Classic Album Review: Guided by Voices – Bee Thousand [1994, Scat]

Posted on by Allison in Albums, Classic Albums, Everything, Music | 2 Comments

Guided by Voices is one of those bands that, much to my chagrin, most folks will only recognize because of Scrubs. That in itself isn’t a negative thing; the fact that Zach Braff chose to use the absolute worst GBV tune in existence (Hold on Hope), is.

Coming out of Dayton Ohio, Guided by Voices is the mastermind of Robert Pollard, a former elementary school teacher cum indie rock god whose fourth grade class apparently inspired much of the contents of Bee Thousand. He’s been around for decades, but it wasn’t until 2008 that I finally started dipping into his world record breaking songwriting well. Pollard is not-so-arguably the most prolific songwriter of all times, penning one or more songs a day for every day in his life. The hardest working man in music, GBV is one of those bands whose name I have always been familiar with, but whose artistic existence somehow managed to completely bypass me. That is rare, considering my obsession with all things college radio in my early high school days–though if I had to wait 16 years to find out about Bee Thousand, it was worth every second.

Bee Thousand is like that knight on a white horse of an album that just comes up out of nowhere and wallops you. I have consistently listened to it more than any other album within the past couple of years for good reason. As someone who has music O.C.D., dog-earing something with repeated non-stop listening once I get my hands on it, I appreciate the endurance of this collection of 20 odd 1-2 minute ditties that Pollard has churned out. “Genius of mammoth proportions” is not something I’d splash across just anything but, this album is just the best example of spawningly inspired songwriting that has ever been captured.

Let’s forget for a moment, that this is a lo-fi masterpiece. Wikipedia tells me that Pollard and his band were getting high when the epiphany of low production values equaling huge savings suddenly occurred to them. No one was buying their records anyway, so what did it matter if it was recorded on a shitty, hissing four track recorder? Funny how I never think of this as a lo-fi album. What I remember and consistently come back to has more to do with random, bizarre subject matter (legitimately strange, even for someone as jaded as myself) crafted into something surprisingly beautiful. Kind of like organic musical outsider art, if you will.

If you need any further evidence of the songs’ epic originality, you need only consult our friend Google. I challenge you to punch in any of these song titles and get anything other than an accurate hit.


Hardcord UFOs – A weird little two minute song about…I don’t even know what. Watching UFOs and waxing poetic about life and love or something. I stress the or something part.

Buzzards and Dreadful Crows – Surprisingly eloquent metaphor for …………………………? No amount of philosophical deliberation can make sense of this, and I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Tractor Rape Chain – Probably my third favorite track on the entire album. Something about it makes me want to get buckled into the passenger side of a car and belt it out at the top of my lungs, likely due to the fucked up but somehow adult-contempo-singable chorus, “Parallel lines on a slow decline – tractor rape chain / Better yet, let’s all get wet on the tractor rape chain / Speed up, slow down, go all around in the end”

The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory – The most cinematic / story-centric song in Bee Thousand about a broad who runs through the night like nobody cares. How this is crafted into one of the most beautifully simple love songs in my mind, remains a mystery. It must be the use of the use of a single tooting recorder at the end of the song. It reminds me of Grade 3 when the York Region District School Board’s idea of introducing music class involved having a bunch of 8 year olds play Hot Cross Buns really poorly.

Hot Freaks – There’s something awfully “Roadhouse” about this tune. It’s sexy as hell, slimy, reminiscent of guys in wifebeaters in dive bars. No wonder I like it so much. Never before have I heard so many bizarre-ass sexual metaphors piled up on each other. It starts off as “I met a non-dairy creamer / Explicitly laid out like a fruitcake / With a wet spot / Bigger than a great lake / Took me to the new church / And baptized me with salt / She told me, liquor / I am a new man”, petering out to “This one is on the house / This one is better than ever”

Smothered in Hugs - Another oddly beautiful tune that is a kind of “stand by your woman” runaway anthem. That’s all I’m piecing together from it, anyway.

Yours to Keep – Every time I listen to this album, it occurs to me that there wouldn’t be a more perfect thing to score a set of short stories to. This sweet little song demonstrates Bee Thousand’s ability to take you on a wildly oscillating unexpected ride.

*Note, I’m starting to run out of reviewing steam at this point, so I’m going to selectively write about the remaining 20 songs*

Gold Star for Robot Boy – Apparently a residual from Robert Pollard’s day as an elementary school teacher. If Robert Pollard was my fourth grade school teacher, you’d better believe I’d be purposely failing every year to remain in his class.

A Big Fan of the Pigpen – Glorious little singable (and happy) jaunt that just makes me want to go BA BA, BA DA BA BA DA DA DA all day long.

Kicker of Elves – Running less then a minute long, this is my top pick of the album. I often have this song running through my head as I walk the streets and fantasize about drop-kicking things and people. Little people, vases, what have you. There’s something very satisfying about this one even though it’s not even long enough to be scrobbled by

I Am A Scientist- The most sophisticated / polished example off Bee Thousand running over a whopping two minutes long with a well developed beginning, middle, and end. This isn’t to say that the 30 second songs don’t; but it’s easy to see why the end result impressed Pollard’s new caliber of songwriting skills upon himself.

