"This song does not rock Ö !"
Bob Pollard launched an album with that line, back in 1992, but anyone who heard Guided by Voices' Propeller wasn't fooled. The music does nothing BUT rock, and it marked the beginning of an explosive run of albums Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, Under the Bushes, Under the Stars that earned Guided by Voices a premier position in the world of indie rock after years of basement obscurity in Dayton, Ohio. The near-decade that the band had spent playing and recording together up to that point had produced nice-enough XTC-inspired pop songs ("Discussing Wallace Chambers"), proggy experiments ("Murder Charge"), and the occasional beautifully sodden ballad ("Drinker's Peace"). But it was nothing compared to what would pour out of Pollard for the next five years the Golden Age of GBV.
The band's national profile skyrocketed at the exact time that Pollard was writing and recording his best songs ever and when you've written as many songs as Pollard has, that accolade means something. Ten years later, these tracks are still most everyone's favorites: "Watch Me Jumpstart," with its huge, seesawing guitars and sky-high chorus; "Tractor Rape Chain," as catchy as its title is inscrutable; "Motor Away," which even hit MTV and alternative radio; "I Am a Scientist," so much bigger in concert than the tin-can-and-string version on Bee Thousand would have led anyone to believe.
Somewhere around 1997, when the core players in Guided by Voices rotated back into day jobs, side projects and family life, the Golden Age trailed off. In the seven years since, Pollardís new team especially guitarist Doug Gillard has nevertheless become a rock 'n' roll juggernaut on stage, playing three-hour sets to the suds-drenched faithful. It's with this crew that Pollard is embarking on the Electrifying Conclusion Tour this winter (the name comes from a line in "Murder Charge," now revived as a set-closing anthem), with the final Guided by Voices show to take place in Chicago on New Year's Eve.
Naysayers point out that these concerts devolve into an off-tune mess as the clock rolls past midnight and the empty beer bottles are collecting on the stage behind Pollard, but when you've had a few yourself and "Baba OíReilly" is the third encore, who's worried about hitting every note? No matter how many lyrics Pollard forgets, or how long he grinds things to a halt to inveigh against New York's cigarette ban or complain that Matador wants him to die so they can boost sales of the box set, Guided by Voices encores almost ALWAYS rock.
Too much of Half Smiles of the Decomposed, however, does not rock. This
is supposed to be the encore? The final GBV album? Essentially, it's of a piece
with most of the albums Pollard has released since "the TVT years," as he half-jokingly
refers to the slicker production and mainstream-alternative ambitions of 1999's Do
the Collapse and the more satisfying Isolation Drills of
2001. Releases since then, whether they're "real" GBV albums on Matador or one
of Pollard's limited-edition side trips for the Fading Captain Series, typically
yield one or two fist-pumping gems for the live set ("Back to the Lake," anyone?)
alongside some partially conceived ideas that fail to make much of an impression.
And unlike in the Bee Thousand days, when a half-idea might run for 20
seconds and, upon repeated listening, reveal itself to be the greatest pop song
ever half-written, Guided by Voices' weaker tunes now stretch to full song length.
During the Golden Age, of course, the idea of Guided by Voices having any "weaker tunes" was preposterous every song was as good as "Girls of Wild Strawberries," a soaring British Invasion strummer that is the obvious high point of Half Smiles. The album's whole first half is pretty good, keeping its momentum even through the minor chords and static-filled center section of "Sleep Over Jack," one of Pollard's most successful experiments. But when the rambunctious chorus of the otherwise great "Gonna Never Have to Die" gives way for an acoustic guitar solo, something just ain't right! After the revved-up "Sons of Apollo," little else on the album sticks out to be noticed, including the nondescript return of Tobin Sprout, once the band's most important member besides Pollard.
Guided by Voices lyrics are famed for their brilliantly weird abstraction "I met a non-dairy creamer, explicitly laid out like a fruitcake" so who could ever imagine Pollard using the line, "Baby don't go, I miss you so"? There it is on the album's soggy second half, where tempos drag and a political bromide rears its shaggy head: "21 is the legal age to kill yourself slowly/ But 18 is the legal age to die."
For their send-off, Guided by Voices deserved better. That's the disappointing part; the silver lining is that even if the band name is being retired, it's impossible to imagine Pollard staying away from music for long, under whatever name. Maybe an end to Guided by Voices' relentless touring will recharge Pollardís muse. Now THAT would be an electrifying conclusion.