Monday, February 18, 2019

Zeppelin Over China (2019)

(2019, Guided by Voices Inc.)

There are two types of GBV fans (as a matter of convenient comparison here): Those who are familiar and enjoy the '90s output, and those who hang on to and swear by the Pollard gospel (owning LPs with names like The Completed Soundtrack For the Tropic of Nipples) . The former is free to go about their lives, dipping in and out, enjoying other worldly hobbies and recreation. The latter hangs by the man's every note and beer soaked breath, reluctant or unwilling to slander anything he's so graciously released to us over the years.

I, for better or worse, find myself in the latter category. Rejoicing with every release, I am selfishly hungered to the point of starvation, needing more more more, as the ravenous fan so often does. Tracking down, listening, and loving (well....) everything is part of the addiction (hence, this site you are currently on). However, I try to take the blinders off from time to time.

So it pained me to no end when Zeppelin Over China came out of my stereo the first time, and continued to for the next 75 minutes, dragging, banging, clanging; falling flat. Upon first spin, I thought; I actively dislike about 5 Bob records... and now this could be #6.

Zeppelin Over China follows much in the same vein as some other Pollard double LPs of the past (Let It BeardFrom a Compound Eye). The songs are longer, darker, leaning heavily towards prog rather than pop (Universal Truths and Cycles, comes to mind).  Hooks are hidden, or buried beneath the ebb and flow of instrumentation, taking a back seat to post-punk groove, middle of the night balladry, and tom-tom propelled dirges.

Like many Pollard records, Zeppelin Over China is a grower, but a dense and murky one at that. It's challenging, but is it necessarily a good challenge? Many of these songs, to say the least, do merit repeated listens. It's a lot to take in with one listen, however, one finds themselves succumbing to many moments, hidden hooks poking out from darkened corners when you least expect it. That is, if you can make it through the myriad of tracks that run into the 3 minute zone. The LP could've greatly benefited from many songs being chopped in half in classic GBV fashion.

Being only the 2nd double album of Guided by Voices long and storied career (and coming less than two years after their first double), it's so tempting to want to proclaim this as a new masterpiece of the canon. How I wanted to love this record so badly, after the triumphant Space Gun LP, and the dizzying experimentation of their previous double, August By Cake. While Space Gun stood as the lone GBV album release of 2018, it was an album I heralded as one of GBVs all-time best. August By Cake, while flawed, felt like a disorientingly fun experience, bolstered by contributions from all four members not named Pollard. On this double LP, however, it was as if Pollard said "Oh yeah, I can write 32 songs all by myself!" and then delivered a giant brick of ideas, and occasionally in-tune vocals he had to get down before the first lunch break.

Zeppelin Over China is not for the faint of heart, but it is sure to satisfy many fans while bringing many to debate the merits of these songs. Hang with it, at the very least, it stands as a head turning doorstop in the middle of an incredible reunion run with this invigorating lineup. Perhaps one day, it will achieve that masterpiece status, leaving me kicking myself... alone, stinking, and unafraid.

Good Morning Sir- If there is one thing Pollard nails nearly every time, it's kicking things off with a bang. Rarely has he opened a record, especially a GBV record with nothing short of a stunner. As the song limps into is wobbly ending, it becomes apparent that what's ahead may not be par for the course. However, after a few listens, this meandering snippet of a tune grows legs of its own and clings to the brain. Still, this minute track feels like it has multiple opportunities to become a stone-cold classic, but never fully develops.

Step of the Wave- The song title is about as catchy and interesting as the song itself. A lifeless pulse of a gray track. Monotonously beats you over the head for 3 tuneless minutes. The chorus shows a spark of life from the band, but the melody, and (lack of creative) turn is a true snooze. The repetitive, building post-punk ending, complete with Gillard solo, is a minor treat that almost saves it. 

Carapace- 1 The fact that this mind numbing '70s rocker song is 3 and a half minutes in itself is a sin. Pollard repeats the phrase "turtle shell" about 50 times, and does some mumbled repeated delivery of "sarcophagus" halfway through that's enough to make one's skin crawl. It may be one of the dumbest vocal moments he's ever committed to tape. About the most uninspired, repetitive riff one could come up with. Would be proud if my non-existent 10 year old kid wrote this, but otherwise...?  Stiff and lifeless, never-ending, and chocked full of cowbell. 

Send In the Suicide Squad- 3 A mid-tempo soft rocker that takes its time to unfold. Pollard does a nice job bellowing about, nearly turning this song into something much more memorable than it deserves to be. Unlike the last two tracks, a tidy 2 minutes of near joy.