Peep-Hole - If it was socially acceptable, and if I ever got married, I would love to have this as my wedding song. Don’t ask me how we’d waltz to it. It’d probably go down as the most awkward wedding song ever with a series of weird spastic slow dance movements akin to Dawn Weiner in Welcome to the Dollhouse at her Junior Prom.

As many of you may know by now, Guided By Voices is reuniting under their classic Bee Thousand line-up for the Matador 21st Anniversary Celebration in Las Vegas. Robert Pollard never stopped touring (or drinking to get onstage) after GBV broke-up, and is really the DNA of GBV, but even he swore off live performance back in 2006. So if you have the chance, go see them live. My understanding is that he achieves the perfect level of drunkenness before getting onstage…a physical condition that requires a finesse that I both admire and aspire to maintaining.

I guarantee that hearing anything from this album live will blow your gaskets.

Classic Album Review: The The – Soul Mining [1983, Some Bizarre]

Posted on by Allison in Albums, Classic Albums, Everything, Music, Reviews | Leave a comment

The The has always only really been the brilliant Matt Johnson with an all-star cast, that I maintain to this day is one of the most overlooked U.K. bands of the 80’s. Soul Mining was easily the best album Johnson ever recorded, and contains some of the richest new wave to ever come out of the U.K., period. I use the new wave title loosely here, as this collection of a mere seven songs has more musical range than most boxed sets. One of the things I can most appreciate about this album, even as someone who prefers the concrete to the abstract, is its artistic calibre. I can’t think of too many albums that seamlessly move from accordion-laden sophisto-pop (This is the Day) to epic everything (Uncertain Smile) to plucky dark synth (The Sinking Feeling) to electro-awesomeness (GIANT).

Out of all of the albums I will be featuring in this review series, I think Soul Mining is the most intellectual and least heart-wrenchingly emotional in terms of establishing its pulse/connection with listeners. There’s a slight political bent to some of these songs, but my most favorite tunes are the ones with labyrinth-like arrangements that gently ruminate about this thing called life. Think broad compared to narrow. These songs feel mammoth, epic, and lush with, might I add, the most brilliant use of xylophones ever. There is a bittersweet optimism about the album that can sway either way. As one listener has pointed out, it can sound equally happy or sad depending on your mood. I’m in a great mood today (or maybe that’s just the Robitussin talking), so these songs sound like they’re flying off the Prozac charts.

Let’s get into the cream of this album.

Uncertain Smile is at the very core of Soul Mining, and for me exemplifies everything that a nearly seven minute song should aspire to be.  There’s something about this song that is on my list of “happy places” (Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere” is at the top of this list, never failing to appease the cranky monster). No matter how much of a funk I’m in, Uncertain Smile always manages to slip me a musical quaalude by taking me to a rock out with your cock out place of epic proportions. But just like everything else on this album, it’s way more couth than that. As I age, I tend to pay less attention to lyrics, but Uncertain Smile achieves that perfect balance of quasi-philosophical without being the least bit pretentious. Part of its appeal is its ambiguity: “A broken soul stares from a pair of watering eyes, uncertain emotions force an uncertain smile” could easily apply to heartbreak, or any number of other things.

I couldn’t write a review about this album without specifically mentioning the famous piano solo. Jools Holland’s piano solo on this song is in such epic proportions that it is deserving of being a standalone song, and to date is my favourite piano solo of all times. You never want it to end and it almost never does, tapering out with just the right amount of whimper. In fact I’d say that pretty much every song on Soul Mining ends gracefully by fading out into a watercolour bleed.

This is the Day is more bittersweet, and might woefully be more widely identified as “that song in that M&M commercial”. More importantly, it proves that accordions may have a rightful place in pop music after all. Sometimes. I mean, it’s hard not to associate accordions with anything other than lederhosen and Eastern European polka music.

Still, This is the Day manages to ride that dual wave of being nostalgic while being forward thinking; happy and sad at the same time.

The Sinking Feeling and GIANT are other standouts, but I won’t tear them apart because I already sound like a pretentious dick. All you need to know is that Soul Mining is a great album that is highly deserving of a thorough listening to.

Classic Album Review: Galaxie 500 – On Fire [1989, Rough Trade]

Posted on by Allison in Albums, Classic Albums, Everything, Music | Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking a lot about what constitutes musical perfection lately, due in part to our May podcast questioning different writers’ rating conventions.

I have a great deal of difficulty explaining why I love the things I really love. More articulate people take the approach of exploring the minutiae, blow by blow of why they love something. I take the opposite caveman approach of bludgeoning everyone over the head with the fact that something is great. Why I think it’s great doesn’t seem so important. Over the course of about six years, I have attempted on several different occasions to write my definitive be all and end all review of Say Anything, which I can safely say is probably my favourite movie of all time (with Running on Empty a close second, and as I am writing this I’m having the revelation of a lot of good shit being churned out of 1988 and 1989), to no avail. Maybe I’m afraid of manhandling it to the point where I kill it with love. Kind of like if you petted a rabbit to death or something. Think Lenny in Of Mice and Men.

