GUIDED BY VOICES Vampire on Titus CD/LP (Scat) It's tempting to write that GBV has had "eight years to perfect their craft," but the truth is that they've been great from the start. The basic GBV sound is 1967 British pop filtered through basement-tape-recorder grime, and within its confines they're the best, and the most versatile, there is. Each of their seven albums includes vocal harmonies from Revolverera Beatles, scattered outbreaks of pure punk, flat despair, soaring hopes, noises like ovens exploding (immediately followed by familiar hooks), wisps of pot smoke over seaswell chords, and half-audible, countrified laments. Occasionally you'll find all these elements together in one song.
GBV correctly take their tunefulness for granted--the effort goes into making the songs messy: writing clever-odd lyrics, playing with AM radio-quality sound, or with cheap, half-broken microphones--anything that will throw their "pop" talents into sharper relief. "Marchers in Orange," on this new record, lasts about a minute and has no guitars, just an accordion and a bass: the vocal melody does all the work. "Gleaner (The Deeds of Fertile Jim)" uses a deadpan strum not unlike the one perfected by college-radio heroes Sebadoh (whose "Brand New Love" the knowing lyrics quote). "Exit Flagger" rides a pushmepullyou-like hook to the chorus, where it suddenly gains a kick more powerful than your average well-trained racehorse (About those titles: main guy Robert Pollard has said that before recording sessions, the band makes up a long list of weird titles, then tires to write a song to match each one. I'll believe that).
"Pushmepullyou," if you didn't know, is a two-headed animal from the Dr. Doolittle stories; the Doctor is less a weird joke than a serious point of reference for GBV's achievements. Like the miraculous veterinarian, GBV main guy Robert Pollard has a respect for the diverse beasts of the rock and roll jungle that lets him get them to do his bidding. Like Dr. Doolittle, Pollard can convince animals that would normally be at each other's throats--a two-chord, thumping stomp, say, and its natural enemy, a spiraling, self-involved vocal line--to team up and make nice. And, like Dr. Doolittle, GBV seems out of place in a world that includes compact discs, cable TV, Ministry and Steve Albini.
Until this year, Pollard & Co. hadn't played a live show since 1987 (they've now played three); all of their previous records have been on labels that are to the big, well-known independents (Matador, Sub Pop) about as GBV's hometown, Dayton, Ohio is to New York City. With Vampire they've moved up to the level of Cleveland. (Literally: Scat Records is based there.) This is the first GBV release there's a good chance of finding in a non-exceptional record store: the CD version includes twice as much music, since the last half is 1991's vinylonly masterpiece Propeller. If you're already following indie music, you can't do better than to buy this (pair of) record(s). If you're not, and you're wondering where the late 60's sound you love has gone: this is where. Get used to it.
TOMMY KEENE The Real Underground CD (Alias) If, on the other hand, the sound you love is the chiming, clean-lined American guitar-pop of the early eighties--pop without pretension, dissonance, extraneous noises, growls or screams; pop like REM's third record, Big Star's first, Let's Active's first three, or the few good Posies songs--Tommy Keene is where to start looking. People who do that sort of thing for a living have been scratching their heads for years about why this man has never had a hit (too pure? no sex appeal? no weird hats?); these people included one major record label, who scrapped Keene's contract only days after his last album came out, in 1988. Now he's back in the business, kicking around the independent music scene: The Real Underground collects 20-odd tracks from the start of his career (which dates back to about 1980, just like REM's) and adds a handful of new songs. The new stuff is fine; some of it's also funny (like a cover of the Who's "Tattoo"), making me wonder what direction Keene's forthcoming album will take. But the standouts ("Back to Zero Now," "Nothing Happened Yesterday") are largely from his first record: they're refreshingly clear, achingly memorable "pop" with a place in the normal collegiate heart.