(2020, Guided by Voices Inc.)
When Pollard resurrected the name Guided by Voices in 2016 for his essentially solo effort Please Be Honest, I was skeptical. GBV had always been the moniker for the Uncle Bob goods, or at least, the guise of a fully fledged band. Pollard playing all the instruments himself and calling it GBV just didn't feel legitimate (this judged on a guy's merits who has a universe of fake band names cataloged in his brain, and more actual LP artwork from said fake bands in boxes in his basement).
But thankfully, dusting off the GBV name brought us an actual band. And what a band it has been. With each LP, through warts and all, this solidified lineup of Kevin March, Bobby Bare Jr., Mark Shue, and Doug Gillard continue to churn out the usual Pollard pace at a remarkably high standard. This is also largely thanks in part to unspoken 6th member, engineer and live sound man Travis Harrison giving this era of GBV its own unique stadium sound at the everyman American lager consumed club level.
Enter August 2020, and it's not the first time we've seen GBV during this tumultuous year. While in the can well before 2020, February's Surrender Your Poppy Field both in moment and hindsight felt much like a product of the times. Released during the gloom of winter, the LP opens with Sara Zade-Pollard declaring "the high today is 20!," before spilling into an anarchic patchwork of cut and paste style rock songs of every conceivable style. Pollard sings "and now it's because of you, you got me thinking Rock and Roll won't always be around," as Covid-19 became reality, shutting down clubs, record stores, bars, society. "Woah Nelly" felt like a late album reminder of the eeriness that was the norm instead of a rehashed b-side. The un-GBV like dirge "Next Sea Level" felt like we were all left in the balance with no life raft; a country divided, a planet melting, directions to "shelter in place," from sea to sea, while some continue to scream to ignore it all.
It's with all this in mind that GBVs 2nd LP of 2020 (of the proposed 3) couldn't have come at a better time. Hitting just before Labor Day, it's a stark end cap to the season. From its eye popping artwork (Pollard handing off his usual visual duties to artist Courtney Latta) to its lighter tone, the record feels like a proper brighter horizons GBV check-in in the middle of unbalanced uncertainty. A tightly packed collection of pop hooks and guitar wallop from Gillard and Bare, the band adds another bright spot in what is now clearly the greatest era of a "band" in their 34th year of recording. Mirrored Aztec makes a strong case as being a top tier contender in this renaissance period that thankfully appears to have no end in sight.
With everything up in the air, it's another reminder that there is one constant you can continue to count on.
Life is short, GBV is long.
I Think I Had It. I Think I Have It Again- 3 Pollard, the king of opening tracks, takes his time here with a song that shines but not too brightly. In a measured attack, this opener is a mid-tempo tune that plants an earworm or two but doesn't steal the show. The opening guitar strums provoke the feeling of waking up to brush the early morning dew out of your eyes. A quick rock-edging-out-sheer-pop tune; one with a solid backbone, setting up a record and a first side of showstoppers.
Bunco Men- 5 If you are a GBV nut then you might think this song sounds familiar, and yes, you'd be correct as the original appeared on the first Suitcase boxset. An outtake from UTBUTS (as the lyrics slyly suggest), this is a lost classic that got away. Here, in full band rendition, this song pops as a melancholy anthem with underlying hope. Pollard makes the slightly off-kilter hooks shine under big band production, resurrecting this old gem once left to wallow in obscurity.
Citizens' Blitz- 5 When GBV nails that particular sweet spot of the post-punk slant, they usually hit it straight on. Angular, jarring, and cloaked in an industrial sport coat as it takes the dance floor. Similar in feel to "Sleepover Jack" off Half Smiles of the Decomposed, this may be an acquired taste track to some. Regardless, the song's really brought to life by Harrison's production. Pollard's hallucinatory bending vocals are fantastic in this oddly catchy winner.
To Keep An Area- 5 "To Keep an Area" is such an easy shoe-in for classic GBV song that it seems unfair. It's basically anything a college kid with an acoustic guitar can come up with in the quad on a sunny day, but it's flaunted and catapulted into the stratosphere of heartstrings here. The slight off tempo endings to the verses, Gillard's emotive guitar bridge leads, and Pollard's incredible finish make this a returnable track of sheer unfettered warmth.
Easier Not Charming- 5 Following "To Keep an Area," this is perhaps the best 1-2 punch on the record. And all at just a shade under a minute and half! Feeling like an Earthquake Glue/UTAC style pop nugget, the verses shift into infectiously simplistic mini choruses. It's the kind of pop song you don't realize has sunk its teeth into you and continues to bite until you find yourself humming, whistling, reminiscing at unexpected times during your daily routine.
