Monday, January 02, 2006

Guided By Voices: Bee Thousand (1994)

I should first note that this is an entry in my Great Albums series as well as entry in my GBV Guide. Bee Thousand is (arguably) the best album of Robert Pollard's career. It is the best selling, and countless fans claim it as scripture. It may be one of the best entry-points for a new fan as it is a great example of Guided By Voices' lo-fi aesthetic. From the dive in sound volume in Hardcore UFO's to the what-the-hell-is-that-sound in Demons Are Real, Bee Thousand may well be the ultimate lo-fi album. There is not a bad track on this one (as almost the entire album will make my best of GBV playlist/box set). Indeed, Robert Pollard was channelling the power of the gods of rock when coming up with these tunes. Bee Thousand is the most necessary purchase for anyone who dares say that he/she likes Guided By Voices...

Hardcore UFO's is the starter track, and it tells the listener that they are about to begin a lo-fi journey ("Are you amplified to rock?"). A cruiser of a tune, with dips in sound volume and complete losses of some sounds, it is a fine introduction. Buzzards and Dreadful Crows is a wonderful rock n' roll tune. An alternate version appears on Suitcase (and as a clip in Back to Saturn X Report on Propeller), though the Bee Thousand version is far superior. One of GBV's most famous tunes, Tractor Rape Chain, starts with a fairly poorly recorded acoustic intro which then blends into one of Pollard's most beautiful and rocking tunes. This would have been a radio hit if it wasn't for the lo-fi production (and the fact that it is GBV of course), and reveals Pollard's ability to write hit-worthy singles, even though they never actually become hit singles.

The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory slows things down a little, but builds to an exciting multi-vocal heartwarming finish. Another hit in the GBV canon, Hot Freaks, shows off Pollard's ability to ooze charisma when needed. A simple blues-y riff and Pollard screaming "Hot freaks!" is a great combo (especially live). I also like how the song sort of just ends in what should be the middle. Smothered in Hugs is powered by Pollard's melodic ability in his vocals. Power chords are driven right from the very start until the song fades out at the end, but it is Pollard's vocals that keep things interesting.

The first truely acoustic track on the disc is Yours to Keep. The lo-fi sound quality adds an eerie quality to the slower tracks on Bee Thousand (as it did to Vampire on Titus). I especially love the line about the "necklace of fifty eyes". The song does sound uncomplete, but I think that in this case, it adds to the overall atmosphere of Bee Thousand. Another GBV hit (interpret the term "GBV hit" however you wish), Echos Myron, is a Beatlesesque pop gem. The slacker lyrics are excellent ("And we're finally here/And shit yeah it's cool/And shouldn't it be/Or something like that"), and even though that is something I cut down other bands for (uhmm...Our Lady Peace perhaps?), it works for Pollard and his approach to rock n' roll. Gold Star For Robot Boy, which has a great title, is another quick shot of rock at just over a minute long.

Awful Bliss is another pretty though haunting acoustic track. Is that Tobin singing the verses? Can someone in the know let me know? Mincer Ray belongs in what I consider a trilogy within Bee Thousand (which also includes Smothered in Hugs and Queen of Cans and Jars), as all three are all extremely lo-fi and have a constant beat and structure (no real chorus to speak of). They do not stand out the way, say, Echos Myron, Tractor Rape Chain, Hot Freaks, or I Am a Scientist do. However, all three are still great tunes.

A Big Fan of the Pigpen sounds like two songs attached to each other. It includes the somewhat annoying "Bop Bopbopbop Dap Dap Bopbop Bop" part hollered by Pollard, but is otherwise a fairly decent track. Her Psychology Today is different from most of Pollard's stuff. It starts with him singing "Things can't get much worse" and ends with him saying "Things can get much better". The odd thing is that it sounds like the two parts are from two separate songs. The middle of the song has a sweet attacking riff with Jim Morrison-like vocals. Kicker of Elves is a minute long GBV novelty song. It is a good example of Pollard's ability to cram a melodic and interesting tune withing a quick minute.

Esther's Day starts with a part of At Odds With Dr. Genesis from King Shit and the Golden Boys (available in Box), and then turns into a completely different song. A beautiful acoustic track which unfortunately finishes just as it is picking up. Nevertheless a great tune. Demon's Are Real is the closest thing to a throwaway on Bee Thousand, but it isn't really that bad (GBV even plays a pretty good live version on The Electrifying Conclusion DVD). It picks up near the end, but the odd noise that plays throughout the song does ruin it somewhat.
[EDIT - Apr.19 2006 - Changed my mind on Demons Are Real. How can I in good concious leave this off the playlist?] Peep-Hole is another pretty acoustic number, and it sounds as if the song starts in progress and we (the listener) just happened to enter the room while it is being played. You're Not an Airplane finishes off the disc, and is a quick thirty second piano piece.

