Aircraft, The Terrible Two undoubtedly remaining a solid contender for my favourite track by GBV.
These collections are just full to the brim with sorely underrated tracks, some of which really are just astounding, displaying a real attention paid by the group to the smallest lyrical detail and subtle nuance.
Frankly, how some of these songs were apparently not fit for album release is beyond me – if I could write a song even half the quality of some of the tracks in these collections I would happily release it as a single.
The Suitcase collections are so broad it’s very difficult to try and go into detail on track specifics, as the constantly shifting stylistic qualities ever-present in the music of GBV are just too broad to document or generalise for a summation.
If you like the sound of anything discussed in this article, the collection of Suitcase albums are just so broad and all-encompassing that they are required listening material for someone with even a passing interest in the band.
I think that last point is a big part of what really draws me towards GBV. They’re a band who can equally be appreciated by someone with a passing interest, a casual listener who just simply likes the sound of the songs they hear or by a hardcore fan who knows all the lyrics to all their songs.
I don’t consider myself a huge mega-fan, and to tell the truth I couldn’t really recite many lyrics to their songs. But that’s a part of the beauty in their music, that the same song can resonate for a hundred different reasons with a hundred different people.
And of course, this is true of any given artist, but somehow the nature of GBV’s eclectic catalogue makes this particularly true, with the careless quality of their music somehow giving carrying an implication of ‘make of this what you will’.
Pollard’s lyrics are second to none and he always avoids fitting into a stylistic cliché, with all of his innumerable songs sounding fairly unique, without a single specific formula or any obviously recycled lyrics. A true testament to his prowess as a songwriter.
I personally find the music of GBV oddly comforting. Maybe it’s the LoFi aesthetic, or the short song lengths, but there’s something about their music specifically that really resonates with me, with a feeling of carelessness and freedom unparalleled in music.
Every album by the band is superb, and for every one I have listed in this article there are so many more just waiting to be heard. I do feel some strange affinity with their music, as if even the material that I have never heard before is somehow familiar, carrying a strange sense of déjà vu.
If you aren’t already familiar with their work, they really are well and truly worth a listen – and if you are familiar with their work, then thanks for the read. I still feel that GBV remain fairly under appreciated as a band, despite consistent critical acclaim surrounding their releases.
With Zeppelin Over China to be released in February, you’ve got good time to get a foothold with their existing catalogue before then, even possibly in time for their first UK date in fifteen years, an appearance in London’s Underworld in June.
GBV have also recently released The Rally Boys ahead of the release of Zeppelin Over China, a stunning track likely showcasing the style of the record. Despite the short length of the track, somehow The Rally Boys feels longer than it truly is, another testament to the songwriting ability of GBV, that a short track such as this can seem to linger in the mind of the listener.
It’s even been announced that Zeppelin Over China is set to be a double album, with thirty-two songs spread over a leisurely seventy-five minutes. It’ll certainly be interesting to listen to this album, and to further chart the trajectory of GBV’s career.