Tag Archives: 90s Alt Rock

Exile in Guyville, by Liz Phair – Album #125

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Exile in Guyville, by Liz Phair
1993, Matador Records. Producer: Liz Phair and Brad Wood
In My Collection: CD, 1994.

(Five minute read)

IN A NUTSHELL: Exile in Guyville, the 1993 album from Liz Phair, helped usher in lo-fi 90s rock. It’s a diverse record, with some songs qualifying as rockers, a few as singer-songwriter musings, and some that are downright strange. The production from Phair and Brad Wood, who also drums and plays bass, places Phair’s unusual voice at the center of the proceedings. Whether she’s belting it out, using a lilting soprano, or delivering lines in her slackery, raspy growl, she always sounds good. And the lyrics are varied, too, even if they mostly focus on life as a young woman in music. Sometimes they’re direct, sometimes they tell a story, often they’re simply poetry. Eighteen songs may be a handful too many, but overall, this collection stands the test of time.

THEORHETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 30.

~ ~ ~

The lucky among us will eventually arrive at that nebulous, confusing, perhaps decades-long holding pattern called Adulthood. Before we get there, we spend a lot of time trying to understand it.

As young kids we ape the grown-ups on TV, playing spies or house, as we try to figure it out. We fantasize about becoming mechanics or doctors or basketball players or dancers, but Destination Grown-Up lies in the distant future. Regardless of whether we pursue those childhood dreams through our ever-changing adolescence, an annoyance common to Adulthood gradually reaches into our lives: obligations. We have to pay for things. We have to meet people we don’t want to meet, and be places we don’t want to be, and plan for a future beyond Saturday night, all because it’s what mature people do. Adulthood looms over everything, and we try to keep it at bay in bars and ballfields and video game screens. Still, we know the inevitable awaits.

So how will we know when we arrive? Obligations are always part of the picture. I’ve been buying baseball cards with my own money since elementary school, and was compelled to attend church until I finished high school. As a young man/old boy, I guessed that when all the frivolities of youth were finally stamped out, I’d know I was an adult. When I no longer played pickup basketball, and stopped doing stand-up and acting, that will be the sign. The day I finally blocked up my new-music ears and started the adults-only complaint that “the music today just doesn’t compare to the stuff from my youth” … then I will have, sadly, arrived.

I first listened to Exile in Guyville in late spring, 1994, at an afternoon party, of sorts, in the apartment of an older couple who were friends of my new girlfriend. A recent emigre to San Francisco, I’d been dating Julia about 6 months, and this party was going to be one more new experience in a year full of new and exciting experiences. Determined to evince the persona of an ever-intrepid sampler of new and exotic encounters, I’d offered a resounding “Yes!” when she’d asked me, “Do you want to go meet Sharon and Jim’s newborn twins?” A part of me couldn’t believe I was going to spend an afternoon with a couple of incontinent, drooling, crying weaklings. (The twins, not the parents.) And even though I’d met and enjoyed the company of Sharon and Jim many times, now that they’d become parents, it felt impossible that I’d have anything to discuss with them. But … obligations, y’know?

We sat in the couple’s sunny living room, and Jim handed both Julia and me a swaddled little bundle like he was handing out hoagies from A&M Pizza. (I needed some assistance to properly hold the kid.) He moved to the stereo as we cooed and chirped at the sleeping infants and chatted with Sharon about her new life as a mom. Then Jim put on Exile in Guyville. As a new music fan and longtime subscriber to Spin magazine at the time, I’d heard a couple tracks on the radio and read a few things about Exile in Guyville over the past few months. The song “Never Said” was getting a lot of airplay. But I hadn’t heard much of it.

I don’t want to overstate the impact of the moment, but that’s about when I knew I was an adult. We were doing non-youthful things – handling babies and talking about parenting – but also enjoying new music. I felt as if I was in a scene from some TV program from the 60s, The Dick Van Dyke Show or Bewitched, and instead of placing Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on the Hi-Fi, my neighbor just slid Exile in Guyville into the CD player. I liked the record, we discussed it, and I went out and bought it soon after. Even as an adult I could like new music. I kept playing basketball and performing comedy and acting, too.

Exile in Guyville opens with a song that exhibits most of what makes the album tick. The subtly rocking “6’1″.”

It opens with a strumming electric guitar, and the bass and drums entering quickly to propel things along. Phair’s facility with melody and unusual song structure is also on display. It’s bouncy and catchy, but warmly unpolished. The entire record has a lo-fi sound that was popularized at the time by bands like Guided by Voices and Sebadoh. Phair’s work is a bit less messy, but still, her thin, inexact voice and rough guitar give the record an immediacy and energy. This isn’t to say I don’t like her voice – I really do! And the harmonies sound great, as well. The lyrics are about standing up to the douchebag boyfriend, in which the 5’2″ Phair acts as if she’s 6’1″.

