Guided by Voices: “Bulldog Skin”
According to a significant portion of the music press in the ’90s, the lo-fi band Guided by Voices was one of the greatest bands to emerge in that decade; if you tried to find them on the radio, though, they didn’t exist, save for an occasional play on a college radio station at the left of the dial. Even when GBV (as it’s easier to call them) later released albums in something close to “hi-fi,” they never had anything that could truly be called a hit. So no one would find fault with you for not knowing anything more about them than having heard their name — and I guess that for a large majority of people, not even knowing their name is the rule, rather than the exception.
Funny thing is, there are 1,739 songs officially released by Guided by Voices to have possibly heard, according to the Guided by Voices Database, on a total of over 60 albums, EPs, singles, box sets, etc. That’s a lot of songs not being heard. And for the most part, they will continue to not be heard. Heck, I’ve “only” heard something like 200-300 of them myself, and as much as I love me a lot of GBV, I’m really pretty satisfied with that intake.
Robert Pollard, leader of Guided by Voices throughout all of their many incarnations over a period of 20 years, is responsible for the vast majority of those songs. Some might call that obsessive. Many would say he’s somewhat nuts, and plenty would say that much of that output was fueled by alcohol. Or at least the consumption of said substance fueled the live performances of those songs, as I witnessed a few times first-hand.
It would be easy to assume that out of 1,739 songs, give or take 50 or so covers, there’s a lot of filler. You’d be right. In fact, there’s a lot of complete junk. But if even a small portion of those songs are “above-average to great” songs, as I roughly believe ~10% of them are, that’s a hell of a lot of good songwriting. And Pollard, given his many years of recording Guided by Voices in very low fidelity, clearly believes in songwriting over production — let the songs speak for themselves, as long as you can more or less make out the words. Thankfully, there are about 8 to 10 Guided by Voices albums upon which reside at least 75% of those great songs, so you don’t really need to stray as far and wide to hear them as you might imagine.
And Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, in particular, are classics, no matter what the recording quality. Seek them out and give yourself a little time to get past the 4-track cassette quality, and you’ll be amazed. However, about 10 years into GBV, Pollard decided that maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing to see how the songs sounded with better production. So on 1997’s Mag Earwhig!, many of the songs are actually clear and easy to hear — and lo and behold, they were still great. (There’s even a song on the album titled, “I Am Produced.”) Ensuing albums got even more of a sheen, although that only helped the good songs; lesser songs are still lesser songs even when you can hear them more clearly.
One of my favorite Guided by Voices songs happens to be one of the ones with better production — not necessarily because of it, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. “Bulldog Skin,” from Mag Earwhig!, starts off with about 20 seconds of radio noise, but then kicks in with an undeniable riff, some of Pollard’s most rock-star-like vocals, and a nifty guitar solo to boot. It’s a great jumping-off place for those uninitiated to GBV — explore further, allow the songs to sink in, and you just might find yourself wanting to work your way through a few dozen or more of Robert Pollard’s songs…