Guided By Voices Is On (Yet Another) Artistic Roll

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Guided By Voices was once dubbed “the Grateful Dead of beer,” a jokey but accurate allusion to the Ohio-based indie-rock institution’s hard-drinking ways and the devotion of their small but committed cult of fans. Though it could also apply to the restless creative process of GBV’s founder and sole charter member, Robert Pollard.

As is the case with the world’s most famous jam band, Pollard ultimately cares more about the journey than the destination. The flash of inspiration and the thrill of creation are what matter most, regardless of whether the resulting songs fully land or not. At its best, GBV’s music communicates that initial whippet-like excitement to the audience — you feel like you’re hearing Pollard’s songs as they occur to him for the first time. It’s an addictive experience, and it keeps you listening to every LP, EP, solo album, and side project, no matter how half-baked, because the possibility of serendipitous genius always, tantalizingly, remains.

GBV is also like a jam band in that following Pollard’s prodigious output can feel like a full-time job. When I came to his music in the mid-’90s and subsequently followed GBV on the road like a certifiable Miller High Life-head, I had a lot more time on my hands to dutifully sift through each volume of his endless Fading Captain series. But somewhere between Suitcase box sets — in which Pollard released literally hundreds of songs that somehow didn’t already end up on any of the dozens of albums he’s officially put out over the years — I became more of a dabbler than an attentive Padawan. I got married. I had kids. And, of course, there are always other bands to care about.

All the while, Pollard kept moving. He broke up one iteration of Guided By Voices — the one from the late ’90s and early ’00s, which I saw on many drunken nights, let’s call them GBV 2.0 — and then revived the “classic” ’90s era 1.0 lineup while also putting out music under his own name and with various collaborators. And then he formed yet another GBV lineup for the current 3.0 era, which brings us up to now.

Any time any edition of GBV is playing in my area, I make sure to go see them. Still high-kicking and golden-voiced in his gray-haired mid-60s, Pollard remains one of my all-time favorite rock showmen and between-song shit-talkers. (Do I own Relaxation Of The Asshole on vinyl? Yes. Yes I do.) My most recent GBV gig was in March, and it was my favorite in years — not only did it spotlight Pollard’s ageless antics, but also the supple support of his band, the most athletic and versatile ensemble to ever support him, which was incredibly powerful.

As for GBV’s recent albums, I’ve found myself moving slowly from dabbler back to obsessive. For years in the late aughts and early 2010s, Pollard seemed to be writing the same song over and over, producing a lot of mid-tempo arena-prog caterwauling that sounded like Wire attempting to remake Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway without quite pulling it off. But working with the 3.0 lineup — which includes 2.0 ringers like drummer Kevin March and Pollard’s most crucial collaborator from the past 25 years, guitarist Doug Gillard — Pollard has expanded his musical palate more significantly than at any point this century. The outcome is a late-career golden age.

Still most associated with his mid-’90s work — in which GBV became indie-famous for minute-long, lo-fi songs on albums like 1994’s Bee Thousand and 1995’s Alien Lanes that somehow hit with the anthemic force of Who’s Next — Pollard in recent years has made some of his most ambitious and sprawling LPs, like 2019’s expansive 32-song, 74-minute Zeppelin Over China and 2021’s dense and often thrilling concept album Earth Man Blues (which sounds like Wire attempting to remake Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and actually pulling it off.) But what’s more impressive than the quantity or even the quality of GBV’s recent output has been Pollard’s ability to keep on surprising even his most loyal followers.

This Friday, GBV will put out its second LP of 2022, the (of course) inscrutably titled Tremblers And Goggles By Rank, which is precisely the sort of GBV album I would have never expected or thought I wanted — a tight rock record with zero filler. At 10 songs and 38 minutes, it’s 18 songs and three minutes shorter than Alien Lanes. You could even call it relatively “normal,” no matter that one of the catchiest tunes is called “Cartoon Fashion (Bongo Lake).” For this band, “normal” or “tight” are not necessarily compliments. But in this case, to my ears, they absolutely are.

Pollard has said that his guiding musical principle rests with the four P’s: pop, prog, psychedelia, and punk. These are the common elements that he’s worked with since he started writing songs as a pre-teen. But on Tremblers and GBV’s other (for now?) 2022 album, the similarly svelte and excellent 12-song Crystal Nuns Cathedral, the first “P” has been given special precedence. In fact, Crystal Nuns Cathedral and Tremblers And Goggles By Rank feel like a de facto double album that together culminate GBV’s current golden era. They stand as the best and most accessible music that Pollard has made since GBV’s last stab at “a tight rock record with no filler,” 2001’s Isolation Drills. I can’t stop playing them.

The pop appeal of Tremblers is obvious and immediate on the album’s first single, “Alex Bell,” an instant power-pop classic with a soaring, sun-kissed chorus that recalls “Chasing Heather Crazy.” The album’s second single, the hard-rocking “Unproductive Funk,” also nods to Isolation Drills, reviving the staccato guitar part from “The Enemy,” the most recycled riff in the GBV canon. (That riff is to Pollard what “Satisfaction” is to Keith Richards.) That song gives way to “Roosevelt’s Marching Band,” a Beatlesque beauty that (for the millionth time) shows off Pollard’s ability to inhale classic vinyl from the ’60s and ’70s and exhale new and sparkling bubblegum pop melodies.

When Pollard indulges the other P’s, he never lets up on the hooks. The pocket prog of “Cartoon Fashion (Bongo Lake)” is Yes’ Fragile by why of Big Star’s Radio City, with Pollard’s hilariously mush-mouthed, faux British accent howling over abrupt tempo changes and heart-tugging jangly guitars. “Focus On The Flock” evokes the big-sky psychedelia of 2021’s It’s Not Them. It Couldn’t Be Them. It Is Them!, and then explodes into a “Sparks”-like blowout. The album-closing “Who Wants To Go Hunting” is the album’s most epic statement, switching between lurching guitars and pastoral digressions beamed in from a Moody Blues record, before swelling to a stirring space-rock finale.

Do I want every Guided By Voices record to be as focused and fat-free as Pollard’s most recent output? Hardly. Nor would I expect Pollard to repeat himself. The next GBV record could be a triple-album, or it could come and go in three minutes. It’s been a few decades since Pollard stopped chasing mainstream acceptance, and started concentrating solely on making music only for himself and his audience. Not only do I appreciate his idiosyncratic artistic path, I find it inspiring. Even as listeners come and go from his flock, Robert Pollard has never lost his enthusiasm for making Robert Pollard music. The man has earned a toast, so I raise a beer glass to my indie-rock Jerry Garcia.