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Album Review: Guided By Voices – Let’s Go Eat the Factory [Fire/Guided By Voices]

Broken down to its most simplistic form, there’s really only one Guided By Voices. That version of the band existed from about 1993-96, and crafted some of the best gritty, dirty and hardcore rock of not only that but really any decade. Records like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes are legendary for their no-holds-barred lo-fi aesthetic, setting the bar exceptionally high for many other bands of their ilk around that time. When you do so many drugs and essentially treat life as one massive party, at some point things are going to break down, which is why the “classic” GBV lineup ceased to exist after Under the Bushes Under the Stars. The band kept it up in spite of a few personnel changes, all the way through 2004 but really operating under a much lower profile than before. Still, the last GBV album Half Smiles of the Decomposed drew attention mostly because Pollard proclaimed it to be the band’s final recording, and a lengthy farewell tour in support of it was met with rabid enthusiasm. It only took 6 years for a reunion to take place, courtesy of Matador Records’ 21st Anniversary party. The real excitement was that it’d be the ’93-’96 “classic” lineup getting back together. As things go, that one-off show led to a full sold out tour for 2011, though Pollard was quick to point out early on that it probably wouldn’t amount to anything more than that. Unlike, say, Pavement, who got back together in 2010, toured and then went their separate ways again, it seems GBV have a little more life left in them. Enter Let’s Go Eat the Factory, a new Guided By Voices album announced late last year and released to start 2012. It’s the first record to feature the band’s classic lineup since 1996, and the first under the band name since 2004.

Here’s the thing though: In spite of Guided By Voices, if you look at the recorded output of Robert Pollard alone, you’re already overwhelmed by material. He’s been releasing solo records since 1996, and has averaged about 2 full lengths per year since 2006. That’s not even counting EPs and more than a dozen side projects he’s had a hand in the last 10 years. With such a deluge of material, there’s bound to be plenty of crap in there, and it’s unlikely even the biggest of fans can keep up with all of it. Quantity, not necessarily quality. Does that make GBV stuff any better or more special than everything else? Towards the end of the band’s initial run it might as well have been Pollard and a few hired hands anyways, which might also bear some explanation why those records weren’t as good as the early stuff. The benefit of having the classic lineup in effect is how much of an actual BAND dynamic it creates. They’re more than just Pollard because Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Greg Demos and Kevin Fennell are all dynamic musicians in their own rights. They bring Pollard’s ADD-addled vision to life in a way no other backing players have before, and that’s one of the big reasons why those early records were such a success. It’s what also makes Let’s Go Eat the Factory such an exciting and anticipated album, the hope that perhaps it might recapture and extend the legacy of those early days. The good news is that it very much succeeds in feeling like the GBV of old. The bad news is that it just barely misses the objective of equalling or exceeding the quality of their best efforts.

Those markedly familiar with the “classic” Guided By Voices material will feel an instant familiarity with Let’s Go Eat the Factory, spurred primarily by the band’s return to a 4-track lo-fi style of recording, leaving much of the album covered in dirt and low budget charm. Still, there’s plenty of evidence of more modern recording bits in there as well, particularly as nothing sounds scuffed up enough to be indecipherable or a real challenge to listen to. The underlying sheen on some of these tracks adds to the record’s character though, and in many ways the ease at which it all goes down suggests that maybe there’s an angle towards first-timers as a way to suck them in before they truly blow it out. The first half of the album is surprisingly tight and catchy, everything from “Laundry and Lasers” through “Doughnut for a Snowman” and “The Unsinkable Fats Domino” certainly make for some of the best GBV songs in over a decade. They’re the more straightforward hits, designed to tap the power-pop vein in your ears. And while Pollard certainly has plenty of material to work with, as he always does, the one that truly stands out and steps up on this album is Tobin Sprout. The guy simply destroys on every track he contributes, from the bouncy “God Loves Us” to the spindly bifurcation of “Spiderfighter”, he proves himself to be the unsung hero of the classic era lineup. It’s almost as if he was anxiously awaiting the opportunity to shine, while in many respects Pollard spends portions of the album trying to get his bearings working amongst a group of guys that actually have a say for once. It leads to a couple of unfortunate accidents in tracks like “Chocolate Boy” and “The Big Hat and Toy Show”, but as with any GBV record, mistakes come with the territory and if you don’t like one song, just wait 90 seconds for the next one.

