The notion of “lo-fi” music is an easy target for critics of indie rock. It’s one thing for a band to record on bad equipment because they have to; it’s another to make that the selling point of the music. During the 1990s, numerous indie rock bands who had to record on low-quality equipment, including Sebadoh, Pavement and Built to Spill, were labeled as “lo-fi.” But in the early-to-mid-2000s, low production value became synonymous with musical integrity and many aspiring bands branded themselves as lo-fi to gain the attention of labels and radio stations. It became a highly valued thing to sound crappy. Yet it seems utterly ridiculous now, to have the most attractive thing about your music be how bad it sounds.
Among the bands from the 1990s credited with popularizing the lo-fi aesthetic was Dayton, Ohio’s own Guided by Voices. Led by the alcoholic schoolteacher Robert Pollard and featuring a revolving mass of sleazebag instrumentalists, from the beginning, GBV exuded crap. They were the perfect poster-boys for the growing indie rock sub-genre. So when their landmark 1994 album Bee Thousand dropped, they were immediately labeled as “lo-fi,” cementing the album’s legacy as the archetypal record of the genre. For the band, this label has been a blessing and a curse. Of course, being tied to a burgeoning genre of music will always guarantee GBV a certain amount of historical significance; however, the album is often overlooked because of a genre tag that today implies misguided pretentiousness and artificial authenticity.
Bee Thousand not only transcends the slightly stupid label of lo-fi; it also justifies it. There was a reason that so many bands from the 2000s wanted to sound crappy just to call themselves “lo-fi.” The genre’s defining document is a mix of elements of rock music from all corners of its far-reaching universe, united under the flag of low production value. Bee Thousand is at once very much a product of its time and place in history, and a transcendent celebration of rock music’s finest qualities.
But first and foremost, Bee Thousand is an indie rock album. Clinging, consciously or not, to the DIY ideals of alternative music, Robert Pollard and company created something truly of their time. In no other era would such an inaccessible record with so little production value be lauded as it was in the mid-1990s.
From the opening measures of “Hardcore UFO’s,” Bee Thousand makes it apparent that it was not made for the average listener. For approximately one minute, Robert Pollard sings in his deadpan voice about aliens (or something) before the song rather awkwardly erupts into an uptempo rock tune. Flailing guitars screech in the left channel, stopping for fractions of a second at a time because the cheap amplifier cuts out sporadically. The next track, “Buzzards and Dreadful Crows,” picks up where “UFO’s” left off in terms of energy level and subject matter, and soon gives way to the longest track on the album, “Tractor Rape Chain.” Contrary to what the title suggests, “Chain” is a beautiful summation of GBV’s accessible side. Once again, the electric guitars are abrasive and distorted beyond recognition, but Pollard sings passionately over the top of it, detailing a worsening relationship with a lover.
The whole album functions like the triad of songs described above. Much like a Rosary, the album will feature several short tracks all in a row (the Hail Marys), followed by a more melodic and accessible track (the Lord’s Prayers or Glory Bes). The longest stretch of inaccessibility occurs from tracks 14-17. After the beautifully catchy “Queen of Cans and Jars,” the album travels down an abyss starting with “Her Psychology Today,” essentially a fast-paced metal song with two incredibly experimental tracks, lasting about twenty seconds each, book-ending it. This transitions into the hilarious “Kicker of Elves,” which, lyrically, seems to be about a man who is on a quest to kick elves. [Ed. Note – Go figure.] It lasts just over a minute before giving way to “Ester’s Day,” which is actually a beautiful acoustic ballad that could be taken much more seriously if it didn’t begin with an incredibly weird non sequitur intro about a fly named Jimmy. Finally, the forty-eight-second “Demons Are Real,” which begins with Pollard bellowing the phrase “deliver this message to the one I love the most” and goes on to describe the plight of Squeaky, who was stoned by a jellyfish, ends the barrage of weirdness. From here, the opening guitar line of “I Am a Scientist” takes over, saving the second side of the record from impending wackness.
The album is comprised of twenty tracks in a mere thirty-seven minutes. Most songs, including the weird ones, are short, concentrated vignettes of rock music that serve to illustrate just how eclectic Robert Pollard is in choosing the source material on which to base his songs. The opener, “Hardcore UFO’s,” and the beautiful “Echoes Myron” sound like Beatles songs recovered from a lost LSD-fueled recording session, while “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” sounds like King Crimson, but with recorders instead of flutes. Melodic tunes like “Tractor Rape Chain,” “Smothered in Hugs” and “Gold Star for Robot Boy” are clear tributes to 1980s post-punk in the vein of Mission of Burma and The Soft Boys. And on straightforward songs like the bitter “Buzzards and Dreadful Crows” and the painfully short “Awful Bliss,” the band pays homage to classic 1970s rock acts like The Who.
Despite all of this borrowing from past rock sub-genres, GBV still manage to sound completely original. Of course, Pollard’s concise songwriting and cryptic lyrics deserve credit for this. But the terrible production value of this album also merits recognition. If the band had recorded their songs in a studio rather than garages and basements, played into good recording equipment instead of the primitive four-track that they did use, and gotten a professional producer rather than Pollard himself, who simply turned the mixer’s treble knob all the way up and called it a day, what would have resulted would have been a weird but accurate simulation of earlier forms of rock music; Pollard’s songs, modeled after the archetypes of the genres that he tried to emulate for each song, are not completely original in and of themselves. But the album’s slipshod recording process, completed in three days in numerous garages and basements across town, enables the songs to reach their full potential. From the screeching guitars and muffled vocals that open the album, to the fragile acoustic plucking drowning in tape-hiss that is pervasive in the album’s middle-section, to the distorted piano that closes it, Guided by Voices’ success in making an original album comes because of its lo-fi aesthetic, and not despite it. In this way, GBV affirm and justify the seemingly vapid genre of lo-fi music.
By the mid-1990s, it was becoming evident that rock music was moribund. After nearly fifty years of prominence, it was being replaced in celebrity by pop music and in cultural significance by hip-hop. The last bona fide rock star, Kurt Cobain, would be found dead in his home on April 8, 1994, two months before Bee Thousand was released. From Elvis to Neil Young to Nirvana, rock music had always mattered, but America was undergoing a sea change. The “alternative” rock that broke in 1991 was starting to piss everybody off (see Green Day or Red Hot Chili Peppers) and the indie rock that stuck to the anti-establishment ideals of earlier alternative music didn’t matter to anyone, besides the players themselves and the cult fan base.
While certain rock bands tried to fight their inevitable obsolescence in American culture by signing to major labels and pumping out crap (Creed, Nickelback) or returning to the golden days of blues rock (the G-D Black Keys), Guided by Voices acknowledged their peripheral cultural position. Instead of forcibly trying to push themselves into the cultural center of attention, they stayed in their garage and celebrated fifty years of rock and roll dominance.