English Little League just misses greatness, but if it's not the best album they've put out since early 2012, it's certainly the most interesting, the most willing to take risks.
What was most exciting about the reformed Guided By Voices, before there was the inevitable new recorded output, was that the band would drag Pollard out of the studio and onto the road for long stretches of time. Now that the live leg of the reunion is over -- for now, anyway -- Guided By Voices has become another offshoot of the scattershot powerhouse that is Robert Pollard's recording life. However, this shift has made for its own little surprises. Sure, Pollard does what Pollard does, but with a band in the studio he sounds more relaxed, more inclined to experiment in ways that don't just sound like versions of Circus Devils tracks.
Pollard and the gang have proven themselves capable of both recapturing the magic and twisting it into something fresh. It took a little doing -- you could feel the cobwebs lingering over parts of Let's Go Eat the Factory. But that followed with the shadowy but solid Class Clown Spots a UFO and the excellent, organically fragmented The Bears for Lunch. The January 2013 EP, Down By the Racetrack, was a classic non-album curio, a strange collection of experiments, sort of. It announced its eccentricities openly like older EPs, but it never bails us out with a perfect pop song. It let us sit in the murk and work it out.
It's the first thing that didn't seem of a piece with the reunion, that didn't feel like it was tied to the "classic" years of the "classic" line-up. English Little League, the latest record, convinces us that we must accept this line-up on its own time and terms. It may be the same group that made a bunch of records we love, but they're (modestly) moving on. Of the now four records we've gotten post-reunion, this one sounds the least self-consciously lo-fi. Instead, these songs are built up and thorny, never stylishly undercooked or slyly tossed off. There's a real focus on a song by song basis, and if there aren't the same kind of earworm hooks we got to highlight, say, Class Clown Spots a UFO, then there's a consistency that helps supplant that lack of clear peaks.
More importantly, that precision on individual songs allows the band to stretch out into its most fruitful experiments. We start with big power-poppers like opener "Xeno Pariah", the crunchier "Trashcan Full of Nails" or the bellowing rock balladry of "Send to Celeste (and the Cosmic Athletes)". These are the moves we expect, but then the band twists them ever so slightly with the faux-jock-jam "Crybaby 4-Star Hotel" or the moody rumbling of "Taciturn Caves", which plays like the dark shadow lurking under much of Pollard's seemingly carefree wordplay. If Pollard stretches some underused songwriting muscles in these moments -- indulging his goofball- and art-rock tendencies with the same sense of purpose -- then Tobin Sprout responds in kind. The two have always been excellent counterpoints, Sprout the bittersweet wallflower to Pollard's towering bluster, but here they find common ground in great ways. "Islands (She Talks in Rainbows)" continues Sprout's impeccable run of songs in the past two years, but also ramps up the muscle a bit. If the choruses still cascade sweetly, the verses have a bit of jangly edge. But Sprout saves his big crunching rock moment for "Quiet Game", where distorted and treble-bleached guitars grind behind his still restrained voice.
That's not to say that there aren't moments where the band falls into some of their typical pitfalls. These experiments above work because they subtle stretch the parameters of our expectations -- see also Sprout's excellently hushed "The Sudden Death of Epstein's Ways" -- while other moments seem to force the issue. "Sir Garlic Breath" and "Reflections in a Metal Whistle" revert back to cavernous lo-fi sound that tends to make otherwise quiet tunes sound too strident, too shoved into an otherwise brilliantly balanced mix. These plodding experiments used to be a virtue, but often in the past two years the songwriting has fallen off in step with the fidelity, and these songs are no exception.
Those moments are few, but they slow down the record just enough to be a hindrance, which is too bad since closer "W/ Glass in Foot" is a propulsive rock gem, ending the record on the thorny but focused note it began on. English Little League just misses greatness, but if it's not the best album they've put out since early 2012, it's certainly the most interesting, the most willing to take risks. This is the first of these albums where it feels like there might be something at risk, something to lose, something to break down or build upon.