Guided By Voices – ‘Bee Thousand’ – Round 4: Rob’s Choice

I reviewed ‘Bee Thousand’ when it was released in the Summer of 1994. I’ve tried hard to find a copy of what I wrote, but it’s proving elusive. I had hoped to look back and find my younger self seeing clear-eyed through the tape-hiss and four-track glitches to the heart of a great rock record. perhaps it’s best I don’t catch up with what I did end up committing to print, but I’m pretty sure even then I had a feeling that there was something special about GBV.

‘Bee Thousand’ is the band’s seventh album and was intended to be their last. Robert Pollard was fed up with keeping a band together and ready to return to his teaching career and ‘Bee Thousand’ was recorded to collect the odds and ends left over from GBV’s previous ten years together. Instead it gathered increasingly enthusiastic coverage, catapulting the band into a further decade of recording and Pollard into the heart of the indie rock firmament.

It’s a remarkable album that raises fascinating questions about conceiving, writing, recording and playing rock music. Is Pollard peddling pastiche or is he channeling tunes direct from the heart of British Invasion rock? How can the band bang out songs so poppy, so perfectly melodic, apparently by the yard? 20 songs in 35 minutes! Short, sketchy songs yes, but perhaps any other approach would fail them.

I stopped keeping up with GBV a couple of albums after Bee Thousand, but by then they had repeated the same trick across at least 4 great albums. Listening again in preparation for the Record Club, I was particularly struck by how these songs, these scraps of harmony and rhythm, are the absolute opposite of the disposable throw-aways they should by all means be. They get richer and more rewarding with every listen and every year.

I’m a romantic when it comes to music. Some might describe Robert Pollard as an imitator, a copyist, a lo-fi chancer trading in scratchy punk-pop fragments. When I listen to ‘Gold Star For Robot Boy’, ‘Echos Myron’ or ‘Buzzards and Dreadful Crows’ I prefer to think he’s a magician, pure and very simple.

Tom Listened: It’s a long time since I listened to a prime era GBV album for the first time and I am not sure I can remember how it felt. Certainly, Under the Bushes…. is a much more straightforward beast by comparison and now that I’ve listened to Bee Thousand I can see how Alien Lanes is very much the bridge between the two, mixing Bee Thousand’s tangential skewdness (?) with Under the Bushes pop sensibilities. Bee Thousand is probably the album I most want to own that I don’t already and, although there is NO WAY anyone can make sense of it on a first listen, I am certain that I would still be listening to it regularly (and finding something new every time) in a decade’s time.

Nick listened: I strongly suspect that Rob has been absolutely gagging for the chance to play something this lo-fi on my hi-fi, given my reputation for being such a sound-geek, and, if he suspected that GBV’s aesthetic would be like sandpaper to my brain, then… well, he wasn’t a million miles away, but he wasn’t entirely correct, either. If anything GBV sounded worse than I had expected or feared; the term “lo-fi” has come to mean something different in the 00s than it did in the 80s or 90s, and Bee Thousand sounds absolutely nothing like the last No Age album (which I love) for instance. It literally is like someone playing a broken guitar, someone drumming with pencils on a damp paperback, and someone else mumbling, while they record it on a dictaphone with a cardboard box over it. Looking at the credits, I was astonished how many members GBV had. So I confess that I did find the sonic aesthetic off-putting; it was like having auditory cataracts or something. But I didn’t hate Bee Thousand. I didn’t find it to be the messy, lo-fi Beatles-esque pop classic Rob painted it as either, but I was intrigued by the modus operandi of it, and plenty of the tracks were catchy and melodic beyond the scuzz. Beyond the scuzz, though, it seemed like, with the way the songs, so short, so quick, so cut-up into little chunks, so breaking-up-like-radio-static before your ears, were composed as well as presented, that Bob Pollard was trying his damnedest to obliterate them and make them unlistenable (but in a different way to Alex Chilton, say, on Sister Lovers), and I can’t understand why; is he ashamed of his songs? Scornful of his potential audience? It seems a little churlish to so wilfully do this to your music when people like Ron Sexsmith are desperate to move in the other direction. I’ll have to take Rob & Tom’s words for it that the melodies and tunes seep through and infect your brain after multiple listens, though, because I can’t really see myself digging any further with Guided By Voices…

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3 thoughts on “Guided By Voices – ‘Bee Thousand’ – Round 4: Rob’s Choice”

  1. GBV weren’t wilfully lo-fi, they just ended up recording that way and liked it. They didn’t have a ‘sonic aesthetic’ they just had a basement and bad equipment. Never mind, that’s your loss young man. [Starts making mental notes of which badly-recorded masterpieces to bring to future meetings to annoy Nick and amuse me and Tom… Psychocandy? Sebadoh III? Or, cheeky, ‘Perfect Sound Forever’?]

  2. As soon as you take it beyond one record though, it becomes wilful, I’d argue; you might start out like that by happenstance, but to never move from it makes it an aesthetic, in my book.

  3. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? They’re a rock and roll band, not a shark. They don’t have to move on if they’re happy. They might get shit or repetitive by sticking with what they have, but then how many bands have become shit or ludicrous by forcing themselves to move on when they were only ever good at one thing?

    Timeframe is important too. GBV were still way before the days when you could plug in to a $300 laptop and make great digital recordings. As it happens, they did move into better sound quality, around about the time they started to lose some of the magic, from what i’ve ben told.

    I’ll bring Times New Viking at some point. Now there’s a band with a deliberate sonic aesthetic that you’ll find utterly loathsome…

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