By the time this page fully loads, Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard will have probably composed, performed, mixed and pressed yet another tightly coiled pop-rock nugget. That is literally about how long it seems to take the ex-schoolteacher-turned-indie icon to move from the conceptual to the performative stage, and no amount of cynicism, nostalgia and/or regret will ever change that. Which means that, rather than bitch and moan about how far from its lo-fi, four-track roots GBV has traveled (as many of its diehard fans have, whether on PopMatters, Pitchfork, or anywhere else for that matter), music fans should be celebrating the fact that the guy, like the proverbial Energizer bunny, just keeps going, street cred be damned.
The same damning verdict has been leveled before, sometimes by yours truly, on Frank Black, whose early work with The Pixies was a fortuitous confluence of cultural movement, a barren entertainment mainstream, sparkling musicianship and smart-ass catharsis all rolled into one. After the Pixies’ corpse was so ably robbed by Nirvana and other self-pronounced copycats, fans overlooked Frank Black’s ambitious post-punk work, as if it was merely a dinner mint served after a four-course. Which, to some extent, it was, but, like our current president, diehard fans love to talk out of both sides of their mouths. If Frank Black stayed Black Francis and kept churning out modified copies of “River Euphrates” and “Dead”, the Pixies faithful would have been lamenting the been-there-done-that nature of their work.
Personally speaking, I always though that GBV’s legendary lo-fi aesthetic was a copout. I understood that, at least in the beginning, much of it was forged out of necessity, while the rest might have been a middle finger flipped in the direction of the slag metal (Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, ad nauseam) that was soiling modern rock radio stations across the globe at the time. And, quoting Saturday Night Live‘s Stuart Smalley, “That was . . . OK.” But after pulling in a bit of dough, enough to buy some more equipment and a good publicist, it made sense to me that Pollard, Tobin Sprout and company would stretch out, crank it up and rock the shit out of the place. After all, it’s no secret that Pollard is a major Who fan, and those cats never had a problem turning it up to 11.
But, proving that indie fans can be just as fickle as the mainstream masses they lampoon mercilessly, stretching seems to have brought nothing but declining sales and smug disavowal. It is kinda like listening to the NBA or NFL’s hacks-turned-ESPN-analysts sitting around talking about why Jordan or Brett Favre should retire rather than continue to live out their dreams of defying old age and irrelevance. I’m of the opposite mind: as long as someone wants to give Robert Pollard or Frank Black or whoever money to make an album, I say only an idiot would turn that down and go out on top, with the flashes blinking and the ladies moaning.
Greatest hits albums are always a gamble, mostly because they’re crafted by label wankers with little relation to the bands they’re promoting; check Death to the Pixies or Nirvana’s last release for more on that one. Human Amusements at Hourly Rates suffers no such ignominy, because it was compiled by Pollard himself (it appears in an altered form within the GBV box set, Hardcore UFOs). It’s a capable introduction to one of indie rock’s more compelling acts, as well as a rocking album in its own right. And, thankfully, Pollard has stuck to his guns, stuffing almost as many if not more recent nuggets than the standard Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes must-haves.
To wit, “My Kind of Solider” and “The Best of Jill Hives”, two addictive tongue-twisters from 2003’s Earthquake Glue make the cut, although that album’s cool-as-shit “Of Mites and Men” does not. Same deal with 1997’s post-Sprout classic Mag Earhwig!: The rockin’, perhaps autobiographical “Bulldog Skin” (“I played the part/I played the start/I made a table out of clay/I placed my hands/Upon the plans”) and the poignant, echo-heavy “Learning to Hunt” get back-to-back billing. Even the critically lambasted Do the Collapse, produced by Cars lightweight, Ric Ocasek, is given a short moment in the sun by Pollard. Its “Things I Will Keep” is the album’s de facto opener, as Human Amusement‘s first song, the minute-plus “A Salty Salute” from Alien Lanes, is more or less a short kick-off.
Meanwhile, Pollard’s finest post-Sprout work from 2001’s stunning Isolation Drills lands three nods: the amazing “Twilight Campfighter” (a R.E.M.-style classic better than anything R.E.M. itself has made since Document), as well as the spirited jams of “Chasing Heather Crazy” and “Glad Girls”. If Pollard thinks that he should’ve hung up his pen and quit after Bee Thousand, he’s not showing it.
Of course, songs from that album and Alien Lanes, both college radio staples, will most likely have the nostalgia gears turning at full speed for the GBV faithful that glommed onto the band circa 1993, the same time Nirvana was making MTV forget all about New Kids on the Block and Guns ‘N’ Roses. But while Bee Thousand nets four tunes on Human Amusements — “Echos Myron”, “Tractor Rape Chain”, the hilarious T-Rex-ish “Hot Freaks” (favorite Pollard quip: “I met a dairy creamer explicitly laid out like a fruitcake/With a wet spot bigger than a Great Lake”), and, the album’s popular closer, “I am a Scientist” — only the bottom-heavy rock of “Motor Away” makes its way off of Alien Lanes.
Why that is, only Pollard knows, but that’s what makes this breackneck introduction to the GBV genius worth buying. Unless you’ve got loads of cash and can purchase the entire Pollard backlog, there is no better place to go to witness the visionary impact of this clever band of cultural hecklers. Far from being a slapdash collection of past triumphs, Human Amusements at Hourly Rates feels like Guided By Voices’ best album yet.