In Defense of … Guided by Voices’ ‘Do the Collapse’
Lo-fi has been imbued with almost occult-like powers over the years, being a cheap, noisy method that’s been embraced by some truly amazing artists, including Daniel Johnston, Sebadoh, Neutral Milk Hotel and Ariel Pink. But when taken as it is — stripped of its history and taken with a strictly objective view — lo-fi typically means poorly recorded. It means that a bunch of noise is going to eat up a ton of the recording’s frequency ranges and cover the songs in hiss.
Guided by Voices grew a fanbase that loved the band’s cheap approach to recording just as much as they loved the songs. So when band leader Robert Pollard wondered what his songs might sound like if he put the time and energy into recording them in a full-fledged studio, many fans became uncomfortable.
The presence of some of the worst GBV songs Pollard has ever written doesn’t do the album any favors either; ‘Hold on Hope’ especially threw fans off. And there were a few throw-away tracks, like ‘Dragons Awake’ and ‘Mushroom Art,’ which is like the worst parts of GBV mixed in with the worst parts of Stone Temple Pilots. It might’ve been a neat track in 1992, but it wouldn’t have aged well.
While it is undeniably commercial rock, ‘Teenage FBI’ is at least a really good example of commercial rock. Had the band pushed ‘Teenage FBI’ as the lead single instead of the unforgivably goofy ‘Hold on Hope,’ Pollard and company might have gotten their toes in the mainstream water they so obviously wanted to swim in.
‘Zoo Pie’ is a slow burner that becomes a mountain of a song when the guitars open up to full choke. The music floats effortlessly between Cheap Trick and Black Sabbath. The end is full of grand, dramatic guitar lines that sound very similar to, but predate, Queens of the Stone Age.
‘Things I Will Keep’ is pure guitar pop gold and everything is perfectly in place. The guitars are expansive, jangly and make the song a head-bobber like a good garage rock song does. However, this sort of song may have drawn the criticism that it was too radio-friendly, perhaps even too cheesy. But what if this was the sort of song you heard on the radio all the time?
‘Hold On Hope’ catches a lot of flack from critics, and honestly, that’s to be expected. This song sounds like Pollard wanted to duplicate Aerosmith’s ‘I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.’ It’s the sort of song played over a video montage on prime-time TV and unlike the case with ‘Things I Keep,’ ‘Hold on Hope’ would not make that show any cooler.
Actually, we don’t have to speculate. We have this clip from ‘Scrubs.’
‘In Stitches’ is a chugger, with heavily plodding guitar verses and chimey choruses. The only unfortunate part of the song is the cheesy guitar solo. We don’t take this solo as a sign of the band trying to sell out and get the song on the radio though. It’s more likely that the solo is a sign of too much beer in the studio while they were recording.
And if the band was trying to make a Billboard-climbing pop album, how do you explain ‘Strumpet Eye’?
‘Surgical Focus’ is a great heavy pop song. The guitars sound ragged and perfect and the whole band is a rock-solid foundation for another pop gem. The addition of synths make the song more interesting in parts that might have been weak without something extra.
It’s by no means a perfect album. Some of the songs are a little cheesy while others are forgettable. As far as complete Guided by Voices albums done with a slick production, this is a distant second to ‘Isolation Drills.’
But, ‘Do the Collapse’ has enough moments of brilliance to make it an essential piece of any GBV fan’s music collection and we didn’t even cover all of the genuinely good songs on the album. While the lo-fi records — of which there are an almost infinite selection — have something unique that makes them so endearing, it’s nice to have the chance to hear the music clearly.