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Rock Lives On Guided By Voices’ New Dual Releases “La La Land” & Tremblers & Goggles By Rank,” Out Now On Vinyl & Qobuz, Tidal & Apple Lossless Streaming

Mark Smotroff continues to be enchanted by Dayton Ohio’s favorite band…


By now, I suspect that if you’re reading this review, you fall into one of two camps: an established Guide By Voices (GBV) fan, who hasn’t yet heard their latest releases, or an on-the-fence fan of their older material who has become overwhelmed with the sheer volume of releases over the years.

Indeed, GBV has been going through quite a renaissance over the past five-to-ten years, depending on how you count.  Particularly, the latest incarnation of the group which includes late ‘90s second GBV line-up (aka Cobra Verde era) guitarist, Doug Gillard, and the hard rocking guitar icon in his own right, Bobby Bare, Jr.  Together with an incredible rhythm, section of Kevin March on drums and bassist Mark Shue, the current incarnation of GBV is one of the strongest versions of the band… arguably, ever.  They are a perfect blend which captures the freewheeling spirit of the earlier bands with the musical chops to handle the more progressive compositions of the band’s leader, Robert Pollard.

While on average it seems like GBV puts out three albums per year (more if you count Pollard’s many side projects), some perspective on new release schedules might help some of you on-the-fence GBV fans who are a bit overwhelmed by the volume.  

Consider…. In the 1960s… it was very common for artists and bands to put a new albums every six months (or more) for a variety of reasons (artistic momentum, wealth of material, financial opportunity, etc.). In that light, it doesn’t surprise me that Robert Pollard, leader of GBV and himself a student of all things British invasion and power pop, somewhat mirrors that aesthetic in the band’s stunningly prolific release schedule.  

But the thing that is amazing is how they deliver — album after album — mostly great, often compelling and almost always  exciting new music.

To that, GBV’s latest album called La La Land is a real kick. And what I didn’t realize is that it was related to the prior release called Trembler’s And Goggles By Rank which I’ve been enjoying but hadn’t had a chance to review it.  When I went back to listen to that album (issued late last year), I realize that indeed, it feels like the two recordings are connected.

Both of these albums are expansive to the GBV sound, a little bit more in keeping with some of Robert Pollard’s solo albums. The songs sometimes are a little longer, and if it’s possible, the arrangements are even more adventurous.  Sure, GBV’s trademark chugging-baddass double-whammy wall of sound overdriven electric guitars and Pollard’s fab British flavored vocals are intact. But, there is a sense depth and breadth going on these days which elevates this music to a level some of you fence sitters might want to explore.  

In some ways, the tracks blend together like a mini rock opera, often with carefully crafted segues. Even within many of the songs there are often multiple movements which take the music on fairly radical departures.

In the diversity of sounds department, on these newer albums you’ll hear keyboards (synthesizers, organs, piano), string sections, acoustic guitars and even choral harmony moments!

The one-two punch of “Another Day To Heal’ which blends seamlessly into “Released Into Dementia” makes for a powerful album opening couplet to La La Land. “Ballroom Etiquette” feels like a lost track by Wayne Fontana and The Mindbenders run through a Parachute-era Pretty Things blender with its hooky chorus coda “most likely, if you go, you will only make a show of yourself.”  “Cousin Jackie” is another gem that offers a message we can still really use out here in California with its “make it rain” chants. 

As I listen, I can’t help but feel that the music is kind of like if The Who had done an entire album of songs modeled after their early  mini rock opera called “A Quick One, While He’s Away.” This, blended with the expansive spirit of the subsequent album The Who Sell Out — and at times meshed with the epic grandeur of  Quadrophenia — the result is a heady brew, indeed.

“Queen of Spaces” is a gorgeous slow acoustic mood piece which provides a much needed breather in La La Land. This sets the stage for the almost theatrical intro to “Slowly On The Wheel” (single piano key notes and vocals) which builds in movements (and clocks in at nearly six minutes long) winding up in an acoustic guitar-drive to the end of that road.  

While most of La La Land and Trembler’s And Goggles By Rank are not Lo Fi in any way shape or form, GBV offers a nod to its past on “Wild Kingdom” which opens with what sounds like an early sketch demo that blends into the full band take (albeit in a slightly different key, but it works somehow). 

There are plenty of driving rockers like the album closing “Face Eraser” and “Pockets.”

Trembler’s And Goggles By Rank offers similar drive and power right from the opening track “Lizard On The Red Brick Wall.”

The single release “Alex Bell” — another one of those five minute epic rock mini-operettas — seems to be a tribute of sorts to Big Star’s Alex Chilton (see 45 RPM release cover art above). It really got me at the gorgeous layered jangling guitar break that just pushed fresh air into the song as it transitioned in to the lovely driving epic coda, as Pollard sings: “I see you every time there is a ghost in town.” 

Title tune “Goggles By Rank” feels like another love letter to The Who, this time tasting like an out-take from their Odds & Sods collection (of out-takes and rarities!). The song comes complete with rolling Keith Moon-like drums, deep reverb on the Daltry-esque vocals and slashing Townshend-inspired power chords.

I could go on but I think you get the idea… there is some fine rock and roll going on in these new GBV records (well, there is always fine rock and roll going on in most GBV records, but I digress….)

In general, both La La Land and Trembler’s And Goggles By Rank sound excellent, mixed brilliantly by Travis Harrison. Even though these are probably digital recordings, the music sounds fat and rich even when you turn up the volume on your amplifier.  The standard weight vinyl pressings are nice, quiet and well centered.  

Both albums come housed in high-quality plastic lined inner sleeves and the discs have nice custom label designs — a departure from the standard design of many late period GBV releases.

Still, the question arises as to whether you need to own both of these albums albums? If you’re a deep GBV fan, you probably already have the albums or have at least ordered them by now. If you’re one of the fans who are overwhelmed and still on the fence, I encourage you to listen to their albums a bit online.

Both albums are streaming in CD quality on Qobuz, Tidal and Apple Music (as is most of their catalog).  All sound good with slight nuanced differences between the three in terms of how the services process their sound. From my past experiences, albums on Apple Lossless typically sound brighter, while the same music on Tidal and sounds rounder and richer. Qobuz found a happy balance, delivering a sonic palette somewhere betwixt and between.

Any way you listen, I suspect that by the your second or third spin you’ll want to get La La Land and Trembler’s And Goggles By Rank on vinyl for the fun cover art and warming sound on your favorite turntable and pre-amp. 

Rock and roll is certainly not dead. Long live rock. Long live GBV. 

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