The White Album, Done Right

How Guided by Voices took The Beatles back to school

In many ways, The Beatles (aka The White Album) was the most diverse, the most divisive, and the most enduring of the band’s albums.

Certainly there are more “weak songs” on The Beatles, if only because there are so many songs. Being their only double album, the math isn’t helping. Still, I find the album to be their most awkward, and perhaps their most lazy. It’s certainly a period in which they were known to be on their worst behavior in the studio.

When I listen to Alien Lanes, my thought is that it does sound a lot like the Beatles. In a sense, it’s the album I imagine them making if they’d never actually made it into a studio. And had 24 hours to make the album.

Listening to the music through headphones can be a jarring experience. It was presumably recorded on an audiocasette-based 4-track recorder, and its overbearing compression and lack of proper equipment grounding bring all sorts of bizarre noises to the foreground.

No other track by Guided By Voices arrests your attention and sticks in your head like A Salty Salute. To me, this is the most penultimate GBV track, but then again that could be because it was the first one I heard. It’s a very hypnotic start for the album, balancing itself almost exclusively on a single chord.

After the first 15 seconds, you don’t really know what to expect. We’re hearing the worst of home recording. Then the faders go up, bringing all kinds of weird noise, and the vocals and guitar take it away.

Pollard loved to hear his voice in that echo-y sound and he had a nickname for it.

The low quality of the audio is borderline comical. And this was a studio extravaganza, compared to their prior albums.

Evil Speakers is so downright bizarre and such a jump from the previous track’s feel that you right away think it might be an accident. The rhythm guitar seems as if it’s being struck by a drumstick held by a semi-rhythmic toddler.

Watch Me Jumpstart should be the theme to a movie. I would love to hear McCartney lay a bassline to that.

Thing is, if you count the tracks, this album is only three shorter than The Beatles. It’s basically a double album, made by someone who only had enough tape for 40 minutes.

Not until Game of Pricks does a track get a McCartney-esque treatment. It’s worth the wait. As with many aspects of this album, the essentials really stand out if only because that’s all that there is.

A Good Flying Bird compresses the very essence of the Sixties into one frantic, single-guitar-driven minute-and-seven-seconds.

The way that Pimple Zoo disappears into a wrong note, just at the very right instant, as it’s fading out but hasn’t actually finished. The way the song transitions from one style to the next is very reminiscent of many mixes on The Beatles.

The combination of Auditorium and Motor Away are a three-minute concept album. The highest level of art rock. The attack of Motor Away seems to drive the recording down with the weight of a slightly below-key guitar attack. The lyrics perfectly complement the sound.

You are rewarded well for flipping the album, with one of the most in-your-face tracks on the album. They waste no time.

The King and Caroline… what’s with that vocal dropping out? “seeeeelllllllll….” Such an emotional track, somehow a minute and a half long. How do they get away with this? Even the epic Striped White Jets is shorter than a typical Sixties pop song.

Did anyone know Ex-Supermodel was even being recorded?

Chicken Blows? Pollard has the ability to turn a joke into a masterpiece.

You could have given Little Whirl to Cheap Trick and it would have been a 1977 hit.

Always Crush Me, the presumed throwaway.

Is Alright the first track in reverse? Or rewritten? Or revisited?

I didn’t realize when it came out what a gem it was. But it’s an album that only gets better with time, and couldn’t possibly sound more authentic.

Designer in Portland, Oregon. Wife Kandace, daughters Zoë and Greta. Partner at Needmore Designs, and eternal optimist.

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