“I am a collector of things / And all of the pain it brings”, Guided By Voices mainman Robert Pollard sang two GBV box sets ago, back when their league of obsessive fans was just beginning to form. Pollard is an obsessive collector himself, not just of music (though he is that, too… the liner notes for this latest box set include a story of GBV playing a show in Philadelphia in exchange for rare Krautrock records), but of words, images, fragments of histories (real and imagined). This is a man who spent much of his childhood not just making up songs, as you might imagine a would-be rock star to do, but using cut-up photos and names from his imagination to build made-up discographies for legions of fictitious bands. In a way what he’s doing now is the adult realization of those childhood games. He does the same thing now, but with songs to support the names. With Guided By Voices Pollard has created his own mythology, one filled with enough recordings (add up the albums, EPs, CD singles, and 7″s under the name Guided By Voices and you’ve got well over 50 releases since 1986, the majority of them from the last 10 years), side-project pseudonyms (Howling Wolf Orchestra, Nightwalker, Lexo and the Leapers, the list goes on and on), lineup changes, backstories drawn from Pollard’s hometown of Dayton, Ohio (references to place names, friends, etc.), and other easy-to-get-wrapped-up-in ephemera (things like their Propeller‘s first 500 copies each having its own unique, hand-made cover, or Pollard’s continual lyrical obsessions with air travel) to surpass the memory capacity of even the biggest rock ‘n’ roll nerd.
With every passing year, Pollard’s willingness to give the diehard fans what they want (everything) seems to grow. So much so that all but the richest of us are likely to throw our hands up at some point and scream, “enough already!”, even though there were times when an unreleased GBV song would be the greatest gift we could imagine. Hardcore UFOs, Guided By Voices’ third box set, stands in a unique place: it’s possibly the most expensive GBV release yet, and thus likely to appeal only to the most devoted fans, yet it’s also the best introduction yet to everything the band is about, the place for the uninitiated to get a true feeling for each of the band’s disparate sides. Each of the box set’s five CDs (and the sixth disc, a DVD) showcase another aspect of what has made so many music fans fall into GBV fandom in a major way. The mysteriousness surrounding the band when they first started attracting attention, their notoriously raucous live shows, Pollard’s love for the bizarre and his desire to have the biggest, fullest rock sound ever… it’s all here.
In typical GBV fashion, each disc has its own curious title (and subtitle, no less) and its own artwork. And of course almost all of the titles could be related to song lyrics or abandoned album titles by would-be GBV historians (as the world of GBV is very self-referential, with songs using pieces of other songs ad infinitum). The opening disc in the set is, naturally, the “best of” album: Human Amusements at Hourly Rates: The Best of Guided By Voices. This walks listeners chronologically through the band’s career, beginning with the Byrds-ish psych-rocker “Captain’s Dead” from their first full-length Devil Between My Toes all the way to “The Best of Jill Hives”, the amazingly catchy would-be radio hit from their most recent album Earthquake Glue. These 32 songs showcase everything there is to love about Pollard’s songwriting: oddball creativity (songs with titles like “Tractor Rape Chain” and “14 Cheerleader Coldfront”, and lyrics that walk the perfect line between surrealism and emotional revelation), a deep skill at writing melodies, and an affection for a mastery of disparate styles of rock from the last 40 years or so, with touchpoints ranging from the British Invasion to post-punk, from bombastic art-rock to the so-called college rock of the ’80s. The emphasis is on GBV’s career since they left the basement and started touring, around 1994. Pollard hand-picked the songs himself, and he acknowledges which songs are considered by your average fan to be the best while also filling the CD with personal preferences; for example, he picks the highly-produced CD single version of “I Am a Scientist” over the fuzzed-out album version, the lo-fi 7″ version of “Teenage FBI” over the slick album take on it, and so on.
