Here’s how the story goes: a middle-aged elementary school teacher from Dayton, Ohio, named Robert Pollard was just blowing off steam with his drinking buddies in his spare time. Fueled by R.E.M., The Who and many thirty-racks, they recorded a massive catalog of songs, usually on consumer-grade tape recorders. More of a self-described “songwriter’s guild” than a band, they called themselves Guided by Voices.
After years and years in the bar-band wilderness, they were discovered by college rockers the Breeders and Sonic Youth and praised as a key act in the “lo-fi” music genre. Pollard’s dream of being a rock star was fulfilled, and he went on to mic-spin and high-kick his way through dozens of albums, labels, band lineups and world tours, forever.
It’s a neat narrative, but it only scratches the surface of this very weird and non-linear rock & roll band. On April 7, 2017, Robert Pollard will release his one-hundredth album in totality, Guided by Voices’ August by Cake. Just think about that for a second. That’s more albums than Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell’s discographies combined, and with almost enough room to fit the Beatles in there, too. And that doesn’t even count innumerable singles, EPs and one-offs.
Noisemakers and avant-improvisers like Merzbow and Jandek have donned the hundred-album crown as well, but what separates Pollard is that his records are full of songs. And, astonishingly, the vast majority of these songs are good. Some of them are among the greatest rock & roll I’ve ever heard. Yet, most indie-leaning folks are usually solely familiar with GBV’s 1990s touchstone LPs Bee Thousand (1994) or Alien Lanes (1995), released on Matador Records.
To celebrate the triumphant release of August by Cake, I proclaim that the story of GBV goes far beyond only their most famous run of albums between Propeller (1992) and Isolation Drills (2001), and that some of their hidden releases, side projects and byways can reward even those intimidated or unwilling to be jumped into the cult.
Submitted for your approval, here are 10 alternative routes into Guided by Voices’ massive discography.
Guided by Voices – Same Place the Fly Got Smashed (1990)
GBV’s internal universe (Isolation Drills being another exception that proves the rule) is generally a consequence-free zone where imagination runs wild and the tequila is always flowing. However, their fourth album, Same Place the Fly Got Smashed, is possibly their only record to break the fourth wall and observe the life of a drunk with complexity and nuance. Described by Pollard as a concept album about a Midwestern alcoholic who commits murder and gets the electric chair, the lyrical content throughout gives no quarter. It all begins with a sample from the forgotten made-for-TV movie, Shattered Dreams, with the harrowing sound of a soused husband screaming “You brought me down, you and your family! I did not!” The lyrics to “Pendulum,” which Pollard has called the best he’s ever written, are breathtaking both in specificity (“We’ll put on some Cat Butt and do it up right,” referring to the Seattle grunge band) and in generality (“We’ll be middle-aged children / But, so what?”) Pollard would go on to populate his internal universe with elves, demons and robot boys to much applause, but this is as real as it gets from a bunch of drinking buddies in Dayton.
Guided by Voices – Tonics & Twisted Chasers (1996)
If you’ve heard a little bit of the GBV catalog and prefer its cut-and-pasted, collagist material the best, check this one out. Mostly recorded by Robert Pollard and Tobin Sprout and released as a fanclub-only, limited-pressing LP in 1996, it’s the final dispatch from the band’s lo-fi period before they fully embraced a high-dollar, commercial sound on Mag Earwhig! (1997). The brilliant “Dayton Ohio – 19 Something And 5” is an irreverent update to Randy Newman’s “Dayton Ohio – 1903,” swapping out Newman’s nostalgic imagery of friendly neighbors and cups of tea for children in sprinklers, junkies on the corner and the pervasive smell of fried food. Elsewhere, many of the songs secretly hold up to the band’s best work, especially on the acoustic “Is She Ever?” and goofy Townshend-ism “Ha Ha Man.” And the fact that these top-shelf tunes were gifted to the band’s most devoted fans displays a remarkable generosity on GBV’s part.
Recorded at the peak of GBV’s vying for mainstream commercial success in the late ‘90s, Department mostly came to fruition via the band’s erstwhile guitarist, Doug Gillard. He sent instrumental tracks to Pollard, who recorded vocals over the top of them. The low-key backstory, however, belies that the album contains some of Pollard’s most powerful songs, and proves that the two men were born to play with each other. Gillard’s tightly wound, highly melodic lead guitar work proves an aerodynamic foil to Pollard’s craggy vocal melodies. Great songs abound, but it’s Pollard’s fiercest-ever call to arms, “Do Something Real” that’s alone worth the price of admission. The riff is shit-kicking, and the lyrics speak of cutting through the idiots and nonsense and living an authentic life. This has been returned tenfold by GBV’s audience in a sea of raised fists, when this amazing song was reintroduced into live setlists in 2016.
