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Buried treasures
Guided By Voices unearth more music

The most telling element of Hardcore UFOs (Matador), a new five-CD (plus one DVD) box set by Guided By Voices, may be Banks Tarverís film short, "Beautiful Plastic." An apparent outtake from Watch Me Jumpstart, Tarverís 1996 band documentary (also included here), the vignette opens with main-man Robert Pollard upstairs in his Dayton home, trading high-school basketball tales with old chums. Descending to his basement-cum-studio, he returns with a cardboard "box of shit" from the years when his musical activities were obscure unto invisibility. He finds old flyers, cover mock-ups (Naked Fat Baby), and a 1983 notebook full of neatly copied lyrics for never-recorded (and barely remembered) songs: "Murphy Had a Birthday," "Illogical Banker," and so forth.

To watch Pollard explain how each fragment fits into the bandís self-created myth is to be reminded why Guided By Voices were ever worth caring about. Though he now pursues something closer to a normal career in rock, Pollard still seems a closet visionary, a stand-in for the multitudes whose unglamorous addresses and straight professions ó he taught fourth grade for 14 years ó cloak rich and unsuspected creative lives. Itís a peculiarly American way of being an artist; in a way, heís the rock-and-roll heir to Emily Dickinson, Joseph Cornell, and (less pleasantly) "outsider" artist Henry Darger. For years, GbVís press hook has been that their music finally emerged from the basement; the real story is that it sustained itself there for so long.

Hardcore UFOs isnít as monomaniacal an expression of Pollardís pack-rat aesthetic as an earlier GbV box: Suitcase, which credited exactly 100 never-released recordings to as many tossed-off band names. Instead, the present package tries to satisfy all comers. For newbies, thereís Human Amusements at Hourly Rates, a 32-song best-of, also available separately. For the avowed but non-obsessive fan, thereís Demons & Painkillers, which collects B-sides from their two Matador stints. And advanced students of Pollardiana are rewarded with Delicious Pie & Thank You for Calling and Live at the Wheelchair Races, culled from his seemingly bottomless archives. (Among the four, youíre looking at 132 tracks.)

Thereís little to say about the quasi-hits compiled on Disc One, though itís good to see that standouts by auxiliary songwriters (ex-member Tobin Sproutís "14 Cheerleader Coldfront," current guitarist Doug Gillardís "I Am a Tree") make the cut ó along with much of GbVís first breakthrough album, Bee Thousand. The live material, co-compiled with online tape-traders, covers various post-1995 lineups and balances staples ("Motor Away") with scarcer choices ("Johnny Appleseed," last heard on a highly eBayable UK EP). GbV are a solid live band, but this is the setís least compelling volume; their onstage mandate to booze up and rock out inevitably blunts their art-rock tendencies and narrows their stylistic range. The B-sides and (especially) the outtakes discs are more representative and more satisfying. The highlight of the latter is a mini-suite of lovely guitar-and-vocal-only songs ("Perhaps We Were Swinging," "Mother & Son") at the folky extreme of Pollardís writing. Not everything reaches this standard; but how many actual songs could live up to titles like "The Who vs. Porky Pig" or "I Invented the Moonwalk (and the Pencil Sharpener)"?

The setís final volume is another oddity: GbVís debut release Forever Since Breakfast, seven songs recorded in 1983 with founding guitarist Mitch Mitchell and a long-vanished rhythm section. (Thereís also a guest shot by one Mitch Swan, of profoundly obscure Dayton Smiths-clones the Pleasures Pale.) As late as 1996, it was still available from the bandís "Manager for Life" Pete Jameson as a mail-order item ó in Watch Me Jumpstart, a stack of copies is visible in Jamesonís silk-screening workshop.

But even perpetual adolescents have juvenilia: this is the only pre-Matador release Pollardís been reluctant to reissue, considering it an embarrassing symptom of his then-trendy early-R.E.M. worship. Forever Since Breakfast turns out to be stronger than its reputation. The prominent 12-string guitars and mildly droney arrangements do have a certain chronic murmur to them, and the clean but uninventive eight-track studio sound resembles any number of independent releases from the period. But "Fountain of Youth" hints at a harsher psychedelic edge, and the discís overall feel is closest to the Illinois-based jangle-pop associated with Ric Menck and the Bus Stop Records stable. The stately "Letís Ride" and the chiming, charging "The Other Place" are top-flight in their own right; derivative or not, theyíre more than mere signs of whatís to come. Notably, both are Pollardís pleas for the kind of escape the bandís later, more visible career eventually supplied: "Letís ride on airplanes and buses . . . Letís leave the routines of living behind."

Issue Date: January 30 - February 5, 2004
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