Guided by Voices – Alien Lanes

Alien_Lanes

As with other Guided by Voices releases, I think the best way to tackle Alien Lanes is to make your own playlist out of its best songs. And for those who are too lazy to listen to a 28-song (!!!) album over and over and figure out which songs are worth keeping, I’ve done that for you here:

1. ”A Salty Salute,” which was the first Guided by Voices song I ever liked, how crystal clear the bassline and Robert Pollard’s voice are, despite the tiniest crackle underneath everything, as is their wont. “Disarm the settlers / The new drunk drivers” announcing their arrival, “Do not fret / The bus will get you there yet” announcing their optimism, “The club is open” announcing the album.

2. “Watch Me Jumpstart,” which is the album’s first decent rocker (the preceding “Evil Speakers” is slightly less than decent, whatever that adjective is).

3. ”As We Go Up, We Go Down,” which has some lovely choruses, especially the second instance, when backing vocals and another guitar are employed.

4. ”Game of Pricks,” another decent rocker but with more of a melodic punch than “Watch Me Jumpstart.”  

5. ”The Ugly Vision,” which is pretty-ish, like something you’d throw on or play right before succumbing to alcohol-fueled sleep. 

6. “Closer You Are,” which is the first proper song after four (!!!) throwaways of varying degrees of how far you’ll want to throw them (more on that later). The best moment: when Pollard channels his Lou Reed, “Yah-ah-ha!!!” The second best moment: when everything drops a lower register for Pollard’s “Scheming,” staying there for three more measures and bursting back. Simple but effective riff.

7. ”Motor Away,” definitely the best song on the album (it was re-recorded into a slightly-clearer version for what is probably Guided by Voices’ most famous single) and probably Pollard’s greatest melody (I don’t pretend to have heard them all quite just yet), shrugging off the criticisms of Bee Thousand on his abstract lyrics by making it clear and simple: “You can be anyone they told you to / You can belittle every little voice that told you so.” Something wonderful happens in the guitar on the last line of every verse, imitating the revving of an engine on Pollard’s “Oh, why don’t you just drive away.” “Come on!” Pollard yells as you do so, leaving whatever’s been holding you back behind. 

8. “My Valuable Hunting Knife,” the second best song on the album. The drums sound like they came out from the bottom of the barrel of the 80s (the ones that sound like a drum machine), but given the lo-fi production of what’s happening around it, it ends up sounding … well … fantastic. Humorous lyrics; a love song to the object in the title, because Robert Pollard is too much of a man to write love songs to women.

9. “King and Caroline,” if only for its exciting conclusion with both vocalists yelling out “SELL!” Until then, it’s just a bassline doing its best to get you there.

10. “Striped White Jets,” which might be the album’s second most sing-alongable song after “Motor Away” for Pollard stuttering through his shushes. The song really takes off at the drum fill at the 1:07 mark, entering a sizable solo and before dissonance enters the fray.

11. “Blimps Go 90”; Greg Demos should’ve played violin more often (sounds like a fiddle).

12. “Little Whirl”; Tobin Sprout’s greatest contribution to the album. Like “Strawdogs,” it’s all about the choruses when Tobin Sprout’s nugget of a melody rises above the lo-fi production. It just so happens this song’s better. 

13. “Alright,” which is the longest song on the album and closes it on a bang, whereas Bee Thousand’s “You’re Not an Airplane” ended Bee Thousand on a whimper. Simple but effective drumming helping the Sonic Youthian dual-guitar onslaught come alive; the highlight is from 2:02 to 2:30. Vocals that appear and disappear right after because Guided by Voices know songs with vocals appeal to more people than songs without.

The rest? I wish Tobin Sprout, who could every now and then write more compelling melodies than Robert Pollard, had given “A Good Flying Bird” an actual chorus instead of just shouting “Yeah!” over and over (which is either jubilantly sing-alongable or annoying depending on my mood but most likely the latter). Meanwhile, his last song, “Strawdogs” could’ve done with a proper ending (it fades out for a while before cutting out abruptly). Some of the songs I didn’t mention before are worth hearing at least once: “Pimple Zoo,” because you don’t expect a song that begins with “SOMETIMES I GET THE FEELING YOU DON’T WANT ME AROUND!” to suddenly drop you in an acoustic bridge before throwing you back where you started (though less noisy for no reason); “Big Chief Chinese Restaurant,” because it’s fun to listen to Greg Demos get bored with single notes that sound vaguely like a flute over Robert Pollard’s acoustic ditty so he gets up and does his own thing over-top right after; “Gold Hick,” because its unexpected last 10 seconds; “My Son Cool,” because of its loud as fuck drums and some neat-o lyrics; “Always Crush Me,” because of its motherfucking guitar crunch. As with every other Guided by Voices albums, there is filler, but as with every other Guided by Voices filler tracks, these songs are often so short that being subjected to them won’t make your life any worse than it already is (a lot of the songs on the first side).

There is some bad stuff mixed in: I don’t really care for “Chicken Blows” because of the warble added to Robert Pollard’s vocals throughout or the too-loud ah-ing backing vocals that come in at the 1:16 mark. Broadly speaking, what bothers me most about Alien Lanes is its irony, the calling card for a lot of indie rock bands from the same decade, but here, Robert Pollard is really shoving it down our throats. I read a customer review of this album from amazon along the lines of “They could’ve made a perfect album, but they’d probably hate it if they did” and that’s basically it. They didn’t set out to make a perfect album, they set out to make an imperfect album to alienate their growing fanbase after Bee Thousand by having less songs and more tracks. It’s a fun story to hear that Matador gave them $100,000 to record the album and instead of buying better equipment, they spent it on beer – how ironic! It’s less fun to hear shit like “Hit” wherein Robert Pollard uses the word “faggot” before claiming “Now that’s a hit!” in its 20-second runtime (what a way to start the second side of the album, especially with “Motor Away” and “My Valuable Hunting Knife” sandwiching it) or “Ex-Supermodel” wherein someone obnoxiously and obviously fake snores – how ironic. Did you hear that eyeroll?

Alien Lanes has higher highs than Bee Thousand, but it also has more filler (28 tracks here versus 20 tracks there, and only a 5 minutes’ runtime difference) and lower lows, so if you’re wondering where I stand on the great Guided by Voices debate… I have no idea. I know that’s a copout, but I think the band themselves would approve of my laziness. I definitely do know that Pavement’s own album from that same year who always find themselves being dragged into Guided by Voices conversations because of one fucking album, was a lot better. A lot better. 

Also: that’s some seriously atrocious cover art right there. Like nothing is right about it. Not the color palette inside the drum, not the font or color of the band name or album title or their placement, not the fact that the drum’s been pasted onto what looks like the desert option of Windows screensaver from ’95. Christ.

B+

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