Robert Pollard – Moses on a Snail (2010)
Moses on a Snail was reportedly written in one furious, 24-hour writing session and in the mother of all bad moods. Yet, almost in spite of itself, it’s one of Pollard’s most beautiful, consistent and underrated solo works. The songs, full of references to conflicts, fights and Sisyphean ordeals, never break their grey, gloomy spell. “A Constant Strangle” turns its frustration in on itself with almost the ferocity of Weezer’s Pinkerton, while the gorgeous “It’s a Pleasure Being You” is an acidic, Beatlesque put-down. I’d be remiss to not mention producer and instrumentalist Todd Tobias as a crucial piece of the puzzle. His brother-from-another-mother camaraderie with Pollard in the studio has often brought out Pollard’s most radiant solo work.
Boston Spaceships – Our Cubehouse Still Rocks (2010)
Pollard’s 2000s side band Boston Spaceships (named after Pollard’s nickname for his favorite Krispy Kreme donut) would reach their culmination with their final, double disc album, Let It Beard (2011). However, the sassy, confident Our Cubehouse Still Rocks is a better entry point for the band. The playing — by Pollard, guitarist Chris Sluserenko (Guided by Voices), and drummer John Moen (The Decemberists) — is concise and well-oiled, keeping Pollard’s more scatterbrained impulses in check in favor of crisp rock songs. Of the whole record, it’s the irresistibly fun “Come on Baby Grace” that belongs in the time capsule. “And I just don’t understand,” razzes a 53-year-old Pollard in the bridge, “Why would you ask if I’m a family man?” Killjoys need not apply.
Guided by Voices – Cool Planet (2014)
In 2010, Guided by Voices reunited its “classic lineup,” including Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Greg Demos and Kevin March. True to form, the guys churned out six full-lengths before splintering again in 2014. Cool Planet is the last entry of this period of the band, and the crew sounds tired, punchy. Planet finds our heroes snowed into the studio during a sub-polar vortex, and, naturally, most of Pollard’s grumbling contributions sound like he just rolled out of bed. It’s co-songwriter Tobin Sprout who steals this show, mostly sending a set of gorgeous solo songs remotely from his home studio in Michigan. Despite physical distance and recent band frictions, Planet really works, capturing an icy, glowering mood unmatched by the band before or since.
One of Pollard’s more critically maligned side projects, the premise of Teenage Guitar is that Pollard plays every instrument and sings every vocal, alone. While the results might be fairly indigestible if you’re looking for the next “Teenage FBI,” Bush is nonetheless a fascinating look into Pollard’s process, in which he drags his songcraft back to the proverbial sandbox to pull it apart and examine it in real time. Somehow, these disjointed, exploratory songs congeal into an amoebic whole of crashing drums, found sounds and strange melodies — and the sonics are thick and frothy. Really hits the spot, if you’re in a certain kind of mood.
Ricked Wicky – King Heavy Metal (2016)
A short-lived collaboration between GBV members and hotshot Dayton guitarist Nick Mitchell, Ricked Wicky was nonetheless a fruitful idea, recording three albums in 2016 (I Sell the Circus and Swimmer to a Liquid Armchair come before and after, respectively) before calling it a day. King Heavy Metal is the best of the three, combining Pollard’s art-damaged psychedelic pop with Mitchell’s bar-band histrionics. Metal begins remarkably with the softly swaying “Jargon of Clones,” one of Pollard’s most beautiful songs, and goes on to bounce from style to style as if hitting pinball bumpers. It all culminates in the glorious, ridiculous “Weekend Warriors,” in which Pollard and Mitchell join together to champion the pencil-pushers and ham-and-eggers over their most enthusiastic impression of The Who. The partnership between Pollard and Mitchell was not to be, as Mitchell briefly joined a Guided by Voices reunion tour as second guitarist in 2016 and was promptly sent home, but Metal brings out the best in both songwriters.
The quickly-released sequel to Ricked Wicky’s King Heavy Metal, Swimmer to a Liquid Armchair is loosely themed around ocean liners, the sea and all things maritime. The term “yacht rock” even applies to the sound, especially during Nick Mitchell’s wickedly fun, Rush-sounding “Plastic Oceanic Getaway.” Beyond this, the group also introduces the lighter sounds of acoustic guitars, mellotrons and theremins — without losing an ounce of their crunch when the band really kicks in. It’s your dusty old prog-rock at a roughly hewn, handmade level, with plenty of lovely interstitial melodies and transitions that move these seafaring tunes along. Best of all is “Poor Substitute,” a clever, self-deprecating pop song that flips a Rolling Stones lyric on its head: “Try me as a beast of burden/I’ll be more than qualified!”
Tobin Sprout – The Universe and Me (2017)
While Robert Pollard is the molten center of Guided by Voices, any fan of the band would be remiss to not pay Tobin Sprout his due. His songs — elfin, melodic — were an essential cog in the machine, and the perfect antidote to Pollard’s classic-rock bluster. Universe, his first solo album in seven years and his Burger Records debut, is an embarrassment of riches, full of charmingly raw power pop (“Future Boy Today/Man of Tomorrow”) and White Album-y ballads (“When I Was A Boy”). Throughout, Sprout sounds courageous, rarely needing to raise his voice even when the fuzz and mellotrons overwhelm. Coming from indie rock’s dark horse, this is a knockout punch.