It’s that time of year!
“10 billion Ringo fans
can’t be all wrong
target your audience
then write them a song…
— from “Cheap Buttons” (on August By Cake)
By now many of you know that Guided By Voices (GBV) — led by singer and main songwriter Robert Pollard — are a prolific band of merry music makers, (seemingly) year-after-year gleefully tossing off multiple albums-after-albums of Brit-pop inspired rock ‘n roll in the time it takes most bands to even think about booking studio time to record. In 2017 so far, Pollard and company have put out two new long players — one, a two record set — and several singles, maybe more depending on how you count these things.
Rather than walk away from the ongoing flood of GBV music — as some people I know sort of have — I’ve found that the best way to enjoy the GBV universe is simply embrace it with open arms and let yourself go with their flow. Don’t expect every song to knock you out right off the mark, allow time for it to engage you over time. Every new GBV album will be at least interesting and at minimum there will almost always be that one song which gets under your skin and digs deep inside your psyche. Typically, a GBV release offers you more than that, however…
In many ways, listening to GBV’s records are an encapsulated lesson in rock and roll of the last 50 or so years. A neat mashup of everything we have heard and learned from Brill Building pop to the rawest of punk, new wave and of course the original 1960s British Invasion by The Kinks, The Who, The Stones, The Beatles and The Animals. Thus, when GBV put the phrase “Rock 101” on the promotional trailer for their latest album, you know what they are talking about…
The three GBV related releases I have purchased thus far this year include one quasi side-project and two full albums by the newest incarnation of GBV. They all have their charms. All are generally good sounding, pretty much full-fidelity (not LoFi) listening affairs, probably digitally recorded, pressed on dark, quiet, well-centered, standard weight vinyl. All include free downloads. They all rock. And, you can find them all on Amazon (links can be found by clicking on the highlighted sub-headline titles to the the mini-reviews below) or at your favorite record store.
Following are highlights of what I heard:
This one snuck out in late 2016 and it is basically a collaboration celebrating the reunion between late 90s-era GBV guitarist / singer Doug Gillard and Robert Pollard, no doubt signaling the beginning of what became the current lineup of the band. Gillard is a guitar monster and his tight approach to making rock records seem to work well with Pollard’s off-the-cuff shoot-from-the-hip-and-heart compositional aesthetic — very much a Yin-Yang situation. A GBV album in all but name, ESP OHIO has some great songs including the tune the band has played in recent live sets, the fun march step rocker “Royal Cyclopean.” “Weakened by A Logical Mind” is one of those tunes which has recently impregnated its ear worm into my psyche. Each time I play this album, another song sinks its hooks in…. signs of a very good period-of-transition record, for sure…
This first two – record set from GBV celebrated the group’s 100th release — yes, they have released at least 100 recordings in the GBV universe in its 30-plus year career. Feeling overwhelmed yet? The remarkable thing about this one is that it sounds really good and has some great songs on it that grow on you and… oh… wait… yeah… that is kinda “the thing” about most every GBV recording!
I’m into the album opener “5° On The Inside” and the churning “When We All Hold Hands At The End Of The World” (a title U2 probably wishes they had written). Interestingly, this album is not entirely a Robert Pollard showcase: there are fine songs by several of the new band members on August By Cake, which makes the album more like an earlier GBV album when tracks by Pollard butted up against songs by Tobin Sprout. It keeps things fresh! And just when you thought there was going to be too many songs and forgettable moments, an epic end like “We Liken The Sun” plants an ear-worm in your gut with its anthemic repeated lines “Burn your face, with your gut, light your head, liken the sun.” And so it goes on August By Cake.
A sprawling modern rock ‘n roll record, August By Cake offers up hooks galore even some drama. One of my favorites is “Substitute 11 (An Educational Nightmare Teleplay)” in which a fill-in teacher clearly gives up and is found passed out drunk at the desk. The students run wild in the streets while the school’s director intones: “Substitute 11, come in… Substitute 11, can you hear me?”
Yeah… August By Cake is a cool record.
GBV’s latest, How Do You Spell Heaven, is a single disc affair containing songs nearly all written by Robert Pollard. This album rocks in the best possible way and — dare I say it — offers a more mature take on the band. Certainly the raw production and performance edges are tightened up a bit. All the instruments seem in tune and as well as Pollard’s singing, even when he’s seemingly first-take riffing on a new idea. The band is playing well and singing well — yes, there are several Who-like harmony moments on this album, more than I remember hearing on past GBV albums (and that is not a bad thing!).
Words and phrases jump out and surprise on How Do You Spell Heaven. Lines like:“maximum high kick, quoting the psychic.” Or, consider the haunting and very Beatles/Who-esque descending signature chorus-of-a-sort on “Steppenwolf Mausoleum” coupled with a lyric coming face to face with age: “And now fast cars are gone, along with the girls…” There is also a fascinating little mini rock opera: “How To Murder A Man (In 3 Acts)” which indeed crams several distinct musical movements into a three minute pop song.
The band must have felt strongly about the sequencing on this album, taking a very old-school approach by putting the first single — and one of the most easily accessible tunes — at the end of the album: “Just To Show You.” As a vinyl listen, I like this as it kind of forces you to listen to the whole album to get to that last gem. Of course with the free download you can jump around to any point where you’d like (or just move your stylus manually).
But I think you understand what I am getting at here…
Listen to the whole record in the sequence as the band intended. This matters as the songs on How Do You Spell Heaven build upon one anoter. Side Two especially seems to grow and grow in a tight-knit suite of tunes: the title track followed by “Paper Cutz,” “Low Flying Perfection,” “Nothing Gets You Real” and “Just To Show You.” And, when you get to the end, bask in the glow of that heartwarming moment: a love song in effect — perhaps a song of reconciliation — that doesn’t use the “L” word.
“I’ve come over here just to show you a short letter word.
A four letter word to know you better,
It won’t be the usual disguise,
I’m gonna know you, just to show you.”
Indeed… All you need is love, kids… Perhaps its time to put a little GBV love back in your heart with one of these new releases.