Here's a happy-making POPMATTERS Review of the Bee Thousand book
Amplified to Rock
by Jason B. Jones
Bee Thousand makes perfect sense for Continuum’s famous 33 1/3 series. The breakthrough album for Guided by Voices undoubtedly has an appropriate stature, as it exemplified a certain style of lo-fi, DIY aesthetic that’s still influential. Moreover, Robert Pollard’s elliptical lyrics and layered, yet quasi-improvisational melodies would seem to profit from a handy introduction. Everyone I know who listens to Guided by Voices was introduced to their music by some knowledgeable friend, a role which Marc Woodworth ably takes up in his short book. What’s more interesting about Bee Thousand, though, is the way it both embraces and complicates the nostalgia permeating the entire 33 1/3 series. Simultaneously a mythologizing and de-mythologizing book, Bee Thousand demonstrates yet again the power of Faulkner’s claim that “the past isn’t even past.”
The circumstances around the Bee Thousand album are familiar. Recorded after the Dayton, Ohio band had decided to break up, on a four-track in Tobin Sprout’s garage, it led to critical acclaim—with Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted, a defining lo-fi record—and the band’s continuation (indeed, now Pollard was able to quit teaching). Guided by Voices albums feature lots of short, imperfectly recorded songs, and Bee Thousand is no exception. Its 20 tracks take less than 37 minutes to play—the longest, “Tractor Rape Chain,” clocks in at an epic 3.04mins—and there are notorious recording glitches and accidental effects. All of the songs were recorded in a hurry.
The book Bee Thousand takes a kaleidoscopic approach to its topic. It features narratives by Robert Pollard, Don Thrasher, Kevin Fennell, Robert Griffin, Dan Toohey, Greg Demos, and Tobin Sprout, an interview with collagist filmmaker Lewis Klahr, and a series of “Listener Responses.” It also features a series of “word clusters,” associations found in the album, a sonnet composed of phrases from Bee Thousand, and excerpts that purport to be from a dissertation on Pollard’s lyrics. (The foreword by “Bart O. Roper, LLD” gives the game away.) Woodworth’s own contributions come as both short overtures on key topics—“Love & Purity,” “Desire & Its Limits”—and a five-part main thread, “Fiction, Man & Hardcore Facts.”
As Woodworth points out, the immediacy of the album’s sound is misleading. The fuzzy, dirty recordings sound urgent and fresh, as if they are bursting out onto the four-track, without much attention to craft. However, this isn’t quite right. Many songs are versions of earlier GBV songs, or are made out of snippets of such songs, and some even reprise melodies Pollard apparently wrote as a boy. The band’s narratives are especially interesting on this score, as they reconstruct the diverse origins of the songs. More generally, in Woodworth’s hands the band’s songs turn out to be palimpsests, in which British Invasion songs are overwritten by “Pollard’s past as a nearly life-long maker of songs, his immersion in the music of others, and a memory of childhood pleasure and creativity made melancholy because it is no longer present with the same force it once had”.
This emphasis on the past has interesting effects. One of the charming conceits of the 33 1/3 series is that the books are frequently intensely personal responses to an album, and so they are nostalgic, not just for an album but also for the critic’s own youth. Bee Thousand opens with a poetic excursus that seems to evoke all of these feelings: you’re left “with a pang of longing but also oddly pleased,” “you’ve got to build the playground in your head because you’ve got to build the playground in your head because you can’t play on the real playground anymore—rust has eaten through the elephant slide and the monkey bars’ thinning aluminum is too cold to grip, not to mention that you’re not allowed to go in there anymore, old man”.
But the nostalgia Woodworth evokes is not his own, but rather an imaginative response to GBV lyrics—that is, it’s presented as the songwriter’s nostalgia. Robert Pollard describes his method as “deconstructionist”, by which he means that he works from snippets of old songs, putting them together in new ways, and then breaking them apart or disrupting them in some way. A recurring distinction in the book is that between a “creamy” song, which is unappealingly smooth and polished, and ones that are adequately “fucked up,” where imperfection points up the humanity behind the art. Fucking up, for the band, is both accidental and deliberate, a chance occurrence and methodological imperative: One way to write a song is to take a “creamy” melody and interpolate it with new sounds, free-associative lyrics, and other artifacts of recording. The result, for GBV, is new music born from the shards of the past—or, as Woodworth puts it, it shows that “life can rise from art”.
What’s remarkable about Bee Thousand is Woodworth’s ability to reconstruct the ”event“ of the album despite only discovering it later. In fact, by the time he started listening to GBV the musicians had almost entirely changed, and he had to work backward to Bee Thousand. This means that his experience of the album—the way that it bits of it stuck with him until he began to connect more passionately to it—is uncannily like the experience of making the album: “I felt more akin to the band as a 30-something myself, a partially lapsed rocker, who like Pollard and Company, grew up listening to big rock in big arenas during the ‘70s”. While that might be the generation that finds GBV most naturally, Woodworth’s book should help listeners of any age find joy in such oddities as “Hardcore UFOs,” a “dairy creamer explicitly laid out as a fruitcake,” and the “kicker of elves.” More generally, anyone interested in DIY-type bands should find the band’s narratives relevant.