Kristin Hersh is a musician who also fronts the bands Throwing Muses and 50FootWave. She is the author of the books Rat Girl and Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt.
Most bands exist as a result of boredom…plus life not looking like your life. And who gets bored? The boring, and the really, really not boring. Guided by Voices is really, really not boring.
When it finally occurred to my band, Throwing Muses, and others around us, to try and make a noise that sounded like our lives felt—like reality both sharpened and distorted by pain and intense pleasure—Guided by Voices had already done it. We were trying to invent a drug that Guided by Voices had already perfected.
We shrugged and kept trying to catch up. To us, “garage rock” meant we better not sound as shitty as our surroundings. And, yeah, fair enough. Any excuse to shine more than shit. When your band lives the tortoise-like road life of carrying your garage around the world with you, crashing on couches and hoping to dose your listeners with your distorted drug, your impression of humanity becomes a kind of creepy cool. There is no better soundtrack to that than the one played by GBV over the last few decades. 1987’s Sandbox is an elegant twist on the pop construct that holds up beautifully today. Same with 1992’s Propeller. Broken rules as sweet invention. Experimentation is as close as GBV gets to misstepping.
Listening to Space Gun, Guided by Voices’ newest album, is like discovering a classic that you somehow missed out on when it first hit. A memo that circulated among the cool and colorful, and you were doing…what? No idea. Something that didn’t matter as much. As much as the stories, the crazy, the people around you rising and falling, falling and failing. The really, really not boring that is this place sounds like perfectly broken fairy tales crawling out of the gutter. Its lack of pretense or polish makes it. That it sounds like it was carelessly tossed out the window doesn’t mean it wasn’t jewels that were carelessly tossed out the window. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t scramble around on the sidewalk, picking up the precious pieces.
A kid in a band is always looking for these trade secrets, told in a language you’re so close to speaking convincingly yourself. Crawling off the couch you’re crashing on, attempting to get a read on your hosts—creepy or cool?—by studying their record collection. When you come across something like Space Gun for the first time, your host looks pityingly at you because you haven’t yet cracked the code, and, damn, you were so close. “This is the record that started it all and you missed it…what the hell were you doing?”
Play this record in order. “Space Gun” is first—and the band that started it all definitely knows where to begin. Then, hover to “Ark Technician” to learn how much can rest in consistency when texture comes with depth. Its glassy beauty could go on forever, and doesn’t last long enough (how do you pull texture out of glass?). As I listen to these songs, it seems like I have more patience for these babies than the band who gave birth to them. For example: Land on “Hudson Rake” and stay a long, long time. Play it again and again. This is what happens when you cram a dozen songs into the body of one. It’s another planet. The elegant movements are a water slide rather than a narrative, and yet…it all makes sense. Nobody else can do this. We didn’t just miss the memo, we missed the whole master class.
“Gray Spat Matters” is just fucking happy. I dare you to listen to it without getting happy, too. It will stick in your head like a sing-along, like your favorite ear worm; a parasite that makes you a better person. “That’s Good” is sweetly, unapologetically dramatic. Like a childhood dog, it’s precious and idiosyncratic and pure. It matters. No reverb is spared, no soaring nature downplayed and yet…the tiny strangenesses are what we take away. The special. This record is about the special, and the fun of tossing jewels out a window, of holing up in a garage to mix up records like they were home-cooked drugs, and laughing all the way home from other people’s couches.
When you finally get to “Evolution Circus,” beginning with its irresistible riff that any self-respecting band in 1968 would’ve killed for, follow its evolution. Trust me on this: The song time-travels. After the ’60s riff, they hit ’70s-underground heavy, which morphs into some jumpy ’80s minimalism. A minute in, they arrive at present day neo-surf, and it sounds like some of the best young bands working today. Of course, because this is Guided by Voices, we probably end up somewhere in the future by the end of the song, but time will have to tell. Given their track record, I’m sure their followers will continue to pay close attention, just like I did.
Go back to “Space Gun” and spin out again—spiral out—knowing that you’re hearing a new piece of the soundtrack that started our soundtrack, a past-future classic that’s ahead of its time, a drug, our beloved childhood dog flying down a water slide with us. How can Guided by Voices spare all this creepy cool—just throw it out a window? Because non-attachment states that anything else makes you an asshole, and assholes aren’t allowed to be this good.