GUIDED BY VOICES Bee Thousand (Spot)

GUIDED BY VOICES Vampire On Titus (Spot)

Maximum respect to the obscure Ohio independent label Spot for reissuing great swathes of pre-fame (comparatively) Guided By Voices albums, not a gameplan that guarantees lucrative financial reward. "Bee Thousand" dates from, I think, 1995, and in GBV tradition crams 20 tunes onto two sides of pristine white vinyl. Also in GBV tradition (for their early works, at least) sound quality varies from poor to abysmal, but that fails to prevent it from being an absolute delight, choc full of number one hits from a parallel universe. Crumble before the unpretentious majesty of "I Am A Scientist", the Mark E Smith-ish "Kicker Of Elves", "Gold Star For Robot Boy" and especially "Echos Myron", which jump-cuts halfway through into a priceless parody of British Invasion pop, and wonder why these men are not more famous.

Even earlier than that, "Vampire On Titus" claims to have been recorded in 1993, and boasts 18 tunes that are, in the main, so angular that they end up facing themselves, and even more primitively recorded on semi- (or possibly even un-) professional four- and eight-track equipment. Not a delight, unfortunately, although there’s still the odd moment of loveliness - the harmonium-driven "Marchers In Orange" could almost be a Jefferson Airplane or Country Joe And The Fish offcut. Guided By Voices’ curvy career path means that there’s plenty of their material out there (somewhere), much of it of variable quality, but when they hit the spot it leaves pretenders like early Pavement looking like the slacker dabblers that they are.

GUIDED BY VOICES Tigerbomb (Matador)

This six-track 7" EP, more recently re-issued as part of the bonus CD that came with initial copies of Guided By Voices’ fabulous "Under The Bushes, Under The Stars" album, was another pressie from my sister’s recent (artistic) binge/purge trip to New York. It features newly-recorded versions of "My Valuable Hunting Knife" and "Game Of Pricks", highlights of the otherwise indigestible (i.e. too weird for me) "Alien Lanes" album, both of which (the latter especially) are testament to the skewed pop genius GBV mainman Robert Pollard can magick up when he really wants to. "Dodging Invisible Rays" is another dollop of tunefulness, this time from the pen of Pollard’s sometime sidekick Tobin Sprout. The other three tracks are a little more, uh, selective in their appeal: the titles ("Mice Feel Nice (In My Room)", "Not Good For The Mechanism" and "Kiss Only The Important Ones") probably tell you more about them than any description of the music could - although lo-fi Beefheart lite is probably an adequate rough guide for the beginner. For a GBV addict like meself, essential, otherwise stay home.

GUIDED BY VOICES Under The Bushes Under The Stars (Matador)

Guided By Voices are a trio of thirtysomethings from Dayton, Ohio, who, on "Under The Bushes Under The Stars" (their eleventh album, astonishingly) demonstrate a knack for abstract tunefulness that would have Alex Chilton turning in his torpor: over the kaleidoscopic course of these 24 tracks (plus 9 more on a limited edition bonus CD) they ramble cheerfully through comparisons with very early Pavement, a pre-stadium R.E.M. (especially in the vocals, which often suggest a younger Michael Stripe), the psychedelic daffiness of Syd’s Pink Floyd and Mercury Rev’s widescreen weirdness - a lethally intoxicating cocktail.

Despite being recorded in a 24-track studio, and being partially ‘produced’ by Kim Deal, Guided By Voices have defiantly retained a sense of wobbly lo-fi appeal that only serves to highlight the wondrousness of stunning songs such as recent single "The Official Ironmen Rally Song", mellower moments "To Remake The Young Flyer" and "Redmen And Their Wives", the almost-pop of "Drag Days" and "Man Called Aerodynamics" - song title of the year, undoubtedly - which sounds like Flying Saucer Attack would if they were produced by Phil Spector. Most tracks clock in at way under three minutes, knocking out idea after idea in a manner unheard since early Wire. In these depressing times when what used to be called indie has ended up as tacky major-label compilation fodder, Guided By Voices are a welcome blast of something truly alternative.

GUIDED BY VOICES Sunfish Holy Breakfast (Matador)

Not content with producing one of 1996’s finest long-players in the 24-track frenzy that is "Under The Bushes Under The Stars", as well as authoring a solo album each, GBV mainmen Robert Pollard and Tobin Sprout offer up a mini-album of rare singles and outtakes: ten tracks rush by in a twenty-two minute lo-fi fog. The production may be Dictaphone quality, but there’s undoubted genius in the skewed wordplay and Syd Barrett-meets-Big Star melodic perfection of songs like "Trendspotter Acrobat", "A Contest Featuring Human Beings" and "The Winter Cows". Not the best album with which to get acquainted with Guided By Voices’ maverick ways (that honour still belongs to "Under The Bushes Under The Stars"), but for those of us already addicted "Sunfish Holy Breakfast" is the perfect wake-up bomb.

GUIDED BY VOICES Mag Earwhig! (Matador)

The mighty Guided By Voices return with what GBV mainstay Robert Pollard apparently describes as his ‘pop’ album. Which it is, if pop albums routinely feature twenty-one tracks, many under ninety seconds in length, with titles such as "Choking Tara" and "The Colossus Crawls West". There also appears to have been some personnel shifting going on: if rumours are to be believed Tobin Spout has left the band (even though he plays on at least five tracks here) and has been replaced by a quartet called Cobra Verde (strangely enough also the title of an ultra-limited GBV 7" single not included here).

