Guided By Voices Tribute Album Puts St. Louis Talent on Display

click to enlarge Guided by Voices tribute album Keep It in Motion features several St. Louis bands and was conceived and compiled by Matt Harnish of Bunnygrunt. - COURTESY OF EVAN SULT
Courtesy of Evan Sult
Guided by Voices tribute album Keep It in Motion features several St. Louis bands and was conceived and compiled by Matt Harnish of Bunnygrunt.

Though indie group Guided By Voices began as a shambling bar band, over the years it has become one of tightest and most ferocious live bands in the country. It’s also one of the most prolific and varied in its stylings.

Robert Pollard and his shifting circle of musicians have released 30-plus albums since forming in 1983. Some say that when you tally all his solo records and side projects, he’s written over 2,400 songs. The group’s other songwriter, Tobin Sprout, has contributed some gorgeous eccentric and folk-tinged songs to the discography. There are different incarnations of the band. Some records are lo-fi, others more polished.

You can locate fans of Guided by Voices in the upper reaches of Hollywood and Washington, D.C. You can find them throughout music clubs in America and Europe. As you might imagine, there are dedicated Guided By Voice fans here in St. Louis, especially among our fair city’s indie rock artists.

Several of these bands — Trauma Harness, Sleepy Kitty, Finn’s Motel, Bunnygrunt — have chosen to pay homage to Guided By Voices. Along with other indie rock artists from Texas, Virginia, New York City and the United Kingdom, they have contributed their spins on Guided By Voices songs to a new compilation Keep It in Motion: A Tribute to Guided By Voices Circa 20 Something and 12.

It's an effort that could not have found a better audience than with me.

Excuse me while I share my conversion story.

Late June in the year of our Lord 1994. I’ve returned to the Midwest college town where I attended graduate school. I’ve only been gone a year, yet it’s essential that I stop by the three record shops on the pedestrian mall and ask the savvy clerks what new music they’re excited about.

One of them hands me Bee Thousand by Guided By Voices. I don’t know where to even begin, he says.

Driving back to St. Louis, I slide Bee Thousand into my disc player. With the first two tracks I’m wondering if maybe this album was recorded in a laundromat bathroom. Are the songs supposed to be this … brief? Also, are these guys still learning to play their instruments?

Then tracks three, four and five (“Tractor Rape Chain,” “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory,” “Hot Freaks”). I listen, go back and relisten to these same three again. A dawning awareness. Then a realization.

It’s not only that this Dayton, Ohio, band is playing music born out of the British Invasion. It’s that they’ve taken British Invasion music and turned it into their own sprawling carnival. More importantly, the carnival is haunted in ways that are beautiful and uncanny. Other tracks on Bee Thousand prove conclusively that, even with the lo-fi production, this band truly rocks.

Listening to Keep it in Motion — so named for an 2012 single — over the span of a few weeks, I recaptured something of my original conversion. I can happily report that it also truly rocks.

The album was conceived and compiled by Matt Harnish of Bunnygrunt, who zeroed in on 2012 as a particularly rich year for Guided By Voices — a year the band’s two songwriters, Pollard and Sprout, reconvened, and the original players reassembled. That year Guided By Voices released three albums containing some of the group’s best and perhaps most overlooked songs.

Harnish understood, wisely, that it was much better to feature work from this era of the Guided By Voices catalog instead of trying to cover classic albums, an endeavor that would ultimately have satisfied no one. He sent out invitations to artists who shared his deep love for Guided By Voices. Once a band said yes, he encouraged them choose which song to cover.

The result is a rich and vibrant collection. I was struck by Sleepy Kitty’s soaring, Lennon-esque version of “Blue Babbleships Bay” and by Good Grief’s skillful, pounding, melodic cover of “Doughnut For A Snowman/Chocolate Boy.” Many of the artists channel the sacred Guided By Voices sound, while other artists — such as Franklin Bruno, bLUSH and Charity Cult — indulge in synthy and satisfying reinterpretations. Bunnygrunt provides a nimble, catchy version of Tobin Sprout’s “The Corners Are Glowing.” Let’s not forget that a Guided By Voices cover album should also be rowdy and fun. To that end, we get spirited covers from Trauma Harness and the smartly named She Bee Vee.

Keep It In Motion has a knockout album cover from visual artist Jeff Hess. One of the added joys of Guided By Voices albums is the Robert Pollard-created artwork, which takes the form of psychedelic collages. Hess’s Keep It In Motion cover combines iconic Big Wheels and folded laundry to great effect. The 12-inch vinyl comes with six additional collage covers from Guided By Voices-loving visual artists as near as St. Louis and as far away as Peru.

In both artwork and music, Keep It In Motion is a celebration — made by passionate fans and sent out into the world to find other passionate fans. It’s quite fitting that the album is St. Louis born. Several of Guided By Voices’ best-known early albums came from Scat Records located in our city. There’s a spirit in those Scat records that finds its way onto Keep It In Motion: a willingness to strut out onstage, wearing the psychedelic wardrobe, making all the grand gestures of British Invasion rock and roll. In short, living the one true dream.

Keep It in Motion: A Tribute to Guided By Voices Circa 20 Something and 12 is available for download, and for vinyl preorder, on Bandcamp.
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