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Listening Report: Guided By Voices’ Hot Freaks Subscription USB

Mark Smotroff gets more than he dreamed of from a fanclub download series…

I don’t usually review downloads unless they are high resolution but this particular scenario is different and so thoughtfully put together I had to share it with you, Dear Readers. And, it happens to be from one of my favorite bands, Guided By Voices (GBV). This isn’t so much of a “listening report” but more of an “experience report“ of a sort… but I’m getting ahead of myself… 

As the pandemic got more and more serious and real, soon bringing live concerts to stop for quite some time, Dayton Ohio’s legendary rock band GBV started a music subscription series for its fans. On the surface, the program would no doubt help supplement the band’s loss of touring income — pretty much the only way bands make money these days — but it was also a great gift to the fans who were forced to isolate and quarantine for months on end. 

For those of you not in the know, GBV fans are as rabid as the collectors of music by Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead and Pearl Jam! There is no shortage of live recordings and rarities out there in the universe in addition to the remarkable number of commercial releases GBV has issued over the years (100-plus and counting!).

Being a fan of this band, I decided to spring for the hundred dollars to support them and take advantage of the series which was called Hot Freaks.  And I’m glad I did. 

First off, it was very well organized and presented to us. In fact, Hot Freaks was so organized and immediately fulfilling that it quickly became a bit overwhelming for me to keep up with their near weekly releases! At some points they would send us previews of new album tracks. At other times there were demos of entire albums and several full concerts. Containing 995 unique tracks (1005 tracks total, according to the band’s website) that brings the cost to roughly 10 cents per track. 

“Brother, can you spare a dime,” … literally!

Fantastic as Hot Freaks was, there was a lot of music coming in to manage (this on top of everything else I have to deal with as a reviewer, including previews of numerous boxed sets which happened in the last year from various and sundry Beatles… but I digress…).

Last year, GBV announced that the series would be soon ending, not surprisingly coincident with the band’s return to touring. I panicked for a moment as I knew I was behind on the downloads and afraid the download links might go away (I’d saved all the emails waiting for a moment to catch up). My fears were quickly calmed when the band announced that for an additional $25 we could get a physical USB thumb drive containing the entire series!

“Hallelujah,” I said. “Take my money, please!”  I quickly put in my order and waited patiently…

Just to save the time and frustration of coordinating and managing all the file folders and back ups and such, I was more than happy to spend a little bit more for the USB version of Hot Freaks which, in effect, is like a massive boxed set. Managing digital music files is one of my absolute least favorite things to do on this planet. So… heck yeah! … Give me some sort of physical version of the subscription series and I’ll be a happy camper. 

As with most things these days it took a while for the USB drive to arrive, but after some delays I’m very happy to report that it was totally worth the wait. Packaged in a beautiful box reminiscent of no less than an Apple product and featuring the classic GBV “runes” logo, I am super pleased with the final Hot Freaks physical edition— so happy I decided to write up this review! 

The high gloss USB contains contains nearly 65 Gigabytes of GBV wonderment. I really appreciate that they gave us files in both full WAV and MP3 formats — the latter of which are handy for those moments when you want to listen on mobile devices or in in the car (in fact, my 2015 car will only play MP3s through its USB input, so this is a great thing for me). All in all it’s a fantastic value and I’m super happy because, again, it’s all organized and lovingly presented -– well, as lovingly as a USB drive filled with MP3s and WAV files can be! It’s not quite the vinyl experience but Hot Freaks is still a whole lot of fun!

But what about the music?, You ask!

Well, I’m still working my way through everything, but so far it has everything I might have dreamed of and more. There are several full concerts — some of which are audience recordings and others which are made from the soundboard — as well as a wealth of demos and boombox-recorded home recordings by the band and its members. We received some previews of singles and album tracks which had not at that time been released.

Some of my favorite things so far include a batch of demos from the 1999 album Do The Collapse.  It’s quite remarkable to hear Robert Pollard’s demos and early mixes for some of his solo side projects such as Ricked Wicky. There are demos for several of GBV’S recent albums such as Styles We Paid For, August By Cake and Motivational Jumpsuit. I’m looking forward to hearing the full live concert version of the album Sweating The Plague (an eerily-titled album that came out in 2019, well before the pandemic happened). I can’t wait to dive into the demos for Broadcaster House, a collection of songs which eventually morphed into the Isolation Drills album. 

The live concerts on Hot Freaks are special including performances mostly recorded across America over the years from the 1990s and beyond: Irving Plaza in New York City, The Metro in Chicago and Spaceland down in Los Angeles. We even get a 1996 John Peel Session from the BBC in the UK!

Of course the frustrating part about Hot Freaks for most of you, Dear Readers, is that you can’t get this release any more. However my underlying message in writing this review — beyond just giving thanks and kudos to GBV for a job well done — is to remind you to support your favorite artists by buying music ‘n merch from them directly whenever possible. Especially in these uncertain times, we the fans are the lifeline to keep these artists afloat. 

Thanks again, GBV.

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