Guided by Voices – Static Airplane Jive
I’ll get around to it, but permit me a brief and related digression: I recently saw Guided by Voices here in the lovely city of Austin. The performance was excellent, about what you’d expect from Robert Pollard. There were high kicks, microphone twirls (did I just make up a term there? Microphone twirls?), and spectacular between-song banter. There’s a reason Pollard has a live album consisting solely of his rambling observations, 2005’s Relaxation of the Asshole (to which I say, hurr). There was also lots and lots of Pollard-centric beer guzzling, the upshot of which was the charismatic singer’s slurred demand for “Austin pussy” during GBV’s first encore. A demand that, I’d like to point out, was met with throaty cheers by men and and tepid snorts by women.
Oh, and they played songs. Great songs, in fact, largely culled from their classic, early-to-mid 90s lineup that featured Tobin Sprout’s George Harrison to Pollard’s Lennon/McCartney. They played “hits” (which, by GBV’s standards, means “songs that more than 100 people have heard”) off of Alien Lanes and the untoppable Bee Thousand alongside phenomenal(ly) deep cuts off of Tonics & Twisted Chasers, Clown Prince of the Menthol Trailer, and I Am a Scientist. Each EP rarity was prefaced with an announcement of its origins.
This reverential, real-time crate-digging is not uncommon for Guided by Voices, but they didn’t play anything off of my favorite release of theirs, 1993’s Static Airplane Jive. Though their song catalog probably runs into the thousands, I had reasonable hopes they’d drag out a tune or two from the EP, simply because when I’d seen them before and they’d done so, playing the 51-second, loopy acoustic ballad “Hey Aardvark” (more on this later). No luck this time, though.
The show did, however, impel me to revisit Static Airplane Jive, and my decade-old love for the relatively obscure little EP was rekindled. I still stand by my assertion that Static Airplane Jive is the greatest thing Guided by Voices ever laid to tape.
Bold, I know. But I’m one bold bro. From an exposure/historical significance perspective, Static Airplane Jive doesn’t hold a candle to Alien Lanes, let alone Bee Thousand. However, taken as a document divorced from its context, Static Airplane Jive stands as Guided by Voices’s most powerful, clearly distilled statement. Consisting of six incredibly brief songs (only one passes the three-minute mark, and only one more the two), Static Airplane Jive blasts through a surprisingly diverse array of genres in exhilarating fashion. They run through anthemic, fist-pumping arena-pop (“Big School”), trippy, circular incantations (“Damn Good Mr. Jam”) and blistering psych-punk in various iterations (“Rubber Man,” “Glow Boy Butlers,” “Gelatin, Ice Cream, Plum”), all in under 11 minutes. Every second is absolutely essential listening. Nothing here is wasted.
Oh, and there’s also that aforementioned little acoustic ditty, “Hey Aardvark.” I’ll be blunt, as I too infrequently am: The song is perfect, one of my 10 or 15 all-time favorites by any artist. It’s simultaneously bittersweet, longing, and carefree, effortlessly folding each of those emotions into its brief, modest span. It’s also sonically fascinating, featuring incredibly warmly recorded acoustic guitars and an in-the-red Pollard intoning sweetly simple, vaguely surreal lyrics, and bookended by subtle, difficult-to-place percussive touches. Blah, blah, blah—it’s impossible to describe “Hey Aardvark” using the reverence it deserves. You have to listen to it. You just have to.
Now, Guided by Voices probably doesn’t fall into many personal definitions of what a psychedelic band sounds or behaves like,* especially today, with our glut of strung-out, droning star- and navel-gazers. But that glosses over that weird little moment in the early-to-mid 90s where a handful of bands like Aspera Ad Astra, All Natural Lemon and Lime Flavors, the Strapping Fieldhands, and the Olivia Tremor Control fused Nuggets-era garage rock’s anthemic brevity with post-punk’s penchant for damaging and uglying up perfectly good pop songs.** The music these bands made was alternately weird, catchy, unsettling, sugary, and strung-out.
Guided by Voices isn’t often thrown into that lot, I wouldn’t think, but a document like Static Airplane Jive makes a good case for doing so. Brief, tinny, fractured, burnt pop. Sounds about right.
*And yes, I’m getting sick of quibbling on my own damn blog, so maybe I’ll stop doing it soon, but here I go anyway.
**Succour: The Terrascope Benefit Album compiles a number of these bands (along with some others) to give an excellent snapshot of mid-90s out-psych in many of its iterations.