The same features are on display on the rousing next song, “Help Me Mary.”

This one’s a bit more driving, with Brad Wood’s bass pulsing throughout. The guitar riff is pretty cool, and Phair’s gruff voice is perfect on this song about being a strong, resilient woman in a scene dominated by thoughtless (or worse) men. Her words about locking doors and memorizing rules, and the seesawing self-esteem that such efforts cause, ring true. Meanwhile, Phair plays some great guitar lines throughout.

The album is 18 songs long, and as with many lengthy records (but not all) I think it could have been trimmed down. However, 18 songs is key because that’s the length of The Rolling Stones’ masterpiece Exile on Main Street. In early interviews, Phair claimed Exile in Guyville was a song-by-song response to that Stones record, an idea doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. (Try it – you’ll see.) However, this type of endeavor is just the sort of thing that gets (mostly male) music-nerds hyped up and arguing over whether or not it’s true. And since the record is partly about Phair’s experience among those music boys, this sounds to me like both a clever joke at their expense and a way to get them to listen. Anyway, “Glory,” a brief cut that may be about either a creepy guy or a lovable dog, isn’t one of my favorites.

Dance of the Seven Veils,” featuring just Liz and her Fender Jaguar, is also just okay, although I like how she varies her voice as she hits the chorus. It also displays her penchant for using “bad words” (the “C” word here), which caused a bit of controversy back in the day, as well. But when her songs work, Phair really produces gems. For example, “Never Said.”

The vocals are the key to this song, with Phair rasping the lead while also layering background vocals behind it. The music’s ascending chords are simple but catchy, and guitarist Casey Rice rings out a single note over top. It’s a very laid-back sound, perfectly supporting Phair’s vocal delivery. The lyrics actually read as an angry rebuke, but the song has a more Gen-X, slacker “whatever, dude” vibe. “Soap Star Joe” has a really cool strummed guitar pattern, with squawky harmonica and distant drum cracks highlighting sections. It’s an unusual-sounding singer-songwriter piece that may be about the silliness of male models. The harmonica that finishes the song is great.

Phair returns to the quiet place on “Explain It to Me,” a subtle piece with inscrutable lyrics. (I would like someone to Explain It to Me.) “Canary” introduces the piano into Phair’s repertoire, recorded in a lo-fi way that suits her voice. Exile in Guyville was among the first wave of alt-rock records by women. Coming just after Juliana Hatfield and Belly, joining artists like Hole and Fiona Apple, these were welcome voices in a testosterone-heavy rock scene. “Canary” offers a look into what it’s like to be a young woman making a go in a traditionally man-dominated field.

The next song, “Mesmerizing,” builds brilliantly from those slow songs.

It starts off sounding like another slow, dreary piece, but adds a bass drum and maracas, which are enough to kick up the energy. Phair’s voice is watery and distorted, and it sounds great, particularly the “I-I-I-I-I like it” (1:38). The guitar playing is terrific, with a nifty solo from Rice at 2:02. It’s one of the few songs on the record that does kind of reflect Exile on Main St., with the sparse arrangement and a guitar solo overtop. Then there are the lyrics, which seem to comment a bit on “Rocks Off.” In a way, this all reminds me of a softer White Stripes kind of song.

Up next is another number that had folks clutching their pearls in ’93. After decades of men bragging about their varied, numerous sexual exploits, some people weren’t prepared to hear a young woman sing “Fuck and Run.”

Whereas the dudes have always sung about their lack of feelings over these situations, Phair actually explores the emotional impact of the situation. (Something I’m certain those dudes always felt, as well.) The lyrics are great, as Phair asks for a boyfriend (with great self-harmonies), and all that “stupid old shit/ like letters and sodas.” It’s actually a very romantic song. Musically, it’s bouncy and light. I like the transition when she sings “I can feel it in my bones/ I’m gonna spend another year alone” (1:49). “Girls! Girls! Girls!” is almost a companion piece to “Fuck and Run.” It’s a strange little guitar number with creepy vocals responding to the main lyrics, which offer a different perspective of her love life, with Phair now relishing in manipulating men.

My favorite song on Exile in Guyville is “Divorce Song.” Despite its lo-fi production and Phair’s gruff voice, the song packs an emotional wallop documenting what sounds like the last time a couple will have the same fight they always have.

The song takes a long time to finally get to the chorus, but when it does Wood’s bass drives the song forward. At 1:48 the bass rings out some high notes behind Phair’s “you put in my hands …”, and for some reason that really adds to the lonely feeling of being in a fight with a partner. The song sounds great and has a cool little harmonica-led coda, as well. “Shatter” is another slow song, not too distinct from the others, about Phair’s devotion to a boyfriend. “Flower” continues Phair’s efforts to make your grandparents uncomfortable, as she sings her desire to get very physical with a guy she’s into. She proto-raps the dirty (and funny!) lyrics behind weird guitar spikes and an angelic vocal riff, which enhances their effect. Hey, if Robert Plant can say he’s gonna give his lady every inch of his love, why can’t Phair say she wants her man’s fresh young jimmy?

