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At the beginning of the song "Expecting Brainchild," from Guided By Voices' 1993 LP Vampire on Titus, a woman's voice intones: "Bob, will you and Living Praise Choir lead us in 'To God Be the Glory?'"
It's a silly gag, nothing more than a found religious recording inserted as a goof on GBV leader Bob Pollard's name. But every time I hear it, it sounds more and more appropriate. Despite the low-fi, intentionally rudimentary sound Guided By Voices has become infamous for, there's a certain sweeping grandeur to the band that's almost religious in nature. It's there in the name alone: "Guided By Voices" is a better name for a choir than "Living Praise" ever was.
Formed in the mid-'80s in Dayton, Ohio, by Pollard, an elementary school teacher and Who fanatic, Guided By Voices spent most of the next decade making gorgeous pop records that nobody heard. By the time somebody finally noticed them, with the release earlier this year of their Bee Thousand LP (which had its initial release on CD as well as LP, a first for the band), they'd recorded and released somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 songs, each one more blissfully, perfectly odd than the last.
Guided By Voices' seven LPs are like capsule histories of pop music, sprawling, scattershot collections of two-minute songs and 30-second fragments that collectively cover every highlight of the territory between the Beatles and Husker Du, one hook at a time. Thanks to the band's newfound status as indie-rock icon, most of those records are now available for the first time outside of Ohio. That means fans living in other parts of the country now discover themselves in the enviable position of trying to absorb all seven of GBV's LPs, or as many as they can find, all at once, rather than over the eight-year span of their release.
To do so is to experience the closest thing a jaded indie-rocker can get to religious conversion: nothing, neither pop music nor anything else, sounds anywhere near the same afterward. Guided By Voices' records, while undeniably beautiful, are also murky, distorted and fragmentary
-- often all at the same time. To accept them as beautiful -- and it's almost impossible not to do so -- is to alter your very conception of what "beautiful" means.
Along with Pavement and Sebadoh, Guided By Voices has of late become the poster child for the low-fi aesthetic, a loose movement of indie rockers and fans who fetishize the fuzzy, hissy, decidedly non-digital sound of music recorded on the cheap, in basement studios and garages.
Part low-budget pragmatism, part deliberate reaction to the cult of sonic perfection that blossomed with the advent of digital recording, low-fi is composed at its most basic level of nothing more than cheapskate indie rockers who believe you shouldn't have to sell a kidney to make a record that sounds good. On a deeper level, though, low-fi is also a playful, often backhanded critique of that most essential postmodern practice: nostalgia.
Anyone in the music business will tell you that nostalgia's what it's all about. From the retro-boogie of the Black Crowes to the glut of Classic Rock radio stations flooding the airwaves, playing to the public's fuzzy memories of better days long past is a billion-dollar business.
What a band like Guided By Voices knows, and what none of those history-selling big shots seem to understand, is that our memories don't really have much to do with specific songs. Hell, few people had ever heard "You Can't Always Get What You Want" in its full sonic majesty until a few years ago, when Beggar's Banquet finally came out on CD.
What we heard, and what our memories are made of, were snippets of sound. The timbre of Mick's voice rattling the dented paper cone of the dashboard speaker in your '74 Mustang II. The sound of that choir of angels fading in and out of the static as you drove under highway overpasses and telephone wires.
Those sounds are what low-fi bands such as Guided By Voices, and their fans, are trying to capture on their records, whether they know it or not. When Pollard's voice suddenly springs forth, all tinny and distant, from Vampire on Titus' "Wished I Was a Giant," he's replaying you the memory of something -- the way the Kinks used to sound, maybe, coming through the plastic tone arm and steel needle of your first childhood foldup record player.
Listening to Pollard and his band meander through 30 years of pop-music sounds on record, it's hard to tell just how much of the low-fi fuzz is there for a conscious, nostalgic reason and how much is just low-budget noise. And it's equally impossible to tell if Pollard's dead-on Roger Daltrey imitation is unconscious or a deliberate, postmodernist joke.
Talking to Pollard in person, it's clear he's serious about some things -- beer, for one. But for the most part, having him across the table does little to clear up the question of whether he's totally serious in his rock-music fetishes, or whether he's poking gentle fun at those who are.
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