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Guided by Voices - Human Amusements At Hourly Rates

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Artist: Guided by Voices

Album: Human Amusements At Hourly Rates

Label: Matador

Review date: Feb. 2, 2004

Befitting their status as "rock stars" rather than rock stars, Guided By Voices have now capped off their 20-year career by releasing an album of "hits" that never really got played on the radio. Years ago, in high school, band leader Robert Pollard would pass the time by pasting together fake album covers, inventing names for bands that only existed in his head. Pollard is a real rock obsessive, and over the years he made stacks of these covers, patiently and carefully assembling bits of advertisements and old photographs to create something strange and new. This approach eventually carried through to his songwriting: a bit of Bowie here, some Who riffs there, a dash of Thin Lizzy. Music, in his world, is truly timeless, forever swirling around and ripe for referencing, a constant mix of influences. As a result, his songs have a distinctly recognizable feel while sounding entirely unique, triggering your memory with unusual new sounds.

Pollard understands that rock is both totally fake and capable of great truths. He knows that rock is simply meaningless gestures, attitude, and noise, but that these gestures and noises can become an entire language if delivered with the right attitude. After 20 years, this focused and relentlessly eccentric worldview has produced a stack of great songs, and finally, they are available together on one album. While it’s true that any real GBV fan worth his or her salt will have compiled their own "best of" mixtape years ago, there’s something thrilling about having the man himself throw the songs together, laying out a list for the fans to argue over endlessly.

The great, truly classic songs from Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes are represented, and they are just as stunning now as they were 10 years ago. "Echoes Myron,” "Tractor Rape Chain,” and "My Valuable Hunting Knife" still retain their innocent, almost magical quality, pop in its purest form, at its most immediate. Although this was unquestionably the band’s peak, Human Amusements… demonstrates that GBV, despite a few patchy spots, were always capable of a few gems. Even the disappointing TVT albums of the late ’90s managed to produce songs like "Glad Girls,” pounding Cheap Trick-style power-pop that nails your brain’s pleasure centers.

Pollard being Pollard, there are some odd moments, including 1995’s "Hit,” 30 seconds of sloppy rock with nonsense lyrics. Although probably included for its title alone, the song also follows Pollard’s formula of including "songlets" on his records, softening the listener in order to heighten the impact of the ensuing "real" tracks. After the mess of "Hit,” there’s a sense of disorientation, but "Glad Girls" follows immediately and the effect is euphoric. In fact, the collision of all these great songs, one after another, is fairly intoxicating; there’s not a single bad tune to disrupt the flow.

The record is a total fulfillment of Pollard’s fantasy, a completely excessive, messy pile of every conceivable pop style, cliché, and sound. Which is quite something, when you consider that this music is made by (mostly) balding, pot-bellied, middle-aged men. Although Pollard’s previous gig as a schoolteacher has become part of the band’s received myth, his origins are a fundamental part of the music’s meaning. Pollard never gave up collaging record covers or writing songs, even as his adolescence gave way to fatherhood and a regular-guy job. The fantasy remained for so long it became real, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Somewhere, everything blurred, and suddenly Guided by Voices were playing big halls and passing out beers to ecstatic fans. Like many great bands, GBV internalized their love of the music to such an extent that they could effortlessly project that sense back out to the fans. Now, a whole new generation of weedy, bored kids scrutinize Pollard’s inscrutable lyrics and lazily dream of getting their own band going.

Pollard’s belief in the magic of rock was so all-consuming that he literally brought it to life. Which is why these songs are "hits" in the truest sense, music that connects instantly, and powerfully to that part of ourselves that only rock touch, where the riffs and nonsense lyrics make total sense for a couple of short minutes. Not bad for a boozed-up former sixth-grade teacher.

By Jason Dungan

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Half Smiles of the Decomposed

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