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.

Tracks:

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 last.fm.

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.

Fringe Reviews: The Last Buffalo, [sic], Leacock Live!, Teaching Shakespeare

Posted on by Brian in Everything, Fringe, Reviews, Theatre | Leave a comment

Fringe fatigue is setting in, and so I think this might be the last of my Fringing for the year. Here’s some brief reviews of the shows I saw on Wednesday. All these shows are on at Tarragon, and they all have one or two performances left.

Also, big congrats to Panic Manual friends PICK OF THE FRINGE! for being one of the Fringe patron’s picks.

The Last Buffalo

The brother and son of Jimmy Quinn (Don Berns) come together to mourn him after his death. This sort of “let’s reflect on the death of <blank>” plot is pretty familiar in dramatic theatre. The Last Buffalo tries for a father-to-son and brother-to-brother relationship/love angle as it’s emotional centre, but it never gets to the level of “tear-jerker,” try as it might. Berns is ok as the dead father/brother, who pops into memories the other two characters are having, and it’s funny to hear his voice on stage, as Berns is a pretty notable voice talent for commercials and TV shows (for fun, his demo reel from PNA Agency is in the mp3 attached to this post).

But the other two get most of the stage time, and what they say never really resonates. The brother (Greg Dunham) has a long monologue about a story where his uncle was mean to him that just doesn’t pop for me, while the son (Alex Fiddes) talks a lot about his up-and-down relationship with his dad but when the two are actually on stage together, it’s really not illustrated that well.

I felt bad that when I saw this play on Wednesday, it attrached only about ten people to the 200 seat Tarragon Mainspace, but I really can’t recommend it.

[sic]

Three struggling creatives who are neighbours and friends hang around their apartment building being strange and lusting after one another in [sic]. And that’s it, really.

The appeal comes from the oddness of the characters and the quirky dialogue. The plot, such as it is, is a bit nonsensical and not the easiest to follow; to whit, I think their landlady is killed during the show, possibly by one of the three, but no one seems especially concerned about it. Every so often everything on stage will stop and the characters all look up to listen closely to what I think is meant to be their upstairs neighbours bickering, though it’s pre-recorded and not always easy to hear.

Still, the plot’s pretty secondary. All the enjoyment from the play comes from the eccentric characters and their odd interactions, marked by the staccato, smart dialogue.

Leacock Live!

Leacock Live! company Act II Studio is a Ryerson drama school for people over 50, and they’ve mounted this sort of group reading, or “reader’s theatre” as I guess it’s called, of a couple of Stephen Leacock stories. The 15 or so people on stage in period garb, ranging in age from 50 to late 80’s, tell two tales from the fictional town of Mariposa, one about the local bar’s efforts to keep their liquor license, the other about a day trip on the town’s crappy old cruise ship.

I can’t deny it’s got a certain amount of charm, and it drew a sellout crowd the day I went. I guess lot of people really love Leacock or find the idea of a bunch of older actors onstage at once reading from black binders, occasionally messing up and stepping on each other’s lines, especially compelling. I’m not sure I get the appeal. It did get a patron’s pick from the Fringe, however, so it must be doing something right.

Teaching Shakespeare

A remount of a show that’s had great success in the past by experienced Canadian playwright/actor Keir Cutler, Teaching Shakespeare is a very funny one-man play that parodies a college class on Shakespeare. Cutler’s frantic college professor on the verge of a breakdown is a great parody and I imagine a lot of people will see an old teacher of theirs in his performance.

Shakespeare is totally infallible and unquestionable; if there’s anything we don’t like in his work, it’s because we don’t fully understand it, he insists. Rhyme schemes and monosyllabic word choices are examined in ridiculous detail. He brings out the class’s student evaluations, which are full of negative comments about how he goes off on odd tangents and can never finish the assigned scene for the day, and demands to know who’s written them. Of course, he doesn’t finish the assigned scene for this “class” either, mostly because he keeps going off on wild tangents.

The funniest bit occurs when he wants to demonstrate Shakespeare’s device of having the main character of his plays disappear from the action for a while. He does this by leaving the stage. When he comes back, he gets the class, i.e. the audience, to tell him what they were thinking when it happened, the correct answers being “where is he going?” and “is he coming back?”, and then acts as though something really profound has been discovered. Cutler’s expressiveness, particularly his slightly crazed, wide-eyed expression, adds a lot, and it’s for good reason that this show, which Cutler premiered in 1999, has been a hit wherever it’s gone.

