“I love the sound of background noise
I wanna hear the crack in the singer’s voice
Fingers moving on the fret board
Every time he plays a new chord”
(Art Brut, “Slap Dash For No Cash”)
When most people think about the best records of the 90’s they recall classics such as Radiohead’s OK Computer, Nirvana’s Nevermind or maybe REM’s Automatic for People. The name Guided by Voices almost never comes to mind with adjectives such as classic or masterpiece. But the truth is that Bee Thousand is probably the most underrated album of the 90’s and it’s time for it to get its deserved respect.
Although it was their seventh (!) album Guided by Voices recorded it on audio recorders (just as their previous albums) instead of in a fancy studio album. Guided by Voices (or GBV) turned the minimum budget production to their trademark – background noises, guitars deliberate feedbacks and a live recording that sounds like a bootleg. That’s the lo-fi genre. But to put so many different bands under one genre only because their poor recording quality is like putting Neil Young and Justin Bieber on the same category just because they were born in Canada.
This album contains 20 songs, which for some sounds like a long ride but the catch is that the average song lasts no more than 2 minutes. Robert Pollard, the band’s lead singer and songwriter has a Lennon/McCartney kind of quality – this guy just knows how to write a melody and every song on that album is truly amazing and genuinely moving.
There’s an undeniable dissonance between the horrible recording quality (even in terms of lo-fi) and the superb songs but that only emphasize how good they are. For example in the opening song “Hardcore UFO’s” you can clearly hear the guitar track drops out at one point. At first listen it will sound horribly unprofessional. After a while you realize it’s an essential part of the song and every flaw has its beauty. GBV songs have the DNA to be the perfect pop songs although they don’t always follow the same pattern. They manage to keep the perfect balance between simplicity (music) and sophistication (lyrics).
Take the beautiful “Echos Myron” for example, as it resembles the band’s intention to sound like a “Beatles bootleg” – the melody, the harmonies and the ascending bass (you can’t miss it- listen to the solo guitar with bass in the background). It’s definitely the perfect feel good song.
Pollard is a genuine writer; the lyrics are varied but mostly consist of associative -and very imaginative – writing. Short list of ideas behind the songs: Hardcore UFO’s, Robot Boy, Queen of Cans and Jars, Pigpen and Elves (perhaps too much illegal substance for the writing sessions?).
“I am a lost soul
I shoot myself with rock & roll
The hole i dig is bottomless
But nothing else can set me free”
(Guided By Voices, “I am a Scientist”)
Even Pollard himself was proud to be the writer of this song: “the first song that showed some maturity in my ability as a songwriter.” I couldn’t agree more. Some say this song is about substance abuse, no matter if its drugs or alcohol. There are many subtle references to drugs on this album. Another is “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” which was written after an LSD experience.
To sum up, take Bee Thousand as a tapas meal – many eclectic small dishes, each one is different and unique and by the time you understand the taste you move to the next one. Enjoy your meal!