Since the “classic” Guided By Voices line-up is out there killing it on stage, and the physical release of the band’s new album, Let’s Go Eat the Factory, is out, it seems a good time to take a look back at GBV’s most fruitful time — the ’90s, of course — and check out some hidden gems in the discography. Of course, die hard GBVers would argue there are no hidden gems and they may be (only may be) right. But with the glut of releases Pollard has always piled on us, sometimes the best stuff gets hidden in plain view, or buried under all the others. Either way, here’s five records you should go back to between spins of the solid new album.
Propeller – 1992
All right, this one isn’t much of a hidden gem, it’s more of a hidden classic. Though it’s gotten its share of praise, it always seems to get trumped by Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes. Right off the bat, though, Propeller proves it’s right up there with those albums, since “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox” is not only one of the longest songs in the GBV discography, but it’s also one of the best, an epic opener to a consistently excellent pop album. Acoustic tunes like “14 Cheerleader Coldfront” contrast with the driving rock of “Unleashed! The Largehearted Boy” or “Exit Flagger,” giving the album a surprising sonic breadth. Enough of these songs worked their way into live sets for years to know there are some trademark Pollard tunes on Propeller, but its also a more streamlined version of the collage pop that would define the band’s ’90s output. It may not be their most eccentric record of the decade — which may be why it gets mentioned less — but it is still easily one of their best long players.
Fast Japanese Spin Cycle – 1994
For all the strange tangents Guided by Voices explored on full-length records, the EPs could be even more bizarre, disjointed, and (when done right) exciting. Fast Japanese Spin Cycle is just such a release. Pollard is smart enough to hit us with a power-pop gem in “My Impression Now” and “Kisses to the Crying Cooks” (which is an acoustic version of “Over the Neptune”), because those anchor the brief, experimental clips that wander around those fully formed songs. From the not-quite-20-second-long “Dusted” to the frantic strumming and tape hiss of “Snowman” to the sweeter oddity of “Indian Fables,” Fast Japanese Spin Cycle is unrepentantly strange, and its parts seem all too brief. And yet, each of these quick tunes leaves its mark, so while it make seem like its firing buckshot, this EP ends up hitting you with a striking pop precision.
Sunfish Holy Breakfast – 1996
This EP may simply get the award for two best Guided By Voices song titles in “Jabberstroker” and “Cocksoldiers and Their Postwar Stubble.” Beyond that, though, this is a more shadowy version of the band’s lo-fi sound. This channels less of Pollard’s love of the Who and more of the Kinks at their most moody. The skronky “Stabbing a Star” feels downright combative, even if there’s a sweet pop tune buried in all that scuzz. “If We Wait” is an odd turn on a blue-light slow-dance number, but it works, and plays nicely against the crunch of “Beekeeper Seeks Ruth” or the brighter “A Contest Featuring Human Beings.” This is one of the band’s less disjointed EPs, and draws a line back to the tape hiss the band left behind (in favor of studio hiss) on Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, which was released eight months before Sunfish Holy Breakfast. Still, this EP stands alone as a fascinating and rewarding document of the band fleshing out its strangest ideas and finding a new dark corner in which to rock.
Robert Pollard – Waved Out – 1998
No, it’s not a Guided By Voices album, but it’s still one of Pollard’s finest moments of the ’90s. His second solo record for Matador followed the excellent Not in My Airforce, but managed to turn in a batch of songs that not only outshined its predecessor, but also trumped anything on GBV’s 1997 album, Mag Earwhig! Nevermind that the album contains “Subspace Biographies,” the best song of Pollard’s solo career, there’s also the epic tumbling pop of “Make Use,” the quick rock punch of the title track, and deeply catchy pop gems like “Whiskey Ships” and “Steeple of Knives.” Waved Out is excellent because it marries the splintered Scat Records days of GBV with Pollard’s increasing shift to more traditional song structures. Guided By Voices would move to major label TVT after this for two albums, cleaning up its sound for a larger audience the band never found, but Waved Out was Pollard at his purest and best, and set him on a solo path that is still today yielding great, cohesive and yet charmingly weird albums.
Lexo and the Leapers – Ask Them – 1999
You can’t talk about Robert Pollard without addressing his myriad of side projects. Most succeed modestly — unless you count Boston Spaceships among them, which absolutely kills — but the one off EP he recorded as Lexo and the Leapers, backed by the Tasties, remains his crowning side-project achievement. Its six tracks are all sturdy rockers, from opener “Time Machines” to the thumping live-set favorite “Alone, Stinking and Unafraid.” The set can get moody on “Will You Show Me Your Gold?” but the songs remain tuneful, as Pollard unleashes some of his sharpest hooks to date. Hell, “Fair Touching” was so catchy he ended up re-recording it to open GBV’s second major label album, Isolation Drills. These songs live on in setlists and later albums, but to hear them together on Ask Them, with the scrappy backing of Dayton, Ohio’s, own the Tasties is to hear them in their natural habitat. If Pollard’s side projects are known for their unpredictable, often unruly tangents, Lexo and the Leapers stands out not by being weirder than the others, but by being tighter, catchier, and — in the end — by far Pollard’s best one-off release.
Let’s Go Eat the Factory is out now digitally, and available January 17 on CD and Vinyl from GBV, Inc.