Guided By Voices’ 10-song EP The Pipe Dreams of Instant Prince Whippet is release #24 in The Fading Captain Series, which GBV captain Robert Pollard uses as an outlet for an assortment of “non-mainstream” releases. In other words, these are albums and singles that he knows the legion of obsessive GBV fans will buy, but he isn’t sure that they would win new fans to his music. The fact that the series is already up to its 25th release, in just three years of existence, is one more testament to Pollard’s prolific nature. And while some of those releases have been 7” singles, the majority are full-length albums. This year alone has seen the release of three full-length albums featuring Pollard in collaboration with other musicians (as Airport 5, Go Back Snowball and Circus Devils), a 2-LP set of experimental music recorded in the early days of GBV (as Acid Ranch) and Pipe Dreams . . ., a 22-minute EP. And that’s in addition to the “official” GBV albums, of which there’s usually one a year!
While the fact that Pollard is prolific has been well-noted, it’s usually in the context of someone complaining that he releases too much, someone repeating the tired notion that he just puts out any noise he makes. That idea doesn’t fit with the reality, that there are amazing Pollard/GBV recordings that remain unreleased to this day (as anyone who has heard “Stumbling Blocks to Stepping Stones” or any of the other fantastic songs that didn’t even make the four-disc Suitcase collection of previously unreleased material could attest to). While Pollard has put out plenty of recordings that are strange enough to turn away the GBV fans that love them for their rock ‘n’ roll side, it is also true that GBV has a strong history of “side” releases that are as compelling as their albums. Early EPs like Fast Japanese Spin Cycle, The Grand Hour and Get Out of My Stations attracted music fans to the band as easily as their LPs did, and in recent years some of Pollard’s solo albums and collaborations have been as strong as the proper GBV albums, if not stronger in a few cases.
While GBV’s early EPs were often stand-alone trips into Pollard’s pop-wizardry, the group also often practices the common rock method of putting out an album track with a couple of B-sides as a 7” or CD single. They’ve done this even more in recent years, often putting out US and UK versions of singles, each with slightly different b-sides. The Pipe Dreams of Instant Prince Whippet is essentially a CD collection of the B-sides that accompanied the various singles from their most recent album, Universal Truths and Cycles, yet with the addition of two additional unreleased songs. Some of the original singles are sold out, making this CD more essential than it at first seems. These songs, like much of Universal , have the huge rock sound that Pollard had always been pushing toward and finally achieved with 2001’s Isolation Drills, yet without that album’s emotional range. They also display Pollard’s madcap poetry side in full tilt, as you might guess from the EP title.
If both Universal Truths & Cycles and these songs strike me as a slight step backwards from the majestic beauty that made Isolation Drills one of the best rock albums in recent years, that doesn’t mean they’re unworthy of attention. Pipe Dreams is a solid collection that again showcases Pollard’s knack at matching melody with eccentricity in a room filled with “pump your fist” classic rock sounds.
The Pipe Dreams of Instant Prince Whippet opens with “Visit This Place,” a power-rock welcome that sets an energetic tone that carries through the whole EP. From there the band goes into “Swooping Energies,” a down-and-dirty mid-tempo rocker (ala “Hot Freaks” or “Zoo Pie”), and follows it with eight other songs, all of which would have felt at home on Universal Truths and Cycles.
There’s the especially heavy marching song “Action Speaks Volumes,” two quick pop-rock bursts (“Stronger Lizards,” the title song) and some typically GBV-ian arena rock. And as with any GBV EP, here there’s one song that sounds (to the ears of the diehard fan, at least) like a would-be hit that was wrongly sidetracked to non-album status. It is “Dig Through My Window,” a gorgeous love ballad with swelling strings, a perfect melody and a tone that’s both bittersweet and optimistic. Listening to that song, feeling the way it rises you up by marrying rock edge to a sweet pop tune, it’s hard to understand how anyone could think that Pollard releases too many songs, and easy to see why there’s a cult of fanatics who think he’s one of the greatest living songwriters.