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Jason's TWO Cents

This is my first time hearing any Guided By Voices tracks at all, and to tell you the truth, I am very disappointed…not in the material really, or the singing, or the playing, or in any of that…but in the vision.  This could have been a great album.  But not in the usual way of saying that if there was just one single added, or two songs thrown out, it would have been a masterpiece…no, on this album, it needs an almost complete overhaul.  These songs sound like they are all demos.  While that might be charming for some, this isn’t an album’s worth of one man and his guitar demos, it is as if the band just went into the studio on successive days, got drunk, and recorded bits and pieces of potentially amazing tunes.  You said in your review, that this recording technique “…gives the album a timeless feel, and each new person who discovers the album feels like he/she is discovering some forgotten classic that had been collecting dust in some shoddy basement.”  I sort of felt that way, but actually, I felt as if I had discovered DEMOS of a potential classic.    

 

Potential is the key word.  Potential for greatness isn’t greatness.  Almost greatness isn’t greatness either.  This album has so much going for it, but falls short of being as high as you rank it.  If some songs were more fully realized and lasted longer than a blink, this would be 10 quality…and, of course, if the filler was taken out, it would help as well.

  

On first listen, this wouldn’t get anything higher than a 6 from me, no joke.  But you are absolutely right when you say it will grow on you…it does, no doubt.  Every time I hear it, I hear a new vocal melody line…but that just makes me more irritated with the album.  IT COULD HAVE BEEN SO MUCH BETTER THAN IT IS!!!!

 

Here are the notes I typed while listening to the album to give my 2 cents:

 

Hardcore UFO’s” has that in and out feel.  Tons of layers and a million things happening in it, but it lacks focus and for my money isn’t a very good song at all.  Buzzards and Dreadful Crows” rules.  The murky recording here helps a great deal, making this song sound like it was recorded in a garage.  Tractor Rape Train” has a very good vocal melody and coda, no doubt this band has talent.  The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” is a great song…in the Kinks vein.  Great feeling behind such a simple and short song.  Hot Freaks”…ah, come on Mike, this tune has more bite than the whole album put together. 

 

Yeah, okay these songs are all amazing, but WHY AREN’T THESE SONGS LONGER!?!?!?!?!?!

 

Smothered in Hugs” is a sloppy sonic mess and is just boring.  Yours To Keep” cleans up the sound and is heartbreaking.  But it just ends abruptly and turns into “Echo’s Myron.”  That is technically fine because “Echo’s Myron” is the best Buddy Holly song ever written by someone other than Buddy Holly.  The best song on the album and what a GREAT TUNE!!!  But still, “Yours To Keep” could have been a “real” song given just time to open up a little.

 

Gold Star For Robot Boy” defines quirky.  Good vocals here, but the background music is just noise.  Elvis Costello does this kind of thing so much better…not that this is bad, but it is close to being not good.  As soon as “Awful Bliss” starts, you know it is going to be good.  It sounds like it was actually recorded in a studio (despite the sniffles in the background).  It rules in its simpleness, but come on!!!!!!!!!!   How about a chorus or two…these songs could be so great!!!!

 

Mincer Ray” is more sonic terribleness.  They just find a riff (on bass and/or guitar) and just play it over and over, no middle eights, no really anything…this song sounds like something my friends could make up while wasted…that might sound cool, but why is this one of the longest songs on the album?  Just another murky mess.  A Big Fan of the Pigpen,” an acoustic guitar corky melody with really altered vocals…this I like.  He really lets go at the end with his voice, and it is pure innocent heaven (sometimes my friends do sound good when they are hammered too), but then that real ending is more musical madness--eh.  Queens of Cans and Jars” starts with a sweet twangy riff.  Sounds like a lost 1963 British Invasion tune demo.  The song is kind of cute and all, but, again, why not develop it more and make it truly great?!?!?!

 

Her Psychology Today” does suck in a major way…wow.  It pisses me off though that this song has a verse and middle…the worst frickin song on the album has changes and is a song…one of the few “songs” on the album!  Why?!?!?!?!?!

