Indie Rock really should be a realm without heroes, you know? But here we are, talking about it like a thing, and we have to acknowledge that maybe there are some heroes in this thing. And Guided by Voices are true heroes of the genre. And Propeller is definitely their first proper stab at true heroics.
To provide some sort of historical context, allow me to impart what little wisdom I have about the specifics of this album as an idea. This was it. Robert Pollard (lead singer and soul constant member of Guided by Voices) was ready to give up on being a rock musician. He had racked up tens of thousands of dollars of debt recording music since the mid-'80s. It was time to have one last hurrah in the studio, pack it up and focus on teaching.
So, Pollard and co. set out to make exactly the type of record they wanted to make. Notably, this is the first GBV record to make extensive use of four-track in-home recording (a staple of later work.) They could have booked “real” studio time, but at this point, they seemed to have agreed that they preferred the messy sound. Anyway, the result for you as a listener is a record full of bizarre pops and hisses. It feels like some sort of discovered field recording.
But what of the songs themselves, you may ask. Well, I’m glad you brought it up. Pollard believed strongly in the 4-Ps of rock music: Punk, pop, psychedelic and progressive. This album is a near perfect amalgam of these sounds. The ever-looming influence of the Beatles is clearer here than it may ever be on proper releases (“Quality of Armor”). Then you’ve got this creeping darkness of some tracks that feel almost metallic (“Lethargy”). And then there’s some wacky psychedelic moments (“Weedking” and “Ergo Space Pig”). And don’t forget the collage bits–a staple of future records–appearing for the first time on this record (“Back to Saturn X Radio Report”). Also, the record features one of the finest Tobin Sprout songs in “14 Cheerleader Coldfront.” The rest of the album all tends to fall somewhere in the middle of these seemingly disparate ends of the musical spectrum.
Also worth noting: this album opens with what has to be objectively one of the best opening tracks (“Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox”) and closes with what has to be objectively one of the best closing tracks (“On the Tundra”). Everything in between is also terrific, but I think in terms of opening and closing an album, this is the best GBV ever did.
Basically, this album is the first start-to-finish classic in GBV's oeuvre. Moreover, it took the varied stew of influences that had made up the Guided by Voices sound to that point and distilled it into one distinct thing. And of course, it garnered them some attention and would lead to them making Bee Thousand and everything that followed. And while I wouldn’t say Propeller is a better album, it may in fact be a better introduction to the band.
I’m not entirely sure how easy it is to get your hand on this album by itself. I think they repressed it in 2005. It was pressed in the mid-'90s along with Vampire on Titus and they are interesting to hear side-by-side, but Propeller is so much stronger, and if sitting through Vampire on Titus is too tough, you’re going to miss out. This album’s got all flavors for all palettes. And, in this reporter’s opinion, it is the most easily digestible of the “classic” Guided by Voices records, so check it out.