Demons and Painkillers, the second disc in the set, takes a handful of EPs and 7″s that the band released during their years with Matador and joins them together. Putting them together in this way takes away a lot of the joy of having a six-song, 10-minute 7″ in your hand and playing it… but it serves a purpose for both fans (having these songs on CD instead of just vinyl) and non-fans. For the latter, this is a taste of the sheer variety of music GBV has released, in terms of style and, many would argue, in terms of quality. For on the same limited-release 7″ you would find a weird, dissonant 30-second song and a two-minute gem that sounds like it would have been a clear radio hit in an alternate universe. And many of these songs manage to be both at once. Take, for example, “He’s the Uncle”. One of the songs here that listeners should cherish, it has a fantastic pop melody and a jarring piece of outright noise; it manages to be both a straightforward pop-rock song and an experiment, showing two sides of GBV in the same moment.
The last Guided By Voices box set, 2000’s 4-disc Suitcase: Failed Experiments and Trashed Aircraft, was filled with demos and unreleased songs from Bob’s closet of such material. The third disc on Hardcore UFOs is essentially a continuation of that project, with a few key differences. Delicious Pie & Thank You For Calling: Previously Unreleased Songs and Recordings contains 23 songs, at least half of which your average person on the street would think of as unfinished or half-written. It thus shows Pollard’s tendency to put out so many songs that critics and onlookers tend to think he has no editorial abilities. But the disc is also a window into Pollard’s creative process, and in its own way feels like a suitably fragmented historical tour of Pollard’s artistic mind. The opening songs are weird and bare-bones, including a few from as early as 1984, before the first GBV release, and some which ended up being used in fragmented fashion in later GBV songs. But as the CD goes on, though not strictly chronological it feels like you’re witnessing the progression of Pollard’s songwriting — the last 9 tracks are stripped-down songs of a different variety, showcasing the mature rock songwriting of late ’90s. That progression is also evident from the “best of” CD, which shows not just growth but how skillful a songwriter Pollard was even in GBV’s earliest days. That fact is also evident here, in fragmented form, and on the box set’s 5th CD, the first CD release of the group’s earliest EP, Forever Since Breakfast. This seven-song CD, lovingly designed with the original cover art intact, shows Pollard’s mostly unrecognized love of R.E.M., suggesting that Guided By Voices could have gone in a completely different direction and still been an amazing band. Here’s a hint of the paths not taken to help complement the box set’s exhaustive documentation of those that were taken.
The fourth and sixth discs in the Hardcore UFOs set, and liner notes that are filled with memories of becoming hooked on GBV, widen the lens to give a more complete picture of what the band is all about. For while the group’s earliest fans discovered them through their homemade, narrowly distributed records, and many since have taken to them through hearing such-and-such album or single, the group has also been a touring machine since around 1994, making their way across the country many times, leaving empty beer bottles and damaged eardrums in their wake. Live At the Wheelchair Races: Unreleased Live Recordings 1995-2002 manages to be the most complete audio portrait of the group’s live show yet while also showcasing songs that the group rarely played live, making this something likely to be coveted by fans (even unhealthily obsessed fans like myself, who have 80-plus cassette tapes filled with GBV shows recorded by fans) and a great introduction to the live GBV experience. Nearly every lineup of GBV is present here, as well as songs from throughout their career. But it also captures that twin feeling that the band is either the best live rock ‘n’ roll band ever or a bunch of old drunk guys having fun plowing through their songs in loose, ramshackle fashion.
The box set is completed by the documentary Watch Me Jumpstart on a DVD that also includes the band’s videos and other short pieces. Here you see Pollard and company as real people, who make music in each other’s basements, DIY-style, because they love to do it, not because they ever thought they had a chance to make money from it. Watch Me Jumpstart, directed by Banks Tarver, is not just a fans-only extra but a genuinely moving portrait of human beings, one which works as a solid piece of documentary filmmaking. It stands at the end of the maze that is Hardcore UFOs as one last reminder that music isn’t always about style, flash, or hipness. Sometimes it’s just about coming up with an idea and putting it down somewhere for others to hear it. Hardcore UFOs is a complicated but fascinating roadmap of the ideas Bob Pollard has been collecting over the last nearly 20 years. Knowing GBV, though, it’s only the beginning how many more recordings will they have released by the end of this decade? Your guess is as good as mine, but chances are good that both will be too low.