As far as 2012 goes, we’ve probably heard enough about the banner year of that baby-faced, golden-haired hellraiser down by the Bay. God, those albums were so good, right? But as the year progressed and indie-rock fans got more and more excited about what was coming out of Ty Segall’s garage, there was a band that equaled Segall’s full-length output, some band pushing toward their Free Senior Breakfast at Denny’s called Guided by Voices. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of them. Well, of course everybody knows what a Free Senior Breakfast is. I’m talking about Guided by Voices.
Way, way back in the 1990s– before they even had Napster!–they put out two consecutive best-of-genre efforts, Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes. And somewhere between frontman Robert Pollard’s onstage tequila swilling and tendency to write songs as easily as emptying his tank in front of the urinal, the lineup changed — as the Guided by Voices lineup often does — and eventually he retired the good name in 2004 while still releasing an average of about 40 songs every year under both his government name and many others. In this new landscape of rock music fashioned over the past few years, where going out on top isn’t nearly as ideal as having a chance to live out a spate of belated influence, Pollard revived GBV with the help of some old friends (and a military supply of booze) and went high-kicking his way back into the hearts of indie-rock fans everywhere. And I don’t just mean “old guy high-kicking.” Even at 55, Pollard’s stage moves are miles beyond most musicians a third his age.
After that enormously (and predictably) well-received reunion tour with the same personnel as their most heralded albums– Pollard, co-songwriter Tobin Sprout, bassist Greg Demos, drummer Kevin Fennell, and guitarist Mitch Mitchell– Guided by Voices announced they would be releasing not one, not even two, but three albums in 2012. (Keep in mind this was weeks before Segall announced he would forge the same path.) For Pollard, a blindingly efficient recording artist even by the hyper-prolific standards that have almost become the norm in this age, this was another hat to try on again to see if it fit, another place to drop his insane clip of output. For the rest of us, it was a chance to see if the band, to coin a phrase someone would say on Sex and the City, “still had it.”
And holy shit, did they ever still have it. On Guided by Voices’ three 2012 albums, Pollard’s as weird and brilliant as ever, and Sprout has written some of the best songs of his career. There’s a sense of chemistry and songwriting depth that not only puts these records among the best of this year, but among the best in Guided by Voices’ storied catalog. But let’s face it: attention spans ain’t what they used to be, and you can’t possibly expect to get through two hours of music packed into 61 tracks, can you? Some of us can barely go 15 minutes without putting on all our DayGlo bracelets and rave gear at once and dancing around to Grimes. Luckily for you, we have ranked those three Guided by Voices’ albums for your easy digestion and noncommittal engagement.
It’s a curious choice for GBV to release the weirdest of their three rapid-fire releases first, but it succeeds wildly. There are peculiar production choices (Odd string arrangements! Broken grade-school recorder flutes! Is that really a didgeridoo on “Waves“?), spoken-word interludes literally read by children, expectedly Pollardian titles like “Hang Mr. Kite” and “How I Met My Mother,” and in the case of “Old Bones,” Sprout performing a woozy ballad that pretty blatantly rips off part of “Auld Lang Syne.” Peppered between the weird moments are some of Pollard’s best lyric writing (“Doughnut for a Snowman,” “Chocolate Boy”) and a life-affirming exclamation: “We won’t apologize for the human race!” As rock history has told us time and time again, it’s rare for a comeback album to even be good, let alone good enough to flirt with the heights of the returning band’s best output and interesting enough to not be given the backhanded compliment of “a return to form.” Let’s Go Eat the Factory may have the same lineup as a handful of albums from two decades ago, but it’s clear that it marked the arrival of a new Guided by Voices.
From the rolling drums and swelling guitars of opener “He Rises! Our Union Bellboy”– possibly the best lead track of all three albums– Class Clown almost immediately sets itself apart from Factory as a more traditional rock album but also a breezier listen. The experiments are limited to the double-tracking on spacey 51-second Sprout ballad “Lost in Spaces,” but in lieu of the strangeness that defined their first LP of 2012 lies an enormous bounty of fist-pumping sing-alongs, slightly off-center ballads rich with buoyant, simple melodies, and midtempo acoustic stunners like “Forever Until it Breaks” and “Fighter Pilot.” And, of course, tons of disparate moments that make the album a mini-highlight reel of Pollard’s more hysterical tendencies, such as the bellow he employs on “Blue Babbleships Bay” or the cheesy Cars-like drums on “Keep it in Motion.” At just under forty minutes– scientifically (okay, maybe not scientifically) proven to be the perfect length for a rock album– Class Clown Spots a UFO seems like it was conceived as a clinic to make the perfect rock record. The fact that it’s actually pretty wildly imperfect makes it even better.
The Springsteen-like anthem “Everywhere is Miles From Everywhere.” “You Can Fly Anything Right,” which sounds just as much like vintage John Darnielle as it does vintage Pollard. The gorgeous, Sprout-penned “Waking Up the Stars,” which could have very much been a perfect alternative to the montage where Andy and April drive to the Grand Canyon on Parks and Recreation. The almost-blaring muted chords and half-pounded drums of “Tree Fly Jet.” “The Military School Dance Dismissal,” which sounds like a hissy “Major Tom” demo. “Dome Rust,” which couldn’t be accurately described as anything other than a great Guided by Voices song. The dismal, dark folk romp “Have a Jug.” And the best of all, the blissful ‘60s feel of Sprout’s “Waving at Airplanes.” The implied theme of this album is the songs are just tremendous.
The most surprising thing about Guided by Voices’ trio of post-reunion albums is not the quality of said output, but how few people have decided to dive into it. It’s true that the times have been a changin’ in indie-rock, that attention spans aren’t what they used to be because of file sharing. The times have changed because we are now a culture obsessed with newness, and nostalgia is filed under a completely separate category, leaving the two to hardly cross paths. The overarching theory is that Guided by Voices is a band from our past, and many critical “gatekeepers” can’t seem to get past the idea that this band could feasibly embark on a new creative era and have it be fertile. A post-reunion Dinosaur Jr. have been proving it could be done for almost a decade. What if the three albums they’ve put out since then were put out in one 12-month span? Would their records be as widely accepted as they are, or would we be grumbling that their one-night live celebration of You’re Living All Over Me– put out 25 years ago this year– wasn’t enough?
Robert Pollard’s greatest sin is that he didn’t rewrite “Watch Me Jumpstart” or “Gold Star for Robot Boy” when he said he was getting the OG lineup of Guided by Voices back together. But why should he? He just spent a year proving he still has plenty of other tricks up his sleeve. Maybe indie-rock has changed more than we know since Pollard and his crew practically redefined the genre 20 years ago. Maybe fans just want their favorite artists to play the hits and go home. So maybe not stoking the flames of the nostalgia-hungry was Pollard’s greatest sin, perhaps it was not giving a shit as he continued to make art that he believed in. If you ask me, that’s a pretty damn honorable sin. He’s still got it, man.