Blurring the Contacts- Sluggish downer song feels like boulder upon the brain. On pure mood alone, I tip my cap, but there's little here to hang said cap on. Kevin March pounds away at his mighty toms. The band trudges along as Pollard does some mild tuneful speaking. Another middle-of-the-road Circus Devils' song that got away and found its way onto a GBV record. 

Your Lights Are Out- 4 Creepy, tuneful, destitute, rocking. Yup, that sums it up! Simple yet twisted guitar lead stands as the center piece. Pollard's hollow vocal yelps fit snuggly in the percussive stabs throughout the song. Mid-way through, the icy track manages to pick up steam, as hooks abound in coy fashion.  The only downfall; at nearly 3 and a half minutes, the song could've benefited from a shave. 

Windshield Wiper Rex- Unfortunately there is now a GBV song called "Windshield Wiper Rex." Luckily the song has some some life to it, and nearly has a hook, but again, Pollard never brings the hammer down throughout the first section. The mid-section shows a bit of sunshine, and dips its toe into classic GBV hooks, but never quite commits. 

Holy Rhythm- 3 Damn, Kevin March REALLY gets to pound the shit out of his toms on this bleak record, don't he? Another mood track, that picks up into mid-tempo rocker, that eerily marches on to the end. Continuously pulse pounding, as Pollard stands vocally strong to the finish line. 

Jack Tell- What should be a one minute gap track turns into an unnecessary multifaceted slog. The first part of this song is a near perfect GBV snippet of a tune accented by a soaring Pollard. The band eventually kicks in at the 2 minute mark, Pollard living out more arena rock fantasies about being in The Who, as the tune goes nowhere.

Bellicose Starling- 3 A sterile ballad of sorts, mildly saved by the "that's what you are" chorus.  Grows more engaging with repeated listens. Reminiscent of a forgettable track on a mid-00's Pollard solo record, the song is saved by Gillard's string arrangements, which breathes some fresh air into a track that nearly feels dead on arrival. 

Wrong Turn On- What kind of title is this? Actually, what kind of titles are any of these? Seriously this record may take the cake for having the worst collection of GBV titles of all time. "Jack Tell?" "Vertiginous Raft?" The fuck? Oh, yes. The song! Some spring in the step here that ultimately gets wasted by Pollard's unmemorable chorus. Seemingly tries for a monumental ending of double vocals, but remains drab for the course. 

Charmless Peters- 4  "Charmless?" Somewhat. Luckily, this downer of a tune is fleshed out, and gets stronger as it unfolds. Even though it drags on too long, lacks much power, and is about a half dozen hooks short of a minimally supplied tackle box, the song is somehow redeeming. A slow grower for sure, but manages to rise as a surprising epic amongst the drab skies. Sure to be a killer live staple. 

The Rally Boys- Oh praise the LORD! "The Rally Boys," saves us all from the cold pit of sludge that is LP 1. Okay, too harsh? A strong dose of pep to this, as March drives it home with solid downbeats. Then, the jubilee of a chorus kicks in. The strings are enough to induce a tear. The harmonies, layered vocals; this is a sheer moment of pop triumph. Enough to make you raise your fist, revisit, rejoice. One of Pollard's best moments. "The Rand McNally Boys!" And all under two minutes! 

Think. Be a Man- Well that was fun while it lasted. Completely aimless, tuneless, Pollard speak-singing and stumbling his way through. Again, the drums stomp on in this minor key'd landfill of directionless chords and word soup. Feels like the bastard tune that got away from "Substitute 11" off August By Cake or "How To Murder A Man (In 3 Acts)" off How Do You Spell Heaven, but crummier. 

Jam Warsong3 An idiotic riff repeated through the entire song, as drum machine keeps time. So mindless, it almost becomes fascinatingly hypnotic. Possibly well suited for a GBV EP of "wacky" ideas, but just another track on this double LP. This one grows on you, more in a groove way than any actual memorable song. Frankly, I hate that I like this song. 

You Own the Night- Originally released as the first single, and side A of 7'' of same name. "You Own the Night" is another rare example of the whole unit giving a shit, and coming out with shining results. The chorus (complete with downbeat propulsion, strings, and raging harmonies), resembles a slightly less triumphant "The Rally Boys," from a few tracks earlier. Frustratingly, the song is nearly killed by the pointless one minute of uninteresting guitar fuckery in the middle. 

