ALBUM REVIEW: Robert Pollard shares the burden on new GBV album
Around 1971, when Creedence Clearwater Revival was beginning their descent from one of the bands with the highest batting averages of all time into an ever-bickering permanent disaster and rock 'n' roll cautionary tale, John Fogerty decided to give up his mantle as the band's sole songwriter and invited (read: demanded) Doug Clifford and Stu Cook (his brother, Tom, had already quit by then) to share the workload of generating original material and singing it. The result? The final CCR album "Mardi Gras," widely regarded as one of the worst albums ever made by a once-great band.
The lesson? Don't let the main singer and songwriter in a band punish his bandmates by handing over songwriting and singing duties to them, especially if they, y'know, can't write or sing good songs.
Fast-forward to 2017. Robert Pollard is a guy who is renowned for his prodigious, productive pen. For the past two decades, he's been underground-famous as the leader of Guided by Voices as well as Boston Spaceships, Ricked Wicky, Circus Devils and numerous other bands and projects. Pollard's thing is this: He writes and releases what seems like every idea he has. He's got over 2,000 songs registered with BMI — 2,000. Not all good, mind you — remember, he'll release just about any drunken 90-second half-thought, but he's also a master surrealist pop songwriter up there with Robyn Hitchcock or XTC, only with more Pete Townshend rock gusto.
Pollard's main band, Guided by Voices, fell apart again in 2014 after a reunion run that saw their "classic" lineup put out several albums. Last year's "Please Be Honest" was a solo Pollard effort in all but name, and it was mostly a slog. Pollard got a whole new band to tour it though, and it's that band that appears on the latest GBV record, "August by Cake."
And, incredibly, it's now that Pollard has decided to ask his bandmates to share the song/singer duties. In the past, ex-member Tobin Sprout got thrown a bone here and there, but on "August," each member of the current GBV lineup gets to write and sing two songs. It's a double record, so the impact of this move is less impactful as it would be on a single LP, but it's still a huge change. Suddenly, Guided by Voices has four other singers.
But, instead of "August by Cake" being a CCR-esque last-ditch effort at musical socialism that only reveals how poorly the band is functioning, it's actually an invigorating refreshment of what Guided by Voices has always stood to represent: Regular dudes hanging around drinking and making lo-fi rock tunes. Indeed, "August" somehow manages to sound more like Guided by Voices than any of the "classic lineup" albums did in fact.
It has to do with spirit. This latest GBV record has it in spades, whereas "Please Be Honest" sounded insular and gray. The records before it had plenty of gems, but also lots of duds. Here, while there are still a few Pollard goofabouts, he mostly restricts himself to high-energy pop nuggetry. Songs like the trumpet-juiced "5 Degrees on the Inside" is an instant Pollard classic, while "What Begins on New Year's Day" is one of his best ballads, with a winding, sweet melody that sounds hopeful and tired at once.
It's those fresh songwriters though that are the big headline here. If you like Robert Pollard, there's plenty of him to go around. But there's also guitarist Doug Gillard's "Goodbye Note," a song that could've easily fit on the last Pixies album and bested a few of those tunes. There's drummer Kevin March's "Overloaded," which is actually one of the record's catchiest songs. "High Five Hall of Famers" is a dark new wave winner from guitarist Bobby Bare Jr., and "Sudden Fiction" is a propulsive number by bassist (and album-cover star) Mark Shue that gets into Primal Scream territory.
Pollard's instinct to cede some control on his 100th album to his new merry band of rock pirates has paid off. Maybe it's that spirit thing again — he's not giving them solo slots as an act of frustration with his own workload, but is instead extending the opportunity because he felt the mood was right. And he was correct. "August by Cake" is one of the most enjoyable, well-played, earworm-y GBV records since their early days.
Artist: Guided by Voices
Album: "August by Cake"
Recorded at: Serious Business Music and Cyberteknics, Dayton, Ohio
Personnel: Robert Pollard (vocals, guitar), Mark Shue (bass, vocals), Kevin March (drums, vocals), Bobby Bare, Jr. (guitar, vocals), Doug Gillard (guitar, vocals)
Listen to "5 Degrees on the Inside" at duluthnewstribune.com.