Another favorite of mine is “Johnny Sunshine.”

it starts as a sound-collage, a meditation on one chord. Two crunchy guitars support her as she lists all the shitty things her partner did. The second time through, she adds a lament in a higher register. Phair has a voice that can go many places, and in this song she shows it off. At 1:17 she breaks out her light and airy soprano voice, as the song slows to a turtle pace. It’s really a terrific vocal demonstration, and it’s also a pretty weirdly constructed piece of music. “Gunshy” is a gentle, weird song with great guitar picking. (It also includes a reference to the 70s comic book sensations Sea Monkeys!) It’s the best guitar song on the record, with multiple parts fit together like a puzzle.

As I said earlier, this is a long record, and I’d have liked it better if it was cut down to the 12 best. But it finishes on a couple strong notes. “Stratford-On-Guy” starts with a flange, and describes a flight landing in Chicago, her adopted home town. She delivers her very poetic lyrics in her typical slacker style, and I like the chorus. “Strange Loop” bops along to end the record on an upbeat note. Well, musically, anyway. Lyrically, it’s a precursor to “Divorce Song,” expressing a desire to stop fighting.

Even though I’m now an old(er) man who has supposedly been a grown-up for decades, it’s not hard to recall the confusion of what adulthood would mean. It seemed to click for me when I heard this record, but that doesn’t mean I understand it 30 years later. I’m still not sure if I know what I’m doing, but I still like listening to Exile in Guyville.

TRACK LISTING:
6’1″
Help Me Mary
Glory
Dance of the Seven Veils
Never Said
Soap Star Joe
Explain It to Me
Canary
Mesmerizing
Fuck and Run
Girls! Girls! Girls!
Divorce Song
Shatter
Flower
Johnny Sunshine
Gunshy
Stratford-On-Guy
Strange Loop

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19th Favorite: Hey Babe, by Juliana Hatfield

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Hey Babe. Juliana Hatfield.
1992, Mammoth Records. Producer: Gary Smith.
Purchased, 1992.

IN A NUTSHELL: Hey Babe, by Juliana Hatfield, is a straightforward 90s guitar-pop gem. Hatfield writes infectious melodies and the band behind her makes them sound alive and urgent. Her voice can strain at times, but it always suits the song, so I don’t mind. The lyrics are sharp, and offer a new perspective on relationships and culture. Get out your cardigan sweater and retro-Bobby Brady shirt, and re-live the early 90s with Juliana!

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
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As I begin to discuss album number 19 in my list of 100 favorite albums, and considering the pace with which I am completing each post, I’ve realized I should be at Number 1 sometime around 2022. Since this process is dragging out so long, I thought it might be a good time to review the process and discuss how I got here.

It has also dawned on me that as we reach the Top Twenty, there could be some rather upset readers who begin to notice that A) their favorite record won’t be on my list; and B) their second-favorite record is ranked far lower than some lousy record by some dumb artist they never even heard of. This could cause the feeling among readers that “I just wasted 15 years reading this blog to find out this dude has shitty taste in music!!” (I will refund all the fees I’ve collected from any reader who makes this claim.)

Sometimes I reach an album and even I think to myself: “Really?? This record is this good???” But invariably, after I begin listening again, I realize: “Yes! This album IS THIS GOOD!!” Only once have I had a moment of doubt.

So once again, let’s review the process:

1) I listened to all* my CDs. This probably sounds more impressive than it really is. I know folks who have thousands, even tens-of-thousands, of all types of records. I only own a few hundred. I listened to them mainly in the car as I commuted to work. I only listened to CDs, so albums I have as computer files, or old cassettes, aren’t part of the pool. Sadly, I haven’t owned a turntable in a long time, in particular I don’t have one in my car, so all my vinyl records are ineligible, too.

* – I decided that Compilation Albums and Beatles Albums were ineligible. Compilation albums because these typically cherry-pick an artist’s best songs, which would be unfair; Beatles Albums because it’s me cherry-picking the 10 Best Albums in history ever, and so wouldn’t be fair.

2) I took notes and rated the albums 1 to 5 stars. This rating was based on my feelings after listening to the album. It wasn’t based on a considered, in-depth, song-by-song critique that analysed both the artist’s place in history and the importance of the release in the ever-expanding network of contemporary artistic expression; nor was it based on a fixed list of characteristics that excellent records must possess. It was simply based on how much I felt the old “I-fucking-love-this-record!!!” feeling while I listened.

