Jen Barber, a frazzled character in the Channel 4 comedy The IT Crowd, once expressed her frustration with working alongside two incels by asking, “Have you heard Guided by Voices?” followed by the admission that she’s a fan and that “they’re good”, but that she “shouldn’t even know who they are!” She has a good point. They are good, often very much so, yet no one fed a diet of mainstream culture should be familiar with their hi-brow indie rock. Robert Pollard and the current iteration of Guided by Voices are a well-oiled machine, known as much for their nonchalant art-punk as they are for their prolific output, yet chart success evades them. Their lasting power stems from Pollard’s poetic observations and knack for melody, but on their 30th album, Tremblers and Goggles by Rank, the bud of the flower is the hard-hitting and capricious music.
The opening track “Lizard on the Red Brick Wall” features a snarling vocal melody set against primal rock music. The lyrics are descriptive (“the sun was heavy like a medicine ball, I saw a lizard on the red brick wall”), but the cool mystique with which they’re delivered makes most of them hard to catch. The repetitive rock gives the track enough edge to pierce but not enough to cut, as its generous length brings it to bizarre falsetto refrains. “Alex Bell”, ostensibly an ode to Big Star‘s Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, features all the festive sparkle of Big Star but lends to it Pollard’s aloof charm (“nostril flares, revealing hairs”). There’s a lot to unpack in this song, including two different choruses, but it’s a pleasure to do so. “Unproductive Funk” thrusts a simple riff under Pollard’s bitter yelps (“Join the winner’s circle or stay out”) before segueing into a more spirited chorus. These shifts in mood make the overall impression hazy; is it subversive or uplifting? Can something effectively be both?
“Roosevelt Marching Band” is a more mid-tempo jam that fails to match its rock-bar backbone with Pollard’s wandering croons, and one might call this track the weak link here. However, things become entirely unhinged on “Cartoon Fashion (Bongo Lake)”, with Pollard taking on a theatrical persona and the band jamming out something gnarly. It’s undeniably cool, but this coolness primarily comes from being haphazard.
“Boomerang” offers an ‘oh ye of little faith’ moment when you realize that at will, Guided by Voices can tighten up their more sloppy dreaming to create simple yet affecting rock music guided by good old-fashioned songwriting. Here, Pollard shows he’s unafraid of using lyrical platitudes (“And what was lost is once again found”), which aren’t in the least unwelcome.
“Focus on the Flock”, a brilliant and ever-changing number that abandons any coherent song structure, switches between quick post-punk to more anthemic sweeps. As Pollard sings, “The double-fisted banker, a double-breasted suit and tie”, it’s easy to hear how this would make a great acoustic version; there’s a folk song hidden underneath the rock. Like on the excellent “Puzzle Two”, a guitar-friendly mix gives this well-produced album some allusions to the group’s lo-fi roots, but not enough to qualify it as lo-fi. At over six minutes, “Who wants to go Hunting?” is an epic and satisfying ending that uses big chords and Pollard’s poetic lyrics to enchant.
This album comes just several months after Crystal Nuns Cathedral, and while you might wonder why they didn’t take the strongest tracks from the two albums to make one rich collection, they are entirely different beasts. Where Crystal Nuns Cathedral is built around earnestness and string-embellished pop-rock, Tremblers and Goggles by Rank is its provocative cousin, causing a scene with loud guitars and attitude, yet sweet enough to get away with it.
In the context of their discography, this colorful album is a strong addition to the enigma of Guided by Voices. It even manages to produce songs (“Boomerang”, “Flock”) that will likely one day be considered essential. Outside of this context, Tremblers and Goggles by Rank is a smashing and replayable album that only sometimes forgets that people are listening.