In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: Our favorite songs under two minutes long.
Archiving the work of Robert Pollard is exhausting. His catalogue of songs runs well into the thousands; he releases multiple albums a year—solo or otherwise; and his output is roughly akin to that of the collected works of a dozen other artists and bands combined. This results in a prodigious discography, to be sure, but it also means there’s a lot of tossed-off chaff to separate from the genuinely inspired wheat. I gave up on trying to keep up after the initial dissolution of Guided By Voices, his primary artistic vessel for the past few decades, back in 2004. The constant flood of solo albums and eventual re-formed GBV releases was just too daunting.
On the plus side, this freed me up to go back and listen to records that had been gathering dust for years. One of these, Sandbox, was only the second album ever put out by the band, in 1987. Originally a self-released record limited to several hundred copies, it has since been reissued, both as a stand-alone recording and as part of a collection simply titled Box, containing the first four albums and a previously unreleased compilation LP.
Listening to those early records again, it’s easy to understand how the group managed to amass such a fan base (legendary live shows aside). From almost the first, Pollard’s songwriting was remarkably assured, all the disparate influences of ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s pop put through the churn of his muse and formed into short, hooky nuggets of pop-rock excellence. Like rough-hewn gems, the lo-fi recordings emanate a sense of easygoing confidence in the material, with the rough production values adding to, rather than subtracting from, the appeal.
Out of that early Sandbox recording comes “Long Distance Man,” one of the purest and sweetest pop-music confections ever crafted by the band. Armed with only an acoustic guitar, Pollard and his bandmates harmonize on a soaring melody about a guy who just won’t stop. Sounding like latter-day Beach Boys, with a little Beatle-esque tweak to the vibe (a common trait in the group’s songcraft), the track barely crosses the one-minute mark before it fades out. It’s two short verses, and three short refrains, yet it stands with the best of GBV’s music, because it sounds like it was so lovingly assembled.
Whereas many GBV songs have the feel of a few guys landing on a riff, running through it a couple times, and then calling it a day, the vocal harmonies on display here testify to the fact that nobody skimped on their contribution. It goes on just as long as it needs to, in just the way it should. If only every GBV track had this much care lavished on it, Pollard’s claim to the title of one of America’s best living songwriters would be awfully tough to challenge.