There are certain works of art that have such great stories behind them that the tale and not the product get all the attention. A Confederacy of Dunces was published long after its author killed himself. The 'Penny Arcade' webcomic began because its creators lost a comic contest but liked their submissions enough to put them online. Kevin Smith's Clerks was made for only around $28,000 and filmed at night inside the convenience store Smith was working while it was closed. Add to that list Guided By Voices, a band that crafted Propeller as their goodbye album after years of going nowhere, handmaking the covers themselves for a limited edition pressing of 500 vinyl records. But then, so the story goes, they started to gain attention in the underground, and with the 1994 release of Bee Thousand the band had created a true masterpiece and a critical favorite. They had finally arrived.
It's a great story, but I've always thought it was more interesting that Robert Pollard was 35 when Propeller was recorded. That's relatively old for starting a rock 'n roll career in earnest. Normally by his age most bands are either breaking up or transitioning into the less inventive and intriguing phase of their careers. But Pollard was just getting started and would only get both better and more prolific as time went on.
All of that backstory aside, Propeller is a fantastic album. It's the sound of dudes who grew up on 70s rock really wanting to be arena gods but instead toiling away in obscurity for far too long. And then, pouring everything they had into an album made up of songs that only they could have come up with in that situation. I can only imagine their respective wives and girlfriends wondering when they were going to give it up. Luckily Guided By Voices were one band who refused to stop rocking even though they were starting to look like those pathetic 30 something dudes every town has who insist they can still make it. The difference, of course, is that Robert Pollard is a brilliant songwriter, and whatever motley assortment of Other Dudes he has hanging around are the kind of loose-but-tight backing band that every great rock star needs.
Yes, Robert Pollard is a rock star, but he's one of the weirdest to grace the stage. Sometimes you have to wonder if he realizes how strange his music and lyrics are. I mean, at their basic core, Guided By Voices are the link between 70s classic rock/arena rock and 90s lo-fi indie rock. While their songs are often anthemic and can rock all day long, the lyrics are generally surreal, psychedelic, and overtly strange. It's hard to imagine The Who playing a song called 'Some Drilling Implied' or '14 Cheerleader Coldfront', and I suppose that's why I love this band so much. Any old fool can write a song about love or being on the road and make it sound like an anthem; it takes a particular genius to write a song as bizarre as Bee Thousand's 'Tractor Rape Chain' and make it an anthem.
But we're talking about Propeller, which opens with the now classic "G-B-V!!" chant, intended to replicate a live show even though, according to the always questionable Wikipedia, it was done in-studio by the band. If they couldn't have the adoration of a huge audience of fans, by god, they were going to manufacture it. The song from which the chant comes, 'Over The Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox', serves as a very appropriate beginning, giving a sample of GBV's ability to capture all the power and swagger of an established arena rock touring band with nothing more than a humble 4-track, some cheap beer, and a group of guys who had nothing to lose. Side one--I'm reviewing the vinyl edition, since it's the preferred format for this album--mostly sticks to a hard rock vibe, while the second side shows off the band's stranger and calmer sides. 'Exit Flagger', '14 Cheerleader Coldfront', and 'Back To Saturn X Radio Report' form a string of three songs that demonstrate the band's strengths. 'Exit Flagger' is one of many minor masterpieces of the band's that you've probably never heard, an addictive song with a chantable chorus that you can just imagine being sung by the audience as Robert Pollard swings his microphone. '14 Cheerleader Coldfront' is a sweet acoustic ballad of sorts about...I don't know. But it's genuinely kind of pretty. Finally, 'Back To Saturn X Radio Report' is memorably made up of short snippets of several other songs that aren't actually on Propeller. This also neatly reminds you of Guided By Voices's ability to make short-but-potent music, reminiscent of Wire's Pink Flag in terms of concise-ness and memorability.
The best and worst thing about Guided By Voices is that they have released so many albums, EPs, and singles that it's hard to know where to start. At the same time, every new release of their's you buy contains at least two songs so good you wonder how you ever got by without them. Though Propeller is neither the band's best album nor the best place to start, it's still a really good rock album. If you're in the group of people who often wish there was a bit more 'rock' in most 'indie rock', than Propeller is exactly the sort of thing you're looking for.