Guided By Voices
Isolation Drills (TVT Records)
Among the many unforgettable moments in the 1996 documentary Watch Me Jumpstart, a portrait of Dayton, Ohio’s legendary Guided By Voices, is a priceless scene of the band’s singer/head muse Robert Pollard and former guitarist Tobin Sprout ensconced in a basement recording session. As the pair hover studiously over a primitive four-track cassette machine, they bear all the seriousness of Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen conducting a group of session players, yet we know Pollard and Sprout haven’t even left the house.
For me and I’m sure many others, this was always the beauty of Guided By Voices: They’re an unlikely group of aging beer drinkers who refused to let their dreams of rock rulerhood witheralbeit while approaching those dreams in a homemade, unassuming fashion. For years, the group didn’t even play live, but recorded album after album at home and self-released them to an oblivious public. And yet time has a way of catching up; Pollard has become an unlikely hero to legions of fans who both recognize his uncanny brilliance at throwing off an unforgettable pop song and find inspiration in his band’s eccentric philosophy.
The irony, of course, is that almost immediately after the filming of Watch Me Jumpstart, Pollard ditched his old band, enlisted the services of slick-rockers Cobra Verde, and eschewed the lo-fi aesthetic he had so willfully pioneered. The 1997 album Mag Earwhig! and, more obviously, 1999’s Do the Collapse were both grabs at mainstream acceptance. Gone were the bottom-of-the-well recording techniques and shambolic delivery. Do the Collapse was a full-blown hi-fi affair with Ric Ocasek at the helm, and songcraft was sacrificed in large part for professional production.
His approach has changed for sure, but as evidenced on the band’s latest album, Isolation Drills, Pollard’s unbending dedication to anthemic rock ’n’ roll has not. “Fair Touching,” the opening track, is vintage GBV: recycled Who/REM riffs paired against Pollard’s faux-British accent, unashamedly tossing off post-prog couplets like “Under the iron shop the farewell ladies wink / always promising no one to crush them.” Only Pollard could get away with this unlikely marriage of poetic gobbledygook and power pop, but he’s been perfecting it for years, so it’s almost unfair to expect any less. Still, the surprise of Isolation Drills is the lyrical directness of many of his tunes; this most opaque of rock scribes seems finally willing to open up and deal with his personal demons, among them the breakup of his 20-year marriage on numbers like “The Brides Have Hit Glass” and his battle with the bottle on “How’s My Drinking?”
The dilemma of this new, ready-for-radio Guided By Voices isn’t simply the transformed lineup or the shiny production (this time overseen by Beck/Elliott Smith knob-twiddler Rob Schnapf), but also Pollard’s difficulty in continually penning compelling songs at his expected rate. Everything sounds great, from the thundering drums to the ambidextrous guitar playing of Doug Gillard, who can be Peter Buck or Mick Ronson in equal measure. But the returns have diminished, and aside from one glorious exception there aren’t any numbers on this record that provoke the awe of Bee Thousand’s “I Am a Scientist” or Alien Lanes’ “Game of Pricks.”
That exception is the shimmering “Glad Girls,” which might well be the catchiest song Pollard has ever writtenand that’s saying a lot. Like a marriage of Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” and The Bangles’ “Manic Monday,” this undeniable classic-in-waiting reaffirms my belief in the entire genre of guitar pop; it’s a number Matthew Sweet would give his beer gut for, and it’s sure to be a hit. Then again, I would have said the exact same thing about “Teenage FBI,” the lead-off track from Do the Collapse, and I’ve yet to hear high-school kids across America chanting that on TRL.
Once again, it’s the grand dilemma of GBV. Pollard obviously wants a hit. He wants to be revered by the legions of kids who buy Foo Fighters and Get Up Kids records, and something or someone is apparently telling him he’s finally this close to the sort of stadium-godhood that inspired him to play music in the first place. I don’t think it’s necessarily ego that’s driving him at this point; I think it’s a need to reach out to the unconverted. How long can you preach your message to journalists and used-record store clerks before growing tired? What Pollard doesn’t realize is that the generation of rock fans he now extends his hand to haven’t heard King Crimson or Wire; hell, they probably haven’t even heard Murmur or Live at Leeds. And in a world where MTV and commercial radio have strangled any trace of actual “rock” musicwith a few exceptions like the Foo Fightersit’s hard to imagine Pollard and company hitting the gold mine, unless of course it was a grand yet forgettable fluke à la Fastball or Harvey Danger.
Not that there would be anything wrong with that. I grow weary of old fans and snobs bemoaning the accusation that Pollard has “sold out.” Sure, I miss the old Guided By Voices, but only because I think they were better. If Pollard rerecorded Bee Thousand in a high-priced studio with his new band and a fancy button-pusher like Butch Vig, he might discover the widespread acclaim he now seeks. But a well-oiled backing group and a more lavish recording budget don’t make brilliant records; it’s something intangible residing in the moments caught on tape, and of course the songs themselves. And it’s here that Pollard always comes through, if only sporadically anymore. Listening again and again to the unforgettable chorus of “Glad Girls,” I’m reassured as to exactly why Guided By Voices has always meant so much to me. After all the self-indulgence and comic bombast, Pollard can still stumble into a brilliant, eccentric pop moment, and the thrill of a listener discovering it promises to keep true believers waiting patiently for whatever else he might have in store.
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