If the year 2012 conditioned music fans to anything — other than the fact that “Call Me Maybe” is inescapable, and the only way to mount a true offense is to just give into its charms already — it’s the cultural inevitability that is the re-formed mid-’90s lineup of Guided By Voices, and the Pavlovian sense that, every four to six months, GBV will be releasing another record, so pull on your Bee Thousand t-shirt and prepare your mind for a lengthy parade of punchy, to-the-point, lo-fi power-pop gems. The band’s fourth record since re-forming, English Little League, is the first one that suggests that Pollard, Sprout, and company may be a bit strapped for ideas, however.
It was bound to happen. GBV unleashed Let’s Go Eat the Factory and Class Clown Spots A UFO on the world last year, and they were a bullet-train to yesteryear, to the reckless DIY abandon of ’90s indie-rock, to a time before the Internet got fast and when Pavement was still a thing; The Bears At Lunch arrived in November, and it seemed that GBV were somehow, improbably, getting even better. It was almost too good to be true, these halcyon days of ye olde twenty-twelve, when Lord Pollard and his merry band of musical rapscallions unleashed hooky, no-frills power-pop at such an overwhelming clip.
English Little League is far from crap; Robert Pollard and Tobin Sprout know their way around a song, after all (if songs were people, Pollard’s output alone could populate a small country), and their craft and work ethic remains as remarkable as ever. The problem is that so few of the tunes feel memorable this time around. Guided By Voices are an appealing band not only in their remarkable quality to quantity ratio, but in the way they latch onto a snatch of song, and perform only as much as is necessarily, bailing before the whole thing becomes overkill. (Consider one of the band’s most enduring songs, “Game Of Pricks”: you could clean it up, draw it out, and have a perfectly acceptable mid-’90s alt-rock radio jam, but it’s over and in the can before it revs up, leaving us salivating.) It’s not so much quality control that makes GBV so potent — a band with a discography this extensive is bound to have its share of filler on wax — but rather an unwillingness to pad individual songs with superfluous ideas. But songs like “A Burning Glass” and “Biographer Seahorse”, neither one long even by Guided By Voices’ ratatat standards, feel uniquely plodding and tuneless in a way we haven’t seen from the rejuvenated band. The band’s penchant for half-cooked ideas committed to record as interludes or song fragments doesn’t really crop up here, either; and those can be the most exciting aspects of a GBV platter.
The best tunes are good, sure. Opener “Xeno Pariah” has the sort of arpeggiated riff that serves as comfort food to anyone that was paying attention to music in the ’90s. Sprout standout “Islands (She Talks in Rainbows)” coasts on an indelible melody and Sprout’s appealingly detached vocal, and “Sir Garlic Breath” is a GBV track of a distinct vintage, achieving a sort of beauty despite its synergy between Pollard’s distorted vocal and the sparse majesty of the guitar track.
And yet, somehow, it’s not enough; for the first time since those bygone days of 2012, Guided By Voices have released an album that isn’t up to the new standards they’ve set for themselves. It’s hardly terrible, but it’s curiously inessential; fortunately, if we remember everything that 2012 taught us, we know there’s more Guided By Voices just around the corner.
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