Alien Lanes Turns 20
“The club is open!” No other phrase out of Robert Pollard’s mouth ever rang quite so true. The once-again-former Guided By Voices frontman deals almost exclusively in the surreal, but the climactic lyric from Alien Lanes opener “A Salty Salute” is ridiculously literal coming from a band known for marathon three-hour sets anywhere American lager is swilled. The line was trotted out in 2010 when the “classic” lineup reformed for a tour. It also served as my introduction to the band: As an Ohio teenager learning the ropes of indie rock, Alien Lanes was my first GBV album. That probably informs my longstanding opinion that it’s the best of their nearly two dozen albums — your first exposure to this band changes you forever — but this thing is so ridiculously stacked with “hits” that it might have won me over even if I’d started with Bee Thousand or Propeller or Isolation Drills.
You begin to take it for granted after a while, but 28 songs in 41 minutes is insane. Some of them are fragments of songs, sure, but they’re wondrous fragments. Some of them are absurd, like “Ex-Supermodel,” a power ballad slathered in snores, and some of them end when they feel like they’re just getting started, like “Gold Hick.” But most of the songs are just short — fully formed, yet in and out with their deranged genius and on to the next one before you can stop to think. The closer you are, the quicker it hits you.
Matador Records famously paid Guided By Voices a $100,000 advance for Alien Lanes, which is comical because it’s every bit as abrasively lo-fi as the albums that preceded it. The previous year’s instant-classic Bee Thousand rocketed the band from popular home-state bar-band to world-famous rock ‘n’ roll roadshow, but newfound fame didn’t change a thing about their fucking-around-in-the-basement approach to recording. One-time GBV member (and former Spin Senior Editor) James Greer estimates that minus beer expenses this record cost about $10 to make, and you can hear every one of those dollars in the mix. Even though I’d already discovered Pavement by the time I heard Alien Lanes, the sound quality was shocking, hilarious, revolutionary. Every kid who discovers underground music at some point has a moment of inspiration when they realize some practice tapes stitched together all collage-like can constitute an album. Alien Lanes was that moment for me. It’s at least as ballsy as a paunchy ex-jock school teacher trying to pass himself off as a rock star, and just as successful.
Back to the songs, though. Holy hell there are a lot of great ones here. Among the highlights: The slow-motion stampedes “Watch Me Jumpstart” and “Motor Away.” The spunky Tobin Sprout nuggets “Little Whirl” and “A Good Flying Bird.” The primal “My Valuable Hunting Knife” and the utterly civilized “Blimps Go 90.” The gently swaying “As We Go Up, We Go Down” and the aggressively surly drunk-uncle lament “Pimple Zoo.” The ultimate beer-chug fist-pumps “Alright” and “Game Of Pricks” (my personal favorite GBV track). And to start things off, “A Salty Salute,” a 90-second masterpiece the Strokes found so inspiring that it fundamentally altered their Velvet Underground worship. Pollard, Sprout, and the rest of the Northridge boys were peaking; there’s less chaff than on any other GBV record, and even the chaff could pass for wheat. A lot of people love the Doug Gillard/Cobra Verde iteration of Guided By Voices, but there’s a reason everybody called this mid-’90s version the classic lineup. It’s the gold standard in intoxicated-visionary psych-pop scrapbooking.
Alien Lanes turns 20 this Saturday, and Guided By Voices fans are nothing if not obsessive, so let’s obsess together. What’s your favorite track on Alien Lanes? (Perhaps you want to rank them from 1-28?) How does it stack up in your own personal GBV hierarchy? Were you lucky enough to catch the band live during this era? Motor away to the comments and let’s jumpstart the conversation.