Please Don't Be Honest- 4 Kevin March and Gillard work out a jittery main opening as Pollard drops a perfectly droll lyric "Skeleton. Stick figure of myself." This song may be a skeletal pieced together demo (as further revealed in the Hot Freaks weekly releases) that was well deservedly beefed up by the band. Another wonder piece of Harrison and the GBV guys patchwork. It feels like the prize that got away from Surrender Your Poppy Field. The bridge sticks out like a sore thumb of pure gold.
Show Of Hands- 4 On its own, this song is such a grand sweep; a powerful statement written too late to be a hit off Zeppelin Over China. Pollard is forcefully declarative here with the band hoisting him up on their proverbial shoulders. It almost does a disservice in sequencing being behind the equally as good, somewhat similar in feel (at least the former's bridge) to "Please Don't Be Honest." A layered pieced together type track that is a sneak attack on the senses, leaving you dizzied with crescendoing outro for the ages!
Lip Curlers- 3 The first true filler track of the LP, "Lip Curlers" has the misfortune of following a streamroller of hits. This feels like a Tobias-era Pollard solo cut with cloying hooks in the strike-a-rock-stance choruses. Lines and toe tapping continue to invade my thoughts to slight amusement at random moments.
Math Rock- 3 Leave it to Robert Pollard to write a math rock-esque song (although not post-punk enough for the math rock I mainly enjoy, as I adjust my math rock lapels), that supposedly "drives[s] Doug crazy." This song is as fun as it ridiculous. The idea for this sounds almost as if it'd be a drunken late night phone call to the band, or a demo sent out that left the band scratching their heads over how drunk Bob actually was that night? Essentially, the Kevin March conducted Montclair School of Rock (Hell yes! New Jersey!) kids chorus' saves this with a grounded ending.
Transfusion- 4 A slow drip rock song as the title implies, this is a (SLOW) leak from a sapling tree in a dying forest (hey, "dying worlds make Dinosaur bones"). This is about as close to doom rock as Pollard can get. Lumbering but joyously hypnotic opener to the second side that pumps the brakes on a killer opening side. Grows with repeated listens. The type of track that just hits in the right spot after you let it take its hold.
Biker's Nest- 3 Like "Lip Curlers," this one may be the actual filler track of the LP. Feeling like a leftover demo from Circus Devils' Stomping Grounds LP, this is a guitar chug along that really goes nowhere. Except, I find myself quite enamored with the actual guitar chug of this song! Pollard's single tracked vocals don't lend any service to this rather hookless effort, but it's a fine run-of-the-mill song to pull out of one's backpocket in a pinch.
A Whale Is Top Notch- 4 A simplistic riff riding, blip of anthemic pop bliss on side B. A sneak attack of fist pumping and hard swings for a rambunctiously short time. At just over a minute, GBV delivers an infectious piece that's easy to miss. A quintessential gap track that's worthy of a stiff finger point of acceptance on its own.
I Touch Down- 2 Speaking of gap track, this stands as the official dud of the LP. The only purpose I can see of this song in sequencing is the closing track references "touch down" several times? It has its hypnotic qualities that become more appealing with repeated listens but still... Other than that, it is a rather quick but murky track that drags you through the muck before making a wonderful transition into...
Haircut Sphinx- 4 A completely barebones garage rocker, this song harkens back to old school GBV mentality of a "Buzzards and Dreadful Crows" type; here's a riff that could be metallic in style, drums that stomp about, and vocals carrying it with some cocksure sense of direction despite how nonsensical they may seem.
Screaming The Night Away- 2 A meandering late LP track that feels like more of a filler gap track than an actual winner. Is Pollard growing tired here, unleashing a simple rhyme to be reckoned with over guitar pummel? Either way, it's a sturdy quick albeit lifeless punch near the end of the record. If only there's was something to pump a little life back into this record...
Thank You Jane- 5 Where in the holy goddamn did this late LP surprise come from? A spiny guitar lead mid-tempo track that feels like straight breaking sunshine coming through closed blinds on an already decided clouded day. Reportedly a shout-out to actress and activist Jane Fonda, a great Pollard tip of the cap to someone who should keep inspiring us, as he says "I think the time is now for us to all step up, I think we know" (and don't forget to keep "working out"). This winner bleeds into...
The Best Foot Forwards- 3 ... before you know it you're already drowning in Kevin March's drum roll filled assault as this quick penultimate track sucks you under. A brief, blunt track that goes for the jugular more on guitar riffs than vocal hooks. A perfect quick set up to the afterparty of an LP finale.
The Party Rages On- 4 While you're still catching your breath from the all out band attack jumble of "The Best Foot Forwards" you're escorted into the short after party where you may have time to grab a glass of flat champagne. More of a slow walk of reflection and "farewell and thanks for the memories" trot than a "raging party" stampede. A perfect nightcap for this mid-year GBV LP, Gillard's fiery solo sparking up and fading out just over the 2 minute mark... "We'll see you later this year," it seems to call.