A rock critic, college-radio programmer, and independent record-store owner walk into a bar during the last week of December 1986. Reflecting on the year in music, they discuss Sonic Youth's first album for SST (Evol), Hüsker Dü's move to Warner Bros. and how Candy Apple Grey didn't suck like they'd expected, the breakup of Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys' last show and legal wrangling with the PMRC, Slayer's Reign in Blood and Metallica's Master of Puppets admittedly being sort of awesome but not as awesome as Big Black's Atomizer, that new Scottish pop band the Vaselines, and why on earth the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland.
Then the rock critic recalls a recent trip to visit his aunt in Dayton, where his cousin had this weird EP by a local band called Guided By Voices. "The songs are catchy but might have been recorded into a boom box sitting eight rooms away, and there was only a handful pressed up," he says, prompting the store owner to comment, "That sounds like a one-way ticket to obscurity."
Or not. When Guided By Voices "released" the Forever Since Breakfast EP in the summer of 1986, principal songwriter and bandleader Robert Pollard, then 28 years old, utilized the "friends and family" style of distribution while making his living as a grade-school teacher. Today, bands, side projects, one-offs, full-length albums, EPs, DVDs, box sets, seven-inch singles, and even books make up Pollard's complete artistic portfolio — an impenetrable maze that's been totally consumed, memorized, and understood only by the most dedicated of super-fans. Pollard has over 1,000 songs registered with B.M.I., and most of his creative output has occurred in the past 15 years.
Guided By Voices was certainly Pollard's main concern until the group officially disbanded at the end of 2004. About a third of the way in, '92-'95, Guided By Voices found themselves the darlings of the independent rock scene. Their apparently bottomless pit of foggy, scratchy, and genuinely crappy-sounding pop songs had hooks so golden one would swear they'd heard them before, as if ripped off from more famous pop geniuses of the '60s and '70s, but it was just the result of Pollard's intimidating chops. Guided By Voices was also inadvertently lumped into a particular indie-rock movement by the music press, all due to the low-fidelity of the recordings.
A quote: "Various recording techniques have always alternated in and out of style throughout modern music, and sooner or later, things need to be shaken up. Well, right now in the punk rock world, 'lo-fi' is all the rage. There are hordes of new bands embracing and pushing the limits of this sound to fresh heights."
Amazingly, these words did not introduce a feature in an early-'90s issue of The New York Times, Rolling Stone, or The Village Voice. Nor are they in reference to Pavement, Sebadoh, the Grifters, Smog, Guided By Voices, or a horde of other bands from the period. These words were spoken at the beginning of an MTV.com news segment that aired earlier this year — a maddeningly out-of-touch, attempted summation of such disparately motivated bands as Times New Viking, Psychedelic Horseshit, No Age, TyVek, and Memphis' own Jay Reatard. It is cringe-inducing that rock critics and a (hopefully) small number of young bands are trying to sell the idea that lo-fi, off-kilter, or experimental indie pop and rock is something new to this half of the decade, opting for an oblivious, proprietary arrogance regarding a style that never went away but simply emerged from remission.
Yet it appears that a comforting degree of bands realize they owe a stunning debt to Pollard, and, as such, he's become a sort of unwitting patriarch to a media-generated movement — not to imply that Pollard has dozed through one day of the last 10 years. Through side-project-gone-proper bands such as the Circus Devils, Pollard's knack for challenging, noise-damaged pop remains solid. When he turns 51 this Halloween, Pollard's musical projects will number in the neighborhood of 35 to 40. The latest is Boston Spaceships, which teams Pollard with Chris Slusarenko and John Moen (day job: Decemberists drummer).
The unfortunately titled Brown Submarine is the first album on which Pollard has exhumed some marginalia from his monumental back-catalog, reworking the tracks before applying a polish via full band. Brown Submarine recalls the relatively big-production Guided By Voices of '99-'02.
Truthfully, this might be the halfway point of Pollard's musical odyssey. When he turns 71 in 2028, if he's not using pop songs to stop a rapidly spreading virus or post-apocalyptic outbreak of giant killer sparrows, there's a strong chance that his 172nd band will have just released an album of material superior to that of outfits one-third his age. Pollard is a one-of-a-kind artist who remains as relevant as ever, avoiding obscurity by the sheer volume of what he creates while focusing on one or two primary projects. A special note: Tommy Keene, accomplished and legendary among the power-pop community, was recruited as guitarist for the touring version of Boston Spaceships.