While April’s Warp and Woof thrived through its open embrace of a punk rock philosophy, its grime-saturated collage of sporadic low-fi gemstones a satisfying continuation of Guided By Voices‘ recent run, October’s Sweating the Plague delivers a compelling statement about both Robert Pollard’s legacy as a singer-songwriter and his band’s own live reputation that is as coherent as it is goosebump-inducing.
On Sweating the Plague, Guided By Voices relish their cult status as one the most impeccable live rock bands to hit the stage through an album that is designed to be played on stage in front of dopamine-stimulated crowds at blistering volume. This need for bombast is not lost on producer Travis Harrison, who previously worked with Pollard and guitarist Doug Gillard on their collaborative Lifeguards album Waving at the Astronauts. What stands out on this latest record is the band’s enthusiastic commitment to embrace the joy of working with talent that gels as seamlessly in the studio as it does on stage at massive events like Chicago’s Riot Fest.
“Downer” starts things off with the grating drive of the patchy yet pulverizing guitars of Bobby Bare Jr. and Doug Gillard, transitioning smoothly into the progressive power pop of “Street Party”. It tastefully meshes a mesmerizing diversity of tones and riffs anchored by the band’s rhythm section, piloted with precision by bassist Mark Shue and drummer Kevin March.
“Mother’s Milk Elementary” then unfurls its soaring balladry, the record’s spiritual parallel to “Amazing Grace” swathed in waves of King Crimson-esque psychedelic depth. “Heavy Like the World”, the album’s undisputed barnburner, has made its presence felt already during the band’s recent touring cycle. Already solidified in Guided By Voices’ live oeuvre for turning ears towards its pop brilliance, this bittersweet track touts a melodious chorus that is impossible to get out of your head. There is something deeply moving about the song that harkens back to Pollard’s Isolation Drills days. “Find your elevation while you can,” Pollard croons on the catchy rocker “Ego Central High”. Guided By Voices follow their bandleader’s command, playing to the heights of their strengths as a unit down to the last brick of this stalwart edifice.
“The Very Second” revels in its own throwback ’90s sound, while “Tiger on Top” rounds out artsy indie furniture with hefty slices of full-steam arena rock. Unfun Glitz then slides its mid-tempo swagger into “Your Cricket Is Rather Unique”, a Pollard-penned number with a sugary chorus that Kevin March sings on. March previously delivered the goods on “Overloaded”, one of the top tracks from the band’s criminally overlooked double album August by Cake. March has provided a welcome vocal option for the band that is somehow on par with, albeit less frequent than, Tobin Sprout’s past contributions to Guided by Voices. Something about the Pollard-March vocal dynamic is reminiscent of Hüsker Dü’s Mould-Hart combo, and that’s something to be celebrated, indeed.
The fuzzy upsurge of “Immortals” then glides into the jangly shimmer of “My Wrestling Days Are Over”, setting the stage for the ’70s prog-inflected theatrics of “Sons of the Beard”. Gillard is fully unleashed on this record’s closer. It’s a fitting finale with colorful riffage, capping off what feels like the most complete package of tracks from the band’s current lineup. The club is open for diehard Guided By Voices fans and the uninitiated alike.