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Ecstatic Static

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.

The presence of Guided By Voices' new bass player, Spin magazine writer Jim Greer, doesn't help matters any. Greer's writing has always had a deadpan sense of humor to it -- he once wrote an April Fool's profile of the fictional "next Seattle" music scene in New Market, Virginia, that was so earnestly convincing it had A&R weasels from several labels scurrying to hop the next plane south.

Now Greer has hung up his pen, temporarily at least, to play bass with Guided By Voices and spend time with his wife, Breeders leader Kim Deal, who grew up in Dayton and moved back there when the Pixies broke up. Talking to Pollard and Greer at once, I'm left with the eerie, utterly irrational feeling that this whole Dayton, Ohio, scene could be just another Jim Greer April Fool's joke.

It's not, of course -- it would take a warehouse full of writers as good as Greer to invent a songwriter even half as good as Pollard. But the uneasy feeling remains, especially when Pollard and Greer begin babbling back and forth about an upcoming GBV project, a lushly arranged and recorded concept album about a fictional band, "King Shit and his Golden Boys," who are, according to Pollard, "kind of like us -- a band that's been kicked around for a while who finally begin to succeed."

I'd automatically assume he was joking if not for two things: Pollard's just enough of an old-school rocker to think a concept album's a cool idea, and Guided By Voices was kicked around its hometown scene so hard and for so long -- and with so little attention -- that the band may never shake the recognition obsession it developed.

Regarding GBV's newfound notoriety, Pollard says, "This is a rock fantasy for us -- it still hasn't registered. People will be clapping and cheering, and I'll be thinking, "Are they making fun of us?" when they're really going crazy."

If Pollard's truly that paranoid on-stage, he doesn't show it, unless you consider his nonstop drinking a symptom. But then, drinking's an essential rock and roll motif, and if Guided By Voices on record is a band in love with the history of recorded pop music, then Guided By Voices live is just as in love with the history of live rock and roll.

Or at least Bob Pollard is. On-stage he dives full-tilt into his songs, swinging from the mic stand, dancing as if nobody ever told him that 36-year-old ex-schoolteachers weren't supposed to be as hyperactive and limber as 25-year-old rock stars. He's got a whole catalog of rock star moves, including the microphone swing and the dramatic, lunging leg-cross. Most impressive, though, are the high kicks, great, arcing, full-extension head-high kicks that would look difficult coming from a spandex-clad teenager, let alone the thirtysomething Pollard.

"Those are the Paul Stanley kicks," he grins, as if they were just one more gym-class lesson. The only problem he has with them is the fact that he can't do them with both legs. "I was a pitcher for years, so all my strength is in this leg," he says, slapping his right thigh. "Once my right leg was getting sore, so I tried to do the other leg. It was weird, like jerking off with your left hand. Almost fell over."

Watching Pollard clowning around in performance, one thing is clear: however ironic Guided By Voices' pop-music pastiche may sound on record, for the 90 minutes they're on-stage the band emphatically believes every corny notion of rock and roll redemption.

And when he steps to the mic and bellows, in his best Roger Daltrey voice, "And hey let's throw the great party / Today for the rest of our lives / The band's just about to get started / So throw the switch, it's rock and roll time," you've got no choice but to believe as well, because for a moment, there's not a single reason not to.

On Guided By Voices' 1993 EP Fast Japanese Spin Cycle, there's a song called "Third World Birdwatching," that ends like this: "Busting out for a fast game of motorcycles / He finds a tag reading "fast Japanese spin cycle" / And that's the code for Go / And that's the code for Go / And that's the code for Go."

 

Remembering those lines and watching Pollard up on-stage, legs flying high above his chest, it's easy to think that he must know the codes for everything. And on a night like tonight, beer coursing through him, his eyes scanning the back of the room for something stationary to lock onto for support, Bob Pollard will tell you his secrets, tell you everything he's learned in a decade of being kicked around the streets of Dayton.

It all adds up to this: every word, every last shred of praise, insult or nonsense that ever came at you from anybody's mouth is just the code for Go.

Guided By Voices opens for the Grifters at 9 p.m. on Thursday, November 17 at the Urban Art Bar. Tickets cost $5 advance, $7 at the door. Call 526-8588 for info.


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