Kicker of Elves” yep…shit this is Marc Bolan and I LOVE MARC BOLAN!!!  Yep, not the best song on here, but my favorite, I love it.  “Do-do-do-do-do-do-do-kicker of elves!”  Yeah!  But far too short!!!!  Ester’s Day” I like actually.  Maybe it is just my tastes, but every tune on acoustic is good on the album, while every song with background messy shit going on, sucks.  Demons Are Real” is scary.  Please help.  I Am A Scientist” yep…it rules.  No doubt.  Peep-Hole” is kinda cool.  “Your house always looks so nice.  I’m looking inside your brain and Christ, it is a cluttered mess.”—Nice.  The last song is pointless.

 

Overall, I’d give this in between a 7.5 and an 8.  It is a cool, eccentric, unpredictable listen, but a listen that leaves me wanting someone to turn these demos into an album.

Mike's Rebuttal

First of all, Jason, a great melody isn't pointless.  A great melody is a great melody no matter how long it appears in the song.  How many great punk and hardcore songs are under 2 minutes but have extremely catchy melodies?  Would you tell the Ramones that "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue" would have been so much better had they added two minutes and made it a "real" song?  Now I realize that Guided By Voices are not a punk band, but should they have to conform to the rule that a pop song has to be 3 minutes long?   "You're Not an Airplane" is only 26 seconds long but would you deny the nice melody of the lines "and cold allies of steel/ couldn't buy the way it feels/ rusty and divided steel/ the race is yet to come" just because it isn't repeated 3 more times and a chorus isn't tacked on?

You say that it's as if "the band just went into the studio on successive days, got drunk, and recorded bits and pieces of potentially amazing tunes...
" yet you go on to call a good number of the songs great tunes.  "Echos Myron" "I Am a Scientist" "Tractor Rape Chain" "Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory", could you really improve on these songs at all?  "Queen of Cans and Jars" has a great riff, you said so yourself.  Lots of great 60s pop songs rode one great riff and good melody through a 2 minute song, is this song any different?  It's only 5 seconds shy of 2 minutes anyway!

I like "Hot Freaks" and "Ester's Day" too, and "Yours to Keep."  I agree that all the acoustic songs are great.  But why penalize an album just because the melodies get in, get out, only to be replaced by yet ANOTHER good melody?   I think the lo-fi "demo" quality of the songs lends to this opinion of yours.  Maybe if the songs didn't sound like demos you wouldn't think a song like "Buzzards and Dreadful Crows" was a demo?  Sure, "Awful Bliss" and "Kicker of Elves" deserve to be longer, but they're great as they are.  Really, I see no problem with an album full of short, but great songs.  

I'll grant you that the lo-fi charm of the songs isn't for everybody, but that is what sets Bee Thousand apart from other albums.  You say you're disappointed with the vision, well I can't help you there.  This is the vision of Guided By Voices and you can either take it or leave it.  For me, I'll take it.

And by the way, later GBV albums feature longer songs and more developed ideas.  You might enjoy an album like Isolation Drills or even Under the Bushes Under the Stars more.

And Back to Jason

You’re right…a great melody isn’t pointless, but if you are arguing that “You’re Not An Airplane” is worthwhile as a song, well that’s crazy.  It is like 20 seconds…20 seconds of someone playing one piano chord…I have no musical talent, and I bet I could write that “tune.”  Does it have a nice vocal melody?  Well sure, but what the hell is a good melody worth for 20 seconds?  Nice imagery in the words?  Sure, but again…is a song really a good song if it is 20 seconds? 

 

The Ramones, to me are a separate issue.  No, I wouldn’t want any of their songs to last much longer than they do because then they would suck.  That is the beauty of the Ramones.  Their songs rule, but if they were longer, they’d ruin the point.  To make them longer, would make them worse.  This album would be better, so much better, if the band would expand their output.

 

The songs that I claimed were good, are good DESPITE their length.  I’m not saying they suck or anything…they would just be BETTER if they were longer.  Look at the Grateful Dead…something like 60% of their music that I have heard would be so much better if it were shorter.  Is some of that stuff still good to great?  Of course…but could it have been better?  Well, I’d say without a doubt.  Same principle here, just in reverse.

 

…why penalize an album just because the melodies get in, get out, only to be replaced by yet ANOTHER good melody?  I penalize the album for this because it almost ruins the continuity of the album.  Almost…but not quite.  I still think this is a very good record. 

