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