This spring’s Earth Man Blues was the best Guided by Voices album since Isolation Drills. A versatile, rollicking faux rock opera as unpredictable and exciting as anything Guided by Voices have produced since re-banding, that record reminded listeners that the group’s current revamped roster is more than just a victory lap. It might be the most potent iteration of Guided by Voices since their inception.
Carefully produced by longtime Pollard collaborator Travis Harrison (described as the sixth member of GBV), It’s Not Them. It Couldn’t Be Them. It Is Them! is a surprising follow-up chock-full of bizarre, unpredictable moves and power-pop rippers that keep listeners guessing along the way. The album begins with “Spanish Coin”, an outlandish track that delivers rolling percussion, mariachi trumpets, frenetic acoustic strumming, and soaring strings arranged by guitarist Doug Gillard. It sounds like Gipsy Kings dropped acid with the Who in some far off desert dreamscape.
The singles are just as catchy as anything Guided by Voices have produced in the past with any lineup. Consider “High in the Rain”, a mid-tempo, melodious track and the album’s second single. “It started at the / Playground / It followed me / To my senses / It was a superficial / Contact / A victory of the / Ego.” Pollard’s lyrics point to the psychogenesis of pure pop, capturing the kaleidoscopic collage behind the frontman’s artistic vision. Although in many cases, stoner fans will want to embrace the lyrics more directly through a marijuana-induced haze.
The next single, “Dance of Gurus”, features a rare channel-surfing music video directed by artist Aaron Dunkel and featuring snapshots of Guided by Voices taken by New-York based photojournalist Michael Nigro. An upbeat rocker with the catchy hook “What’ll I do with / You / You do with me” sung quid pro quo by Pollard and guitarist Bobby Bare Jr. during live performances, the song delivers a welcome singalong with an explosive outro featuring some of the most explosive Gillard riffage one could ask for. The track perfectly fits alongside older staples from the band’s current touring stint, such as “Everyone Thinks I’m a Raincloud (When I’m Not Looking)”, “Chasing Heather Crazy”, and “Game of Pricks”.
Another single from the album is a bouncy power-pop and garage rock throwback titled “My (Limited) Engagement”, featuring strong basslines from Mark Shue and a scintillating Gillard solo. Listening to this song, one imagines awe-struck masses bobbing along to these chords, immersed in the stench of Jose Cuervo and Miller Lite.
The album also has rock songs of a darker ambiance, such as the jarring psychological track “Flying Without a License” and the absurd drama of “Maintenance Man of the Haunted House”, arriving just in time to celebrate Halloween with some avant-garde lyrics and an eerie atmosphere. There’s also the laugh-out-loud antics of the spoken word track “Razor Bug” (who is “goofy from the shots”) and the ludicrousness of “Psycho House”. “Heat up the coffee / Water / Drain the soap / Catch a fly” and “Finger linger / Scratches matches / senseless motion” are some of the lyrics from this standout track exploring the inanity of our everyday domestic experience. While some of these stranger moments on the record might challenge some listeners, this is a good thing for fans who have come to appreciate Pollard’s wackier tendencies.
There are gorgeous moments along the way, such as the fade-in to the opening riff of “Black and White Eyes in a Prism”, an expansive track with inspired strings and riffs anchored by the rhythm section of drummer Kevin March and bassist Shue. “People Need Holes” is another anthemic track that easily fits into GBV’s live oeuvre, echoing “Hudson Rake” from Space Gun with its playful tonal shifts and odd time signatures before its soaring singalong outro.
Over the past several years, Guided by Voices have been on an absolute tear. With It’s Not Them. It Couldn’t Be Them. It Is Them!, they deliver a stunning, large-hearted collection of power-pop and off-the-wall oddities laced with beautiful strings and horns throughout. It’s an excellent time to be a Guided by Voices fan, indeed. The club is still open.