So, a pop album, then? Well, sometimes. There’s the occasional appearance of Fantastic Tunes, specifically the laid-back but hummable "Sad If I Lost It", the frankly incredible Teenage Fanclub circa "Bandwagonesque" stomp of "I Am A Tree", the glam-out fuzzed up "Bulldog Skin" (which includes lines like "I took a car/And drove it far/I dug the quality of steel/I crashed my nerve/I made it swerve/I made it back - was no big deal/I tasted blood/A date with scud/And now I don’t know what to feel" which may make you wonder just what films Pollard’s been watching recently) and the more innocent charms of "Not Behind The Fighter Jet", "Learning To Hunt" and "Jane Of The Waking Universe". But there’s also, er, the rest, which you’d have to be, uh, a dedicated Guided By Voices fan to appreciate fully. I personally have no problems with the likes of "The Old Grunt", "I Am Produced" and "Are You Faster?", but some may find them a little low on attractive features such as melody and coherence, and point to the NME’s (not inaccurate) description of them as "Mulligan and O’Hare on prescription downers".

Some commentators have noted that, what with Pavement having gone all commercial (all things being relative, of course) the time of GBV is now. I wouldn’t deny that this thirtysomething ex-schoolteacher from Ohio deserves all the fame and fortune his delightfully unhinged and scratchy musics should, in a receptive world, bestow upon him, but "Mag Earwhig!", fine as it is, isn’t the album that will do it. That was last year’s magnificent "Under The Bushes Under The Stars", which sold about six copies. But if you seek refuge from the lowest-common-denominator pre-packaged glop that all too often these days ‘indie’ seems a generic term for, I prescribe a dose of GBV to restore faith in the gloriously loopy arts of confounding and confusion.

GUIDED BY VOICES Do The Collapse (Creation)

"Do The Collapse", Guided By Voices' first album for Creation, is a blatant attempt to turn the GBV franchise into a shiny, quirky alternative pop vendor. Gone are the scratchy lo-fi production of yore, recorded using 4- and 8-track machinery: in comes Hendrix's Electric Lady studio and producer Ric Ocasek, formerly of The Cars, who buffs up 17 of the less remarkable songs of Robert Pollard's productive career with layers of college rock gloss and polish. It’s almost as if GBV want to be accepted into the same quirky league as the likes of They Might Be Giants or Ben Folds Five, and as a result "Do The Collapse" suffers greatly.

There's nothing unpleasant or jarring here, and for a GBV album that represents a serious departure. There are moments that could almost pass for lighter-swaying stadium ballads - "Hold On Hope", for example, which features a string quartet, of all things. Some of Pollard's unique lyrical vision can still just about be determined beneath the album's shiny surface, taking a worm's eye view of life on "Wormhole" or the self-explanatory (or possibly self-unexplanatory) "An Unmarketed Product". But equally at no point whilst listening to "Do The Collapse" will you feel like you've just stepped into an empty lift shaft (the lurching intro to "Man Called Aerodynamics" from GBV's career best "Under The Bushes, Under The Stars" album) or discovered a secret hoard of previously unheard Big Star tunes (the melody-dripping "I Am A Tree", to be found on Guided's previous long-player "Mag Earwhig"). In fact, "Do The Collapse" sounds like a Guided By Voices album with everything that makes Guided By Voices albums so appealing and nourishing airbrushed out. Which, from a man with as much excess talent to burn as Robert Pollard, is a shame.

GUIDED BY VOICES Isolation Drills (TVT)

The first Guided By Voices album to be released since the band's Creation deal imploded when Alan McGee scuppered the label and took all his toys back home (a happening that adequately illustrates just why Guided By Voices will never be famous), "Isolation Drills" snuck out earlier this year with such minimal publicity that I only became aware of it when the vinyl version limped into Diverse's catalogue a few months later.

Despite suffering such an inauspicious start in life "Isolation Drills" is actually quite a good album. Last time around, on their solitary Creation Records product "Do The Collapse", the production, by The Cars' Rick Ocasek, sprayed a sugary frosting over proceedings that was somewhat at odds with Guided By Voices' defiantly lo-fi aesthetic, resulting in one of the least satisfying entries in their sprawling discography. "Isolation Drills" is helmed by Rob Schnapf, who has worked with Beck and Elliott Smith (the latter contributes keyboards to a couple of tracks here, which is about as star-studded as Guided By Voices albums get), and he seems to have been content to just record the sound of a band playing their tunes, with minimal varnishing of the resultant noise. (The Soldier String Quartet, who appeared on "Do The Collapse", contribute again here, but they're subtly deployed; none of the syrupy waterfalls beloved of tenth-rate indie bands attempting to embellish their substandard tat here!)

While nothing on "Isolation Drills" stretches itself anywhere near the mountainous heights of Robert Pollard's finest past achievements (he hasn't written a genuinely great song since "I Am A Tree", from 1997's "Mag Earwhig!") there's much that is pleasant here, if you accept the limitation that the best GBV can offer these days is a kind of slightly off-kilter alt-rock guitar jangle, as opposed to the craggy ejector-seat dynamics of old favourites such as "Man Called Aerodynamics". A handful of tracks ("Glad Girls", "The Brides Have Hit Glass") recapture the kind of chunky power-pop and rippling, textured electric guitars (sound so thick you can practically chew on it!) that Big Star pioneered throughout their seminal first two albums, and the bridge of "Skills Like This" tugs pleasantly at Super Furry Animals' "Ysbeidiau Heulog". And amidst all the heavily encoded gibberish that normally constitutes Robert Pollard's lyrics the text of "How's My Drinking?" shines like a lighthouse ("I don't care about being sober…Leave me die…I won't change"): his beer consumption is the stuff of indie legend, and amidst the credits we learn that 'alcohol management' was handled by 'Jack Shit'. Hmmm.

So "Isolation Drills" is a perfectly passable Guided By Voices album; no "Under The Bushes Under The Stars", but not an unmitigated disaster. But it's hard to imagine anyone other than a hardened GBV obsessive being interested either way.

Tobin Sprout