Late in Bee Thousand, Guided by Voices singer/songwriter Robert Pollard provides a skeleton key to his remarkable music. “I am a pharmacist, prescriptions I will fill you,” he sings, “potions, pills and medicines to ease your painful lives.” It’s no empty boast — the stately little hymn “I Am a Scientist” and the 19 other sublime songs on this album possess just such restorative powers.
GBV’s seven previous albums (released in limited editions on minuscule indies) were brilliant, but Bee Thousand is a tour de force by a good old-fashioned American basement genius. A rotating group of thirtysomethings based in Dayton, Ohio, Guided by Voices mine familiar territory: classic English pop rockers like the Who, the Kinks and the Beatles, albeit filtered through latter-day Beatlemaniacs like Cheap Trick and Robyn Hitchcock, as well as lo-fi avatars like Daniel Johnston and Pavement.
The group is clearly guided by those voices, but the band name also goes a long way toward identifying the surely ethereal source of their inspiration as well as underscoring the way Pollard’s vocals drive the moving, indelible melodies. An irresistible English folk drone weaves throughout the record, as in the jingle-jangle mournfulness of “Queen of Cans and Jars,” singer and guitarist Tobin Sprout’s exquisite “Ester’s Day” (co-written with Pollard) and the uncannily long-lined melody of “Smothered in Hugs.”
Recorded on a four-track machine, Bee Thousand sounds like a favorite bootleg or a beloved old LP whose worn grooves now reveal only a blurry jumble. Amp hum, sniffling musicians and creaking chairs all inhabit the mix, but the homespun production only underlines the strength of the songs — lo-fi or not, there’s no denying an astonishing rush of guitar-pop glory like “Tractor Rape Chain.”
As with Big Star, the beauty of GBV’s music cocoons — and so triumphs over — its own root sadness, like an oyster building a pearl around an irritating grain of sand. In the jubilant climax of “Echos Myron,” Pollard’s voice radiates a downright heroic melancholy as he sings, “And we’re finally here/And, shit, yeah, it’s cool,” and then can’t help but add “or something like that.”
Even if the lyrics sometimes read like mad-libs (“I met a nondairy creamer explicitly laid out like a fruitcake,” Pollard sings on “Hot Freaks”), they always play to Pollard’s strong point, which is precisely where rock itself excels — combining music and words to produce a distinctly third impression that’s complex, unnameable and yet startlingly vivid. But the real miracle of Bee Thousand is that it not only celebrates the power of rock music, it also embodies it. “I am a lost soul/I shoot myself with rock & roll,” Pollard sings on “I Am a Scientist,” “but nothing else can set me free.”