GUIDED BY VOICES, MY MORNING JACKET
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"SOMEONE TELL me why. . . . "
Much has changed since the fall of '99, when Bob Pollard sang those words in Guided by Voices' "Teenage FBI"—the first single off their major label debut, Do the Collapse.
Sadly, GBV's jump into the big leagues couldn't have been more ill-timed, as the period would usher in what might well prove to be popular music's nadir. Limp Bizkit and Korn. 'N Sync, Aguilera, and TRL. Boy bands and mook rock.
In 2002, it appears the pendulum has swung all the way back to the other side, with the rapid ascendance of Ryan Adams, Pete Yorn, the Strokes, the Hives, and White Stripes. For three years, MTV's inundated us with images of Britney Spears and Fred Durst; now it's Julian Casablancas' and Meg White's turn.
Where, one wonders, is Guided by Voices in all this? Well, back on Matador Records for a start—but that doesn't really answer the question. So to pilfer from Pollard, can someone, anyone, tell me why GBV has been left out of rock's current mainstream resurgence? I mean, honestly, was "Glad Girls" any less of a radio song than "Last Nite" or "Fell in Love With a Girl"?
Spare me the pat answers about how Pollard and his cronies are too old, too rough-hewn, and too resolutely Midwestern for similar success. The simple facts bear the man out: At 45, Pollard has a better waistline than most of the Hives, could drink the Strokes under the table, and pens more memorable songs in a single hungover session than Jack White will write for the rest of his life.
While those other groups are busy working on their coiffures, scouring thrift stores for red Sansabelt slacks and bedding down Hollywood starlets, I'll stick it out with GBV—a band whose appeal isn't tethered to sales figures, passing trends, or the rock-star-rite-of-passage boink from Winona Ryder.
Which is a rather long-winded way of saying that Guided by Voices are back, and if not better than ever, then certainly in top form.
GBV's latest, the just-released Universal Truths and Cycles, finds them reuniting with longtime label Matador, after a much maligned stint in the majors on TVT Records. Indie-minded acolytes who cringed at the "interference" of outside forces will be happy to know the new album is essentially a self-produced affair recorded in the modest confines of GBV's Dayton, Ohio, digs.
While Do the Collapse's reception suffered because of heightened expectations (as well as producer Ric Ocasek's heavy-handed approach), its follow-up, 2001's Isolation Drills, was, to these ears, a resounding success. Producer Rob Schnapf (whose efforts have been unfairly lumped in with Ocasek's) helped Pollard realize his dream of making the cohesive Who's Next-style album he'd long envisioned. And yet, in hindsight, something was amiss.
This owes less to the production than to Pollard's own state of mind at the time. Admittedly, Isolation Drills was made heavy, leadened in fact, by the domestic storms in Pollard's life—specifically a divorce from his wife of 20 years. In many ways a break-up album on the order of Blood on the Tracks, Isolation Drills was a bittersweet and elegiac affair. But the catharsis served its purpose. UTAC is sprite and full of reverie, placing Pollard back where he belongs, alternating between the vibrant worlds of adolescent fantasy and the din of the barroom, where he sits thirsting for another round.
Less a creative "comeback" than a calculated return to form, UTAC reaps the sonic lessons of recent studio forays—hi-fi sound, finely honed arrangements, string section interludes. Yet Pollard seems intent on ripping from his own back pages as well. Listen closely and you can hear echoes of past glories—snatches of everything from '87s embryonic Devil Between My Toes to '95's high-water mark Alien Lanes—crop up in fleeting moments all over UTAC.
As such, the new album is a sagacious document that somehow manages to distill the whole of Pollard's vast musical universe. More importantly, the album yields the expected melodic finery without sacrificing any of the beautifully besotted bluster that has made GBV such a compelling live outfit.
The rollicking 36-second album opener, "Wire Greyhounds," announces this in spirited fashion and serves as a signpost of what's to come. The song's title could be taken as an allusion to both English post-punkers Wire—no mean slouches when it came to short, fast, anthems—or to modfathers the Who (recall the Lifehouse-era nugget "Greyhound Girl"). And while DJ Shadow probably isn't sweating it, with this opening salvo Pollard appears to be engaged in his own version of cut and paste, playfully mixing pop iconography and pop arcana (see also UTAC's "The Ids Are Alright" for further proof) into potent bursts of song.
Whether cooking up angular Merseybeat ("Pretty Bombs"), rhythmic ragings ("Skin Parade"), lysergic drones ("From a Voice Plantation"), or the occasional acoustic dirge ("The Weeping Bogeyman"), the album offers an invigorating assembly of sounds and styles. Never shy about spiking his trad-rockist intentions with an arch prog sensibility, Pollard turns the genre sideways with taut, grandiose blasts—"Car Language," "Eureka Signs"—that would send Rick Wakeman running for cover.
Musically, GBV's current core— guitarists Doug Gillard and Nate Farley and bassist Tim Tobias—has eclipsed the band's classic mid-'90s lineup in the minds (if not the hearts) of many. Gillard's playing, especially, has become an indispensable part of the GBV aesthetic. Asked to assume different roles on recent records—the free rein soloing of Do the Collapse; the subtle, textured work on Isolation Drills—here, Gillard splits the difference, offering both memorable lead lines ("Cheyenne") and sumptuous fills (the title track).
After the lyrical detour of Isolation— an uncharacteristically autobiographical effort—UTAC has Pollard back reveling in his signature word games, as titles like "Christian Animation Torch Carriers" and "Factory of Raw Essentials" suggest (again, the songs miles removed from the boy-loses-girl literalism of Isolation cuts like "The Brides Have Hit Glass"). Yet, the clock-melting Dal???sque imagery of Pollard's old lyrical style seems to have given way to more serious—almost deeply philosophical—themes.
There is an overtly spiritual resonance to the songs here, with explicit references to faith, prayer, and religion turning up on nearly every track. (The album's final sounds are those of Pollard cooing the words "God bless you" over and over again.)
Don't get me wrong; I don't expect Pollard to follow rock's other "Bob" and enter a po-faced Christian phase—not unless they reconstitute the holy trinity to include the Beatles and Budweiser—but the obvious emphasis on the celestial, or at least its use as metaphor for more earthly matters, can't be denied.
Chalk it up to post-Sept. 11 reflection or even midlife meditation, but something is clearly stirring in Pollard's mind. Where Isolation found him turning inward for answers, UTAC is the sound of man looking out at the world for reassurance. It's a theme summed up best in the album's centerpiece, "Back To the Lake." Already a concert staple, the tune follows in the anthemic tradition of GBV classics like "Official Ironman Rally Song" or "A Salty Salute"—and like those, it's a track that floods the senses, leaving a trail of rippled gooseflesh in its wake.
"Come in closer," urges Pollard, against a throb of power chords. "There is a sign, shaped in the mind/Pick up, for God's sake/When we call you, back to the lake."
Some might take this as Pollard's riposte to those who've doubted his recent vision for the band, assuring them all is well and asking them back into fold. Or perhaps it's a desperate call out to all the other true believers who, like him, hold firm to the notion of rock 'n' roll as a panacea for a confused and ailing spirit.
For a man who once admitted, "I am a lost soul/I shoot myself with rock 'n' roll," the latter may be the album's real universal truth.