3) I sorted by number of stars. Five stars on top, one-to-less-than-one-stars on the bottom. This provided what one would think was an objective-as-possible list of records ranked by “I-fucking-love-this-record!!!“-ness. However …

4) I accounted for my own self-knowledge. You see, the point of this endeavor was NOT to have an objective list of “best” albums, but to have a subjective list of “favorite” albums. So I had to balance out the “I-fucking-love-this-record!!!“-ness with some “I-have-a-soft-spot-for-this-record”-ness and some “Yeah-it’s-great-but-it-doesn’t-really-speak-to-me”-ness. This meant that some truly amazing records that I’d rarely listened to, like Sticky Fingers, ranked lower than some, well, less-excellent records to which I had strong historical attachments. Like Yes’s 90125.

This is because I wanted to write about why I love the records I love. I couldn’t say much about Sticky Fingers beyond, “Wow, I should’ve listened to this record more often!” But I could discuss 90125 for hours. (Sadly). (There was one record, though, that I hadn’t listened to much that catapulted into the Top 20 because of just how amazing it is, and that record is XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX, by XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX.)

5) The list was set and could not change. This post explains why.

I don’t look at the list, except during a very specific time period: after I publish a post. When Number 20 went up a while back, I pulled out my list, crossed Ghost in the Machine off, and looked to see what was Number 19: Hey Babe, by Juliana Hatfield.

I can’t say I was shocked, as I’ve raved about this record ever since it came out, and I knew it was on my list. But when I considered some of the hugely popular records, important artists and highly critically-praised albums that I’ve already had on my list, I wasn’t sure this little indie release by this rather-unknown, never-hugely-popular singer/songwriter would really hold up as a Top Twenty Pick. But the thing is: I love all the records on this list so much that at any given moment in time, the 98th record might be number 4 and the 20th record might be too low to make the list. In my mind, there isn’t really a whole lot to separate any of the records on my list. Instead of calling them numbers 100 to 1, I should really count them down as numbers 1.099 to number 1. That would be a more accurate appraisal of my relative consideration for all these records. So if you’re truly aghast that, say, Axis: Bold as Love and OK Computer are ranked so much lower than Hey, Babe, think of them as record numbers 1.049, 1.057 and 1.018, respectively, instead of 50, 58 and 19.

But numbers-schmumbers … I am NOT aghast by the state of my list! Hey, Babe is an excellent record! I first heard about Juliana Hatfield when her band The Blake Babies had a song or two playing on the old MTV show 120 Minutes. I thought they were ‘eh.’ I was living alone in a little cabin in the woods when 120 Minutes played the first single from Hey Babe, and I was hooked immediately. Kurt Loder did a little MTV News segment on her, and I went out and got the record. I’ve loved it ever since. It was never a huge hit, but it’s gotten some critical love upon its recent re-release.

The single that got me hooked is the first song on the album, “Everybody Loves Me But You.”

I have a history of liking acts with unusual vocalists. The Hold Steady, Sleater-Kinney, Rush … all these bands have somewhat divisive singers. Juliana Hatfield has a girlish, soft voice that strains to hit some notes, but I appreciate the punk spirit of singing the songs regardless. Her voice doesn’t at all hinder the terrific melodies she writes. This song starts with a cool guitar riff, and a descending bass line at about 5 seconds, then the main riff starts. She spits out the lyrics quickly. I’ve heard people criticize her lyrics as having too much “poor-little-girl-won’t-a-boy-save-me” emphasis. But I think this criticism unfair (and perhaps a bit sexist) – I’m a man, and I very-much relate to the first-person narrator that tells most of her stories. For me, most of the lyrics aren’t gendered. Anyone who’s ever felt the heartache of knowing one’s targeted “right person” never feels the same way for you can understand “Everybody Loves Me But You.” And her voice does some really cool things, like at 1:48 when she puts a flourish on the word “tired.” It’s a cool, catchy pop song with a cowbell breakdown at 2:30.

The album has a definite 90s, alternative sound, with distortion and furious strumming carrying the bulk of the guitar sounds. There is very little “soloing.” And the Pixies-ish loud-quiet-loud sound pervades. It’s all put to good use on “No Outlet.”

I like the guitar doodles behind the soft part, around 0:30, and how the song deftly transitions between loud and quiet. Around 1:40 there is a solo of sorts, just some long, held notes, until the song drags to a near stop at 2:40, then moves to a really nice bridge. It’s a really cool song with different parts and lyrics describing (I think) the frustration and regret (which men feel too) of physical connections made without the emotions that make them worthwhile. The riff heavy “Quit” is another dip into 90s motifs, including suicidal lyrics, that doesn’t work as well for me.

