Guided By Voices is one of the most prolific and beloved rock bands of the past 30 years. The Dayton, Ohio group fronted by Robert Pollard has released dozens of albums, EPs, singles, and three boxed sets of original material, frequently changed band members, broke up and reunited, splintered off into various solo and side projects, and always moved forward. The band has gathered a devoted fanbase drawn to its punchy slacker ditties and catchy, idiosyncratic ballads, and has solidified its reputation with an ongoing series of legendary live shows.
Pollard, the band’s only consistent member since its founding in the mid-’80s, exemplifies a particular attitude towards songwriting and recording, seemingly intent on generating as much material as possible (he’s credited with over 1,000 songs), with no attention paid to consistency or revision. What makes this a workable proposition is that Pollard hits far more often than he misses. Each album contains a dozen songs that could have been one-hit-wonders in another lifetime, sounding like forgotten punk singles or unearthed British Invasion demos. Songs like “Shocker in Gloomtown,” “Echoes Myron” and “Teenage F.B.I.” are enough to win over any pop and rock fan on a first listen.
Part of the charm of GBV is that it’s also necessary to sort through a vast pile of material to find the diamonds in the rough, a process that grants each listener his own set of favorites. The early recordings are all simple demos, and the band flirted with traditional studio recording during the heady ’90s, however the majority of the “classic” GBV albums (particularly 1994’s Bee Thousand and 1995’s Alien Lanes) are deliberately hodgepodge. Clean, fleshed-out, professional recordings rub shoulders with hissy tape demos, sloppy outtakes, and unfinished acoustic sketches.
Charlottesville label Hibernator Gigs has just released the tribute album Songs in the Key of Bob, in which seven bands pay homage to Guided By Voices. The songs are all under two minutes and fit nicely on two sides of a clear, blue 7″ record with contributions from label owners Weird Mob, and Charlottesville bands Invisible Hand, Borrowed Beams of Light, and Left & Right, Boone, North Carolina-based The Naked Gods, fellow Virginians Digging Up Virgins, and Californians The Moore Brothers.
The results are immediately satisfying, so much so that it might take multiple listens, or a peek at the liner notes, to discover the record’s real premise: These songs are not, in fact, reinterpretations of Guided By Voices songs, but original compositions played in the style of the band; it’s a pastiche, rather than a covers record. Still, the imitations capture the spirit of GBV’s vast catalog so accurately that even the most knowledgeable collector would be hard-pressed to distinguish titles like “Stone Cutters’ Journal,” “Viet Cong Motivation,” and “Unified Warehouse Terminal” from genuine Pollard originals such as “14 Cheerleader Cold Front,” “Big Chief Chinese Restaurant,” and “Goldenhearted Mountaintop Queen Directory.”
The project originated years ago with Adam Brock, a member of three of the bands represented on the album. Brock had taken a job as a temp for the UVA Library between bartending jobs, and spent a year cataloging archival materials in one of the University’s auxiliary warehouses on Linden Avenue. “I ended up spending a lot time sorting through really shitty, dingy boxes of really boring periodicals,” Brock said. He eventually gathered a long list of amusing periodical titles, and noting that it resembled a Guided By Voices tracklist, the idea for a tribute album was born. Potential song titles were divvied up amongst the contributors, although not every band ended up using them — meaning that several, including “Caleb the Degenerate,” “Encyclopedia of Microscopic Stains,” and “the Blowhard Problem,” are still up for grabs. Another title, “Popular Dogs,” has already worked it’s way into Weird Mob’s repertoire, and may prove to be one of their best songs.
Dave Gibson, Brock’s bandmate in both Borrowed Beams and Weird Mob, loved the idea and offered to help assemble and release the record. “As much as we were all trying to sound like Guided By Voices, the cool thing is that it also still sounds like all of the bands that are on there,” Gibson said.
The sleeve features art by Thomas Dean, a longtime GBV enthusiast, whose album covers bear the influence of Pollard’s collages for decades of GBV releases. “His record covers are some of my favorites,” Dean said. “They’re definitely a huge influence on me; the music, the whole package together, not just the collage style, but the music too.”
Gibson, like Pollard, is from Ohio, and to add a final touch to the tribute, the records were pressed at Musicol, the same Columbus-based pressing plant that issued the inaugural Guided By Voices single. “There were a few reasons to go there,” Gibson said. “It was slightly cheaper than other places, but it also fits with the whole aesthetic we were going for. Musicol was also actually the first place I ever had a record pressed, back in the ’90s, for my band The Cusacks. It’s really cool, it’s one of the few places left in the country that still has a recording studio, mastering, and a vinyl press all in one building.”
“All the bands that are on [the record] are buying copies of it, to sell at our shows,” Brock said. “So you can get it from your local record shop, but you can also just go to a show, because it’ll be on everyone’s merch table. You’ll be bound to find it.”
Listen: Songs in the Key of Bob
[Note: the print edition and initial online version of this column mistakenly listed Musicol’s location as Dayton, rather than Columbus, Ohio.]
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