Monday, April 10, 2017

August By Cake (2017)

August By Cake
(Guided by Voices Inc., 2017)

Since its official announcement in January 2017, a lot has been written about Guided By Voices' true second reunion effort, August by Cake, so I'll try to keep it brief (yeah right). Pollard dusted off GBV once again in 2016, releasing Please Be Honest, a glummier affair of fairly strong songs mixed with a few pebble kickers and head scratchers. While he assemebled a band and hit the road soon after, Please Be Honest was the first GBV LP to feature Pollard playing every instrument in its entirety. In a way, it felt devoid in spots of the true GBV spirit; an actual band led out to sea by the Fading Captain.

If Please Be Honest accomplished one truly great feat, it was bringing about the conception of, arguably, GBVs strongest line-up to date. Fan favorite, righthand man, Doug Gillard returns on lead guitar. Additionally, baby-faced bassist Mark Shue, and veteran songsmith/guitarist Boddy Bare fill out the strings, with solid-as-stone Kevin March on drums.A full fleshed line-up, and powerful at that! How 'bout it?

 Such is clearly evident throughout the entirety of the sprawling... massive... August by Cake. 32 songs in 72 joyous minutes. Recorded mostly with Travis Harrison (drummer/engineer of Pollard's ESP OHIO), other tracks were recorded at various locations.  While this is the first double LP under GBV, Pollard has been down the double LP road before with From a Compound Eye (26 songs), Let It Beard (26 songs), and Sgt. Disco (32 songs). What sets this apart from those double LP affairs, is the depth of quality. There's a ton of meat to sink one's teeth into. Like a truly great double LP, August By Cake feels both wholly complete, and a big mess at the same time. Still, it comes out oh so glorious.

A big fuss was also made about this being Pollard's 100th LP of his career. Some have counted 99, others say 101, 109 (or with EPs, and bootlegs, 200 and whatever...). No matter how you figure, 100th looks damn nice in headlines. With that said, the "100th" LP features multiple songwriting contributions from EVERY member of the band, an unprecedented event in the GBV universe; 2 songs each from everyone not named Pollard, 3 from bassist Shue! Maybe it's the all-hands-on-deck unity, maybe it's fate, but August By Cake stands as one of the brightest moments in a discography that's as storied as it is dense.

5° On the Inside- "LADIES AND GENTLEMEN..." announces Uncle Bob, leading off this track, the ringleader of his own pop empire. Similar to the beginning of Nilsson's Pandamonium Shadow Show. A grand statement kicks off this monument of the 4 P's (pop, psych, punk, and prog, of course). Really nailing it with those trumpet leads, this opener is an instant classic, as is usually the case! Full of beefy verses, infectious drum stomps, layered guitar interplay, powerful chorus, and a hook for the ages. Could've been one of the great lost tracks from, say, Do the Collapse? Only 31 more songs to go!

Generox Gray®Fuzzed, warbled guitars open this over a harrowing drum stomp. It's wholly bleak before taking a sly, uplifting turn. Pollard sounds completely sturdy and a tad out of tune at times, but it adds to the mystique. An organ plays the repetitious melody in the distance, and the whole track sort of grows into a strange, wondrous melody you can't shake. Scrub all you want, this one continues to grow. 

When We All Hold Hands At the End of the World- 4 An example of Pollard weaving a ton with so little. A programed drum beat aids in the simplicity as Pollard sings a simple but killer melody that seems wholly familiar. The guitars, sharp as nails, stab away leading into a crunchy melody. Ugggh, nearly perfect. Perhaps it is.

Goodbye Note- 5 Doug Gillard is BACK! The first non-Pollard track of the LP, and what a new classic it is! Upwardly mobile guitar lines, at times joyous, other times relaxed, but wholly triumphant. Infectious like a pop induced flu. Instantly press repeat on your programing device, turn back the needle, do whatever you gotta do to replay this one ASAP. Or continue to push your way deeper into the mysteries that is August By Cake

We Liken the Sun- 3 Warbled guitar plays out on shaky legs as Pollard sings in pleading mode. Fairly brittle track of little note. Pollard sounds out of tune in some spots at the start, but the ending kicks it up slightly for the outro, leaving a joyously melancholy aftertaste. Trim and sweet. 

