Credit Guided By Voices for this: when they say the classic line-up is back, the classic line-up is back.
When Robert Pollard and Tobin Sprout announced they were reforming the same incarnation of indie-rock demigods Guided By Voices that gave us perennial classics like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, the joy was palpable; hardcore UFOs whooped for joy and did celebratory space donuts around spontaneous rainbows, lo-fidelity unicorns with unfashionable spectacles ran through euphoric isolation drills in the indie-rock skies, &c. Earlier this year, Let’s Go Eat the Factory arrived, and like a rocketship back to a gloriously cool yesteryear, it delivered the same detached swagger and kinetic off-the-cuff energy of the GBV of yore. And sixth months later, the boys are back with their 18th full-length, Class Clown Spots a UFO, with a third post-comeback LP in the works just in time for end-of-year listmaking. Grant Rob and his charges this: they’re certainly not coasting on name recognition.
So how’s that working out for them? It’s a boon to GBV fans, of course, to have this thrillingly restless level of creativity on the table; as during the band’s heyday, we once again don’t have to wait very long between records at all, Pollard and the boys so eager to release everything they come up with that releases are just barely digested before the new one comes down the pike. Still, and perhaps this directly correlates to the undercurrent of rediscovery bubbling beneath Factory‘s surface, but Class Clown feels a bit less full than its predecessor. They’re still working with familiar tools – buzzsaw riffs, unpolished recording techniques, a tracklisting peppered with brief song sketches – but the songs aren’t quite as strong. Indeed, it feels a bit like a bonus disc for Factory, which may be a good way to look at it.
On Class Clown, it seems like the best songs are the shortest ones; and, yeah, that’s not entirely shocking for Guided By Voices, a band who’s released some insanely potent short songs, and a band not really prone to multi-part epics in the first place. Their short songs have always seemed like the best parts of longer compositions, terrific hooks without accompanying melodies, a crackerjack trailer for a movie that probably isn’t quite as good. It’s a novel approach to songwriting, and many GBV mini-jams are so brilliant that it’s impossible not to long for more; such is the case here with “Chain to the Moon”, an exquisite mini-long string of fractured harmonies, dizzy countermelodies, and Beatles-esque pop smarts, all delivered over a simple acoustic chord structure. It’s also the case with Sprout’s glorious “Starfire”, 90 blissful seconds of pure, smart pop, cooed over spiraling strings and Britpop dynamics.
The fact that Class Clown ping-pongs so wantonly between spindly guitar rock and tantalizingly brief pop interludes doesn’t necessarily make it inconsistent; it just makes it a Guided By Voices record. But the quality isn’t quite as consistent; “Jon the Croc” is as lean and evocative a rock song as the band has anywhere else in their repertoire, and “Tyson’s High School” flirts with Brian Jonestown Massacre psychedelia with intriguing results, but other fleshed-out songs don’t fare quite as well, bookend rockers “He Rises! Our Union Bellboy” and “No Transmission” sounding like Guided By Voices songs without ever quite feeling like them, “Hang Up and Try Again” feeling repetitive and overlong almost immediately.
Which isn’t to say that Class Clown is bad; the worst thing you can really say about it is that it feels a bit like standard-issue Guided By Voices, and standard-issue Guided By Voices just feels right after six or so years of no Guided By Voices. Factory boasted a wandering, renewed sense of vitality that it benefited greatly from; Class Clown, by comparison, is a pleasant hour spent in the company of old friends, and nothing more. It sounds exactly as you expect it to sound, beyond those jaw-dropping song fragments. It is aural comfort food for Gen-Xers, essentially, and that’s fine; it just doesn’t improve on Let’s Go Eat the Factory. It doesn’t overly demand praise or defiantly reject it; it simply deserves to exist.
And, in case you didn’t get the point yet, that’s fine.
As to whether GBV can keep the momentum going with that third 2012 LP? Well, there’s no telling. Will they go for consistency like Class Clown Spots a UFO, or will they smack a series of accidental homers out of the park like Bee Thousand? The fun part is not knowing, in a way; either way, I’ll see you here at years’ end to find out.