It’s certainly interesting to trace the career of Guided by Voices as their releases correspond to the general musical landscape. The Dayton, Ohio troupe, which despite their lo-fi sound typically has at least five members for each album, made their breakthrough as a band, being indie, in ’94, during a primeval groundswell of vitality in mainstream rock. Now, sure, so did Pavement, and this is also arguably the prime of Yo La Tengo, the finest indie rock gang of them all. But this little indie cluster is far out-quantified by the endless droves of acts that were coming out on big labels around this time — Beck, Counting Crows, Meat Puppets, Soundgarden, Toadies, LIVE, Bush, Better than Ezra, Collective Soul… you get the point. I don’t want to devolve into a cheesy latte-sipping DJ here.
Indie rock would then enjoy a significant upturn in popularity right around the war in Iraq, not coincidentally, concordant with mainstream rock’s suddenly limited means to be eclectic and take a chance on small-fry or quirky acts. A band like Interpol, for instance, made practice of churning out very professional-sounding albums with a charismatic lead singer and catchy songwriting, hence rendering it somewhat of a malady that they were on an indie, Matador, in the first place. Interpol was coupled, of course, with everything from guitar virtuosos (Ted Leo & the Pharmacists) to girl pop (Beach House) to in-your-face instrumental post-rock (Battles), to, of course, Arcade Fire, who were ironically way more sappy and corny than Oasis and Coldplay combined. This is also the exact time, the mid-’00s or so, when Guided by Voices apparently saw fit to take something like a hiatus, issuing Half Smiles of the Decomposed in 2004 and then sitting out eight full years before issuing their next, proper, full-lenghth new LP.
This LP, of course, would be the scrappy, underdog Let’s Go Eat the Factory (2012), a terse, succinct rock album that’s so playful it only could have come from a former elementary school teacher, Bob Pollard. (Gadfly Online reports that “For 14 years, Robert Pollard’s ‘real life’ job was an elementary school teacher in the Dayton, Ohio public school system.”) In this sense, then, it’s a return to Bee Thousand (1994), the album that put the band on the map and is so “DIY” and unfinished that the guitar channel actually cuts out and reenters during the opener “Hardcore UFO’s,” a blemish the band apparently found endearing, or just couldn’t afford to fix, more likely. And, along the point I delineate earlier, by 2012, everyone was pretty much sounding the death knell of indie rock, hence positioning Pollard as some concerned old uncle who only steps in when he’s needed.
Also of note is that while I implicitly champion the paper mache, lo-fi GBV songwriting and album compilation strategy, the truth is that their two albums before the hiatus, Earthquake Glue and Half Smiles of the Decomposed, are both composed of notably beautiful, fully-developed songs of complete length, and, even, studio texture that likens them to something like psychedelia. The only thing psychedelic on the 21-song Let’s Go Eat the Factory, which spans a total of 41 minutes, is probably the lyrical subject matter to “How I Met My Mother,” a brilliant, tickling take-off on the sitcom title “How I Met Your Mother” dealing with spooky existential factors leading into the entrance of life on this planet, or “meeting your mother,” in other words.
Opener “Laundry and Lasers” busts forth with what’s probably the heaviest guitar sound this band ever put to wax to date, lodging itself closer to noise-rockers No Age in texture than the ambient, liquid-y Yo La Tengo or the gregariously radio-friendly Interpol. As I state earlier, though, things stay staunchly light and playful (any romantic theme would probably dissolve into a million pieces immediately upon entering Pollard’s muse atmosphere), a la the one-minute “The Head,” which muffles and buries Pollard’s vocals in the mix but, unexpected, marries this obfuscation with a decidedly clear, mellow electric guitar sound.
Almost frustratingly, “Doughnut for a Snowman” opens in the middle of a vocal phrase, like Pollard had amputated the early portion of his song just to be funny, or difficult, or… well, GBV. True to form, then, the track does conjeal into a becoming, catchy set of melodies and hooks, making it even harder to make hook or crook of what the band are trying to do on this album. I guess they were just trying to deflect the critical shrapnel, like the rest of us, and graft down a comeback album distinct for its adamant impossibility to be defined.
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