TO Jazz Review: Andy Milne & Dapp Theory, July 3, Trane Studio

Posted on by Mark in Concerts, Toronto Jazz Festival | Leave a comment

Toronto – The theme for my last weekend of the jazz festival was intimate clubs. I chose to spend Saturday evening at Trane Studio to check out Andy Milne & Dapp Theory. I had read their bio and was interested in what was described as a jazz hip-hop fusion. Indeed after the ridiculously amazing show The Roots put on, I was looking for just such an excuse to listen to more hip-hop. With this in mind, I was curious to see what Dapp Theory was all about. They’ve recently garnered some praise in Jazz Times with some lofty words about pioneering a “musical unified field theory”.

Do not have a wedding reception at a club where there is a live show about to happen, unless you are related to one of the musicians.

When I arrived at Trane Studio, I was a little surprised to find a woman in a bridal gown. At first I was under the impression that maybe Andy Milne’s cousin just got married and decided to have the reception at the show. That would have been wicked cool. I was disappointed to find out that the wedding reception and the show were completely unrelated. With the reception butting right up against the live show, it certainly made for an awkward standoff as concert goers waited for the wedding party to vacate the club. Let this be a lesson to our attentive readers: do not have a wedding reception at a club where there is a live show about to happen, unless you are related to one of the musicians.

I was definitely expecting hip-hop to be a prominent aspect of this show. In reality, the needle was pegged at “jazz” on my trusty jazz-to-hip-hop fusion-o-meter. This normally wouldn’t be much of a problem for me, because I like jazz. I just couldn’t identify with the jazz that Dapp Theory was playing. The hip-hop aspects were really more spoken word. On my other trusty instrument, my beatnik-to-hip hop fusion-o-meter, the needle was pretty forcefully pegged at beatnik. Not in a good way. The songs were long and the crowd seemed both stoic and alienated.

I’ll admit that it was entertaining to see some elderly ladies sitting completely still trying to absorb the crazy beatnik jazz going on. Five minutes of repetitive vocal vamp had them really reeling. They looked wide-eyed and perhaps a little scared. Unfortunately the novelty of crowd watching faded pretty quickly, and so I decided to copy Brian’s move from the night before at the very same club and abscond while the absconding was good.

TO Fringe Review: PUBLIC SPEAKING

Posted on by Brian in Everything, Fringe, Reviews, Theatre | 2 Comments

You know, I told you people to go see this show. I told you before the Fringe even started. Judging by the very nearly sold out Helen Gardiner Phelan Theatre on Tuesday evening, it might just sell out the rest of the run, so unless you’ve got an advanced ticket it might already be too late.

And it should be sold out the rest of the way too, because this show is amazing. Chris Craddock’s new one man play starts out with him playing three seemingly unrelated characters: a heroin addict with gigantism, a young woman with a sex addiction, and a self-help guru who’s mantra is “it’s not my fault, and I don’t care anyway.” As the stories coalesce into a tale of crime, kidnapping, and the self-help guru’s seminar, you can almost forget that there’s only one person on stage. Craddock’s capacity for voices is incredible, and the sound design from Dave Clarke is amazing, even if, as Chris pointed out in the comments section of our preview, the tech for it isn’t the way they want it yet.

I’m hesitant to reveal much of the plot here for fear of giving too much away; it’s pretty intricate, and once I start writing about it I’ll probably spoil it for someone. Suffice it to say, the sex addict is the daughter of the self-help guru, and she’s the one who’s kidnapped by the addict with gigantism. There’s some ancillary characters that Craddock plays too, like the giant’s fast-talking, three-fingered boss and a police officer who gets called in to work on the kidnapping. The giant is really the hero of the story, but I thought the self-help guy was the most enjoyable. His determination to always apply his “me first” philosophy, even in the face of his daughter’s kidnapping, is so over-the-top it’s funny, and his whole method – described by the cop character as “how to be an asshole” – is hilarious. It’s also kind of discomfiting in it’s plausibility; I could actually see a self-help guru telling people that “compassion is an outdated evolutionary mechanism that has to be overcome.”

I overheard one woman leaving the theatre say she felt like she’d just seen a movie with plot twists and diverse characters. The show was a huge crowd pleaser on Tuesday night; people applauded every scene of the dénouement that showed where each character ended up, the last few uses of the “it’s not my fault, and I don’t care anyway” tagline had the audience roaring, and the standing ovation was long and loud. I still have “Bananenhaus” stuck in my head after last night’s Die Roten Punkte show, so I couldn’t say yet which show I like more. However, that show and this one are definitely my picks of the Fringe right now.