So in thinking about some of the most perfect albums that have ever been recorded, Galaxie 500‘s On Fire naturally came to mind. On Fire is about as dark and emotionally wrought as anything else I love, and there are lots of reasons why I know it wouldn’t appeal to most people I know. Some people might think Dean Wareham’s voice sounds an awful lot likeAdam Sandler‘s, that they are a sparsely arranged three-person show, and that they are the remnants of the ashes of college radio, for many the precursor of dreaded “indie” music. Yet, there are a handful of reasons why, for better or for worse, I think this is one of the best albums of all time. Some things are always universally agreed upon as being great, but for one reason or another I don’t bond with them. I don’t mate with the album, and I can’t imagine being attracted to the band. There are others that don’t seem as praised without exception, but that I fall for in a hard way. I think this is the phenomenon of what a “cult” hit is.  It’s really about a connection, achieving meaningful intimacy with a creation.

In a lot of ways, On Fire reminds me of movies like Last Picture Show, where every protagonist is always trying to figure out a way to run away from life by using a car. You would think that to someone who despises driving (and would be a candidate for Canada’s Worst Driver), a song like Blue Thunder wouldn’t resonate so deeply. You’d be wrong to think so though, because Blue Thunder always hits my pangs of irresponsibility in a big way. The more I acquire commitments, the more I can imagine driving away from them someday. To me, Blue Thunder is all about leaving things behind as a release.

Strange is just as good, and ties for top track in the On Fire story. In terms of lyrical song narrative it probably sounds like something a high teenager might churn out. “Why’s everybody actin funny? / Why’s everybody look so strange? / Why’s everybody look so pretty? / What do I want with all these things? / I went alone down to the drugstore / I went in back and took a Coke / I stood in line and ate my Twinkies / I stood in line, I had to wait” isn’t exactly the sort of stuff Nobel Prizes in Literature are made of. But somehow, this odd little ditty is one of the most beautiful releases I have ever heard. And by the way, drummer Damon Krukowski probably would’ve used the kit he bought from Conan O’Brien when they were all attending Harvard together. For something with arguably downright stupid lyrics, that is pretty incredible.

Another Day features Naomi Yang taking over vocal duties in what is essentially a gentle face slapping to someone complaining about being sad. Everyday is not the same indeed. The arrangements these guys concocted could accompany asininity like Cotton-Eyed Joe or Barbie Girl and it would still sound like a full-on tear-rimming orchestra.  When Will You Come Home? has a guitar solo that slays to the umpteenth degree, and you can’t help but think they have kicked the Velvet Underground‘s ass at this point, a band they were nauseatingly compared to during their heyday.

Before I wrap this up, I want to talk about one last song. Their cover of Ceremony is, quite possibly, my favourite of all time. Dean Wareham always had a knack for excellent covers (their version of George Harrison’s Isn’t It A Pity and later, with Luna Paula Abdul’s Straight Up) that dislodged the originals to the point of evaporation for me. The bit they incorporated with the tambourine firmly establishes them as the most soulful white band to walk the planet of the earth.


CD Review: Retribution Gospel Choir 2 [2010, Subpop]

Posted on by Paul in Albums, Everything | Leave a comment

Toronto – I’ve seen Low a couple of times now and while I definitely enjoyed them, I will admit that I got a little bored during their sets.  In fact, Low was a band I didn’t pay that much attention to until I happened to catch the brilliant documentary Low-You May Need A Murderer, more a portrait of singer Alan Sparhawk and his own set of beliefs and opinions than a straight band documentary.  After that I became a full on fan and was excited to see what they would do next.  I also discovered Sparhawk’s more rockin’ side project, The Retribution Gospel Choir.  Sparhawk’s desire to rock out more suggested to me that perhaps even he was getting a tad bored with the “slowcore” dynamics of his dayjob.

So you can imagine I was excited to catch Retribution Gospel Choir when they played a show at The Drake on Jan. 25 … but I got really sick and was unable to go, so I thought why not a CD review instead? 

Retribution Gospel Choir is definitely a more riff oriented affair than anything from Low’s back catalogue.  In fact, a couple of these tracks could probably be slipped into the Q107 playlist without anyone making too much of a fuss.  “Workin’ Hard” kicks out the jams like Boston or some other geographically named 70s rock band who enjoys endin’ words with apostrophes while “Poor Man’s Daughter” busts out some Crazy Horse-isms and “White Wolf” rides a riff that’s slightly reminiscent of a combo of ACDC’s “Dirty Deeds” and Danzig’s “Mother” while still sounding like an Alan Sparhawk song.  They even have a song called “Electric Guitar.”  How rock is that?

In a way, this is like a beefed up version of Low (bassist Steve Garrington also plays in both bands) and that is definitely a good thing.  Perhaps other performers on the softer side of the musical spectrum should consider changing things up for an album or a side project.  Imagine it – Bon Iver cranks it up to 11, John Darnielle recruits his favourite black metal musicians to play in The Mountain Goats … the possibilities are endless.