Guided by Voices, Let's Go Eat the Factory
review by dave heaton
What are our expectations when a beloved '90s band reunites and records an album of new material? That it will vaguely emulate their 'classic' sound, will keep fans engaged and won't tarnish their legacy, even if everyone knows it wonít be anywhere as good as their previous work? That seems to usually be the case. Put your expectations low, and fans will just be happy to have their favorite band back.
Here, thereís a larger, and better, story.
Guided by Voices are coming off a successful two-year tour that reunited the version of the band that played live when they first got popular, in the mid-'90s, a decade after Robert Pollard and friends first started making GBV records. "Reunion" makes more sense when talking about the live band than the studio one, since in that era the band playing live wasn't exactly going into the studio as an entity to record an album. Instead, on albums like Vampire On Titus and Bee Thousand what you're hearing is Pollard and a rotating cast of friends -- key collaborators being Pollard's brother Jimmy Pollard and Tobin Sprout -- messing around in basements and bedrooms, home-recording. It's important to remember this history when engaging with Let's Go Eat the Factory, the first GBV LP since 2004ís Half Smiles of the Decomposed. Not counting Jimmy Pollard (who again here is an invisible but significant, studio-only presence), this 'classic lineup' of Pollard, Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Greg Demos and Kevin Fennell made their name as a live band, which means people associate them with a rock 'n' roll show filled with "hits". That was never the full GBV story -- or at least it was a different one than on the LPs and 7" singles of that era, which had a lot of weirdness and experimentation, even when they also contained super-catchy pop-rock anthems. (The later lineup, from Mag Earwhig on, made albums that were more directly related to their live show, more of a band thing, and less strange.)
To go back even further in the band's history, when they started in 1983 they played just a few live shows before becoming more of an experimental basement band. When we talk about the 'lo-fi' sound, with them it wasn't an affectation, it was figuring out how to do something that sounded cool with very limited resources. The spirit of the Pollard-Sprout collaborations is exemplified by the often-told stories of them making crazy noise in the basement while their families were upstairs living out Ďnormalí suburban lives.
Partly because they did become more of a proper band in later years, and partly because they've spent the last couple years in reunited-band mode, playing hits, it's easy to forget about all of this, and expect something different from Let's Go Eat the Factory than what we get. Given that in a lot of ways, and in a lot of minds, Robert Pollard=GBV, if you've been following Pollard's post-GBV music it's also easy to wonder whether this new GBV album would more closely resemble the other work he's done lately than anything GBV did. Itís all part of the same thing, yes, but there are characteristics of a Robert Pollard recording that arenít present on any GBV recording, and vice versa. Considering how many non-GBV albums heís done since 2004 (dozens), why would we expect this to go back to the sound, and more importantly the quality, of a Guided by Voices album?
What Letís Go Eat the Factory actually is, more than a standard reunion album, is a reigniting of that playful creative spirit that first drove GBV, by bringing back together these particular musicians, who werenít the only members of the band, and never were the most musically proficient members of the band, but were most a part of the band's genesis and its most experimental period, not to mention fansí experiences with the band (as good as the later lineups were, fansí emotional connection with this lineup, and the material its associated with, is stronger). It's surprising, given how much music Pollard has made in recent years, how quickly this is recognizable as a Guided by Voices album. More surprising, this album is something new -- it's in line with the spirit, sound and possibility of GBV, but also takes all of that in new directions. It sounds a lot like the GBV you remember, but also has songs that sound nothing like it. In spirit, the album is more in touch with the wonderful, playful strangeness of the bandís 90s 7"s (Get Out of My Stations, Clown Prince of the Menthol Trailer, The Grand Hour) than anything Pollard's done in a while, while also not repeating those exactly, as it's more of a proper, fleshed-out rock LP.
The first single "The Unsinkable Fats Domino" presents the feeling that they are picking up right where they left off, in great-single mode, but it also has more literal lyrics than you expect from Pollard (a trait, too, of his recent solo work), referencing as it does the incorrect news reports that Fats Domino had died during Hurricane Katrina. It also works as a distillation of one of Pollard's grand themes, the 'unsinkable' nature of rock. Of course rock to him, whether it's punk, pop, prog, and psych (what he's called "the 4 Ps") or Fats Domino, contains weird energy -- something that courses through this album from start to finish. It's more psychedelic, dreamier, but also remarkably direct, not meandering or overlong at all, like many of Pollard's projects are accused of being.
It's less of a rock-anthem show than some fans, especially those with short memories, might expect. It re-establishes them as an "underground rock" band in line with other great cult bands, from Ohio and elsewhere (the Flying Nun bands consistently come to mind for me). One moment that epitomizes the album, and their new creative spirit, is Pollard singing, "I challenge you to rock" over a fruitful mess of improvisation ("Either Nelson"). They're using more tools than ever, not just their standard guitar/bass/drums/vocals, but more -- some strings and horns but more than that a lot of feedback/fuzz and a lot of keyboards: piano, organ, synthesizers. There's an eeriness to many of these songs, from the spooky Phantom of the Opera organ on "The Head" (lyric: "we've not yet found the body of the sawed-off head / not yet found the head") and the creeping pace of "The Big Hat and Toy Show". Yet there's also sweetness throughout, on songs like "Doughnut for a Snowman" (literally sweet, with a Krispy Kreme reference), "Chocolate Boy" and "My Europa", which sounds wonderfully tender though I have no idea what he's singing (a trademark pleasure of Pollardís music, actually).
Another story within Let's Go Eat the Factory is how often Tobin Sprout's contributions veer in unexpected directions, even to those who have been following all of his music during and after GBV. "Spiderfighter" is like a mini rock-opera, moving from dour rock to a piano ballad. "Who Invented the Sun" is remarkably brittle. "Old Bones", a love song for old age, resembles an old Irish folk ballad. Surprises like that are exciting, and this album overall is exciting -- as is the news that they'll have at least one more album out in 2012, possibly two, along with at least one Pollard album (certainly more). Like the brevity of the songs on this album, that prolific burst after a long no-GBV period shouldnít be a surprise, as creating quickly and often is essential to Pollardís approach to art. Whatís happened here thatís so exciting is him bringing beloved collaborators into the fold to reignite the mysterious beast that is Guided by Voices.
Letís Go Eat the Factory ends on an especially triumphant (and still strange) note, with the song "We Won't Apologize for the Human Race". This is GBV as a vital entity still. They are not taking your usual Ďreunioní route, but actually doing something new. In a way it reminds me of my feelings when I first heard their music, the way their songs seemed like UFOs from another era, or from no era at allÖlike waves got crossed among the decades, actually, and gave birth to something new.