The ultimate highlight on Bee Thousand (for me) is the excellent I Am a Scientist. A lo-fi anthem for the ages, Pollard tells us "I am a pharmacist with prescriptions I will fill you/Potions pills and medicine to ease your painful lives/I am a lost soul/I shoot myself with rock and roll". These sentences describe exactly how I see Robert Pollard, as a rock doctor, giving us pills (songs) to keep us going. And Bee Thousand is full of this excellent medicine, the perfect cure for the person who justs wants to hear some great rock music without the dumbed down bells and whistles offered from some of the over-produced bands out there. This is rock and roll with its soul laid bare, with every screw up, poor tuning, and techno glitch is included.

Tracklisting (bolded songs make my GBV/Pollard playlist/box set):
01 Hardcore UFO's
02 Buzzards and Dreadful Crows
03 Tractor Rape Chain
04 The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory
05 Hot Freaks
06 Smothered in Hugs
07 Yours to Keep
08 Echos Myron
09 Gold Star for Robot Boy
10 Awful Bliss
11 Mincer Ray
12 A Big Fan of the Pigpen
13 Queen of Cans and Jars
14 Her Psychology Today
15 Kicker of Elves
16 Esther's Day
17 Demons Are Real
18 I Am a Scientist
19 Peep-Hole
20 You're Not An Airplane

Bee Thousand at Amazon
Bee Thousand Director's Cut at Scat Records


Anonymous said...

Wow! The best and most detailed summary/review of B000 I have ever read. Many of the comments are dead on and you were able to put your finger on a few details that I have had a hard time nailing down. Many of MrPollard's pieces are difficult to describe to someone you are assuming has never heard them and that is the true beauty of the work.
I only have one "comment" (don't we all...) I _really_ cannot see Tractor Rape Chain being a radio hit under any circumstances other than the lyrics being changed. : ) I cannot hear a cheesey DJ announcing "... and now here is the number one song in the nation, Dayton Ohio's Guided by Voices with Tractor Rape Chain" Believing that the masses could appreciate a piece like TRC is kinda like believing there really is a Santa Claus. It would be nice, but no dice.

The Rock Robot said...

Hi Rachel R, you definately have a point about Tractor Rape Chain. Maybe a title and/or lyric change would have been needed in order for it to be a hit. However, the tune, melody, and pure quality of the music does make it radio hit friendly in my opinion.

Thank you for the kind words, it was slightly daunting thinking, "how do I write about B1000 and serve it justice", but once I got going, it went pretty smooth.

Anonymous said...

Well, for my money, "Echoes Myron" is far more radio-friendly than anything else on B1000...sorta Freddy and the Dreamers meets the Jayhawks.

My take on this album? Well, for me it was instant karma, though like all of us I've got my own faves and my own "what the fuck was he thinking" tracks. So here goes:

I posit to my friends, both GbV fans and not, that the oeuvre (???), or reasoning, behind this disc was to create a very 60s-sounding group of songs, both musically and sonically...since they didn't have access to very sophisticated recording equipment, Pollard created a set of songs which musically reflected an earlier time. So I hear a lot of "The Who Sing My Generation" in "Hardcore UFOs" (do a twin spin with it and "Anyway Anyhow Anywhere"), and it continues from there. "Buzzards and Dreadful Crows" kicks my ass every time I hear it, and I just love the way Pollard grafted that little acoustic intro onto "Tractor Rape Chain". But with "Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory", things get a little wierd; I imagine Bob and crew on tour in West Virginia some weekend, and they're staying at a cheap hotel out in the sticks to save money. Bob sees a phone directory for the communities of Goldheart, Mountaintop and Queen and somehow creates a little musical drama. 'Hot Freaks" is catchy, but has always sounded a little like a novelty number to me (Bob tryin' t' git funky?). But it's a nice break to lead into one of GbV's most solid songs, "Smothered in Hugs". One of the things I do a lot with GbV is play "Who does this sound like?" (I'll expand more on this idea when I get around to commenting on Alien Lanes). I love the way the band can create a sonic aura which puts me in another band's space, without actually copying an identifiable hook or characteristic sound. In this case, "Smothered" has always sounded like a heavy, demented Kinks song. In fact, go back to the Kinks' "Face to Face" album (and since you were born in 1981, you may never have heard it. Buy it. Now. You MUST own it.), and listen to a song called "Fancy". Now, at first glance, they're completely different; "Fancy" is set to an Indian raga, "Smothered" is redolent of massed guitars. But there's something in the voices...same sneer, same slur, same attitude. Hey, just sing it for me: "But I believe in you, no need for further questioning".

Moving long, "Yours to Keep" seems to me to be a transition piece left over from Bob's farting around with the B1000 lineup over and over again. "Echoes Myron" as I said, is my choice for the "single" from this album, and I think the lyrics, far from being slacker-ish, show Bob's tendency to mine cliches, aphorisms and old sayings for truth ("Man of wisdom and man of compromise; man of weak flesh and armor disguise, all fall down.")

