Music Features

Happy Anniversary... Bee Thousand

I’m not happy with dream pop. No, I don’t have any problem with the music itself – in fact, I’m a big fan of much of what we label “dream pop.” It’s how we use the name “dream pop” and the type of music we associate with being “dreamy” or “dream-like” that has become problematic for me. Typically, “dream pop” is marked by having pretty, ethereal, often serene qualities, like you’re supposed to feel a humble, gentle lead floating down a peaceful river as angels coo you lullabies. It’s a very pleasant and nice appropriation of the genre’s name that I feel is terribly unfitting, and I’m finally ready to call all of us out on it.

Why, exactly? Well, let’s bring back that floating leaf scenario again and let me ask you this: when was the last time you had a dream like this? When was the last time you slept and dreamt of floating down a river or standing atop a mountain or any of the other things they tell you to think of in yoga class? We often describe dream pop as being beautiful and serene, but all of us know that dreams are nothing like this. In reality, dreams are disjointed and bizarre, incomprehensible and more than a little jarring. They often contain things and scenarios that resemble something familiar to us – a childhood memory, the office of your day job, the last episode of a show you watched – but framed or twisted in a way that completely transforms it, often in ways you don’t even notice until you wake up. For instance, what if you’re sitting in your sophomore year chemistry class, only your teacher is now Richard Gere and the guy next to you keeps telling you that everything smells like bacon… and you’re fine with all of this?

My point is that while much of we call “dream pop” is certainly pretty and ethereal, few albums have ever really captured the strange, uncomfortable experience of dreaming. In fact, the only album I know that comes close to properly recreating the sensation of dreaming was made not by a stylish band with a penchant for foot pedals, but by a band of middle-age indie rockers twenty years ago who just came off a bad losing streak and crafted something totally unique. Bee Thousand is often remembered as the quintessential “lo-fi” album of the 90’s and the ultimate answer to where “indie” would go in a decade where what was once considered to be indie was now popular music, but Guided By Voices' magnum opus amounts to much more than just a poorly recorded rock record – rather, it showed how modest recording limitations, a willingness to forgive any mistake, and an unparalleled creative spark can be used to create a world as dreamy, nonsensical, and memorable as you can imagine.

Of course, I speak of all this theoretical stuff as if Robert Pollard and co. had this whole idea of harnessing the power of lo-fi to construct their own bewildering dreamscape planned right from the beginning, but history shows that this most likely wasn’t the case. Rather, Bee Thousand was the result of a hardworking, down-and-out Ohio band saying, “fuck it,” after years of toiling through the local Dayton indie scene with little to no fanfare and finally deciding to make music on their own terms, only to find that this would bring them more attention than the studios ever did. Starting with Propeller, their initially intended swan song, ditching the studios and going lo-fi became the calling card not just for GBV, but for an entire generation of indie artists wishing to make music more raw and personal than what the major labels were touting as “indie” to the masses, and it’s the aesthetic that would color GBV for the rest of their career.

But Bee Thousand still stands out as a completely unique experience, not just when compared to the lo-fi music of contemporaries like Sebadoh, The Mountain Goats, and The Magnetic Fields, but to anything in their own expansive catalogue as well. Their first two lo-fi records, for instance, display two sides to GBV’s approach to lo-fi pop: Propeller is a collection of anthemic power pop coated in a buzzy grit that mostly leaves out experimentation (save for the awkward Frankenstein track Back to Saturn X Radio Report), while the follow up, the fascinating-yet-perplexing Vampires On Titus, is the most crudely recorded of their output and can be difficult to penetrate, especially when any semblance of a hook needs to be unearthed from a tar pit of tape hiss. Bee Thousand, in a sense, finds a nice middle ground between the pop heroics of the former and the rusted strangeness of the latter, but nevertheless, it becomes something completely different – and completely more special – in the process.