Fever Pitch - Simple gap track material. It wouldn't be a sprawling GBV record (or any really) without them. Here, under a minute, Pollard sings his sci-fi affected vocal effect while peaking, distorted guitar lines ring about in the back. The melody is humdrum, but in the context, this song fits like a glove. Just not much of note for a single track revisit. 

Absent the Man- Batter up! Next in line of newest GBV members not named Pollard, we find bassist Mark Shue and his first of 3 contributions to the LP. This song is a straight forward, mid-tempo rocker with some angular guitar leads and whinier, strained vocals. It's a fairly strong tune that sounds a little too close to some of the cornball Nick Mitchell stuff off one of the Ricked Wicky LPs, namely "Imminent Fall From Grace."

Packing the Dead Zone- 3 Opens with an unnecessarily Dad friendly voiceover from Pollard's bud, Steve Stefanakos. What follows feels like a lost track from Circus Devil's LP Stomping Ground. It's a slinking, mini rocker full of reverberating vocals, middling vocal effects and stiff-upper-lip attitude with an avant edge. 

What Begins on New Year's Day- 4 Originally released on the digital release, Indie for the New Year, this is the same recording that few people heard or cared about. Feel kind of cheated having it released twice, especially since the original was released as a Pollard solo track. However, this song is a slow grower, but with real sentimental power. Read the fuller review HERE, when it was released in 2015. 

Overloaded- Drummer Kevin March makes his first song appearance in full, vocals and all on this LP. When I say ALL, I mean everything is Kevin March on this track. A slice of Yo La Tengo guitars, and a healthy dose of past GBV conditioning, blended with '90s guilty pleasure rock-pop = perfection! Prior to this, Kevin was responsible for the track "Cool Planet" off the LP of same name. "Overloaded" proves to be a potent, uplifting, and reflective pop hammer that comes down hard and doesn't let up. At over 3 minutes, it's one of the longer ones on the record, but worth the trip time and time again. 

Keep Me Down- In disappointing fashion, this song was previously recorded and released by Boston Spaceships on 2009's The Planets are Blasted. Why release it again? This, Pollard playing everything himself is an unnecessary rehashing of an already released GREAT song. Sluggishly slower than the original, it does posses a certain seat-of-your-pants charm. Regardless, it's a CLASSIC... however, deduct one point due to unnecessary release. Still, fits quite perfectly on ABC

West Coast Company Man- 3 Clean guitar rock starts out mid-tempo and spill into several different sections of feel, rhythm, and styles. Really keeps you on your toes while sounding somewhat cohesive. Similar feel to some Circus Devils' more "normal" tracks, but with  Gillard guitar overdubs.

Warm Up to Religion- 5 Starting in the jangly stratosphere over an aurora borealis, Pollard finally chimes in, slathered in reverb before the song levels out into a slow, choppy indie guitar fest. Slowly it builds, weepy feelings budding within. A slight tear appears from the corner of the eye perhaps? And then... The finale is grand; whooping vocals, flying Gillard solo, and Pollard laying it down like a full house on a scuffed poker table for the goddamn win. 

High Five Hall of Famers- BOBBY BARE JR... Reporting for duty! Guitarist, and long-time recording artist in his own right, makes his GBV song debut. Here, Bare sounds like a surly, younger Pollard with a little more gravel and twang. It's a stripped down, single guitar, bass and drum take on what feels like a simplistic GBV throwback tune. Revisit this in simple moments of triumph. 

Sudden Fiction- 4 Mark Shue is back for his second contribution to the LP. This one has a similar feeling to "Absent the Man," but the drum stomp and escalating guitar assault bring this up a notch. Far from wholly original, this is a solid showing all around. 80's college rocks meets some Fleetwood Mac in the choruses, meets '90s Chapel Hill hooks? A whole lot sprouts forth from so little. 

Hiking Skin- 4 Originally released online as the streaming preview track to ABC. This recalls a lot of Pollard's greatest hits in a few acrobatic vocals moves. The bellowed sections raise the melodic flag along choppy, power pop sections. The guitar work is appropriately grand in this short benchmark track. Would've fit nicely on Motivational Jumpsuit or Cool Planet. Guitar outro leads us out and into...

