Guided by Voices, also known as “whoever’s available to contribute to Robert Pollard’s scattershot artistic vision,” has a new record out. That’s not surprising – GbV always seem to have a new album out, outside of their periods of hiatus that never quite seem to take. Actually, there’s not much at all surprising about Please Be Honest, and that’s the crux of its various charms and distastes.
It’s fair to say that unfinished-ness is a staple of the Guided by Voices sound. Their massive back catalogue is populated with 90-second tracks that fade out at their apex, or never quite get going, and it takes a retooling of the modern ear to appreciate this fractured album structure. Their lo-fi, fragmented approach comes off the best – or, at least, the most accessible – when there’s something else to hang onto in a track. A good melody or a hook will suffice. Please Be Honest contains a few such moments: “Kid on a Ladder” is the most hummable tune on the record; “The Caterpillar Workforce” ends with a sequence of bright chords on acoustic guitar that wink like coins of sunlight, especially up next to sludgier tracks like the following “Sad Baby Eyes”; “The Glittering Parliament” has a really nice bass line.
The rest of the record doesn’t make much of a concerted effort to grab a listener, but that isn’t the intent. Guided by Voices makes records for kids to listen to while they MacGyver a makeshift bong out of a soda bottle and duct tape on a Tuesday night, and there’s no shame in that. That’s a viable market, those kids. There’s no illusion of putting forth a statement with a GBV record, that’s never been the point. Even their more cohesive efforts – Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, for example, don’t really hang together. They’re collections of thoughts, mined for the shallowest threads of ore and discarded. That can really appeal to some people.
On Please Be Honest, we have opener “My Zodiac Companion” and the title track holding down the quota of middle-of-the-road quality. The slower, more self-sabotaging tracks like “Defeatist’s Lament” and – interminably long for a GbV track at 3:22 – “The Grasshopper Eaters” bring up the rear. The remaining tracks jockey from briefly entertaining to the aural equivalent of folding laundry, but they’re largely inoffensive. There’s not much to take away, here.
Regardless of lineup, GbV does have an aesthetic they stick to pretty closely. That can be an advantage in not alienating your audience from record to record, but here it seems more to work against them. Why should I pick up the new Guided by Voices record when I can have the exact same experience with Under the Bushes, Under the Stars? Their prolific output works the same way – I could get the new GbV but I’ll wait a few months and there’ll be another one, maybe I’ll be in the mood for it then. It’s a shame, because there are some good tracks on here, but like with any GbV record it clocks in at about 40% interesting stuff and 60% mud.
If you’re deeply invested in the Guided by Voices catalogue this record won’t disappoint you. You’re getting exactly what they’re selling. If there’s not much to the album past that point, well, that doesn’t have to matter so terribly.