Right up front, I’ll admit to having heard very little of this archetypal American indie rock band. Somehow, Robert Pollard’s personal personnel carousel and patchy but prolific lo-fi aesthetic have managed to pass me by with nary a flicker of regret on my part. Sure, the occasional solid yet largely uninspired (and vaguely anthemic) rock moment has tweaked my antenna, but for the most part I’ve been indifferent, untouched. Yet here I am reviewing their latest full length, Earthquake Glue, scratching my head and wondering how I got from there to here. Really now, I’m either the best or the worst person to be reviewing a brand new Guided by Voices record.
But I am here, all the same. And, since I’m not in the business of coyly torturing those fans (casual or dedicated) who have traced and tracked the mainly low-key arc of this group through something like 15 albums and more than two decades, I have to announce another thing right up front: this is a very good record indeed.
Here’s why: character. Enough character to achieve the kind of long term payoff that stems from absorbing your influences without entirely succumbing to them. Other bands — and despite the notorious lineup changes, be assured that this incarnation is a bona fide band, tight and well oiled — might drop the ball repeatedly if they tried referencing such similarly iconic antecedents as GBV do here. Somehow, schoolteacher Pollard and his keenest students throw a net around the lot and bring them aboard, wriggling and flashing, yet never boat-sinkingly overwhelming.
We don’t need the homepage photo to hint at Pollard’s obvious Who obsession. Even without the Lambrettas and the faux mod signifiers, the angular volte face guitar riffs and cymbal-heavy manic drumming on such songs as “I’ll Replace You With Machines”, “Dirty Water”, and “Apology in Advance” scream Union Jack-draped boy-rock love, even if you can’t actually see the fetishized windmill guitar or the symbolic circle with the jutting arrow erection.
More interesting still, however, is when Pollard’s frail-ish indie-schmindie voice wavers and whispers in a less strident contrast to, oh, say Daltrey’s nasal machismo. There are moments when you can actually hear what might have emerged from an alt-universe meeting between the early Peter Gabriel and a ’70s Daltrey-less Who (“I’ll Replace You with Machines”). Or that mythical time when early Genesis were fronted by a Gabriel-Stipe hybrid (“My Son, my Secretary and my Country”) — something nowhere near as horrifying as it sounds, thanks to a kind of diet, prog-on-a-budget sensibility adopted by the band here. Other nods and full-on stares: Sloan, Cheap Trick, Wishbone Ash, New Order.
At 15, there are, of course, too many songs. But on the ones that work — and there are more of these than the band actually deserve, quite honestly — such oddball references are assimilated into a tight, willful, big-hearted arena rock sound, teetering in defiance of all expectations. Opener “My Kind of Soldier” is a solid rocker, an apparent one-hook wonder, appearing as dense as Dutch cheese and just as bland. But let it wriggle under your skin over a couple of spins, and you’ll catch the warm Hook-ish bassline and the Sumner-like guitar shard flurries. Within its own constraints, it bubbles with the juices of life like a hot primordial pond.
Inexplicably, the hollow foundry carillon at the beginning of “Beat Your Wings” is redolent of a muted kind of sorrow. The song is anthemic, portentous, and yet a subtle melancholy rides along, as Pollard’s capricious voice shimmies and dips, imploring someone (and, later, us) to “rise again”. After twin guitars (Doug Gillard and Nate Farley) duel briefly like lovesick seabirds (cross reference: Wishbone Ash, Argus, and I’m really not joking), what might have been cloyingly earnest sentiment is forgotten, forgiven — it’s that momentarily beautiful.
Some of the stadium rock is just that: big, goofy invitations to sing along at future shows, a promise of solidarity in anthems. Certainly, the flagging middle is not helped by such generic, bombastic, and (it must be said) near tuneless fare as “Dead Cloud” and “Mix up the Satellite”. But redemption comes in many forms. There’s the time travel (Athens, Georgia, early ’90s) anti-consumerist diatribe of “Useless Inventions”, a dull-edged Stipe-meets-Sloan (Pollard is not a great singer, but to his credit, by allowing the vocal track to hang back so shyly, he acknowledges this) alongside whipsmart chord changes and a repeated “getting tired of useless inventions”. And there’s the surprising “Dirty Water”, which dips into rakish, brackish monochrome Quadrophenia country, yet remains just this side of distinct, all intense “5:15” drumming (Kevin March), avid harmonica and harmonizing guitar riffs. “A Trophy Mule in Particular” is pensive, a quiet study in falling sky orchestral prog-lite, sorrowfully short (a brief one-two punch notwithstanding) and bewildered about its place in a world in which the “stock market’s tumbling” and the “rock market [is] crumbling,” a world that’s passing them by, perhaps.
But above all stands “The Best of Jill Hives”. As anthemic as Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me”, with all that song’s pomp and exuberance and power pop catchiness, “Jill Hives” struts across a crisp, driving bassline (Tim Tobias), Pollard’s echo-delayed vocals outlining a melody both plaintive and stirring. One listen — maybe two — and you’ll be unselfconsciously singing it in the shower, damn near guaranteed.
You can’t use glue to mend earthquake damage, I know that much. And there’s nothing particularly seismic about this record. But let these songs adhere for awhile, and they might help still the shaking in your heart. Steeped in big rock history, steadfastly tenacious, perversely, refreshingly uncool, Bob Pollard has written a fine collection of songs, for the most part, and his band, in their execution, have matched him every step of the way. Now I’m gonna go dig up some of their back catalogue, go see what I’ve missed.