It's Food- 3 The stabbing outro of "Hiking Skin" opens Side C (the wonkiest side of the LP, for sure). Barebones, Pollard humbled vocals over prickly guitar pulls. It lacks any real punch on its own, but remains solid nonetheless. A few twists, mainly notable for the lofty harmonies in parts. 

Cheap Buttons- 4 The lyrics are downright belly laugh worthy here, but appropriately so. Pounding, choppy stadium rocker on a small scale. The hooks are memorable on a grander scale. The band fires from the hip and hits all targets, moving or otherwise. The breezier interlude, complete with tambourine take the cake. And no, I will not make a pun here. 

Substitute 11- 4 Lyrically, this one plays out as some sort of avant Pollard stage-play, something we've seen during several Circus Devils' LPs. It's a morose trudge with creepy, dusty guitar leads that sink into your brain. The song breaks into a 2nd section as Pollard sets the scene for our fictional "Substitute 11" character. It rides out on a steady, mid-tempo beat. What is going on here? What is the point of all this? I don't care because I love it... Fades into...

Chew the Sand- 2 ... The 3rd track credited to Mark Shue is essentially a noisy, post-punk, apocalyptic instrumental too long for its own good. However, amid the density, such a track is welcome. Taken on its own, it leaves little to write home about. Distant tom pounding on the drums, guitar wankery, gibberish Pollard vocal interludes. Not fit for a mix-tape, but I wouldn't have it any other way. Welcome to ABC you hunk of aural filler. 

Dr. Feelgood Falls Off the Ocean- 5 A rehashing of one of the brighter spots off the jumbled mess that was the Suitcase 2 collection. Originally (and brilliantly) titled, "Something for Susan in the Shadows." Pollard dusted this off and rerecored it complete with drum machine and Gillard guitar overdubs. The melody is simply to die for, the lyrics topnotch. Tap a toe, cry a river, clutch a blanket, paste photos of your life into a scrapbook no one will ever see... whatever your choice, this is your soundtrack. Fantastic. 

The Laughing Closet- 3 A real adult contemporary feel to this tune. It's so mellow, accompanied by faux strings, it might draw a yawn on first few listens. However, it's solid, beautiful Pollard territory that will sink into the cosmos and be recalled fondly when it pops in one's head. Ultra short and somewhat flooring with repeated listens. 

Deflect/Project-5 Doug Gillard knocks it out of the park with his second contribution. Taught guitar work that plays out like audio gold. Slightly progged up in its arrangement, this is a breezy, tight track that lodges itself deeply in the brain. Gillard seems to don a Tobin Sprout-like vocal style (pardon the comparison to past GBV greatness). The solo is out in no mans wizard land. Short and OH SO Sweeeeeet. 

Upon the Circus Bus- 3 Bobby Bare Jr. follows Gillard with his second track of the record. A barebones, lo-fi recording with haunting vocals. Duel speaker, crap-tastic, conversation gibberish saturates the atmosphere, giving it all an unsettlingly feeling. Memorable? Somehow, it is. Sounds like early, lost GBV EP worthy material.

Try It Out (It's Nothing)- Guitar and drum heavy opener to the final side. Similar to a Universal Truths... era GBV. A straight-ahead song on the shorter side, complete with flying harmonies and triumphant trumpeting in the bridge. Pollard and that goddamn golden trumpet of hits, huh? Bleeds into....

Sentimental Wars4 .... So, we arrive at Kevin March's 2nd contribution to the LP (the last of the GBV members not named Pollard on this record). March sounds oddly like a young Pete Townshend here. It ranks up there with sentimental schmalz of "Hold on Hope," while sounding oddly 80s' John Hughes soundtrack worthy in spots. The chorus is unforgettable, period. It's like March stapled a construction paper heart on his sleeve and said "fuck it." Love it or hate it, this one's a keeper. Incredible. 

Circus Day Hold Out- 3 A Pollard oddity begins the descent to the end of the record (as the last 6 are all Pollard fronted). It's glum, grimy. A doom rocker of sorts. Gillard's leads add to the creep factor. A plodding crawl, this one's mainly saved by the gang vocals that close it out. 

