With The Great Songs series, my aim is simple: To offer up a different set of tunes as classic canon. Sometimes, the listmania that I suffer from is capitalized on by big mainstream outlets–everyone from Rolling Stone and Spin to VH1 and any number of cool British mags. Critical consensus is a dangerous thing, so while you may see a couple songs on this list that pop up on other mainstream lists of important and classic rock tunes, most of theses choices will not be there. (See past entries below this one.)
Guided by Voices is a band that fits perfectly into the idea of The Great Songs.
If you don’t know the band’s music intimately, you’ve probably heard the name if you’re a serious music fan. Robert Pollard and his rotating band of Ohio misfits put out 16 full-length records, 16 EPs, three split EPs, 15 singles, six split singles, and three box sets between 1986 – 2004, with two more posthumous boxes in later years. And that doesn’t even count Pollard’s insanely productive solo career, currently sitting at 10 solo albums just since the band broke up in 2004.
Well, the “classic line-up” of Guided by Voices is reuniting for a (too-)brief 2010 U.S. tour, so what better time to enter their most enduring number into The Great Songs?
The video above is a mashup of two great tracks from the band’s 1995 triumph “Alien Lanes.” (If you were to pick only two GbV recordings to take with you for the rest of your life, this album and its predecessor “Bee Thousand” would be the ones.) “Auditorium” makes a perfect thematic intro to “Motor Away,” and although they are attached in the video clip above, they are separate songs. “Motor Away” starts at approximately 1:10.
That in and of itself is one of the greatest things about old school GbV: brevity. “Motor Away” has two verses, two choruses, and its out. The hook is so strong and the melody so challenging that it demand an almost immediate rewind. Is there anything better in pop music than the feeling that you’ve heard something amazing and you MUST HEAR IT AGAIN RIGHT AWAY?
I also love the way the drums maintain that simple off-kilter beat throughout, resisting the temptation to go straight. It’s a bold choice, but the anthemic quality of the song endures, despite it never quite cutting loose. In fact, the beat then becomes the norm and that becomes something you can rock out or bang your head to just as much as a straight beat would.
To me, this song is about freedom, plain and simple: “You can belittle every little voice that told you so.”
“And then the time will come when you motor away / Oh, why don’t you just drive away? / Come on / Speed on”
It’s right up there with the last Great Songs entry as a classic rock n’ roll anthem.
The recording isn’t high-quality, but that’s part of its charm. This song wasn’t made by a bunch of rock stars who fly in jets. It was made by a bunch of older guys in their garages who wish they were rockers who rode in jets. That yearning is evident in Pollard’s voice.
As you listen to it, pay attention to the rhyme scheme: There is none. Pollard achieves familiarity by repeating words, not by rhyming them. And his melody jogs all over the place, but with a strategic cadence. Talk shit on “pop” music or my definition of it (music chiefly concerned with melody, hooks over all else) all you want, but this is some seriously offbeat stuff.
Every now and then a song comes around that is so perfect; so stunningly different in its simplicity that it makes you feel energized about the possibilities of rock music all over again. “Motor Away” is one of those songs. It never gets old and it never fails to inspire some serious fist pumping.
Play the album version above (it starts at approximately 1:10 and its the one I prefer) or the single version below. Either way, turn it up loud and think about the possibilities!
The Great Songs series so far: