It's my indie-rock shame, the kind of thing I'd like to keep hidden at the back of my cupboard, wrapped in that pair of happy pants that I convinced my mum to buy me in 1990 (a moment of absolute MC Hammer worship). OK, deep breath now, 'cos here it comes: I've never owned a Guided by Voices record.
And, well, owning this isn't exactly going to win me any indie-cred points it's much cooler to invoke the "I like their early stuff" cliché about GBV these days.
I've not been immune to years of zine-gush about these guys, nor the online mailing list stoushes over the merit of later material, nor the feeling I should believe (without quite knowing why) that every note churned out by white guys in sneakers is indebted to them. I've heard songs on the radio, on mix-tapes and on compilations: my life has not been a Guided by Voices-free zone. But I will admit that I never quite "got it." Put that down to "context" or immaturity or bad taste, if you must.
But for those that haven't been subjected to even that (hold the chortles, indie-geeks), the back-story runs thus: Robert Pollard starts hacking out songs onto four-track in the early 1980s; the GBV band solidifies during the late '80s, releasing several albums; a Matador distribution deal lands the band in the alt-rock mainstream in 1994, their Bee Thousand record turning up in all the right magazines; in 1996 Pollard sacks the old band and starts again; Ric Ocasek works on 1999's Do the Collapse in the (unrealized) hope of making GBV a whole lot more radio-ready; also in that year, a career highlight (possibly) arrives as the band's "Teenage FBI" track appears on the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" soundtrack. Now, five years hence, Pollard still has his foot firmly planted on the accelerator of the Guided by Voices bus, tossing a record out the window at fairly regular intervals.
Given that the daunting task of purchasing and listening to the entirety of Pollard's expansive GBV catalogue (and I'm not even talking about his solo albums and numerous side projects) seems like an expensive experiment for newbies, this collection which, as the label on the tin has it, is the "Best of Guided by Voices" should show neophytes that GBV are The Way, The Truth and The Light. It should make clear the thing we've been missing about Robert Pollard and Tobin Sprout and everyone else who has passed through their ranks. For this philistine, it has done that. A bit.
Mostly it has highlighted that all this talk about the lo-fi bedroom stuff being the killer, "must-hear" material is sentimental hogwash. With the song order on this disc, the warble of the lo-fi 4-track material often sounds like the interludes of hip-hop records: a bridge and a breather between the stuff you really want to hear.
All I'm saying, lo-fi lovers, is that "Bulldog Skin" a killer pop song that lodged itself in my head about five years ago on the back of one listen and has made impromptu cameo appearances since then without musical stimulus is worth five "14 Cheerleader Coldfront"s. It's the genuine studio stuff that really gleams and glimmers in this collection of diamonds and zircons, the "Glad Girls" that catches the ear over the unshapely slog of "Drinker's Peace."
It seems obvious to suggest that when a songwriter gets to the studio they're more likely to hone and perfect their good songs and discard those that are sub-par. (Either that or "hone and perfect" with re-tracking and string sections and choirs to such an extent that it seems more like "bloat and kill.") The benefit for Pollard and crew of knowing that the dollars are clicking over with each minute and not just another C-90 in the PortaStudio is that the studio songs are focused, tight and catchy, the studio functioning like the pair of eyeglasses that they denied themselves for too long and probably for the same stubborn image-conscious reason thousands of kids do. While the meander of the guitar-and-voice paeans and the "isn't this fun?" vibe of the straight-to-tape band songs both charm in their own way, the crisper recording and songwriting elsewhere really underlines how great some of the Guided by Voices songs are.
And there's a big enough selection here for everyone in your family to choose their favorite 32 songs in all. The dilemma of the "best of" compiler is the choice between putting on as much representative quality material as possible and not fatiguing the general listener. At 32 songs and nearly 78 minutes, this could be described in advertising material as "expansive" I'd prefer to call it "taxing,"
Nevertheless, nothing here is positively disposable. Sure, some of the lo-fi tracks sound like they could have done with another 30 minutes of refinement before being recorded for posterity, but such a judgment rests on a retroactive sense of what could've been, a notion inspired by the quality and focus of the later material. The context also needs to be acknowledged it's not '94 anymore and I can't recreate the entire social, political and cultural surrounds necessary to grasp and understand why the out-of-tune strum of Pollard captured so many indie-rockers.
Or maybe it's not that difficult. Maybe it's just that in the Guided by Voices catalogue a decent cross-section of which is presented for quick perusal here the early lo-fi stuff is good, but the later studio stuff is better.