There’s a tried-and-true indie rock algorithm that states that former schoolteacher and Guided By Voices mastermind Robert Pollard + anything = a song. Like Billy Corgan and Ryan Adams after him, the man’s songwriting muse is so restless that one imagines they must spend their days holed up in a smoky bedroom with the shades drawn, eagerly committing every phrase they’ve ever learned to a series of spiral-bound notebooks in an effort to mold the entire English language into a vast, storied discography. When Pollard disbanded Guided By Voices in 2004, it wasn’t necessarily the end of the world; it was a bummer, sure, but Pollard’s restless creative spirit practically guaranteed that we wouldn’t necessarily be deprived of his talents. Indeed, he’s released at least two solo albums under his own name every year since 2006, and that’s not counting the side projects.
But Pollard needs focus to function, and the newly reunited Guided By Voices provides him just that. GBV’s comeback record, Let’s Go Eat the Factory, isn’t necessarily a game-changer like 1994’s certified classic Bee Thousand, but that may only be because at this stage in the game, we’ve heard enough classic Guided By Voices albums to know what to expect. Factory, recorded with the ’95 “classic lineup”, boasts enough memorable melodies, fuzzy concepts, and tin-can acoustics to transport Gen-Xers back to a bygone era of woozy, frill-less indie-rock that we didn’t even realize we were missing until it returned.
Let’s Go Eat the Factory exists in a time-travelling bullet train back to the early ’90s. It exists in an era of tape hiss and four-track recorders, in an era of charming sloppiness untainted by Ric Ocasek’s glossy production. This isn’t necessarily a pro or a con – after all, those who liked Guided By Voices for their excellent songs and not their ramshackle lack of focus secretly kinda dug Do the Collapse and Isolation Drills, because they were records that dared to hypothesize that, with a little spit-polish, GBV were covertly making some of the catchiest power-pop around – but if you associate Guided By Voices with lo-fi pop masterpieces like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, which just so happened to contain many of their best tunes, Factory‘s formless cycle through sloppily infectious pop and tantalizing half-concepts is bound to prove wistfully nostalgic.
And, true to classic form, Guided By Voices staunchly refuse to allow a song to overstay its welcome. Factory‘s longest cuts, “Spiderfighter” and “Waves”, clock in at an epic-by-GBV-standards three-and-a-half minutes – and, perhaps because the band immediately recognized them as the demos most worthy of fleshing out, they’re also the record’s best, “Spiderfighter” a flinty, wiry post-punker that culminates in a surprising (but welcome) piano coda, “Waves” a back-to-basics, super-infectious guitar rocker borne from the “Game of Pricks” mold, a Fountains of Wayne crossover smash in another world (or with more Ric Ocasek production). Elsewhere, Pollard and Company fire off a series of swift tracks that pull you into their world before, perhaps cruelly, they end and the record takes you elsewhere; “Old Bones” is a creaky, lovely, “Auld Lang Syne”-aping ballad that fades out before it grates, but “Go Rolling Home” and “The Room Taking Shape” are folksy, alternate-dimension Neil Young classics that would likely sound great as full-length tracks. This sort of blue-ballery is par for the GBV course, naturally, and shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s heard “A Salty Salute” or “To Remake the Young Flyer”. After all, we’re talking about a band who once curated a 32-track greatest-hits compilation.
And such is the nature of the beast. Don’t like a song? Find something a little too dischordant, too tuneless for your liking? Fret not, for at the most, you’ll be waiting 90 seconds – also known as a Guided By Voices eternity – for the next tune. But it’s all part of the Guided By Voices experience, and with Let’s Go Eat the Factory, the band has eased gracefully into their comeback by simply reminding us all why we loved them so much to begin with. Quick, atmospheric pop tunes; a defiantly lo-fi sensibility; an internal editor judicious enough to keep the songs trimmed, but not discerning enough to discourage a wistful indie-pop ode to Krispy Kreme donuts. (Totally serious, and for the record, it’s delightful.) Guided By Voices may not be for everyone, but if you’re in the market for some sweet melodies, and to party like it’s 1995, they’ve kicked off 2012 quite nicely.