The acoustic song “Ugly” was ahead of its time, an introspective, woman-centered song a few years before Lilith Fair. It got a lot of publicity back in the day for its direct approach to the topic of women’s self-image. Then it got a little backlash for being too meek. To me, its just an expression by an artist of one thing she’s felt. And these expressions of self are part of what I love about the record.

For example, “Lost and Saved,” one of my favorite tracks for its music and for its lyrics that capture the craziness of falling for someone you shouldn’t.

It’s got cool dueling rhythm guitar coming from each speaker, and the drums, by Todd Phillips, really move the song ahead. Hatfield’s thin voice strains, but fits perfectly. What’s best about the song, though, is the chorus that swoops in (1:19), features great “ooo’s” and then falls into a creative guitar solo at 1:38 from guitarist Mike Leahy. It’s a catchy, 90s guitar pop song that I sing along with every time. In my mind the song is always paired with its follow-up on the record, “I See You.” It’s a song about obsession, and – like “Lost and Saved” – also features 90s folk-rocker John Wesley Harding on backing vocals.

It has another catchy melody that I find myself singing throughout the day when I hear it. I like the lyrics of this song: “I’m not a loser, I’m just lonely” is a phrase that many people knocked around by their heart’s status can relate to. Most of the songs on the record discuss non-existent, or really bad, relationships. The song “Forever Baby” tells the story of a woman who has settled for a way-less-than-ideal man. The lyrics are Elvis Costello-esque, with lines like “I hold him like a loaded gun/I know he might go off with anyone,” and “I see a long lost home in his eyes/He sees a nice hotel in mine.”

The relationship songs are good, but my favorites on the album are less direct, or, in the case of “Nirvana,” directly about a different kind of relationship.

It’s about Hatfield’s love of the band Nirvana, and it brilliantly expresses the effect that music can have on a listener. The song begins, appropriately enough, with feedback, and continues with crunchy chords from guitarist Clay Tarver. It’s an aggressive song that has a sweetly melodic chorus (1:13) much in the vein of many Nirvana songs. The harmonies are terrific, and I’ve always loved the lyrics “Here comes the song I love so much/makes me wanna go fuck shit up.” It’s the feeling I had when I heard Nirvana. And the bridge lyrics (2:20), about the effect of music, are also just right: “When the sound goes around/and goes in your ear/You can do anything/you have no fear!” It’s a favorite song of mine, and apparently Kurt Cobain liked it, too.

It’s a 90s album full of 90s sounds, 90s themes and 90s guest artists. Head Lemonhead, and fellow New Englander, Evan Dando appears on many songs, including The Lights, a slow meditation on lost love. But the best guest appearance is by Minutemen bassist, fIREHOSE leader, and all around terrific guy, Mike Watt on the song “Get Off Your Knees.”

Hatfield plays bass on all the songs except this one, which she turned over to Watt. And the bass really makes the song. It’s another of my favorites on the record, almost entirely because of the bass. It’s a fine, quick song, about something, obviously, but it’s all about the bass. Plus it serves as a nice introduction to the closing song on the album, the ambitious “No Answer.”

It starts off a bit searching, and unsure, but by 0:45 the sweet guitar by Mike Leahy brings it all back to a nice “doo-doo-doo” chorus. There’s a lingering guitar interlude which is allowed to build slowly to the second verse. At 2:25 Hatfield again salutes the effect a good song can have, singing “I jump in the car/turn the music on/I’m gonna be gone/Don’t know how long.” It’s another lost-love song, that after another sweet chorus breaks into an extended outro that cries out for a long car ride. It’s a terrific album closer.

Hey Babe is a totally early-90s record. In the early 90s I was unsure, changing … a young adult figuring things out and never thinking I’d one day be consumed with counting down favorite records and sharing my connections to them. I didn’t know what I was doing back then, and I don’t really know much more nowadays. I do know I have a list of records I’m counting down, and this one’s on the list. And now that I’m done writing about it I wonder: Shouldn’t it really have been higher on my list??

Track Listing:
“Everybody Loves Me But You”
“Lost and Saved”
“I See You”
“The Lights”
“Nirvana”
“Forever Baby”
“Ugly”
“No Outlet”
“Quit”
“Get Off Your Knees”
“No Answer”

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35th Favorite: Bee Thousand, by Guided by Voices

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Bee Thousand. Guided By Voices.
1994, Scat Records. Producer: Robert Pollard.
Purchased, 1994.

IN A NUTSHELL: Songwriting genius Robert Pollard leads his original crew of GBV bandmates through 20 songs of melodic brilliance. It’s the Thriller of the early 90s lo-fi movement, a collection of songs you just can’t get out of your head. There are sounds of doors slamming, guitars falling out of the mix and it all sounds like it was recorded on an 80s answering machine cassette. But they’re such great songs, I can’t stop listening.

NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
(Parts of this post were originally published in 2013.)

In early 1993 I decided to move to San Francisco. I lived in my hometown, a strange place, but not strange in a good way. I didn’t really fit in, and so I decided to move to somewhere that seemed even stranger, a place that seemed like it would accept almost anything. I couldn’t wait to get there and start feeling like I fit in somewhere.

I met lots of great people and had loads of fun and found a place where I really felt at home. By 1993, The City (as it’s been known for years, with the grand, implied question being, “Really – is there any other?”) already had a long history of welcoming weirdos and misfits – from Emperor Norton, in the 1850s to the Beats in the 1950s, hippies in the 60s and Gay and Lesbian people in the 70s – so I was sure there was a place for me.

And it really was nerd heaven. Among the young, single artistic crowd I gravitated toward, most everyone I met was really into music and books and movies and technology. We were all misfits, and it didn’t feel like there was a “cool” crowd, the usual group of meatheads and plastic smilers that had appeared throughout my life, taking joy in humiliating and excluding me and others like me. And misfits like me, especially those not far removed from high school, have a keen sense of who the “cool” crowd is. They’re the group around whom we feel the disorienting duality of a) not wanting to be part of, and b) desperately wanting to be part of. But in San Francisco, I could just talk about books and music and movies and technology and not worry about that bullshit.

That’s how it seemed, at first. But after a few weeks in town I realized that, even in my nerdy corner of SF, there was, of course, a “cool crowd,” a collection of those exclusive, snobby folks desperate to dominate others to mask their own insecurities. But unlike those classic 80s teen movies, they weren’t jocks or cheerleaders, they weren’t the children of the wealthy elite. This group was hidden in plain sight out in Freak City. They dressed like everyone else, went to the same places as everyone else, had the same habits as everyone else … and that was what made them so devious.

In bars and at concerts … especially at record stores, and most especially in snooty record stores … I noticed there was a group in San Francisco who seemed to be the typical outsider like me and everyone else who had moved there, but who went to great lengths to assert that they WERE NOT, in fact, typical anything. These people believed, and were out to prove, that they were the coolest of the uncool. They reveled in the fact that their style was unstylish and their tastes were distasteful. Like Bizarro is to Superman, these people were the direct opposite of the usual cool crowd, which made them the cool crowd’s scarier equal.

They were the Hipsters. The Hipster Bullies. And no matter how dorky and awkward you felt, you’d feel even more so when you realized these folks were even dorkier and more awkward than you … and that they sneered at you for not being dorky and awkward enough. You’d meet them at every party.

king kong kardsOh, you think you’re goofy because you still collect baseball cards as a 25 year old? Meet Tiberius (so he claims) in the goatee, Buddy Holly glasses and (authentic) Atari t-shirt. He collects King Kong Kards from the 70s and calls your hobby “jejune” … just like that jock thought (apparently), the jock in the lunch line in 10th grade who yanked the baseball cards from your back pocket, right in front of J., your secret crush, and quizzed you on the player stats like a gameshow host for an audience of cackling lunch ladies and your relieved-not-to-be-the-target friends, making loud buzzer sounds every time you got one wrong, which made J. laugh harder than you’d ever seen.

Are you proud to be a fan of Bugs Bunny cartoons? Meet Ladybug (yes, Ladybug) in the cat’s eye glasses, cocktail dress and faux pearl choker. She has a Master’s degree in Pop Culture Studies (!) and wrote her dissertation on Bugs Bunny cartoons and collects Warner Brothers animation cels from before WWII. She’ll explain why you should hate Bugs, who’s humor, she insists, is “too obvious” She’ll ask you, “… you can’t seriously like that shit, can you?” in front of 6 other grinning people who await her discourse on some Soviet cartoon goat from whom, she claims, “the essence” of Bugs was stolen.

There were thousands of these types out there, folks who’d been mocked and assaulted – verbally and physically – for their other-ness for as long and as hard as I had, and had responded by stockpiling their geekiness, building it up and molding it into a heavy club, making weapons of their Pez Dispenser collections, graphic novels and ironically-worn small-town-diner t-shirts. They clubbed first and asked questions later, assuming every new person they met was the lunch-line jock – even a guy like me, in sky blue Chuck Taylors and a Dinosaur Jr. t-shirt.

For a guy like me who liked music, The Music Appreciation Hipster Bullies were the worst. There was a lot out there that I hadn’t yet heard. I was looking for new stuff, but there wasn’t much to learn from these folks. Bring up any band to any of these guys (and gals) and you were sure to get one of three responses:

1) (Dismissive snort). They suck.
2) (Dismissive snort). They USED TO BE good
3) (Dismissive snort). They’re okay, but they’re really just a rip-off of (insert obscure band from Japan/Finland/Ann Arbor).

