Guided by Voices
By Jim DeRogatis
Earwhig is British slang for that blabbermouth at the end of the bar who fancies himself the world’s greatest storyteller. There’s a metaphor here for Guided by Voices’ way-beyond-prolific leader, Robert Pollard. Sure, he labored admirably over his four-track down in that now-famous Dayton, Ohio, basement for ten years as the world passed him by, but ever since the indie-rock universe started kissing his ass, circa 1993’s Vampire on Titus, he’s had songwriting diarrhea of the worst sort.
Pollard has foisted 99 tunes on us over four official albums since 1993–not including the 21 new numbers on Mag Earwhig!, or his solo disc, or the between-album EPs, or the ’95 box set compiling the prefame basement tapes. The law of averages alone dictates that a fair amount of that has to be crap, or at least redundant. (“Stop me if you’ve heard this one before,” says the earwhig.)
The best way I can think of to explain the near-universal acclaim accorded these weekend warriors is to call it NRBQ Syndrome. You know what I mean: There isn’t a fortysomething white male rock critic anywhere in America who doesn’t think that NRBQ is one of the greatest bands that ever walked the earth, and it’s because NRBQ’s music is a skillfully crafted pastiche of everything those guys grew up listening to. It pushes all their buttons, so of course they think it’s genius.
Guided by Voices has a similar effect on the generation that came of age making fanzines and manning college-rock radio stations in the mid-80s. The rap on 1994’s breakthrough Bee Thousand (and for that matter most of the band’s other records) was that, like Wire’s Pink Flag, it was a collection of about 20 songs that deconstructed rock history, reordered the pieces, and served it all back up in delicious bite-size nuggets. Let us count the names dropped in the Guided by Voices entry of The Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock (written by the usually reliable David Sprague): R.E.M., Postcard Records, the Who, Josef K, Blue Oyster Cult, Moody Blues, ESP Records, Beach Boys, Incredible String Band, Frank Zappa, the Soft Boys, Mersey Beat.
Not that I’m completely immune myself to the sweet nostalgia of having any of the above invoked in a catchy two-minute garage-rock ditty. Repeated listening to Mag Earwhig! yielded six moments I found impossible to resist: “Bulldog Skin” (Pavement meets the British Invasion), “I Am Produced” and “Now to War” (Robyn Hitchcock’s I Often Dream of Trains meets the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset”), “Not Behind the Fighter Jet” and “Little Lines” (glam meets Mersey Beat meets Sex Pistols), and “Jane of the Waking Universe” (Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein).
These tunes would have made a heck of an EP–great to crank up and sing along with in the car, but certainly not original or important enough to warrant much further attention. As it is, you have to wade through 15 unremarkable-to-downright-awful tracks in order to get to them, and I just don’t know if that’s worth $15.99 and 45 minutes and 40 seconds of your time. I never bought into that Deadhead argument that “every third show is brilliant.” If it means you have to sit through two shitty ones to get there, forget it. And hey, tell that guy at the end of the bar to pipe down.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): band photo and album cover.