The best moments of Let’s Go Eat the Factory are really when the band tries to push beyond giving lip service to their legacy and tries to prove they’ve learned something these last 15 or so years the lineup has been on break. The spiky “My Europa” hovers dangerously close to a capella territory, with only Pollard’s vocal and some quick guitar picking to back him up. It’s a great showcase to examine just how much the guy’s voice has changed (and in many ways improved) over the years while also generating some catchy sing-along mojo with it. Meanwhile, offbeat rock songs like “Imperial Racehorsing” and “Cyclone Utilities (Remember Your Birthday)” take a lot of notes from the later incarnations of the band but do remarkably well by being wrestled down with classic era tropes and some unexpected left turns. It seems almost fitting that the record ends after 20 songs with its longest and perhaps most prescient track, “We Won’t Apologize for the Human Race”. It feels like a combination of past, present and future Guided By Voices, driven by the suggestion that they truly are back and are ready to stir shit up again. Naturally, the band has already announced they’ve got another full length already recorded that will be out sometime in late spring/early summer. One can only hope that as they continue to work together and restore their once toxic bonds that it will lead to more material truly worthy of being called “classic” once again.

Guided By voices – Doughnut for a Snowman
Guided By Voices – The Unsinkable Fats Domino

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Pitchfork Music Festival 2011: Day 1 Recap

Ugh. It has been a long day for yours truly. Didn’t anticipate my day/evening going so late, so this initial recap of Day 1 of the 2011 Pitchfork Music Festival is going to be a little shorter and more to the point than much of everything else I plan on writing about over the course of the weekend. But fun was the name of the game today, and to call it a great day would not be an incorrect statement. Let me tell you a brief bit about the music I bore witness to, as well as maybe a couple other quick notes about things that went down on Day 1.

Due to an unfortunate vehicular mishap, in which my car broke down and refused to start, I wound up arriving at the Pitchfork Music Festival about 45 minutes later than I had originally planned. Still, it left me just enough time to see the last couple songs from EMA. Erika M. Anderson is her full name when not being referenced in acronym format, and she had a couple friends backing her up to handle much of the instrumental work. The two songs I saw her perform were solid renditions, in particular her single “California”, in which she did a lot of the same hand gestures that can be found in the video for said song. Fun isn’t the best word to describe what I saw, but very capable and strong are probably two solid descriptors. A few hours after her set, I was being taken on a brief tour of the backstage area and stumbled upon EMA. She was sitting in the grass by herself with a guitar and was making notes on some pieces of paper. In all likelihood she was writing a song, and hopefully something at the festival inspired her to do so.

My most hotly anticipated act of the day (and essentially the weekend) was tUnE-yArDs. After the massive number of raves I heard about Merrill Garbus and her intense performances, there was a little chill that went down my spine on the quite hot day when she began to belt her vocals into the microphone. Creating all sorts of vocal and instrumental loops, watching her put together songs like “Gangsta” and “Powa” was thrilling enough even if you threw away the actual songs. She didn’t do much to actually improve upon the recorded versions of the stuff on “w h o k i l l”, but then again she didn’t need to. That record is still amazing, and just seeing the songs come together live was the treat. Hopefully many were won over by her stellar performance. While I skipped seeing Battles in favor of tUnE-yArDs, all my friends chose to abandon me, claiming I made the wrong choice. They came away with nothing but raves for Battles’ set, and given to how they are dynamite live, the reaction felt sensible.

Thurston Moore was next, as I was intrigued to see what he would do. His backing band consisted of one guitar, one drummer, one violinist and one harpist. Yep, he had a harp with him and its lilting melodies were built into a lot of the songs. Moore also had a music stand with plenty of sheet music on it, which begged the question of how well he knew the songs he was playing. And virtually the entire thing wound up being a flop. Standing out in the hot sun and watching Thurston play slow acoustic numbers was not a good time. Early on in his set, he jokingly asked if everyone was ready to hear some songs about rape and other dark things, clearly trying to make light of the fact that OFWGKTA would be performing on that very stage in a couple days. There will be protesters for that, and come to think of it, people should have protested Moore’s set as well for being rather pedestrian and boring. Everything was capably performed, and much of the material came via his latest solo effort “Demolished Thoughts”. No Sonic Youth was played, but to close out his set, Moore told the crowd, “my band is saying that we should play a rock song”, a statement that was met with applause. The spark that ignited within the last few minutes of that set was what the entire thing should have been made out of. There’s always next time. If you went and saw Curren$y, consider yourself lucky.