Everything's Thrilling- Alright! Dig that guitar chug. This song's going places. Any minute, the band's gonna kick in, and Pollard is going to launch this second LP into the stratosphere with a fucking banger. Any minute... oh shit. Yup, this is just Pollard chugging away on an electric guitar, by himself, singing a melody-absent, harmony-less tune for far too long. 

Nice About You- 1 Creepy, creeping, creeper of a song. Cold, cold song that meanders rather dimly about. No real purpose here; a two minute gap-track. At the minute and half mark, the song flops into a sudden pulse as Pollard hollers the word "NICE" repeatedly. No thanks. 

Einstein's Angel4 One of the rare classic GBV sounding titles of the record. Nearly a classic GBV sounding song too, in some fashion! A minor detractor, the whole song still feels utterly sterile, glossed over by clean production and brittle guitar tones. Pollard delivers a melody decent enough (with solid call-and-response harmonies to boot), complete with trustworthy Gillard guitar leads. Feels like a damn diamond in the rough when held against the first few tracks of this second LP. 

The Hearing Department- So very cold, so painfully slow, that over a couple listens the song becomes morbidly alluring; like rolling down your car window in the dead of night during a 10 below zero, January evening. Oh wait, I did that! Even if listened to in summer, you can possibly see your breath in the dark while listening. Between the production, the wonderfully subdued vocal delivery from Pollard, and the Gillard string arrangements this becomes an icy ride through the darkness that's worth taking.

Questions Of the Test- This song is nearly catchy, until one realizes it's just plain stupid. Then, you realize it's not even catchy at all. If Pollard was replaced by John Flansburgh, I might find this a fairly forgettable They Might Be Giants throw-away. As a Guided by Voices song, it's grating. The psych-rock interludes fail to save it. However, the ending DOES nearly save it. Damn. 

No Point- 1 "There is no point, in fixing. It's out of your hands." Fucking NAILED IT. 

Lurk of the Worm- A song that almost tricks you into thinking it rules. It's like Pollard tried his hand at composing a Zappa-light tune; proggy on purpose. Many people will say after the 25th listen, they "got" this song. It nearly rules at spots, and there's some notable crunch amongst the guitar pedal/synth fuck-a-thon. At the 2:30 mark, the song stops and kicks back in with a tacked on 20 second ROCKING ending (for no fucking purpose at all), that you soon wish was the crux of the  song the entire time. On a brighter note; Gillard and March shine on this!

Zeppelin Over China- 40 seconds of acoustic nonsense as keys rattle against the hollow body of the guitar. Then someone laughs. Some people talk. Then someone yells "Yeah!" Cool, ZOC also contains recordings that should be on Suitcase 5 or an Acid Ranch LP

Where Have You Been All My Life- Compared to most of the ZOC tracks, this song sounds like practical speed metal! A tight-wound, guitar chugger that barrels ahead. What feels like it should be late LP payoff instead unfolds stiff as a board. Pollard adds lifeless, monotone vocals to the soulless guitar changes. On the choruses, it's as if Pollard abandons the instinctual and familiar melodic style for out-of-tune vocal straining, as if not to plagiarize himself from yesteryear. You'll find yourself humming this, like an idiotic nursery rhyme, or children's song that makes you want hit yourself over the head with shovel. 

Cold Cold Hands- "Cold." The centerpiece theme of the entire record. The doubled vocals add much needed life to this mid-tempo stomp. A mild melody, with a very strong vocal showing bring something of note to this short, harmless track. After a few listens, this becomes a late LP winner. This one creeps into your brain, and sounds like it could be a killer when played live. Reminds me of a lost track from How Do You Spell Heaven. Gillard shows some late song flair with guitar heroics. 

Transpiring Anathema- 1 When Pollard comes in with his off-time, drunk uncle delivery of "I've got news for you.... PUNK..." I want to die a little more each time I hear it. Is this supposed to be funny? Was this the last idea he needed to squeeze out before sent to the pressing plant. Pollard's (mostly) singular vocal take does little over this run-of-the-mill arrangement of chords. The Harold Pig Memorial called and wants its outtake back. 

We Can Make Music- 4 Too sentimental for its own good? Possibly. But Pollard weaves some late LP magic. The band, and Travis Harrison handle this well, budding from the seams with added synths, strings, and acoustic guitar accents. Pollard sounds like a delicate old man on this, warbled, haggard, pleading for beauty. The title makes me want to vomit, but the hooks and build up make me want to weep. 

Cobbler Ditches- 2 Some of the dumbest lyrics Pollard has ever committed to tape. Super fans will post online about how much they like it because Pollard says "Motor Away" in it. He also says "Candy bar no one" and "Candy by credit card." 

