Guided By Voices have the keys to the alt-rock kingdom. They are adored by thousands of critic types (and even some people who don’t live in their mom’s basement) for adhering to the Indie Music Purity Act signed in Geneva in 1986 by Bob Mould, Paul Westerberg, and various members of Killdozer— provisions of which entail being honest in an impoverished and obscure manner, showing a strong nondenominational midwestern work ethic, traveling in a van, being shafted by record labels, and recording albums with a Mr. Microphone and a Radio Shack boom box in your bass player’s rec room.
In the past, the fact that the pride of Ohio, Robert Pollard (and whoever he could get to play with him), released albums simply as an excuse to come up with as many goofy song titles as possible only made him more endearing to cranky fanzine editors and art-garage aficionados the world over. And Guided By Voices were arty and of the garage— the best of their early stuff sounded like unreleased demo tapes some acid-rock casualty might have made in Dennis Wilson’s guest house.
G.B.V. also spawned a DIY movement of sorts. It was composed of vinyl junkies of a certain age, who, although enamored with the rarefolkpsychmonster aspect of the ’60s, had also learned a thing or two from postpunkers the Fall and Wire. (I’m thinking of Thinking Fellers Union, the Grifters, the Strapping Fieldhands, Sebadoh, Pavement.) And even though English majors need glorified bar bands as much as anyone else, most if not all these groups have since learned to embrace actual stereophonic recording studios, leaving room for a new generation of record-store clerks to dazzle us with the crudity of their art.
Robert Pollard, whose music hasn’t sounded like an AM radio at the bottom of a well for years now, has gone further than any of his partners in production-value crime on Do the Collapse, his 400th album. Thanks to used Car Ric Ocasek’s production job, this ex-schoolteacher’s hobby band has a shiny new coat that would have been unimaginable five years ago. Ocasek makes rock so clean you can eat off it, and a lot of this album even has the punch and energy of the Cars’ wondrous debut. (An energy not found on G.B.V.’s last two G.B.V. releases, although they both had their share of keepers, like for instance “Learning To Hunt” on Mag Earwig, an uncharacteristically poignant song about fatherhood that reminds me of “Kooks” on David Bowie’s Hunky Dory. At least I think it’s about fatherhood— it might be about hunting.) On Collapse, “Teenage FBI” has those rinky-dink synths that Cars cover-band the Rentals revived not long ago, and the sweet guitar leads that waft in from nowhere on “Much Better Mr. Buckles” rank with powerpop’s greatest gifts. Sturdy, dirt-simple riffs start off 95 percent of the album. (I never liked the Nirvana/grunge jangly-bumpkin intro approach; you just knew any second they were gonna stomp on their effects pedal, set for “long hair.”)
I’m not going to get into band members here besides our hero Mr. Pollard. You can look up their tangled family tree on the G.B.V. Web site, and who knows, you might even be on it! I like the band shots that adorn the new album, though. What with the guys dressed up in custodial-crew gear, the pictures don’t convey the long-standing indie chic of trucker hats, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and somebody else’s work clothes so much as they resemble promo shots of cleaned-up Ohio pub-rockers the Rubber City Rebels, circa 1979.
And G.B.V.’s on TVT now— same label that gave long-in-the-tooth Aussie punk Chris Bailey of the Saints a new lease on life, and the label that made Nine Inch Nail Trent Reznor so mad he spit out a million-selling record. I guess their former label, Matador, now a cutting-edge dance imprint, didn’t hear enough drum ‘n’/or bass in the new G.B.V. sound (but there’s plenty of both!). Has this band sold out its underground cred by creating a slick pop-rock album on a label founded with sitcom theme-music money?
First of all, nobody cares. Second of all, Robert Pollard is old enough to be your father’s older brother. More important, he lives in Dayton, Ohio. What’s he gonna do, buy the swankiest house in Dayton with all that dough TVT throws around? Put a moat around his above-ground pool? People from Ohio are incapable of selling out. Just ask Devo, the Bizarros, Pere Ubu, and the Dead Boys— all major-label heavyweights in their day. The only way you can do it is if you move away to England like Chrissie Hynde and dis your smelly shores from afar. And so what if Do the Collapse has the best Collective Soul song ever recorded (“Hold on Hope”) on it? You’ll still never hear it on the radio. In a perfect world, the cliché goes, kids would flip their lids for whatever collegiate rock icon is being neglected this week. In the real world, somebody with a flair for language and a good hook should be able to earn a happy living without ever leaving home.