Everything about this album -- from the murky sound to the youthful energy -- feels "classic", but in the end the material itself is merely solid.
Despite his inability to control his ultra-prolific output, don't mistake Robert Pollard for anything less than a savvy promoter and showman. The reunion of the "classic" Guided By Voices line-up comes at a time when these sorts of reunions have become commonplace, a way for older bands to both rehash the past and -- let's admit it -- make some money on our nostalgia. It seems only right that Guided By Voices and Archers of Loaf and whoever else should get some decent return for what they gave us years ago, and the best of these tours have proven a shot in the arm for the players themselves.
A new record from the reunited Guided By Voices line up, though, was a more surprising welcome. Let's Go Eat the Factory hearkens back to the band's mid-'90s lo-fi days -- if in spirit more than in sound -- and presents Pollard once again as band leader, and not the solo artist recording with folks through the mail. If nothing else, the record confirms that the reunion is no mere cash grab, that it's an earnest celebration of friends creating and playing music together, recapturing an old chemistry and pushing it to do new things, or do the same great thing with new material.
The results are sometimes exciting, with the band -- Pollard, Tobin Sprout, Gred Demos, Mitch Mitchell, and Kevin Fennell -- returning to the patchwork pop of classic records like Alien Lanes and Propeller. Let's Go Eat the Factory contains 21 songs that clock in together at about 41 minutes, so we're back to barely-a-minute pop flashes and a few fully realized gems. It's exciting to hear the band rip through a murky 70 seconds of "The Head" or the equally brief "How I Met My Mother", since it breaks from Pollard's recent output. Even on his most quick-fire recent albums, like We All Got Out of the Army or Space City Kicks, Pollard has transformed himself into a writer of complete and traditionally structured pop songs. So to hear him get back to his odd roots on the wobbling "My Europa" or the lush, moody shot of "Hang Mr. Kite" is a welcome return to strengths we never really forgot Pollard possessed.
Next to him, Tobin Sprout remains an excellent foil and fantastic songwriter in his own right. His faint yet sweet vocals offer an unassuming counterpoint to Pollard's charming bluster, and even when the band burns through "God Loves Us" or the chunky "Waves", Sprout's quiet vocals still establish a presence and break through the walls of swampy distortion. He also drives home the decidedly moody and, in the end, introspective feel of the whole record. There's a lot of rabbit holes to get lost down in these songs, from the pianos and sampled voices of "The Thing That Never Needed" to the maudlin synths on "Old Bones". If the guys are happy to be back and playing together, that energy comes through, but it doesn't stop them from lurking in the shadows.
This feel bleeds into the production. The record was recorded at the homes of Demos and Mitchell and Sprout, and feels DIY in a way the mid-'90s records were, but this isn't exactly lo-fi. The guitars are treated to sound desiccated and murky, the vocals processed to sound fuzzy and broken down in places. They're also played off lush elements like strings and horn sections. It's an effective feel overall, one that reminds us of their past without reproducing it, adds a few new wrinkles, and drives home the bittersweet feel of the songs. Of course, where the lo-fi of the early recordings came out of the immediacy of spontaneous creation and the necessity of using cheap equipment, the murky textures here feel a bit prescriptive. When the band clears out the fuzz and knocks out any of the album's singles -- "Chocolate Boy", "Doughnut for a Snowman" and, especially "The Unsinkable Fats Domino" -- they seem most on their game. The energy is at full-tilt, the riffs kill once or twice, and Pollard bleats out yet another indelible hook.
If these songs, along with standouts like "Cyclone Utilities (Remember Your Birthday)" and closer "We Won't Apoligize for the Human Race", show the band at their best, they also point out the confusing nature of Let's Go Eat the Factory. As with the most overt moments in the production, the short songs here start to feel like a self-conscious choice, like this is what an album from this line up is supposed to sound like. Pollard has long ago left this kind of songwriting behind -- even the last handful of Guided By Voices records were far different affairs -- and he struggles to recapture it a bit in these tracks. Too few of the hooks are sharp enough to leave their mark in under two minutes, and the seamless shift between tracks implies an overall cohesion that not only never comes together, but also takes away from the impact of the album's individual pieces.
As much as we know what to expect from Robert Pollard at this point, he always sounds like he's discovering for himself -- the next hook, the next oddball phrase, the next permutation of his sound, the next piece in the vast power-pop mosaic that is his career. That element of discovery seems to be lacking on Let's Go Eat the Factory. And maybe it doesn't need to be there. Maybe these guys recapturing the lightning is good enough, and at its best the album does just that. Everything about this album feels "classic", but in the end the material itself is merely solid.