But I gamely fought through the Hipster Bully bullshit to learn about Guided by Voices and Bee Thousand. There was a record store called “16th Note,” on 16th St. in The Mission District. It went out of business about 6 months after it arrived in 1994. But on one of my visits, a song on the sound system caught my ear, so I asked the dude behind the counter – who looked not dissimilar from myself – what it was.

“It’s the new GBV.”

“GBV?” I asked. “I’ve never heard of them.”

“You’ve never heard of Guided By Voices?” he asked in a way that – for a second – made me wonder if the words “Guided By Voices” were somehow indistinguishable from “The Rolling Stones.” He continued his belittlement with a sigh and a quiet “Wow,” then came around the counter and pulled out the CD Bee Thousand. In a bored, bemused tone that clearly indicated his patience with my ignorance was growing thin, he told me that he thought it was a good record, their fifth or sixth record, but that it wasn’t as good as their early stuff. The early stuff, he said, was pure brilliance, and, unfortunately, was NOT carried by the lame, hippy store owner. But he played a couple songs from Bee Thousand for me, said he’d forgotten it was so comparatively mediocre to the old stuff (though brilliant in its own right, he assured me) and I bought it immediately, wondering how I’d missed out on such an obviously prestigious and prolific band.

I looked into the band right away and – this being pre-internet (or perhaps nascent-internet) – I couldn’t find much more than a one-page Spin magazine article. “How did everyone know about GBV but me?” I wondered.

Now first of all, let me say this: the guy was obviously a good salesman who saw right away in me someone susceptible to anyone potentially scholarly. Fine. He played that part well and made the sale. But I bought it because it was good, not because of what he said. And I eventually learned that his talk about how good the band “used to be” was utter horseshit. I mean, maybe it was good and maybe it wasn’t – but that Hipster Bully didn’t know. True, the band had put out several previous records, but each one was cassette-only, with a couple hundred copies made. I guarantee he never heard them before! They weren’t widely released until 1995. He just knew they existed and saw an opportunity to bully me about my (lack of) music knowledge. The dick.

GBV is a band that lends itself extremely well to cult-like, possessive appreciation with an air of exclusivity. The band is singer/songwriter Robert Pollard and a cast of musicians that has been around since the mid-80s. Pollard is one of the most prolific songwriters of the past 50 years, having released over 100 albums (solo and GBV) since he began recording, and having published over 2000 songs through BMI. He’s estimated he’s written over 4,000.

Of course, “prolific” doesn’t equal “good,” but Pollard seems to have an extremely high percentage of good songs. He has a knack for melody and sound, and his lyrics are cool and strange, nonsensical yet accessible in the vein of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, or David Byrne, of The Talking Heads, or even Jon Anderson, of Yes.

Pollard’s backstory lends itself to worshipful adoration as well. He’s a former fourth-grade teacher and father of two who didn’t leave his day job until his late 30s, after the success of Bee Thousand, when GBV took off. He seems like a cool guy who was both a D1 college athlete and music nerd.

The records he makes tend to sound charmingly amateurish – not in the songwriting or performance, but in the way they’re recorded. It’s a sound that was popularized in the 90s by bands like GBV and Sebadoh and Pavement, and categorized as “lo-fi.” The records were often recorded in basements and bedrooms on old equipment and on the fly.

The song that caught my ear at 16th Note is a perfect example of all that is Guided by Voices: the lo-fi sound, the irresistible melodies, the chiming guitars, the inscrutable lyrics. Behold “Tractor Rape Chain.”

Any song that – four seconds in – features a screen door, chatting voices and then – at 17 seconds – a bass that doesn’t enter the song at the same time as the rest of the band is definitely flaunting its lo-fi credentials. The feeling of the song is amazing – there’s a sense of sadness and loss to the verses, in lyrics about love coming apart. Yet the ranging vocal melody of the chorus, at 1:04, is uplifting, and dovetails beautifully with the ringing guitars and bass. The chorus/title lyrics are a mystery, and potentially off-putting. Pollard is certainly a word-salad expert, tossing in words because they fit the sound of the song, and there is differing opinion on what, if anything, they mean. Some have said they’re just words, others have proposed the strange idea that they refer to the lines that tractors make in fields of rapeseed. Either way, the melody cries out for the listener to belt them out, before they descend into the wistful feeling of “speed up, slow down, go all around in the end.”

The album opens with clarion, fanfare guitars and beautifully struggling, faux-British harmonies asking us if we’re “amplified to rock!” As the intro to “Hardcore UFOs” ends, the vocals fall out of the mix (0:53), making us wonder if GBV is still amplified. But it doesn’t matter.

