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
20 You're Not An Airplane
Bee Thousand at Amazon
Bee Thousand Director's Cut at Scat Records