Enough Is Never At the End- If you like "Sad Baby Eyes" then you're gonna love "Enough Is Never At the End." Luckily,  unlike the former, this song drags along enough old man, drunken sentiment and sincere sentimentality to stand on its own wobbly legs in a weirdly touching moment in the catalog. 

My Future In Barcelona- 4 The first track to premier online for the record, "My Future In Barcelona" is wholly familiar GBV comfort food stretched out into a somewhat breezy (nearly) 4 minutes! The song rides an above average fuzzy feeling throughout. It never dazzles, it doesn't surprise. The band rides an average verse into an average chorus repeatedly that adds up to a song you'll find yourself humming through the rest of your days. One of the tracks where it feels like the whole band comes together in this would-be arena anthem. 

Vertiginous Raft- 4 Somber, guitar chug-heavy shanty rocks us out. Hazy, fuzzed out. Pollard triumphantly sounds off in this minute plus salute, bolstered by a much appreciated string section. Brief, but totally redemptive in its pomposity. As the final note on piano rings out, may you drift out into the abyss on your proverbial raft, vertigo be damned. 


  1. Agree!

    I averaged all your song scores for all GBV albums, and then divided them by the highest average (Bee Thousand, Avg=4.40) to get % grades.

    Ugh...Zeppelin is third from last as a D-

    100% Bee Thousand, average=4.40
    98 Space Gun 4.33
    93 Propeller 4.07
    91 Do the Collapse 4.00

    88 Alien Lanes 3.86
    87 Bears for Lunch 3.84
    87 Under the Bushes 3.83
    85 August By Cake 3.75
    83 Isolation Drills 3.63
    81 Same Place the Fly 3.57
    80 Class Clown Spots a UFO 3.52
    80 Motivational Jumpsuit 3.50

    79 How Do You Spell Heaven 3.47
    78 Cool Planet 3.44
    77 Mag Earwhig 3.38
    76 Vampire on Titus 3.33
    74 Sandbox 3.25
    71 Please Be Honest 3.13

    69 Universal Truths 3.05
    68 English Little League 3.00
    67 Self-Inflicted... 2.93
    67 Half Smiles of Decomposed 2.93
    65 Tonics & Twisted Chasers 2.88
    65 Earthquake Glue 2.87
    60 Zeppelin Over China 2.66

    58 Devil Between my Toes 2.57
    54 Let's Go Eat the Factory 2.38

    1. Incredible work on this! Looking at these rankings, they don't seem right, but such is the math behind them. So many of the LPs flow better than maybe how I feel about individual songs (hence "Alien Lanes" being my favorite, but ranking 5th here!) WOW! And "Bears.." before "UTBUS" And I could've sworn I kind of liked "Earthquake Glue" a good deal! haha Whatever the case, excellent. Thank you for posting this!

    2. Maybe you should revisit some of your scores one day, Eric. Earthquake Glue being my favourite GbV album is by no means my main reason for suggesting this.... oh, alright, I lied.

  2. One more bit of compiled average score data:

    Here are your score averages for the albums from the 5 distinct GBV eras -- presented as a % of the top album average (Bee's 4.40):

    Early era (Devil to Fly) = 70%
    Classic era (Propeller-Tonics) = 85%
    Cobra era (Mag-HalfSmiles) = 75%
    Classic reunion era (Factory-Planet) = 75%
    Current era (Honest-Zeppelin) = 79%

    ...But preliminary look at Warp & Woof looks like it'll drag the Current Era average down a bit. Rock on.

  3. more average song-score comment: If Zeppelin was winnowed down to a single LP with just its top 17 songs: Avg=3.58, Grade of 82% -- just below Isolation Drills as a B- ...Re-do!