The great news is that Guided By Voices were up next, and the very first thing that Robert Pollard asked the crowd was whether or not they were ready to see a real professional rock show. Hell yes, the crowd was ready. And GBV gave everyone exactly what they were looking for. Chain smoking on stage, wielding a bottle of alcohol, windmill guitar work, Neko Case on tambourine, jumping around like a madman, salutes, the hoisting of guitars high into the sky, the pointing of the necks of the guitars out at the crowd in a threatening and stabbing motions – all these things happened during that set. To call it awesome would be putting it lightly. These guys are all music veterans, and instead of slowing down their set was filled with visceral energy – the sort of which is missing in so many rock bands these days. Not only that, but they did all this while running through “hit” after “hit” (the quotation marks are used because despite a long career the band never achieved massive success to justify anything of theirs being a hit according to today’s standards). They hit up “Hot Freaks” “Tractor Rape Chain”, “Kicker of Elves” and “I Am A Scientist” (among many others) from their seminal album “Bee Thousand”. Their other big record was “Alien Lanes”, and tracks like “Game of Pricks” and “They’re Not Witches” sounded even better now than they did back in the day. So to recap: Guided By Voices put on one hell of a great show. And in that same way it’s sad, because there’s only a couple shows left with their “classic” lineup in place. They’re probably never going to do this again, so if you saw them at Pitchfork consider yourself lucky.

Neko Case is such an effortless charmer of a woman. There’s a certain sweetness to her, and maybe the down-home alt-country bits of her music are big contributors to that. One of the more interesting things about her is the backing band she surrounds herself with. The guys in the band were all older gentlemen complete with beards and a few extra pounds, and that alone was enough to make you think they belonged in a country band you’d stumble in and catch one night at some random bar. Who knows, maybe that’s where she met them. In spite of their appearances, they’re also excellent musicians, which is likely the reason why Case picked them in the first place. But that syrupy sweet voice of hers is in as good of shape as ever these days, and the set list mixing old songs, newer songs, and the newest of the new gave it plenty of workout. Case is currently hard at work on new material, so she did play a couple new ones during her set which were on par with everything else she’s done to date, if not better. The biggest crowd responses were for “Hold On, Hold On” and “People Got A Lotta Nerve”, and given their radio single status it’s no wonder why. There was no real reason for me to leave Neko Case, but after awhile I chose to wander over and at least check out James Blake‘s set for a few minutes. My concern initially was that his very quiet and minimalist self-titled debut would not translate well in an outdoor park. Outside of some seriously heavy bass, I’m pretty sure I was correct on that one.

Last but certainly not least, Animal Collective closed out the night in the headliner slot. It seems they got the love note I left them criticizing the very fluid and ever-changing dynamic of their live shows. The last time I saw the boys, they spent their festival time slot noodling around with psychedelic textures rather than playing most of the songs that appear on their albums. Think of it like one long acid trip in which many songs are teased but little to none are actually performed. They were on their best behavior at Pitchfork 2011 though, actually playing songs all the way through and even adding a few brief moments of silence from when one song ends and another begins. Call it common courtesy, and it made the set very bearable and remarkably fun. There was plenty of dancing going on, not to mention the glowsticks and an inflatable Spider-Man that became a part of the party. There were a handful of new songs sprinkled into the set as well, all of which sounded more than fine but with fewer harmonies than their last album “Merriweather Post Pavilion”. Between those elements and the neat stage setup complete with light-up rock-like structures and hanging shapes attached overhead by strings of lights. Animal Collective took their headlining job seriously and left the crowd in a better place compared to how they found them.

In case you couldn’t gather already, the entire day was nothing short of great. I’m very much looking forward to Day 2 tomorrow, but at this very moment sleep beckons. I’ll have photos for you as soon as I’m able. Check back for my Day 2 Recap overnight tomorrow night.

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