"Gold Star for Robot Boy"? Love it; edited a short video of my mates playing cards 20 years ago using it as a music bed. "Awful Bliss"? Always nice to hear from Tobin. "Mincer Ray" has an interesting beat and a whiny sort of sound that really says Guided by Voices are Lo-Fi and PROUD OF IT, and I love the lyrics from "Pig Pen", especially "An impeccable arrangement by the Soft Rock Renegades." !!!

Now, however, the disc gets really interesting for me. When I first heard "Queen of Cans and Jars", I about flipped - holy shit, it was Chicago's Own Shadows of Knight, re-created on a bad 4-track recorder by Bob Pollard! I absolutely ADORE this song - it is one of the best 60s songs not recorded in the 60s. The dueling, droning, whining twin dual lead guitars just tear me up from start to finish. And then we move onto "Her Psychology Today", which to me sounds like the mutant spawn of Devo and Robert Fripp, a progeny which wasn't supposed to live but somehow survived to create music. I have a fantasy video for this song, featuing an animated Condoleeza Rice in a dominatrix outfit and sharp spike heels dancing on the prostrated bodies of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld as they sing "She is having...the time of my life; she is having..."

After this, the disc, with the exception of "I Am a Scientist", sort of sinks into obscurity, Pollard-style. But what an exception! I've already waxed rhapsodic about "Scientist" over in your review of the "I Am a Scientist" EP, and I'll say it again; this is one of the finest rock songs, one of the most poignant coming-of-age, "who am I" songs ever written. Period. The simple fact that my local "Chicago's Finest Rock" station has NEVER bothered to play this song proves what a bunch of tasteless idiots they really are.

But let's not end this commentary on a down note. "Bee Thousand" is a treasure, a beautiful work by one of the most eccentrically creative songwriters around. Dog bless Bob Pollard for working so hard to keep us thrilled!

The Rock Robot said...

Wow, thanks for your comments/review jazman! I truly want this site to be a great resource for those new to Robert Pollard/GBV, and having various viewpoints from different fans is excellent!

I usually (though sometimes) do not compare Pollard's songs with other bands, but to other Pollard songs instead. Often, what I would consider a great song for one band, I would see as being fairly plain for GBV. In order to create the ultimate GBV playlist, I need to set the standard rather high.

Thanks again, and I look forward to your take on "Alien Lanes".

Anonymous said...

This is 'the one'. Only Alien Lanes can come close for me, but somehow Bee Thousand feels warmer. Whenever I buy another GBV / Pollard release I am hoping it will be as special as this, but it never is. I think this is partly due to the uniqueness of the recording and quality of songs, but also because I learned to love this album when I owned a lot less music and had much more time to listen to it.

The Rock Robot said...

Hey KickerOfElves, I don't think we'll ever get that B1000 special quality ever again (though I do think that all the early-mid 90's GBV releases come close). Since I didn't get into GBV until after they broke up, I am wondering if B1000 was an instant classic? Can anyone remember the buzz surrounding this album at the time of release?

Anonymous said...

Sorry...I was busy raising babies when B1000 was released. I was turned on to GbV in February 2004, saw them once (Bloomington, IN, Oct.2004) and that's that. I'd love to hear from anyone who was around and aware and into GbV when B1000 came out!

Anonymous said...

No way! You left off You're not an Airplane!! That's one of my favourite songs, such a great end to a fucking insanely brilliant album. Every song here is pure gold. Pure pure pure gold.

libertyvini said...

"Tractor Rape Chain" always reminded me of the old Youngbloods tune "Get Together" turned inside out, lyrically and musically, the old expressing naieve optimism about humanity, the new song expressing despair and ruin...

Chakra Pennywhistle said...

hi there,

I am hoping you could possibly help me out. I recently discovered the song Queen of Cans and Jars and instantly fell for it. I am getting ready to do a little indie fashion show and want to use it as my runway music. I have a slight problem though..... the lyrics... To me they speak of a savior who is wise to the importance of living simply, effectively, resourcefully. Uhmmmmm... Am I way off base here? Would really appreciate your opinion / expertise :)

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veggieman said...

You're Not An Airplane is better than Demons Are Real, at least!

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RĂșni said...

Bee Thousand - Pete Townshend

Anonymous said...

I prefer "Propeller", for me , that's Pollard's masterpiece..

Casey said...

For fans of, i dunno....the 90s hahaha

Anonymous said...

Pretty close to perfect, but I wish they hadn't replaced Scissors with Mincer Ray, which I tend to skip (sometimes along with Awful Bliss). I also wish I could insert Do The Earth between Freaks and Hugs without messing with the space/time continuum.

I have a feeling I'm alone in thinking I Am A Scientist is Bob's weakest link here...but not the only one noticing where The Strokes' NYC Cops got its chorus from.