The “classic line-up” return for Guided By Voices ended unceremoniously in 2014. A short announcement was made. Tour dates were cancelled. That was it. The band left behind a new stack of solid records and countless singles, as well as some successful tours. Robert Pollard, well, he just kept moving. He put out another album from his long-running oddball pop project, Circus Devils towards the end of 2014. Now, he kicks off 2015 with a new band, Ricked Wicky.
Well, it’s sort of a new band. The only truly new face is Dayton native Nick Mitchell. The rest of the band is rounded out by long-time Pollard collaborator and producer Todd Tobias and drummer Kevin March, who played with Guided By Voices in two different stints, including the last one. Wicked Ricky, and the band’s first album I Sell the Circus, presents as a smart transition out of the most recent iteration of Guided By Voices. Pollard’s never short on projects. He puts out solo records once or twice a year, along with those Circus Devil albums, and he’s also got his proto-pop lo-fi project Teenage Guitar. But he always sounds most vital when he’s fronting a band. Even the best solo records, often made only by Pollard and Tobias, sound like full-band affairs. His run with Boston Spaceships was one of the best side projects of his career. On I Sell the Circus, Ricked Wicky has all the promise in the world to follow down that path.
Pollard seemed to use the last few Guided By Voices records as a middle ground between his arena-rock ambitions and his pop experimentations. Ricked Wicky takes that balance and skews it towards rock crunch. There’s not even a hint of forced lo-fi on this record. The production is warm and clean, and melds Pollard’s vocals with the band’s instrumentation well. So while only Pollard is pictured on the front of the record, this does sound like a group effort. That much is clear when “Well Suited” jumps to life with quick, shifting jabs of lean guitar and March’s smooth drumming. “Death Metal Kid” churns and chugs with all the low-end darkness the title implies, but injected with Pollard’s playful pop sensibilities.
Those first two songs introduce us to the band’s two most successful poles. There’s no shortage of propulsive rock songs on I Sell The Circus. “Intellectual Types” grins and sneers its way through dive-bar hooks, while “Uranus Flies” shakes off the hangover to deliver another triumphant Pollard refrain based on an odd titular phrase. “Mobility” sounds like a ragged take on a lost Thin Lizzy tune, while closer “A Real Stab” stretches the lean hooks of the album’s finest moments out into the set’s most textured, expansive, and lasting tune. Alongside these sprinting tracks, songs like “Piss Face” slow down tempo in favor of sludgy layers. The mood shift works on that track and on “Death Metal Kid” because they never fully give in to self-indulgent trudging. They feel like solid tempo shifts in a dynamic set rather than dead ends.
The bulk of I Sell the Circus makes a convincing argument for Ricked Wicky as a powerful rock band. So, with that central drive on the record, Pollard of course can’t help but tease our expectations and veer away. Acoustic numbers “Even Today and Tomorrow” and “Tomorrow” display some intricate soloing, but feel like tangents meant for the b-side of a single. “Cow Headed Moon” and “Rotten Backboards” go for the kind of lush, gliding power-pop we heard a lot on Guided By Voices TVT albums. And while the former works up to a nice crescendo and the second plays with tempo shifts in interesting ways, they both feel a bit bleary-eyed when lined up with these other, more muscular songs.
I Sell the Circus, in other words, can’t quite shake some of Pollard’s tendencies to keep us guessing, tendencies often employed to the detriment of consistency. Ricked Wicky, though, never goes full oddball. Instead, this rock band weaves eccentric charms into its tight compositions, and in that way has marked the start of an interesting new path for Pollard and these players. If history tells us anything, Pollard could move on at any moment, but here’s hoping he sticks with Ricked Wicky, because this is a hell of a start.