Review Summary: One of the Indie classics, Bee Thousand truly is quite unique.
One of the most overlooked of the classic 90’s albums, Bee Thousand became a surprise hit for Guided by Voices in 1994. Such a hit in fact, that singer and chief songwriter Robert Pollard gave up his day job as a primary school teacher and became a full time indie rock musician. By now, Guided by Voices had been together as a band for over 10 years with little commercial success. They already had 6 albums and a few EP’s, eventually receiving small scale acclaim with albums like Propeller and Vampire on Titus. Guided by Voices’ sound hadn’t changed too much for Bee Thousand, which is why it’s so odd that it took so long for Guided by Voices to be noticed on any large scale. Nether the less, Bee Thousand has this intriguing charm to it, which is partly due to Pollard’s off beat and cryptic lyrics, the short and simple song structures and the recording technique (the album was recorded on a 4 track tape machine, a practice that gave their music the “lo-fi rock” tag).
The music on this album is something truly unique. Not the fact that each individual song is different from anything else out there, but it’s how the songs work together to make up the album. Each song flows effortlessly into the next, and there is no silence in between them. (If you have read my Alien Lanes review, you’ll hopefully understand what I mean). Each song is truly un-skippable and as catchy as a baseball player with a giant mitt. However, even among an album of highlights there are still numerous stand outs, those of which I will be reviewing in depth. The album starts with the song Hardcore UFO’s
which is one of the best songs in Guided by Voices’ discography. The song feels a lot longer than it is, starting with a simple pattern of the bass drum and some bright guitar work over it, then in less than a minute, the song explodes into an epic (which is a strange word to use for song that goes for under two minutes) rocker and is a fantastic introduction to the album. Right from the first track, the production is instantly noticeable, with the sound warbling from the left speaker to the right, and the song has a dull (but by no means un-enjoyable) sound quality to it.
The next distinct highlight on the album is a strangely beautiful song, despite it’s ridiculous title. Tractor Rape Chain
starts with an acoustic guitar, accompanied by studio chatter. Not long after, there is an awkward switch to a distorted electric playing a distinct lead part over accompanying bass, guitar and drums. Pollard starts singing what appears to be a love song until the wonderfully cryptic chorus comes in, which is almost impossible to not sing along to. This remains a fan (and my personal) favourite Guided by Voices song, and though they have since disbanded, Robert Pollard still performs it live with his backing band.
The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory
is an emotional acoustic song that sounds like it was recorded in a hall, and for all that is known about the album, probably was. It would be a rather touching song if the lyrics made any obvious sense, but is still no doubt a highlight of the album. Smothered In Hugs
is another personal favourite of mine, and is one of the most lo-fi songs on the album, and Pollard sounds strangely muffled, like he is singing from miles away. Musically, it’s in a similar vein to Tractor Rape Chain and likewise has a similar kind of beauty to it. Right before the 3 minute mark, it fades out and then Yours to Keep
creeps out of the speakers. It is the second entirely acoustic song on the album and one of the most emotional songs on the album, and it’s also very fun and easy to play on guitar and sing along to. Right at the end of the song, it kicks straight into Echos Myron
. The transition is so quick that Echos Myron actually starts in the last split second of Yours to Keep. Echos Myron is probably the most catchy and upbeat song on the album. It is also a good example of the classic rock vibe that Pollard is obsessed with and despite lines like “and we’re finally here, and *** yeah it’s cool, and shouldn’t it be, or something like that” it could have easily been written by The Who. An odd thing is that the song doesn’t have the noticeable lo-fi elements that the rest of the album has, but this isn’t instantly apparent and isn’t too much of an issue. Gold Star For Robot Boy
is the fourth consecutive standout track and is one of the shortest and fastest songs on the album. Despite this, it is still a heavily enjoyable and memorable rock song. Pollards voice is excellent here, and is easily the most highlight of the track. It, like a growing number of songs on this album, has an almost emotional tone to it, but again, the strange and quirky lyrics imply otherwise.
is a song entirely by Tobin Sprout, whose presence in Guided by Voices was often overshadowed by Pollard’s. It’s a calm song, and the vocals are soothing, uplifting and slightly hypnotic. There is noticeable studio chatter in the middle, which seems to be deliberate due to it’s placement over the vocal break. It’s one of the few songs on the album to have somewhat of a solo. Queen of Cans and Jars
is one of the most distinct highlights, it’s bleeding lead guitar ringing throughout the song. It is structured like a typical indie rock song (i.e. not like most Guided by Voices songs). The vocals are very quiet compared to the rest of the album and don’t really add too much, but the focus of the song is more on the instruments. I want to take the time to acknowledge Kicker of Elves
for it’s sheer lunacy and the sing along line of “dee dee dee dee dee dee dee kicker of elves!”. After this absurdity is Ester's Day
, which is unfortunately a forgotten gem on the album, and it has only been played live several times. It is essentially two songs, starting with some kind of keyboard riff and some singing, then stops and goes into a hopeful acoustic passage, in which Tobin Sprout sings, and his voice is quite clear in comparison to Mincer Ray.
I Am A Scientist
is one of the best of the standout tracks on the album, it has a memorable guitar line and Pollard’s vocals truly are superb here. It is also one of Guided by Voice’s most well known songs, and it’s clear why: the song just begs you to sing along and the lyrics are the most direct and straight forward on the album. Peephole
is the last standout track here, and is the most lo-fi, with the volume randomly and quickly changing and the sound wobbling from one speaker to the other. It’s entirely acoustic, just Bob and his guitar. It has all the feel of a last track, but You're Not An Airplane
does a better job of sending the listener into the realm of silence, a strangely odd sensation after an album of hiss, noise and non-stop bliss.
If you are still wondering why Bee Thousand is a classic, let me sum it up for you:
Bee Thousand was made with no intention of being huge in any way. It completely caught Pollard and his crew off guard and propelled them into Indie stardom. There’s a humble and quirky quality to the album, in it’s name, lyrics, music and production values that nearly anyone with an open mind and a taste for melody can enjoy. For anyone who disliked this album on the first listen, I strongly recommend listening to it again with this review in mind: it’s just that good.