Even when, at 0:58, the guitar goes out of tune, or at 1:22, when it appears the plug may have fallen out of it, the melody and confidence of the band carries the song. The lyrics are, well, words anyway. But there’s something about the song – and the balls of the band to make it the lead track – that hooked me right away. The song, and the album, have the punk spirit of “fuck you, this is the song, take it or leave it!” that I love. Plus it’s catchy as all heck!

The fact that Pollard was older than most of his 90s grunge cohort meant that he could reach for inspiration from his music fandom in the 60s and 70s without hiding behind irony. “Ester’s Day” sounds like Syd Barret-era Pink Floyd. The song “Echoes Myron” sounds like it could’ve been an AM hit in 1968.

Of course it would’ve been recorded more clearly and used orchestra strings. But the band’s harmonies on the bouncing melody sound right in any era. The “Men of wisdom …” harmonies, at around 0:45, are terrific, as are the vocals in the bridge at 1:17. The lyrics feature the phrase “Or something like that …,” which probably describes their meaning as well as I could.

And despite Pollard’s “advancing age” as compared to his contemporaries, in the 90s he and his band put on one of the best live shows you could see, with lots of songs, lots of beer, and lots of high kicks from the singer. I saw them in the summer of ’94 and it remains one of the best shows I’ve seen. And they are still doing it: I saw them again in 2014, and it was also one of the best shows I’ve seen! And selections from Bee Thousand are always featured. Such as the aggressive rocker “Gold Star for Robot Boy.”

It’s more ringing, chiming guitars – almost a buzzing sound. The recording gives the drums a boxy sound, but the singing carries it. The lyrics actually mean something this time, reflecting his experience as a fourth grade teacher, where the kids who did whatever the teacher said were rewarded. He says he felt like such a pupil when he entered the record industry.

You may have noticed that the songs tend to be short, under 2 minutes. Their brevity and the unfinished nature of most of the songs reminds me of Paul McCartney’s solo album McCartney. Songs such as “Demons Are Real,” “You’re Not an Airplane,” “Peep Hole,” “Awful Bliss,” and “Yours to Keep” barely (if at all) reach one minute in length. But they do display Pollard’s musical gifts. Other songs, like “Her Psychology Today,” could have been baked a little longer. One of my favorites of the weird and brief wonders on the album is the strange but excellent “Kicker of Elves,” which sounds sort of like a Britpop demo.

It’s a song with weird lyrics about, well, elf-kicking, that has inspired fans to make weird videos of it, and play weird covers of it. It’s one minute and four seconds’ worth of Robert Pollard melodic genius.

There are 20 songs on the record, and almost all of them are great. I love the swampy weirdness and perhaps risque (?) lyrics of “Hot Freaks.” I love the haughty pomp and meaningless-yet-wistful lyrics of “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory.” I love the unfinished feeling and out of tune guitar on the Broadway-esque “A Big Fan of the Pigpen,” with its “Ba-ba-ba” chorus. And I really, really love the droning, Sonic Youth noise-pop qualities of “Smothered in Hugs.”

It’s a really remarkable melody. Pollard has a knack for writing these things – when the chorus kicks in, about 1:26, I get chills. Even though I have no idea what he’s singing, and even though the drums and guitars sound like sloppy kids, I love it. I’m not sure what it is about these songs that I love so much, but I think it’s all the great melodies. The guitars may be repetitive, as in “The Queen of Cans and Jars,” but I can’t keep the song out of my head. The drums may sound like tin foil, as in “Mincer Ray,” but I don’t seem to notice. The tempo might randomly change throughout the song, like “Buzzards and Dreadful Crows,” but I’ll keep listening.

Maybe I need a scientist to figure it out, as Robert Pollard claims to be in “I Am a Scientist.”

I am a lost soul/ I shoot myself with Rock and Roll/ The hole I dig is bottomless/ But nothing else can set me free,” he sings. And maybe – in this instance – his words do actually mean something. I love this music – why try to figure it out? It’s the melody, the sound, the words … The Hipster Bullies were right about GBV – they are a special band. But the Hipster Bullies were wrong about everything else, and they still are. Music isn’t exclusive, it’s for anybody. Share it with as many folks as you can! And the music you like doesn’t suck. If it sucked, you wouldn’t like it! It doesn’t take a scientist to figure that out.

Track Listing:
“Hardcore UFO’s”
“Buzzards and Dreadful Crows”
“Tractor Rape Train”
“The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory”
“Hot Freaks”
“Smothered In Hugs”
“Yours To Keep”
“Echoes Myron”
“Gold Star For Robot Boy”
“Awful Bliss”
“Mincer Ray”
“A Big Fan Of The Pigpen”
“Queen Of Cans And Jars”
“Her Psychology Today”
“Kicker Of Elves”
“Ester’s Day”
“Demons Are Real”
“I Am A Scientist”
“Peep-Hole”
“You’re Not An Airplane”

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