Under The Bushes Under The Stars was the last Guided By Voices with the “classic” lineup: Robert Pollard, Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Greg Demos and Kevin Fennell. Some would say it was the last “true” Guided By Voices albums.
Released in 1996, it is the sound of a band changing in some respects, but maybe it is really a more realized effort of a band hitting its stride. No one should argue that Bee Thousand isn’t GBV’s finest album to date (except for Pollard, the group’s mercurial leader who claimed that Half Smiles of the Decomposed, the last album he recorded under the GBV moniker, was the album he truly always wanted to make, and that with it completed, he was hanging up the GBV name…), and that’s true. Bee Thousand is Guided By Voices finest work, but many an album comes close. With such a wealth of material, it is amazingly worthwhile to check out whatever you can – and especially some of the albums panned by fans or critics, or both.
Under The Bushes Under The Stars would largely retain the lo-fi sound of earlier GBV records, though it had been recorded in the most professional of settings the band had worked in yet. There are a few tracks that sound more polished, but by and large, tracks like “Cut-Out Witch” and “Man Called Aerodynamics” and “To Remake The Young Flyer” still have the lo-fi charm and sensibility that GBV were known for.
One of the reasons I have always like Under The Bushes is the wealth of good songs versus the lack of strange little sound collages and unfinished ideas. Now, to be a GBV is to love the strange little sound collages and unfinished ideas, and believe me, I do. Besides, some of what you would think might fall into those categories are blissful, beautiful little 90-second pop songs, unique and wonderful and eerie all at once. But, I won’t lie – I’ve also been on the receiving end of finding one of the rare early e.p.s or an import disc and being so excited to get my hands on new GBV, only to be confused and sometimes let down by the lack of the really catchy 90-second indie rock I love so much.
Under The Bushes delivers on the promise of Pollard and Co., though, and does so in spades. Over 24 tracks – only three longer than 3:00 – GBV delivers the goods again, and again, and again.
One of the highlights are the back-to-back “The Official Ironmen Rally Song” and “To Remake The Young Flyer.” Where “Ironmen” is chimey Brit-rock channeled through a little R.E.M., “Flyer” is more moody, introspective rocker. Where “Ironmen” charges ahead, “Flyer” is restrained. Pollard gets his British kicks on, while Tobin writes a small journey that sounds like a story. I would pay good money to hear The Who cover the first, and The Beatles cover the second.
“No Sky” continues the tradition of incredibly catchy power-pop-styled rock wrapped up in lo-fi charm. “You Name Is Wild” doesn’t do such a job of hiding it’s treats – it jumps right out at you, grabs you by the throat and takes you along for the ride, even with the rough-sounding production (which isn’t really that rough).
In fact, “No Sky” kicks off a set of classic Guided By Voices material – short, strange lo-fi songs that pull you in, and with some real gems scattered throughout, like the aforementioned “Your Name Is Wild” and the punky “Ghosts of a Different Dream.”
“Look At Them” segues into a nice Sprout-penned sound collage, “The Perfect Life.” The instantly-recognizable GBV guitar sounds pulls us from that instrumental into the irresistible “Underwater Explosions.” The next track, another Tobin Sprout tune called “Atom Eyes,” sounds a bit in the guitars like a precursor for “Unspirited” from Isolation Drills. And that is the beauty of Pollard and his crew’s craft – the pen familiar, hummable, kick ass rock songs.
King Shit and the Golden Boys crop up on “Don’t Stop Now,” and by this point in the disc, if you haven’t learned to love the terse arrangements and the many songs that are gems on this disc, you’re probably not going to be much of a Guided By Voices fan.
The charm of Under The Bushes is the way it takes the best attributes of Guided By Voices early years and classic lineup and maximizes them, while minimizing the weaknesses of the band. It’s also really interesting to think of what this album might have sounded in the hands of the Cobra Verde-backed version of Guided By Voices. A song like “Big Boring Wedding” would’ve turned into a massive arena rock anthem, but would’ve lost a lot of its charm. Songs like “It’s Like Soul Man” and “To Remake The Young Flyer” and “Atom Eyes” wouldn’t exist without Tobin Sprout, who really stands out as a fine, accomplished songwriter alongside Bob Pollard here – part of the reason why Bob wanted to reinvent the band, position himself as the sole creative force.
The overall sound of the record sounds like a band trying to make a play for some radio airplay, perhaps, but as I said, this does a lot to maximize some of this band’s best qualities. It truly is a fine “closing statement” for the classic lineup. And it still doesn’t sound quite fit for radio, anyway… the production was still lo-fi enough to attract long-time fans, but fresh enough to attract new ears, too.
After writing this, I've come to the conclusion that I'm not doing this record justice. Under The Bushes Under The Stars is special because it encapsulates a time in the history of Guided By Voices where big change was on the horizon, and everyone in the band knew it. Pollard wanted to taste some form of superstardom, and this was the best he was going to get out of the current band he had backing him up. And... it wasn't going to be good enough.
One of the best things about playing in a band is playing with your friends, your drinking buddies. Being holed up in the garage or basement and bashing out tune after tune. There's a camaraderie there that is unmatched and is really special. This version of Guided By Voices was comprised of Pollard's drinking buddies.
But, as with any relationship, there is tension, and sometimes things change and the relationship has to end. Here, on Under The Bushes Under The Stars, the tension leads to a more cohesive and structured album than GBV had done before. This one just flat out rocks.
It's the end of an era for the greatest indie rock band that was. They end it with style. This is another one of those GBV albums that points both forward and back - it fits nicely in the middle of the band's vast catalog of great albums. Often forgotten about, it's a masterpiece in it's own right.
So grab a sixer and let Dayton's true poet laurette spin you little tales of woe, joy, beer, women, and teaching grade schoolers. All while backed by the best drinking buddies a guy could have.