Guided by Voices broke out of the underground and into the indie subconscious with 1994’s Bee Thousand, becoming a critical and fan favorite as well as opening the door to a record deal with Matador Records. Not an overnight success, Guided by Voices’ breakthrough came after six full-length releases and almost a decade of recording. With pressings between 300 and 1,000 copies per album, the earliest GBV material was available mostly to friends, family, and their hardcore fan base around the band’s hometown of Dayton, OH. With a sharp increase in the public’s awareness of the band and a newfound demand for material following Bee Thousand’s success, the band’s label, Scat Records, released Box.
In a manner akin to Pavement, whose success with Slanted and Enchanted prompted Drag City to compile and release the band’s extremely limited first three EPs on the collection Westing (By Musket and Sextant), Guided by Voices’ Box compiles the band’s first five full-length albums and an album of rarities and outtakes, complete with reproductions of the original artwork. (The CD version of the collection fails to include the band’s fifth album, Propeller, and neither format includes the band’s 1986 debut EP, Forever Since Breakfast, made available on the Hardcore UFO’s box set).
If you’re discovering GBV through this collection, don’t let the rawness and seemingly amateurish sound throw you off track. It gets better, trust me. If you are well aware of the band’s mid-90s “classic lineup” or Pollard’s 2000’s era GBV material but know little of the band’s early work, shake off all preconceptions, as the material contained on these six albums is not as sharp or creatively unique as the “classic lineup” material, despite many of the players being the same. Box is a step through the looking glass, providing the opportunity to see the earliest signs of life and evolution of a band that many people would consider as important as Nirvana or Pavement.
Before many bands find a sound to call their own, they often emulate another’s. Historical analysis of GBV points that arrow at early R.E.M. A lot of the material on GBV’s first two albums, Devil Between My Toes and Sandbox (both released in 1987), sounds like unpolished, rougher versions of Chronic Town/Murmur-era R.E.M. – at least musically. Devil’s opening two tracks, “Old Battery” and “Discussing Wallace Chambers”, jangle straight out of Peter Buck’s repertoire, as does side two’s “Hey Hey Spaceman”. Jangle pop aside, scattered throughout the album are forgettable tracks like “Artboat” and “3 Year Old Man” that come off more like the recorder was on during tuning, whereas songs like “Crux” blast forth with the intensity of a Wipers track sans Greg Sage’s anger. The album closer “Captain’s Dead”, easily one of the record’s best tracks, recalls some of Ride’s early fuzztone sound. Recorded in an actual studio, the sound of Devil Between My Toes has little to none of the lo-fi effects put to use on later albums but still bears the band’s minimalist approach. Most of the music on Devil sounds very little like the band’s post-Vampire on Titus material (the album many consider to be where Pollard truly found his voice).
GBV’s second full-length, Sandbox, is noticeably harder and more aggressive. Tracks like opener “Lips Like Steel” and “The Drinking Jim Crow”, try to harness a hard-edged guitar sound to the point of almost sabotaging Pollard’s vocal melodies. The band’s early experimentation with lo-fi recording tricks can be heard on “Adverse Wind”, a track so lo-fi you may start to check your speaker connection and needle to make sure it isn’t your equipment. Guided by Voices continues to mine R.E.M. with “Can’t Stop” (though vocally it is a bit more Let’s Active than R.E.M.) and showcases Pollard’s ability to craft great vocal melody (while also channeling The Beatles) on “Long Distance Man”, which easily stands out as one of the album’s shining moments. However, these two lovely pop gems aside, many over the years, including Robert Pollard himself, have considered Sandbox to be one of GBV’s weakest albums and most lackluster efforts. Listening to Sandbox as the band’s second album with no knowledge of what is to come would surely grant the album a far kinder reception, and it should only be viewed as a step backwards after listening to Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia, the band’s 1989 follow-up.
Widely viewed as the first to sound like a Guided by Voices album, Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia marks the point where the band moved past its influences and began defining its own sound. Starting to use lo-fi techniques to their advantage as on “The Future Is in Eggs”, the feedback-laden opener that slowly trudges along, or on “Dying to Try This”, a song that despite some nice finger work can’t get past sounding like a bedroom demo, Pollard and Co.’s style begins to solidify. Pollard’s pleading vocals on “Liar’s Tale” are straight out of his bag of tricks from the ’60s, as are the psychedelic vocal harmonies on “Great Blake Street Canoe Race”. There is the power chord heaviness of “Chief Barrel Belly”, one of GBV’s sludgiest, and the revolving guitar line in “An Earful O’ Wax” features vocals recorded to sound distant and removed but not hollow or fuzzed out and breaks out in a brief moment of rocking before returning to its beginning. The musical angst of “Slopes of Big Ugly” teases an ending only to pick up with a lo-fi, fuzzed guitar coupled with spikes of drumrolls. When it does end, it does so abruptly at the beginning of the sweetly acoustic “Paper Girl”. Of all the characteristics and personality traits becoming evident on Self-Inflicted, nowhere are they better put on display than on the final track, “Radio Show (Trust the Wizard)”, a straight-up rocker that pays tribute to the greatness of the prestidigitator of the airwaves, the disc jockey. It ends with tape loops, backwards recording tricks, and a gorgeous blend of fun and noise.
