Wednesday, October 24, 2007

[043] Bee Thousand

Album: Bee Thousand
Artist: Guided By Voices
Release Date: June 1994
Label: Scat [reissued on Matador]
Producers: Guided By Voices

“I am a lost soul, I shoot myself with Rock & Roll
The hole I dig is bottomless, but nothing else can set me free
And I know what’s right,
But I’m losing sight of the clues
For which I search and choose to abuse
To just unlock my mind,
Yeah, just unlock my mind”
- from “I Am A Scientist”

I would love to know the guy that “found” Guided By Voices, in that moment in 1992, 93, 94. What was the tipping point? What forced them out of the basement into the light? Did a college journalist see them in a bar or at a county fair, and he or she was blown away by Robert Pollard’s Roger Daltrey act, all mic swinging and high kicks? Did the crowd stand in awe of their alcohol consumption? Or was it just some kid down at the local record store in Dayton, Ohio, who found their cassette which was there on consignment? Guided By Voices got “famous” on the back of Pollard’s songwriting, but understand that they could be Any Band, from Anytown, USA. They are the muffled, primitive noise coming from your neighbor’s closed garage after school. They are the scrappy losers that you ignore on the corner stage in your sports bar. They are you and your friends picking up guitars and just hanging out. Guided By Voices are timeless because they aren’t really special. They aren’t studio geniuses. They aren’t mad artistes. They’re just some guys in jeans, with beers in one hand, comic books in the other, and The Who on their turntable. Shit, they probably even have a wannabe Roger Dean painting on the side of their beat up van.

For most people, Bee Thousand (sounds like ‘Pete Townshend’, get it?) was the first time they heard of GBV; it spread like a rumor from one low-watt college radio station to the next on legends of the band drinking more PBR than that frat down the road. But GBV had existed in various forms for twelve years at that point, and they had put out six albums only a few people in the Midwest had ever heard. Rob Pollard and the rest of his buddies were just recording their stuff for fun, on tape recorders and cheap 4-tracks. They couldn’t be bothered with expensive studios; if they wanted to play, they’d just invite each other to hang out, and whoever showed up was in the band for that day. It wasn’t like Pollard was gonna quit being a fourth grade teacher for Rock & Roll. Besides, he wanted to build a family of his own now - Bee Thousand was supposed to be the band’s swan song, the surrender of a prolific poet to his 30-something reality. But it wasn’t to be; his songs were too good to not get noticed by someone somewhere. Instead of retiring from Rocking, they retired from day job hell. Guided By Voices was their job now, and they had a classic album to tour in support of.

To hear Bee Thousand and to have seen GBV in concert were two totally different experiences. The live show was a marathon, a test to see how devoted you really were to Rock & Roll; the album was a sprint, 20 short bursts in 37 minutes. I remember listening to the album for the first time, and I thought I missed something. But GBV could wring more pop perfection out of 90 seconds than most bands could in a whole album, and each album Guided By Voices released was like a mixtape filled with forgotten bands from your best friend. It’s up to debate if Bee Thousand was the best; some others like Alien Lanes or Under The Bushes, etc. But as most of their albums are so hit-or-miss simply because they cram them so full with so many songs, Bee Thousand has the highest batting average, with only the post-punk experiment “Her Psychology Today” warranting a meet between your index finger and the ‘next’ button. Also, Bee Thousand was the first to be found and it was rightly regarded as a treasure from the start. Pollard’s lyrics immediately twist your brain as the wistful “Hardcore UFO’s” wafts in; his fragmented statements and stories burrow their way into your brain like that Lewis Black joke – “If it wasn’t for my horse, I wouldn’t have spent that year in college” – and you wonder for days, months, maybe years, what the hell Pollard is talking about. The power ballad “Tractor Rape Chain” is one of the album’s enduring highlights, and I can surmise that the verses are about one of Bob’s favorite subjects, trust issues, but can someone tell me what the hell is a tractor rape chain??!!? Hey look, even as I type this, MS Word is giving me the squiggly, green bad-grammar line! The program and I have no idea, but what I can tell you is I walk around humming the song for days after I hear it.

Most of the songs are too short (“You’re Not An Airplane” is 33 seconds long), and Pollard too much of a lyrical scatterbrain, art-damaged beat poet disciple (“Hot Freaks” is one of his best rants), to really form a specific narrative, but they know it doesn’t matter much; “Louie Louie” and “Wooly Bully” weren’t exactly Dylan, but they killed anyway. Because of the opaque lyrics, built more on how the words sound together, a lot of the tracks work as perfect little Pop mood pieces. “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” begins as hushed folk before the fuzzy guitar clashes with a recorder (probably borrowed from Bob’s school). “Kicker Of Elves” recalls “Pinball Wizard” while simultaneously predicting Spoon and The Futureheads. The jangle of “Echos Myron” sounds like The La’s “There She Goes” played too fast. “Buzzards & Dreadful Crows” and “Smothered In Hugs” are anthemic bar-band fare, “Gold Star For Robot Boy” their Power-Pop cousin. Then there’s the melancholy introspection of “I Am A Scientist”, one of GBV’s certified classic tunes, if not THE classic. Pollard shoots straight, accepting his fate in the grand scheme of the things; it’s a heartbreaking masterpiece of self-deprecation and self-examination, with the simple arrangement echoing the uncertainty of the narrator. It’s a beautiful song, and it was the turning point of the band’s story… Their story is the secret history of Rock & Roll, representing for all the thousands of garage bands that last past high school, but never escape their hometown scene and the slow death of a 9-to-5. Guided By Voices escaped at the last minute, but, having given the world Bee Thousand and thousands more songs in the name of the part-time rockers working at the office or the factory, they get to kick back now. They might even meet you at happy hour and raise a glass in Rock & Roll’s honor, and toast to the next unknown to emerge from the basement.

01. “Hardcore UFO’s”
02. “Buzzards And Dreadful Crows”
03. “Tractor Rape Chain”
04. “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory”
05. “Hot Freaks”
06. “Smothered In Hugs”
07. “Yours To Keep”
08. “Echos Myron”
09. “Gold Star For Robot Boy”
10. “Awful Bliss”
11. “Mincer Ray”
12. “A Big Fan Of The Pigpen”
13. “Queen Of Cans And Jars”
14. “Her Psychology Today”
15. “Kicker Of Elves”
16. “Ester’s Day”
17. “Demons Are Real”
18. “I Am A Scientist”
19. “Peep-Hole”
20. “You’re Not An Airplane”

"I Am A Scientist" [video]

"Tractor Rape Chain" [live, 2001]

- BONUS: "Buzzards & Dreadful Crows" [live in St. Paul, 06.04]
- BONUS: "Smothered In Hugs" [live in Chicago, New Year's Eve 2004]
from the band's final live performance
- BONUS: "Queen Of Cans & Jars" [excerpt - live in St. Paul, 06.04]

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