Review Summary: Guided By Voices decide it's time for one last triumphant roar, and in doing so put themselves on the path to greatness
For those unaware of Guided By Voices much mythologized history; the central songwriting, 30-something 4th grade teacher and practically alcoholic force of Robert Pollard made albums on a four track recorder in various garages across 80s Dayton, Ohio with a constantly revolving backing band of close friends - although collaborator Tobin Sprout soon became a fixture, along with the rest of the 'classic' lineup. He was seen as a bit of a local eccentric who would spend his days teaching, recording, writing and collaging; he's possibly one of the most prolific writers around, and the label BMI holds 1600 songs registered to his name - by his own admission he could write about five songs on the toilet, and three of them would be good.
They would pay for these albums to be released in a very limited number of pressings and never really got much attention for their work, so Pollard decided sometime during 1991 that they would call it quits after their next record and he would go into full time teaching - likely due to mounting debts and lack of any worthwhile success.
So Propeller was to be their fond farewell to their world of lo-fi music recording, and this feeling is present throughout the album. From the ironic and legendary opening to the last gasp of it's final moments, there is an element of conclusion and catharsis weaved throughout the album. But it almost seems that GbV unwittingly perfected the formula they had been searching for on previous releases during the recording of propeller, and finally began to recognize lo-fi as a strong aesthetic rather than a hindrance.
They successfully synthesized all their greatest strengths from previous outings in order to strengthen their 'final' album while also incorporating a newfound mastery of their 'limitations' that allowed them to flip these 'limitations' on their head and turn them into a way of 'sound-collaging' - a system that allowed them to channel moments of pure, passionate rock'n'roll song craft and present these on tape.
So if Propeller was meant to be a farewell, it ended up sounding like a calling card. A declaration of intent. A statement of what they were capable of and what they would be able to achieve in the future.
But Pollard and co. stuck firm to their original decision, printing 500 copies (each one famously adorned with different artwork and hand painted) and then supposedly calling it a day.
Of course that wasn't the end of GbV, it's likely if this was their final album then I might never have heard it, and I dread to think of some parallel reality where this was the end and Pollard lived out the rest of his days as an eccentric and alcohol guzzling 4th grade teacher.
Ironically enough this was the only of the early GbV release to generate significant buzz, and in doing so coaxed the reinvigorated Pollard and co. back into the studio (i.e. the garage) newly blessed with his mastery of their faithful four track - the rest, I suppose, is history now.
I truly can't imagine a scenario where Propeller is the conclusive GbV release, because they finally found their way and the album is considered by many as the start of their legend. Take the famous beginning for example, a crowd rabidly chanting:
"GbV! GbV! GbV!" etc etc.
While the band setup and prepare, drummer Don Thrasher exuberantly shouts:
"Everybody ready to rock!"
Pollard replies with:
"This song does not, rock."
And the song begins. Is this ironic? In the face of their final recording do they wish to begin it presented as a proper arena band like their british invasion influences? GbV themselves created the chant in the studio and at this point hadn't played live in half a decade (and such gigs were never populated with more than a handful of people). If so the chant is lovable but ultimately somber, almost an admittance of defeat, an acceptance of the inevitable and a construction of a fantasy world where they are rock stars.
Or, is this chant prophetic of their confidence in their ability? The idea that one day they will make legions of fans lovingly chant their name and that, on propellor, they have finally arrived - in their actual 'final' farewell gig of 2004 (discounting their later reunion) the chant was recreated, adding to this idea (along with Pollard's poignant cry of "I'm much greater than you think!".
The likelihood is that it is both, and neither. GbV are one of those bands that can be analyzed and interpreted in many ways and from many different perspectives, but any conclusions granted from such explorations into their sound were likely far from Pollard's intent. Most elements of a GbV record are literally just what the band thought 'sounded good', but the realization of this does not invalidate interpretations or decrease enjoyment - it likely encourages both factors.
But anyway all that chunk of text is basically meant to convey the idea that Propellor sounds really really good, it sounds full of pure life and uncensored, unadulterated rock'n'roll freedom. Pretty much every song is either a singalong-like-there's-no-tomorrow or air-guitar-like-a-freak, or a combination of both. The songwriting has been honed to perfection, the guitars are piercing but just fuzzy enough to be considered gorgeous, the drumming and bass-work brilliantly compliments every riff and the singing and vocal melodies are exceptional (I've always fallen for the power in Pollard's voice) - every facet of it's execution is sincere and memorable, riddled with feeling.
GbV have always been good at album openers (I'm thinking the world creation of 'Hardcore UFOs', the instantly catchy 'A salty salute' and the tone setting 'Wished I was a giant') but 'over the neptune sea/mesh gear fox' might just be their best, it's long (which is very strange) and goes through many twists and turns but ends on a climax so euphoric that you just can't wait for the rest of the album to begin.
The album then speeds through gems of rock brilliance, and Propellor is by far GbV's most rocking album. 'Quality of armor' speeding away with it's own ecstatic joy, and 'Unleashed! The large hearted boy' is a punkish slice of pure excellence. But if I was going to start recommending track I'd be here all day, so all I'll say is Propeller flies from one slice of spine-tingling rock to the next with ecstatic joy.
Abnormally for GbV is that most of the album was recorded in a proper (albeit limited) studio, but then (like usual) it was lovingly '***ed with' by the band to add their own degree of childish glee to the tracks - in this aspect their mastery of lo-fi techniques shines through.
This album is testament to the idea that when GbV are on form, no one equals them. The pure magic of their songs suck you up and spits you out wanting more, and it IS magic at its best - at its worst it's an admirable effort from a band who can't help but sound full of childish, lovable glee.
Before overproduction and lack of quality control sucked the best parts out of them in their later life, GbV began with this soaring and searing statement of simply spectacular songs - ranging from the truly epic (yes, I use that word seriously) to the truly intimate (although intimate songs were largely explored later). A rough diamond that's rough edges make it all that more lovable, rock'n'roll condensed into it's finest moments, a bunch of friends having fun by making great music.
Aside from being a great album of songs, and a great album in terms of aesthetic and concept, it was the beginning of their legend - 'Back to Saturn X radio' even collages unused songs together that would (famously) pop up later on in the GbV timeline.
So while GbV's underdog story is often romanticized (because it is a tale so easy to romanticize), it's still a life affirming and enjoyable fact that the story is romanticized justly on the back of the evidence of the immensely enjoyable music they created.
And Propeller is the album that we romanticize the most, and I can honestly see why. But as the guitar's erupt and the melodies sing sweetly despite the roughness of each, you will forget everything but the brilliance of the music at hand. Bravo.
"GbV! GbV! GbV!" etc etc.