Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Track Attack- "Awful Bliss" (Guided by Voices)

Even for fans of the Dayton-based Guided by Voices, listening through entire albums can be a slog. LPs from the Robert Pollard fronted group routinely feature 20 songs, moving from 3 minute British-Invasion hook-fests to 18-second scrawls at a whirlwind pace. It's a near impossible pace to keep up with as a band, let alone as a listener. Just as you're settling into the environs of a song, learning your surroundings, the rug is viciously yanked out from under you. You're shooed off to another corner of the GBV funhouse that will be broken down by morning and taken to another town. Any appreciating on your part needs to be done in the moment.

Few songs in the Guided By Voices canon do as much rug-yanking or deserve as much appreciation as Bee Thousand-centerpiece "Awful Bliss". The record at large was the one that finally broke the band into the "Big Leagues," the album that took them out of beer-soaked Ohio basements and firmly placed them at the forefront of the nascent "lo-fi movement" with the likes of Pavement and Sebadoh. For the first time audiences were able to hear the immense songcraft hidden under the hissing four-tracks and "sloppy" musicianship. Robert Pollard wasn't some school-teacher turned rock-kook, he was Paul McCartney or Pete Townsend on a micro-budget. A cost-conscious Ray Davies. And in guitarist Tobin Sprout, Pollard found his: John Lennon, Roger Daltrey, or Dave Davies. Sprout had been in the consistently shifting line-up since 1992's Propeller and had multiple writing credits to his name, but the relatively underwhelming "Gleemer (The Deeds of Fertile Jim)" was his sole "solo-effort." That changed on Bee Thousand which saw Sprout author 4 of the record's 20 tunes.

And while "Ester's Day", "Mincer Ray", and closing piano-balled "You're Not An Airplane" are all laudatory works, Sprout's "Awful Bliss" is the one that deserves to become an epitaph. Sandwiched between goofy rallying-cry "Gold Star for Robot Boy" and the aforementioned "Mincer Ray" and coming in at a 1:12, it's a "blink and you might miss it" type of work. Granted the acoustic playing Sprout does is so hypnotic that blinking becomes a Herculean-labor. Sweet and self-assured, it's the sort of figure that'd be considered "pastoral" or "folksy" if it arose in another time and place.

Such sweetness can only be guaranteed in the strum however. Sprout's voice is diffident at best. He takes brutally long pauses between key phrases and double-tracks himself just to warble the chorus. When parsing the scant lyrics "Awful Bliss" has to offer, the apprehension becomes understandable. He's fully stuck on someone he can't have. A friend or perhaps former lover that's now heading down a vibrantly white-aisle, while he waits alone in a dark hallway. His mention of "the other ones that you could've wed" certainly includes himself as a candidate, the fabled "one that got away." And though he'd love to play pretend forever, he knows he can't. Sitting around and daydreaming about what might've been can only bring out the titular "awful bliss." "No I wouldn't dare to bring out this awful bliss," he croaks over and over again until the mesmerizing chords lift their spell in a flash. As painful as it can be, a part of loving someone can mean letting them go.

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