 

Let me try to explain it this way…you might be too young to remember, but back when I was young, sports teams kept the same players…they traded every now and then sure, but there wasn’t the craziness that is free agency.  You hung on to your players and built a championship or a contender with what you had.  Fans got to know the players, their personalities, their strengths and weaknesses, and the team and community were like one.  Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, Larry Bird and Dennis Johnson.  Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman, Vinny Johnson.  Jim Kelly, Andre Reed, Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas.  Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, Vince Coleman, Tommy Herr.  Man, you really got to love these guys.  Now a days, people love the team, but not the players…the Yankees get Gary Sheifield, Alex Rodriquez, Jason Giambi, Kenny Loften…blah blah blah.  Next year they’ll get Pedro Martinez and Sammy Sosa.  I hate that.  I want the players…give them a chance to develop…give me a chance to really see what they have…none of this in one year, out the next crap.  Might you still win a championship?  Sure…but you never gave me the chance to really appreciate what you had.

 

It is the same for me with this album.  Are the melodies good to great?  Yes, they are.  But they come so quickly and their stay is so short, I really wish they’d let them linger a while and really develop into something better than what they are…

 

(Alright…I admit that was pretty lame, but do you get what I am trying to say?)

Mike Gets the Last Word

        I guess I didn't mean to get on the "You're Not an Airplane" subject, but YES, a song can be "good" if it's only 20 seconds.  I mean, it's as you said, it has a good melody and nice imagery.  Sure it's no masterpiece and it's no highlight on the album, but it is a "good" song.   I don't think length of songs really determines whether a song is "good" or not, but in this case a length can limit the development of a song to its full fruition. 
        Is "You're Not an Airplane" an A-level song?  No way.  Why?  Because it's too short, and isn't developed.  It's just a verse.  It's good, but still just a verse.  Now, the difference between it and the rest of the album is that the other songs are more developed.  But really, that's just how Bob Pollard works as a songwriter.  Many people would like to see the songs fleshed out more, I even would think that'd be cool.  But you see, Bob DOES flesh the songs out more on later albums.  Even though he does this, most GBV fans still hold Bee Thousand up as their apex.  Guided By Voices have tons of great fully-developed songs: Chasing Heather Crazy, Glad Girls, Cut-Out Witch, Official Ironmen Rally Song, Useless Inventions, My Kind of Soldier, Everywhere With Helicopter, etc etc.  At this point in their career however, that is just how Bob wrote songs.  He wrote short lo-fi pop gems. 
        Could Bee Thousand have been better had he cut the filler and made a few of the songs longer? Yes.  In my opinion though, it's great as it is.  How many other songwriters of today can write a song as good as "Tractor Rape Chain"?  So I see what you mean about how it could be better, I just think it's already really friggin' good as it is.  However I don't see how the constant barrage of great and awesome melodies hurts the album.  That you want the melodies to stick around longer is understandable, but I don't think it messes with the "continuity" of the album or even why that is a negative.  Again, I understand you if you mean you want the songs to linger around more and be developed more.  But the melody to "Queen of Cans and Jars" isn't going to be any better if it was extended another minute.
        Anyway, this is really just how Bob worked as a songwriter at this time.  What if he had tried developing the songs and they got worse because of it?  Songs like "Lord of Overstock" "Look at Them" and "No Sky" off Under the Bushes Under the Stars are fully developed songs but are nowhere near as good as the classics from Bee Thousand ("I Am a Scientist" "Echos Myron" "Tractor Rape Chain" etc)   That's just how Bob Pollard writes songs.  Me?  I like how he writes songs.  You may not.  It's like I said earlier, that's just Bob Pollard: take him or leave him.  My only regret is that people listen to Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes and are turned off by the filler and short-length of songs and then don't pursue GBV anymore.  So they miss out on all the great songs that came after it.  Is Guided by Voices a perfect band?  No.   Is Bee Thousand a perfect album?  No.  But it's a great album with great songs.  I realize Bob Pollard can be frustrating but I just guess some of us can put up with him a lot easier than others.  But it's okay, because he writes some catchy songs. </rant>

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