The fun is temporarily set aside on Same Place the Fly Got Smashed, perhaps the darkest album in the band’s catalog. Not quite a rock opera, but certainly a concept album of sorts, the subject matter centers around the tragic life of an alcoholic. Not the easiest album to get into with a single listen, album opener “Airshow ’88” is a forgettable rant, as is its thematic cousin “Ambergris”, which appears later on the album. “Order for the New Slave Trade” moves at the pace of a power ballad with 2/3 the heaviness of Self-Inflicted’s “Chief Barrel Belly”, and the appropriately titled “Blatant Doom Trip” is heavy as its name implies but comes across as a song better played live. The acoustic nature of “When She Turns 50” is reminiscent of a young Matthew Sweet and beautifully evokes the sense of hopelessness and guilt of the album’s subject matter. One of the few songs found on later collections, the acoustic sound on “Drinker’s Peace” has a demo quality to it. Coupled with distant-sounding vocals and the memorable refrain “I get a contact buzz…”, you feel sadness oozing into apathy. The two highlights are album closer “How Loft I Am”, another wonderful acoustic song with great vocals, and “The Hard Way”. One of the earliest tracks I would consider suitable for “classic” status, “The Hard Way” features an amazing guitar hook on top of a great vocal melody and is one of the best early examples of Pollard’s ability to take a simple lyric repeated over and over again and still make a great pop song.
1992’s Propeller was originally meant to be a farewell album until it had the opposite effect of raising the band’s profile and influence. Propeller was recorded in a studio but, as the liner notes indicate, was “lovingly fucked with by Mike ‘Rep’ Hummel” and is the first album to feature the use of four-track cassette decks and lo-fi techniques as their own instruments and aesthetics unto themselves. Odd effects and sounds are littered throughout the recording with punctuations of noise, unexpected edits, tape loops, slow downs, and ramp ups. The opening chant of “G-B-V” that appears to come from a large chanting crowd was entirely made up by the band in the studio (as they had never played to more than a few dozen people at this time) but has gone on to be heard at almost every live performance since.
With the apparent chanting of thousands, the album slides into “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox”, a fusion of two disparate songs in a manner similar to T. Rex’s “Tenement Lady”. The trudging “Weedking”, a rocking number that could easily survive without the vocals, has a vocal track that sounds as if it was recorded at a different speed, and to call the vocals on “Particular Damaged” distortion would be an understatement. Experimentation unfolds on “Ergo Space Pig” with multiple songs spliced together in an experimental blend that eventually takes off into an oddly surreal rocker. Epic tracks like “Metal Mothers” and “Quality of Armor” rock out in the vein of classic GBV, while “Exit Flagger” is the album’s monster track, filled with chromatic guitar and an anthemic chorus. Originally limited to 500 copies pressed to vinyl, the CD issue of Propeller came in the form of an appendage to 1993’s Vampire on Titus release. Eventually, both albums received separate compact disc issues and a new non-limited, non-handmade vinyl reissue was made available in 2005.
Closing out this compilation is King Shit and the Golden Boys, a collection of rarities and outtakes. With two songs recorded in 1988, five in 1991, and 12 from 1993, the majority of material found on King Shit was recorded around the same sessions that produced the band’s landmark breakthrough Bee Thousand. Regardless of being recorded at various times, the album has the feel and sound of a solid release. The ’60s garage feel of “Tricyclic Looper” and the classic GBV sound on “Crutch Came Slinking” build on a ’60s pop feel only to abruptly end. Both represent great tracks in the band’s catalog but sadly are fated to sit out their time as bonus tracks on a disc that few will ever enjoy. The first two tracks alone could have fit nicely on Self-Inflicted, and there are plenty of other tracks that make you wonder why they are bonus tracks and not legitimate inclusions on albums.
Tackling a collection as large and comprehensive as Box is a daunting task, even for the most die-hard fan, and in this age of torrents and economic downturns, unless you are a diehard, you may not feel compelled to purchase the collection. However, from a musicology perspective, the chance to hear a band develop and evolve into becoming possibly one of rock’s most subtly influential groups is worth every penny.