  4. The data shared above is tough to argue and the review of ZOC is boldly stated and unequivocally true. The album is equal to Pollard laying an egg and then stumbling out of the chicken coop embarrassed by the remains. The writing was on the wall as evidenced by the first half of Warp and Woof which clearly trudges the same proggy waters that ZOC sadly straddles. The sound seems tethered to Yes and Zappa instead of doubling down on the Space Gun infused energy from just a year ago. Pollard and company (Gillard especially) do their best work when they're distilling Rubber Soul/Heaven Tonight through mash-ups of power chords and cryptic lyrics. ESP Ohio foreshadowed Space Gun and ZOC was the opportunity for the knockout punch. Pollard posted a quick plug for Winecork Stonehenge that espoused greatness was flash it didn't arrive. Rise of the Ants will either affirm that Current Era GBV are the real deal and ZOC was a tough to swallow hiccup or Pollard may need to pull the plug and go back to R/D to mine the puzzling creativity and output. ZOC is the Hindenberg that injured tons of fans and left everyone wondering My Captain, My Captain!?!?! Perhaps Pollard should revisit fertile ground like "The Power of Suck" which given the pack rat that Sir Bob is could be found in some dusty box with countless hours of product so important and profound that he could finally put all his cards on the table and "Mic Drop" his golden child and leave all who remain speechless and gilded simultaneously. Or Bob can do his routine hide and seek for another 5 albums and possible lineup changes for more head scratching pleasure. Pollard has nothing to prove at this point in his music career; however, the man is holding back something massive and I only hope that he commits it to tape before he needs to be committed.

  5. Give it another spin,Eric. It's a great record though i agree with you on side one which is pretty weak.

    Windshield Wiper Rex,Everything's Thrilling,Nice About You,Think. Be a Man,Transpiring Anathema deserve a 4.....

    1. Given a good amount of listens so far; some straight through, some fragmented. Still holding true. I've basically had it with me since it came from Rockathon!!! ha. I will agree "Windshield Wiper Rex" is alllllllmost... a 4 for me. Not bad. "Think. Be a Man" was bumped up one as I don't think it deserved to get such a toilet score.

  6. What a mixed bag... Another frustrating entry in the catalog. "Your Lights Are Out" is gorgeous, wonderful! If Robert Pollard only could be more patient, save these kind of killer tracks for 1-2 years and release a really great record (Space Gun came close but still a bit overrated). "Carapace", I agree with you but the amazing thing is that it sticks in your head, so it's not that bad! "Everything's Thrilling" and "Enough is Never at the End" are plain terrible, both a 1! This is stuff you would find on Suitcase 3 and you would skip it. And you're right about the song titles and lyrics. Uninspired and downright silly at times.

    I agree with the two star review on Amazon: this is the first record on which the off-key vocals are becoming an issue. Sloppiness, I guess? Too self-indulgent to do another take? ZoC should not have been put together like this.

    1. Mixed bag indeed. Thanks for the reference to that Amazon review. Maybe a little hard on vocals, but I wish they were more spot on here. There's been an internet debate about the vocals, and vocal takes from time to time, but here it really suffers. I find this more on the side projects or solo stuff, but rarely on GBV records. Overall too, these vocals just sounds flat (lack of production effect on them in many spots).

  7. Man, I mostly agree. This album is a slog. I wish it wasn't.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. The kneecapping of You Own the Night at the 1:07 mark is baffling. The only song on the record I've been returning to, only to tear my hair out each time.

    Deleted and reposted for typo

    1. Yea this is kinda frustrating. But I do respect that maybe he’s just trying to make a concerted effort to not fall into too many GBV-isms. Although it would be very welcome

  10. i'm listening to this album on youtube now and enjoying it. don't know if i'll actually buy it though. so much vinyl, so little time.

  11. I made a single disc version of this album today. I think it listens pretty well too. Damn if Bob just wouldve cut some of the blatantly annoying/bad songs this could’ve been another How Do You Spell Heaven quality. album. Here’s my edited version

    Good morning sir
    Step of the wave
    Send in the suicide squad
    Your lights are out
    Windshield wiper Rex
    Holy Rythm
    Bellicose Starling
    Charmless Peters
    The Rally Boys
    Think. Be a man.
    Jam warsong
    You own the night
    Einstein’s angel
    Questions of the test
    Lurk Of The Worm
    Zeppelin over China
    Cold cold hands
    We can make music
    Enough is never at the end
    My future in Barcelona
    Vertiginous raft

  12. Replies
    1. Nice mix! Always into checking out a new tracklist variation. I’ll give it a try on the home computer!

    2. Listening back to this sequence, I wish even more thy this had just been a single disc. Could’ve been another continuation of Space Gun level goodness

  13. After repeated listens there will always be standout tracks you'll cherish so much that in the end you buy the album (so it happens to me): Your Lights Are Out, Einstein's Angels, The Hearing Department and the grandiose Vertiginous Raft. Still, only 4 out of 32. Couple other decent and nice tracks but they don't really move me. Couple of real duds...

  14. well i couldn't disagree more with this review and with many of your reviews of GBV lps...all brilliant with some even ultra-brilliant..Robert Pollard's songwriting is unmatched by anyone on the planet...just my opinion