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Guided By Voices

Eternally prolific indie rock mainstays Guided by Voices create trebly, hissy records filled with infectiously brief pop songs that are equally inspired by the sounds of the British Invasion and prog rock. Led by songwriter and vocalist Robert Pollard, the Dayton, Ohio-based band recorded six self-released albums between 1986 and 1992 that attracted a handful of fans within the American indie rock underground. The group became an unexpected alternative rock sensation after signing a larger distribution deal with Matador Records. Initially, they stuck to their aesthetic, continuing to record their albums on cheap four-track tape decks (like 1994's Bee Thousand), but by 1999, Pollard had recruited new bandmates, moved up to a larger label (TVT), and begun working with name producers in real studios, crafting a hi-fi rock classic with 2001's Isolation Drills. Despite this, Pollard's melodic sensibilities changed very little, and when the band moved back to the indies for 2002's Universal Truths and Cycles, they learned to strike a middle ground between more professional techniques and Pollard's spontaneous, compact songcraft. 2012's Let's Go Eat the Factory was their first release after an unexpected reunion, and 2023 brought multiple studio albums from the wildly prolific band, the prog-meets-power pop opus La La Land and harder-edged sets Welshpool Frillies and Nowhere To Go But Up. Schoolteacher Robert Pollard formed Guided by Voices in the early '80s. Throughout the group's history, Pollard was at the center, writing the majority of the songs and leading each incarnation of the band. During the '80s, Pollard was frequently joined by his brother Jim, who continued to write songs for the group even after his departure in the late '80s. Guided by Voices didn't become a full-fledged band until guitarist Tobin Sprout and bassist Dan Toohey joined the group in 1985. A year later, they released an EP, Forever Since Breakfast, on the local indie I Wanna Records. Guided by Voices released their first full-length album, Devil Between My Toes, on their own G Records in 1987; it was followed several months later by Sandbox, which appeared on Halo. Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia was released on Halo in 1989 and Same Place the Fly Got Smashed appeared on Rocket #9 Records in 1990. During the latter half of the '80s, Guided by Voices was essentially a hobby. The band rarely performed, and a wide array of musicians appeared on the group's albums -- according to some estimations, nearly 40 musicians passed through the band during its first decade. Nearly all of the Guided by Voices albums before Vampire on Titus were recorded in Steve Wilbur's eight-track studio in his home garage; Wilbur occasionally played guitar and bass on the records. Guided by Voices added Mitch Mitchell (rhythm guitar) and Kevin Fennell (drums) around the time of Propeller (1992), which was released on Rockathon Records. Prior to 1993's Vampire on Titus, all of Guided by Voices' records were essentially interchangeable musically, and none were widely available. Vampire on Titus was the first album the band released on the Cleveland-based indie label Scat, and the wider distribution meant the record was heard by a larger audience. Soon, the group had won fans like fellow Dayton native Kim Deal (Pixies, Breeders) and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore. Later in 1993, the band began playing live for the first time in several years, with Greg Demos replacing bassist Toohey. By the spring of 1994, Scat had entered a national distribution deal with Matador Records. Bee Thousand was the first album released under the deal, and it became a surprise word-of-mouth hit, earning positive reviews from mainstream publications like Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly. Pollard had quit teaching shortly before the spring release of Bee Thousand, and the group toured heavily behind it, appearing on the second stage at several Lollapalooza dates. By the fall, GbV's video for "I Am a Scientist" was aired a handful of times on MTV. Demos left the band in late 1994 to study law and was replaced by music journalist Jim Greer. By the release of 1995's Alien Lanes, GbV had joined Matador's official roster; their contract with Scat was completed with the spring release of Box, a five-disc box set containing the band's pre-Propeller albums. Alien Lanes was greeted with positive reviews upon its March release, and the group embarked on their first full-scale American tour. Greer left the band before the recording of Under the Bushes Under the Stars, which was released in the spring of 1996. That fall, Pollard and Tobin Sprout both released solo albums on the same day; the records were quickly followed by an album-length EP a month after their release. As the solo albums indicated, Pollard and