It's surprising what a difference it makes when a musician knows someone will actually be hearing his work. After 1994's charmingly sloppy Bee Thousand gained Guided By Voices a nationwide cult following (instead of the local cult following they were accustomed to), 1995's Alien Lanes found Robert Pollard and his partners in hard pop cleaning up their act a bit. For the most part, Alien Lanes isn't radically different from Bee Thousand -- it was primarily recorded on a four-track cassette machine (and sounds like it), and Guided By Voices was still a garage band with more in the way of inspiration than chops. But the musicians have put a bit more care and focus into their performance on this set; the playing is tighter and sharper, and the band plays toward their strengths, pushing their occasional sloppiness into a harder, more rock-oriented direction. And if Pollard and Tobin Sprout were still obsessed with tiny fragments of pop song wonderment, they also rounded up a more consistent collection of them; there aren't quite as many obvious masterpieces as on Bee Thousand, but also fewer obvious mistakes, and the sequencing gives the album a more consistent flow than before. Pollard also made genuine inroads into more lyrically cognizant material (though don't fret, "Auditorium" and "Blimps Go 90" are as cryptic as ever), and "Watch Me Jumpstart," "Striped White Jets," and "Motor Away" are simply superb pop/rock songs. (Sprout also gets a few shining moments on "A Good Flying Bird" and "Straw Dogs.") Both Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes sound like they were made by a band of inspired amateurs with great ideas; the difference is that Alien Lanes suggests that Guided By Voices wanted to prove that they could turn pro some day.