Whole Tomatoes-  It wouldn't be a Pollard LP without one terrible title thrown in. A wholly acoustic number that slips fairly far into forgettable areas. However, Uncle Bob keeps the vocals strong, and builds something out of seemingly nothing. The "keyboard" strings hold this above water enough to make you care, and breathe some life into it. Short, sparse, and oddly sweet as a tomato is technically a fruit. 

Amusement Park Is Over- 5 Oh sweet heavenly baby Jesus! These melodies are on point and potent. The lyrics? Incredible. The only slight drawback is when Pollard kicks in on his shambolic drum part (recorded himself), but the song is a patchwork classic hidden at the backend of a LOADED record. Sweet, sad, sentimental, nostalgic? All applicable. 

Golden Doors- 2  Not much of note here. Basically a spoken vocal track with a slight melody over chilly guitar strums. Somewhere, someone is saying this is the best song ever written but not I. A fairly forgettable song tacked on for good measure. 

The Possible Edge- 3 Pollard gives another strong vocal showing over this jangled waltz. Not worthy of turning many heads, but it's prickly and short enough to revisit. The vocals are sweet as a puddle of melted sugar cane on a pile of Peeps. 

Escape to Phoenix- And finally.... We reach track 32. A stomping closer, complete with accompanied claps and a jabbing keys in the verses, this sees the record off in another triumphant moment maker. Seize the day, รก la Pollard style. The Wizard of Northridge created another power house closer? Go figure. Fades out into group vocals reciting the lyrics that end the song "Circus Day Hold Out" Does it all work? You betcha. August By Cake is a WINNER! 


  1. been checking your blog regularly lately to see this review. thanks for keeping this up. i've been streaming this album on consequence of sound. i haven't been buying much pollard lately, but I might have to buy this one. i think i still prefer the reunion albums though, as uneven as they were, i miss tobin sprout.

  2. OH yeah, this one's worth it! Also, if you haven't the ESP OHIO LP is pretty much worth grabbing for your collection if you're looking to get back into more recent Pollard. Will always be looking for more Tobin, but at least he just put out another great solo LP. Check that one out if you haven't. Thanks for always reading and checking in!

  3. 5 Degrees On the Inside - 5. A classic straight off the bat. 65 era Beatles through ragged Dayton filters. Knicks the riff to Paperbag Writer to superb effect.

    Generox Gray - 2 Pointlessly cryptic. Dynamic twists and turns that go nowhere. The whistles/synths at the end are the only thing that make it less than hopeless.

    When We All Hold Hands - 0. A worthless, shitty cover of an already great song with worthless drum machine.

    Goodbye Note - 4. Snappy well written guitar pop. Quite impeccable. And I don't really like Gillard's songs.

    We Liken the Sun - 3 A bit like a 60th Reunion of the White Album with a grizzled Fab Four line up for the first half. Albeit, kind of directionless until its sudden change of direction into a moodiness which reminds me of NiMA.

    Fever Pitch - 0. Pointless crap. I'm scared it'll hurt my speakers.

    Absent the Man - 2. Kind of OK 70s rock from Shue which doesn't really fit into the album.

    Packing the Dead Zone - 1. Like the Numbered Head. Just tedious.

    What Begins on New Years Day - 2. Like every single Pollard 2 string acoustic song ever, only without any of the hooks, charm or mood.

    Overloaded - 3. Sounds a bit like Third Eye Blind but indie. Not bad though. Well done Kevin March.

    Keep Me Down - 0. Bullshit. Just no. It was already a great song and recording. Just a few years ago.

    West Company Man - 3. Goofy jazz chords giving way to big structural sweeps. Not bad but not very memorable either.

    Warm Up to Religion - 4. Ok. This one's actually pretty good. The way Pollard sings 'Why am I screaming' is oddly haunting. Good one, Bob.

    High Five Hall of Famers - 2. Sounds like a very poor man's Pixies. I like this Bobby Bare guy, but sorry. Nah.

    Sudden Fiction - 2. Oh is Tommy Keene back in the band? Cool. I could really give less of a shit for this vaguely 80s tinged somewhat whinging guitar pop shit.

    Hiking Skin - 3. A GBV song with all the pieces put in place before it was even a song. Not a bad main hook. But it simply doesn't feel classic.