Sprout had had a falling out during the group's extensive tour earlier that year, which resulted in Pollard firing the rest of the group. At the end of 1996, Pollard recorded the next Guided by Voices record, Mag Earwhig!, supported by the Cleveland garage punk band Cobra Verde. In 1999, Guided by Voices left Matador to sign with TVT Records, which paired the band with producer Ric Ocasek in hopes of giving GbV's label debut, Do the Collapse, a more radio-friendly sound. Pollard, however, allowed fans of his older work to revel in his lo-fi period with Suitcase: Failed Experiments & Trashed Aircraft, a four-disc box set featuring 100 unreleased songs recorded over the space of 25 years. While GbV's second album for TVT, 2001's polished and hard-rocking Isolation Drills, received strong reviews, the band hadn't expanded its fan base far beyond its loyal cult, and in 2002 GbV returned to Matador with Universal Truths and Cycles, as well as a number of side projects released through Pollard's reactivated Rockathon label. In the spring of 2004, Pollard startled his fans with the announcement that he would be breaking up Guided by Voices later that year. The band's supposed final album, Half Smiles of the Decomposed, was released the following August, and the resulting farewell tour concluded with a New Year's Eve show in Chicago. Even broken up, 2005 was a busy year for GbV. Pollard signed with Chapel Hill's Merge Records and announced plans for a 2006 solo album. Rock critic and former bandmember Jim Greer authored the book Guided by Voices: A Brief History: Twenty-One Years of Hunting Accidents in the Forests of Rock and Roll. There was another box set of unreleased material, this one entitled Suitcase 2: American Superdream Wow, and the 1992 album Propeller was reissued. To add to the accumulation of GbV material, a live album, Live from Austin TX, was released in 2007, showcasing a performance recorded in November 2004 for the PBS series Austin City Limits during the band's farewell tour. In 2010, Pollard assembled what he called a "classic lineup" of 1990's GbV veterans (including Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Kevin Fennell, and Greg Demos) to play a show at the Matador Records 21st anniversary festival. The show was well received, and the lineup proceeded to tour again; in 2011, Pollard announced they were working on new material. The following year, GbV released their first new album in eight years, Let's Go Eat the Factory. Making up for lost time, a second new album, Class Clown Spots a UFO, arrived in June of the same year, with a third, The Bears for Lunch, following before the year was out. The reunited band soldiered on in 2013 and dropped their fourth album, English Little League, right on schedule in May, followed shortly by the six-song EP Down by the Racetrack. After a public falling out with drummer Kevin Fennell -- who was asked to leave the band in October 2013 following a curious incident in which he attempted to sell his drum kit online for $55,000 -- frontman Pollard announced that the group would release their 21st album, Motivational Jumpsuit, with Kevin March behind the drums. The album saw release in February 2014. They continued their resurgence with Cool Planet, scheduled for release just months after Motivational Jumpsuit appeared, after recording 18 tracks during the freezing "polar vortex" weather system that swept through America that winter. But in September 2014, only four months after the release of Cool Planet, Guided by Voices abruptly announced that they were canceling all concert dates as the band had once again broken up, with Pollard telling The New York Times, "It's gone as far as it was going to go and to go beyond this point, to any degree or any length would be just going through the motions." In February 2015, Pollard launched a new project, Ricked Wicky, and two months later dropped a solo album, Faulty Superheroes, confirming he would remain prolific even without the group. In the fall of 2015, Pollard offered a look at his past and future with the box set Suitcase 4: Captain Kangaroo Won the War, another four-CD/100-song marathon that collected a wealth of Guided by Voices demos and outtakes along with rough versions of tunes Pollard wrote for an upcoming solo album, Of Course You Are. In February 2016, Robert Pollard surprised many fans by announcing that Guided by Voices would be touring that year, beginning with a June appearance at the Sled Island Festival in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Pollard revealed that GbV would be performing in a new lineup, with the frontman joined by Nick Mitchell (of Ricked Wicky) and Bobby Bare, Jr. on guitars, Mark Shue on bass, and Kevin March on drums. Pollard also released a new Guided by Voices album, Please Be Honest, in April 2016, but the new lineup did not perform on the set. Instead, the album featured Pollard playing all the vocal