One thing that should be said is that no matter how surreal things get during Bee Thousand, it wouldn’t be appropriate to call it “experimental” music because Robert Pollard is physically unable to stop writing catchy hooks and pop songs. Even at its most fragmented – even when a track feels only like a tenth of a full song – nearly every riff, chorus, and vocal melody on Bee Thousand is infectious to some degree, even when presented in less conventional ways. This might not seem like a huge accomplishment if you’re at all aware of Pollard’s insanely prolific streak – the guy writes more songs while catching a bus than some of us will write in a lifetime – but there’s something about Bee Thousand’s more structurally fleshed out songs, from the cerebral, watery hooks of I Am a Scientist to the post-punk celebration of Gold Star for Robot Boy, to the outright Beatles worship of Echos Myron, that feel particularly affecting when compared to the rest of GBV’s output. It’s true that Bee Thousand doesn’t have the same hits-per-square-inch that follow-up Alien Lanes has, but Bee Thousand's strongest songs frequently manage to be much more than catchy.

That’s because what really makes Bee Thousand a truly special record and gives it that unmatched dream-sequence feel is not the catchiness of the songs, but the way in which everything is presented. While shoddy recording quality and awkward track sequencing would add at most a quaint charm to your average indie rock record, GBV harnessed these elements to shroud their music in mystery and even to toy with the listener’s perceptions much in the same way dreams do. The most obvious way Bee Thousand accomplishes this is through its cruddy, homemade sound, but what makes this aesthetic so interesting here as opposed to every other lo-fi record is how GBV sound like a completely different band based on how well certain instruments and vocal tracks are recorded. Even Pollard comes off as a completely different singer depending on how he’s recorded, as his voice, whether it’s hearty and sort-of British sounding on I Am a Scientist or more serpentine on tracks like Smothered in Hugs where he’s buried behind the guitars, never sounds exactly the same on any two tracks. The lo-fi quality of the record constantly malforms and distorts the shape and sound of GBV like few lo-fi records manage to, much like the way the faces, objects and destinations in our own dreams are not reliable to maintain form and can easily turn on us.

But perhaps the most interesting and distinct way in which GBV transforms Bee Thousand into truly spacey, weird, frightening dream pop is the scatterbrained way in which the album is constructed. Like a lot of '90s indie bands, GBV favored using strange, gnarled collages for album covers, but Bee Thousand is one of the few that really pulls this off musically. Often you’ll hear tracks – even ones as diametrically opposed to one another as the sparsely acoustic Yours to Keep and the snappy Echos Myron – cut or bleed into one another with little to no warning, creating some incredibly jarring tonal shifts and giving the album the feeling that just about anything can happen. Of course, this leaves plenty of room for some more jarring and even unsettling occurrences as well. Her Psychology Today, for instance, abruptly shifts gears multiple times, with the recording quality seemingly rising and falling with each change as well, and the floaty, warped acoustic guitar it fades in and out of suddenly at the end always gives me uneasy and unwarranted chills.

It’s Bee Thousand’s willingness to make the listener uncomfortable that makes the album even more dream-like, as the album’s ability to shift its sound and mood without warning perfectly captures the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature one sees and dreams at night. Dreams are completely unreliable worlds that can turn on us in a second and distort things in subtle ways unrecognizable to us, and in many ways GBV take this same approach to crafting music on the album – no track is guaranteed to end the same way it started, no two back-to-back tracks are guaranteed to even sound like the same band, and there’s plenty of little strange details peppered throughout that most listeners might not even pick up on at first, but when noticed sound completely out of place. There’s the guitar that suddenly unplugs halfway through Hardcore UFO’s, the tuneless, saggy recorder hoots in the divine Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory, and the studio banter and sampled blabbering that pops up through tracks like Mincer Ray and Her Psychology Today, which can compare to the chatter that can sneak into your dreams when you fall asleep with the TV on. One detail on the record – the atonal screeches that puncture Demons Are Real  is so bizarre and out of place that some believe it to be actual demon screeches haunting the record. These and countless other unexplainable Easter egg moments make the dream world that is Bee Thousand a much more real and all too vivid approximation to what the human dream world is really like.

Ultimately, I doubt this really was GBV’s intention all along. But regardless of the band's true intention, the result is that Bee Thousand is still so captivating, because it really does feel like the product of someone’s – anyone’s, really – unfiltered dreams, with all the strangeness, fogginess, and unclear meanings intact. Perhaps that’s why it can feel so completely unique yet oddly familiar when listening to it – maybe it’s something we’ve all dreamed in the past, and somehow, GBV was able to record it for us… on a crappy 4-track in an Ohio basement.