On 1999’s Do the Collapse, producer Ric Ocasek fashioned Guided By Voices’ famously rough-hewn, fractured lo-fi tunes into a cleaner, more disciplined power-pop package closer to the hi-fidelity end of the spectrum. While the Dayton, Ohio band had previously enjoyed indie-legend status and the kind of critical acclaim that comes with such territory, Do the Collapse made it clear that frontman Robert Pollard wouldn’t object to broader, popular acclaim (and the record sales to match). However, as GBV distanced itself from the tried-and-true four-track aesthetic, naysayers complained that the band’s “authentic” rock essence was getting lost, or at least considerably diluted, in the mix.
Produced by Rob Schnapf (whose previous credits have included work with Elliot Smith, Beck, the Foo Fighters, and Moby), GBV’s follow-up, Isolation Drills, represents something of a compromise. Although the band’s 12th studio album continues in the more polished vein of Do the Collapse, its surface is nicely tarnished and scuffed so its indie-rock roots are always audible.
From sparse DIY fragments to string-enhanced ballads and well-wrought pop, the material on Isolation Drills is as diverse as it is consistently compelling. One of the most striking aspects of the album is the way that, after one listening alone, a number of tunes manage to sink their melodic hooks into your bobbing head. Instantly catchy and immensely radio-friendly guitar-pop numbers such as “Glad Girls” and “Chasing Heather Crazy” are irresistibly infectious, right down to their sing-along choruses.
No less addictive are numbers like “Fair Touching” and “Twilight Campfighter”, on which jangling guitars combine with Pollard’s vocal delivery to evoke the likes of REM, in the best possible way. But while guitars are key to the equation on Isolation Drills, they’re not always put to melodic ends. One of the standout tracks, “The Enemy”, for example, is grounded in a sparse, jagged riff whose rhythm suggests the lurching grind of Wire classics like “Lowdown” and “Pink Flag”.
Other familiar GBV influences such as the Who are audible here as Pollard ably compresses the grand gestures of classic rock into more modest indie nuggets. With its alternately rolling and machine-gunning drums and its noodling bass on the chorus, “Run Wild” captures the spirit of Townshend et al. without ever being derivative. The driving rhythms and fleeting mid-point vocal/keyboard harmonic interlude of “Skills Like This” make for a similar comparison. An equally accomplished translation of the classics can be heard on “Pivotal Film”, which — both musically and vocally — has something of a late Beatles groove to it.
Alongside the more crafted and finished fare, Isolation Drills features a few off-kilter moments knowingly thrown in as subversive punctuation to interrupt the apparently seamless proceedings. The sub-two-minute “Want One?” — which deserves special commendation for its inclusion of whistling — is mildly quirky in a Britpop way. Elsewhere, on the 55-second fragment “Frostman” and the brief intro to “The Enemy”, the band’s repressed lo-fi tendencies return to make their presence felt.
Although Isolation Drills is memorable for its clutch of contagious, upbeat pop melodies, there is a darker, more understated side to the album. Toward the end of the record, the songs become markedly introspective and confessional. This is certainly the case in the closing quartet of tracks (“How’s My Drinking?”, “The Brides Have Hit Glass”, “Fine to See You”, and “Privately”) that seem to deal with Pollard’s personal woes, among other things, and find him in a less lyrically enigmatic mood than GBV fans have come to expect.
Apparently, Ric Ocasek didn’t allow the band to drink during the recording of Do the Collapse. For Isolation Drills, however, Rob Schnapf didn’t impose such restrictions and, as Pollard himself says, “the performances were better this time around”. In vino veritas, or perhaps in Budweiser veritas, given Pollard’s tastes and storied accomplishments on the beer front. That’s not to say that there’s a return to some allegedly more “authentic” version of GBV on this album, whatever that means. Rather, Pollard and co. continue to move forward without completely forsaking their roots. More power to them.