and instrumental tracks himself. This GbV lineup didn't last long; in July 2016, it was announced that Nick Mitchell had been given his pink slip, and Doug Gillard had stepped in once again as the band's lead guitarist. In April 2017, fans got to hear this GbV edition on wax with the arrival of August by Cake, which, in advance press releases, Pollard declared was his 100th album (though some fans and journalists questioned his math). The endlessly productive Pollard had another Guided by Voices album ready to go a few months later, and How Do You Spell Heaven was released in August 2017. March 2018 saw the release of Space Gun, an unusually ambitious set that the usually prolific Pollard declared would be GbV's only album of the year. Pollard was good to his word, but February 2019 saw the band deliver another epic-scale release, the 32-song, 75-minute Zeppelin Over China, featuring the same lineup as Space Gun. This time, GbV didn't wait nearly so long to issue a follow-up, with the 24-song, 37-minute Warp and Woof appearing in late April 2019. Embracing longer and grander song structures, Guided by Voices ran through half as many songs in roughly the same amount of time on Sweating the Plague, which came out in October 2019. Pollard and his bandmates kicked off a new decade in February of 2020 with Surrender Your Poppy Field, an album that found the band looking back to their lo-fi era on some tracks, while others sounded clear and vibrant. A significant .of live dates were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but in July of 2020, GbV performed a pay-per-view concert they jokingly dubbed their 2020 World Tour. Just one month later, they released Mirrored Aztec, their second full-length of the year. Unlike the lo-fi elements of its predecessor, these songs were altogether cleaner and more accessible. Capping off this particularly fertile year, GbV delivered Styles We Paid For in December, marking their third album of 2020. It would be less than five months before they returned with their 33rd studio effort, 2021's Earth Man Blues. Robert Pollard introduced yet another side project, Cub Scout Bowling Pins, with the July 2021 release of the album Clang Clang Ho! However, a careful look at their lineup revealed they were actually GbV trading under a different name. The band celebrated the 20th Anniversary of the release of Isolation Drills with a deluxe vinyl edition of the album, presented as a two LP set mastered at 45 rpm and featuring expanded artwork. Just in case anyone was worried that Pollard was slacking off, yet another Guided by Voices album appeared in October 2021. Titled It's Not Them. It Couldn't Be Them. It Is Them!, the set was an especially elaborate affair, with string and horn arrangements and a rich, cohesive musical approach. Roughly four months later, GbV delivered their 35th studio album, Crystal Nuns Cathedral. It continued the expanded instrumentation begun on It's Not Them, applying string sections to select tracks of the album's power pop and melodic prog songwriting. July 2022 brought Tremblers & Goggles by Rank, with Pollard's songs digging deeper into his psychedelic and prog rock influences, stretching four of the ten songs to over four minutes, while still putting his trademark pop hooks and impressionistic lyrics up front. The LP also included the song "Alex Bell," his homage to power pop pioneers Big Star. A few months later, compilation release Scalping the Guru gathered select tracks from four EPs originally released between 1993 and 1994, offering an alternate perspective on the phase that produced some of the band's best-loved material. In January of 2023, they offered up their 37th studio set, La La Land. The album served as a companion piece to 2022's Tremblers & Goggles by Rank, and continued that album's exploration of progressive arrangements, more extreme emotional statements, and (relatively) longer song lengths. While many of GbV's albums cut during the COVID-19 pandemic saw the members of the group recording remotely, their second album of 2023, Welshpool Frillies, was tracked with the full band performing live to tape at a studio in Brooklyn, New York. The songs reflected Pollard's eager embrace of his progressive rock leanings, while the performances gave the music a tougher, more energetic sound than the albums that immediately preceded it. In September 2023, Guided by Voices celebrated their 40th year as a band with a pair of special concerts in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio, with fans and friends Dinosaur Jr. and Built to Spill opening the shows. Before the year concluded, the band released their third 2023 album and 39th overall, Nowhere To Go But Up. The album embraced huge production and circuitous songwriting, with almost no choruses or repeated lyrics throughout.
© Stephen Thomas Erlewine & Mark Deming /TiVo


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