Not much is said anymore about Guided By Voices. I am aware that they have broken up; the chatter though, had been just so incessant. Now that the dust has settled, and many have moved on to those more current, I think it is time to celebrate a band that was the most economic, prolific, durable, and fortified of the rock thoroughbreds.
There was perhaps, never a band whose sound was so affirmed by their recording technique, and whose recording technique did so much for the egalitarianism of their musical age. The logic there may seem unsettled, but while it has been famously said (and perhaps too many times) that each person who heard the Velvet Underground went out and started a band, in the case of Guided By Voices, it can be put, just as hyperbolically, that everyone who heard a Guided By Voices record (before 1996) went out and recorded one themselves; or at the very least, tried.
Guided By Voices was proof — in the age of major label hegemony — that one need not be David Geffen or Butch Vig to shepherd a (perhaps the) signature record of your generation. And possibly that will be their legacy; instead of the many thousand anthems, songs, fragments, and other musical detritus that they recorded and released over two decades with the endurance of a long distance runner and the mindset of a sprinter.
They were amateurs with the type of tendencies that made them seminal rock radicals and critical darlings. I should say that their amateurism ceased at the quality of their basement recording — Robert Pollard, and to a lesser extent, Tobin Sprout, were brilliant, oftentimes devastating songwriters, and their band was top-notch. Though Pollard and Sprout were deadly with a melody, lyrically it was a scattershot affair, and the truth be told, I would need a year to comb through Pollard’s brain-fried lyrics to decipher his Labatt’s-influenced meanings.
They pointed the way down a DIY path where the ends seemed to always justify the means. To be sure, many acts over the years breathlessly recorded themselves in hopes of breaking through the glass ceiling of major label stardom, but few hung on to the handmade ethos for so long — Alien Lanes was GBV’s eighth album. They did so with a flourish of Dylanesque stamina, along with a like-minded lack of shame that would produce so much cobra-quick greatness, so much good feeling, and also, so much beery-eyed meaninglessness.
So what of this recording technique? They recorded on 4-track tape, with a limited coterie of confederates, trained only in the knotted-guitar chord frustration of the often vexing experience of small-scale recording in the privacy of a cramped bunker. For those who warmed their ears on The Beatles and George Martin’s limited multi-track bliss though, this was decidedly different.
To those uninitiated with modern day self-recording — with what the prevailing scribes termed “lo-fi” — Guided By Voices could sound a bit rough, and at times almost poor. Alien Lanes though, was an upgrade on the slapdash, but flawlessly written hazy pop encyclopedia, that was Bee Thousand.
After all the good feelings and copy that trailed in Bee Thousand's wake, Guided By Voices seemed to take their next album a bit more seriously; and it remains one of the quintessential examples of 4-track recording.
Alien Lanes is a swift flash of rock’s long history — garage, British invasion, power pop, psych, folk nonsense, punk, and post-punk — buoyed by the seemingly ever-present humming buzz of an ungrounded chord. It was a brilliant compendium of musical high water marks and rock impressionism; and they, all the while, demonstrated a staggering ability to sound salient while looking toward rock’s rich past without donning the Nehru coat of revivalism.
Sadly, Alien Lanes was the last of Guided By Voices’ home-recorded albums. Robert Pollard and his rotating cast of associates continued recording at the speed of sound, hitting the mark often (Waved Out (solo), Mag Earwhig!, Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department (with guitarist Doug Gillard)), and also producing their fair share of messes.
Though they/Robert Pollard bounced from the ignominy of self-recording to the center of Ric Okasek’s glass box, they/he would never again capture the immediacy, the brevity, or the laconic raw nerve that made Alien Lanes one of the last great albums of the Twentieth Century — a record that sounded as if it could tell the long and labyrinthine history of rock and roll in the space of 28 well paced shocks.