    It's Food - 3. Leads on from Hiking Skin's ringing guitar outro. Pollard sings some frighteningly brain-dead shit about mystery meats and food then pronounces 'We can kill them.' Yeah it's ok.

    Cheaps Buttons - 3. Pretty decent Who-style rocker. Feels just a bit too out of the box though. We've heard this before. The hooks really are decent though.

    Substitute 11 - 3. One of those kinda maudlin Pollard numbers which is buoyed by some skeletal guitar backing. Bursts into kinda painfully familiar Pollard rock tropes.

    Chew the Sand - 2. Phasing galore, feedback, single chords ringing out. Then some really fucking weird Pollard vocal samples. Which are kinda funny. But still basically, nah.

    Dr Feel Good Falls Off the Ocean - 2. Something For Susan in the Shadows returns with a god-awful drum machine and lyrics that seem to be about gentrification. I'd still rather listen to the Suitcase 2 version of the song.

    The Laughing Closet - 2. A somehow unsatisfying restrained Pollardian acoustic strummer. This album really needed one of these but the flat vocals and the aimless structure really prevent it from being a winner.

    Deflect/Project - 2. Reminds me of Sebadoh or something. Clever, tricky chord progressions. Just feels tacked onto the album though. Really just doesn't feel like GBV.

  4. Upon the Circus Bus - 3. I'll give this an extra point because Bobby has a really nice voice. Ever heard that track 'Like I Do' from Forever Since Breakfast. Same thing again basically? Chatter in the background while a melancholy acoustic tune rings out over top.

    Try It Out - 2. Am I just in a bad mood or does this power-pop tune fall dreadfully flat simply because Pollard has mined this territory far too many times and simply doesn't provide the hooks to compensate?

    Sentimental Wars - 3. Really? Tinkling little psuedo cosmic atmospheres while the line 'Just take my hand, I will be with you always?' I thought we as GBV fans were up for much weirder shit than this. Perhaps this was the core message all along. Still can't say I love it. But never having been a huge fan of Tobin's songwriting, I think he's officially been replaced.

    Circus Day Hold Out - 3. Not bad. Not particularly great either. Trudges through some moody, undecided sections before a solid refrain.

    Whole Tomatoes - 3. This should get 1 because it's called Whole Tomatoes. As a matter of fact, it's in a similiar vein to Laughing Closet, only better.

    Amusement Park is Over - 4. Ahhhhhhhhhhhh here we go. Finally. Pollard is actually engaging and inspired again. Where the fuck did this one come from after the relentless slough of mediocrity. Post-chorus is kind of off-key though and detracts from the song as a whole.

    Golden Doors - 3. Moody piece. Fizzing synths fill the background while Pollard sings about 'The King is talking behind the golden doors.' Not quite mystique enough to be classic for this type of Pollard tune.

    The Possible Edge - 3. Yet another one that rises above the merely OK. Has a casual groove and roaming sense of melodicism. Actually takes on quite a charm once the doubled vocals enter.

    Escape to Phoenix - 4. This one really deserves points for trying to be the rousing closer it wants to be. And it sorta gets there.

    1. I dig this review! Feel free to add it to more to other releases as I genuinely enjoyed this.

    2. I literally came back here because I had a drunken flashback about how I'd left this horrible review in your own style in a black-out stupor. But I hope that's true - in which case thanks a lot. I've devoured all your writings and they've brought me insight and many laughs. Keep it up man! This album really isn't bad obviously - and worth celebrating. I guess I'm just hoping I'll connect with it more.

  5. i'm liking this album more and more. I might end up shelling out for the vinyl.

  6. thanks eric! you are a tenacious man. i picked this one up the other day & after a couple plays the kevin march songs are the most immediately impressive.

    1. Appreciate you checking out the site! Glad you grabbed the record too! It's a winner

  7. I just picked up this album at GBV's recent Las Vegas date... On my initial listen (as I write this) I am loving it!

  8. When We All Hold Hands... sounds familiar because it is Home By Ten from Suitcase 2

    1. Yes, it’s the “demo” to the song on ABC.

  9. The Laughing Closet gets a full 5 from me, I don't know what song everybody else is listening to!