[14 May 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
So there have been a few changes recently in the Guided By Voices world. Kevin Fennell left the band and has been replaced on drums by Kevin March, who played with the band before their 2004 break. There’s another change on the new album, Cool Planet. For the first time since reforming in 2010, the band went into one proper studio and cut a whole record. This does change the fidelity here, but it doesn’t exactly change our expectations. This is another set of quick-fire pop tunes, and Pollard keeps building toward that one crystallized moment in his songs. But Cool Planet is another satisfying entry in that it reminds us that, despite all the expectations and known quantities that go into a Guided By Voices record, there’s still a freshness to the approach, an energy to the songs that keeps us coming back.
The nice thing about the continued prolificacy of the current GBV line-up is that, with every new album, we get more and more distance between this band and the nostalgia that we associate with reformed acts. We don’t even really need to call this the “classic” line-up anymore, and not just because March has stepped in. This is a current, working band, history and great past records be damned. And this, their sixth full-length in four years, celebrates that more clearly than any of its five predecessors. It’s a nicely polished continuation of the scrappier Motivational Jumpsuit, but it rarely loses its bite in polishing its grin.
Opener “Authoritarian Zoo” is a crunching rocker, with March’s stomping drums driving the proceedings forward as it builds to a fine, perfectly Pollardian chorus. With the clearer recording quality, we can feel the muscle of the band as power chords charge in on overdrive under Pollard’s doubled vocals. The song is catchy and clear, but throws us off with strange chord patterns in the post-chorus build up, keeping us just off center. “Hat of Flames” does the same thing, originally seeming like a distant cousin to “Motor Away” before the tightwire hooks bend and warble, mixing just enough bitter in with the sweet melodies. “Table at Fool’s Tooth” builds thick rock textures, back and forth between towering chords and rundown fills, but the stop-and-start song cuts off before it ever gets going. The denial works, though, creating a series of impressive strikes without every settling down. The best stuff from Pollard here feels fully formed but restless. Even the more tempered takes, like “Costume Makes the Man” or the mid-tempo jangle of “Male of Wormwood Mars”, contain a vitality that’s hard to pin down.
The big surprise on this record, though, comes in Tobin Sprout’s entries. A great starting point is the back and forth he and Pollard pull off on album highlight “Bad Love Is Easy to Do”. It’s the band’s most effortless pop song of the last four years, just pure hooks and perfect melodies, and Pollard and Sprout seem to delight in trading off through the track. But Sprout’s songs, usually calm pop gems on the fringes of Pollard’s huge presence, are not always what you’d expect. There’s always been a hushed eccentricity to Sprout’s work, but it’s nice to hear the oddball wailing on the outskirts of psych-pop epic “All American Boy”. Sprout also brings in heavy, Sabbath-esque guitars on rough rocker “The Bone Church” as well as the curiously scraped-out chug of “Psychotic Crush”. On Cool Planet, Sprout’s singing is higher in the mix, so you can feel the depth of voice better than on past records, but he’s also pushing out of his comfort zone and getting a bit more zealous in his weird touches.
The surprising turns from Sprout inject life into one piece of the band’s recent albums that was always solid but perhaps rote. As Pollard’s approach has shifted (only slightly) on the past couple records, Sprout was following the same muse. But both he and the band at large break out of habits on Cool Planet, and those breaks are for the better. Most importantly, the obligatory lo-fi feel of Let’s Go Eat the Factory and parts of other records is gone, and we’re just left with pure rock songs. The weight of history and tape hiss has been lifted and the songs can stand alone on Cool Planet. As it turns out, they hold up pretty well on their own.