Guided By Voices 2023
Photo: Courtesy of the artist

On Guided By Voices’ ‘La La Land’ Robert Pollard’s Voices Are Colliding

Guided By Voices’ latest lineup has helped add another tool to Robert Pollard’s songwriting toolbox on La La Land. It’s a look that they wear well.

La La Land
Guided By Voices
GBV Inc.
20 January 2023

If anyone ever whispered the phrase “less is more” into Robert Pollard‘s ear, he certainly applied his own twist to the old adage. The frontman for Dayton’s Guided By Voices has written so many songs over the years that he hardly needs to write new ones – and yet he continues to do so all the time. Since the mid-1980s, Pollard has been stuffing each release with dozens upon dozens of garage pop gems, causing newcomers to scratch their heads as they gaze upon the track list printed on the back. Where does one begin? Sure, most of these songs are short, but that doesn’t alleviate the reality that there are so many. 

With Guided By Voices’ latest lineup, including guitarists Doug Gillard and Bobby Bare Jr., bassist Mark Shue, and drummer Kevin March, they have become serious about their quest for the ultimate all-killer-no-filler Guided By Voices album. This doesn’t make them less prolific, though. La La Land is their 14th album since Pollard rebooted the name in 2017, and they are set to release at least one other record in 2023. But when Guided By Voices released Tremblers and Goggles By Rank halfway through 2022, their approach was slightly shifted.

For starters, there were only ten songs. Fans of Guided By Voices are usually accustomed to twice that number. Secondly, the refinement of their recording process bumped the intricacies of their songs into a new league. For La La Land, things are paradoxically becoming more streamlined while simultaneously branching out. There are 11 songs, yet it is shorter than Tremblers and Goggles By Rank. Except for the opener, “Another Day to Heal”, the song lengths stay around the three- or four-minute range. Yes, things are changing. Almost 37 years after their first EP and Guided By Voices are altering their approach, and not in an insignificant way.

La La Land can’t be confused with any other band. Everything that makes Guided By Voices what they are remains intact, including their studio punch, the songwriting brevity, and Pollard’s surprisingly sturdy vocal range. This time though, they are putting more changes into the songs – more tempo changes, changes in patterns, and sometimes enough changes to make you think they’re playing a different track when they haven’t. It’s all part of what Pollard refers to as “a path of diversity in style and in longer, more adventurous song structures”.

Take “Slowly on the Wheel”, the album’s longest song. It begins with a piano part that could be played by any child blessed with a decent internal metronome. As one note is hammered out repeatedly, Pollard enters the picture with a melody that descends and ascends over one breath of his usual stream-of-consciousness lyrics: “It was a time of dancing / Slowly nude within the crowd / Gargoyle as hoodwinked ornamental / Elementals proud.” There are four verses of this before the full band enter on “Now she’s covered up her eyes / Never borrowing for lies.” By now, the tambourine is slapping, and Guided By Voices are chugging, taking the music skyward. Then it’s back to the one-note wonder, only with extra guitars and rumbling percussion in the background. After a chordal interlude, the band returns to the song’s middle stomping ground with a faster tempo. “Slowly on the Wheel” then concludes with a handful of pounding chords that let the music fade out in its own time. This six-minute track would be quite the alien concept on Alien Lanes.

That’s just one song from La La Land. The opening suite of “Another Day to Heal”, followed by “Released Into Dementia”, gives a pedal-to-the-metal momentum matched by the pounding “Sgt. Pepper’s” drum beat that sets “Instinct Dwelling” on its way as it goes on to paraphrase “Electric Avenue” and gives a bright and clanging refrain that requests that “until then keep us here”. The mileage squeezed out of brisk head-bobbers like “Cousin Jackie” and “Wild Kingdom” makes plain to all that Guided By Voices have thoroughly graduated from the lo-fi approach meant to signal “authenticity”.

This way, Guided By Voices are just as effective when they’re whipping up floating, pink-clouded psychedelia as on the disarmingly pretty “Queen of Spaces”. Here Pollard sounds strangely sincere as he gently sings that he’s “seen her face inside / In a lightening house / With an impregnable desire / For finding how not to be found.” La La Land ends with “Pockets”, another song that, at 3:48, seems long by Guided By Voices standards but doesn’t waste any of its space repeating itself. The very ending tricks the listener into thinking the band are about to kick into another idea, only to let the final chord fade.

La La Land will never be mistaken for Yes or Genesis, but it does represent a significant step in Pollard’s songwriting. At 65, he’s decided to pack more “music” into his songs by stirring together different stanzas and moods that would have normally qualified as completely independent Guided By Voices songs 20 years ago. It’s too early to say if the era of Alien Lanes is gone for good, but it is safe to say that this group lineup has helped add another tool to Pollard’s songwriting toolbox. Not to mix metaphors, but it’s a look that they wear well. Consider the transition successful.

RATING 7 / 10