Written by: Brandon Thomas DiSabatino
Evidence to the case of the court:
It is April in the year of our lord, 2016 – that’s two-thousand-and-sixteen nails in the cross for those left counting – and Robert Pollard has released another album under the banner of Guided by Voices, though this time, he is alone for all instrumentation. Scientifically, and for those still holding the abacus, Pollard has issued 23 solo records at this writing. In addition, he is probably responsible for the depletion of precious wax resources the world over owing to how quickly he turns the voices in his head to vinyl. We total: a staggering 13 Circus Devils albums, 5 by Boston Spaceships, 3 by Ricked Wicky and 2 kitchen sink shit-kicker Teenage Guitar records. More names, more wax: Lexo and the Leapers, Howling Wolf Orchestra, albums with Tobin Sprout as Airport 5 (please listen to “Total Exposure”) and strange acts like Sunflower Logic, Cosmos. We find also Go Back Snowball, Acid Ranch, the Lifeguards with Doug Gillard, Phantom Tollbooth, Moping Swans, et al, al, et al. More concerning to his larger audience, there have been 22 records under the name of Guided by Voices. “Please Be Honest” is the 23rd, to say nothing of the incalculable eps, singles, rarities sets and fan-club only releases like “Tonics and Twisted Chasers.”
The Excel Spreadsheet wobbles like a grand piano box or the floorboards at a Bob’s Big Boy; impossible to keep track of it all.
Baggage to get out of the way: What nearly anyone writes about when discussing a new Pollard release is its relation to history, but very specifically, the incarnation of a band’s history that produced “Bee Thousand,” “Alien Lanes,” and “Under the Bushes Under the Stars” – a grand total of THREE records in a shelf-line housing another 20. There are songs like “Echos Myron,” “Motor Away,” “Cut-Out Witch” – songs that have passed from being merely songs to aspects of religious articles or testament to the beer-soaked faithful. There are the Converse-soled puritans who insist it all went downhill the second they stepped out of a basement in Dayton; those who would ignore the elastic, mystic grandeur of “Universal Truths and Cycles,” the sugar-coated despair with power-pop gloss of “Isolation Drills,” the 95-to-5% hits-to-shit ratios of “Mag Earwhig!” or the hard comedown of “Half-Smiles of the Decomposed.” These are the indie rock equivalents of grey-bearded book-keepers begging a rock-skinned, septuagenerian Bob Dylan to record another “Blonde on Blonde,” when he is more likely to drink a tall glass of Metamucil and wheat-germ than another amphetamine-laced glass of “thin, wild mercury sound.” Music fans have no sense of time commonly, and even more common, cannot forgive their heroes for growing old.
My credentials: I can name more members, ex-members and cast-offs from the Guided by Voices genealogical tree than I can extended family members. I have seen Pollard, Guided by Voices or the Boston Spaceships more times than I have actually seen these family members as well, and once had a drunken conversation with Mitch Mitchell in a Dayton bar about exciting new forms of capital punishment. If you live in Ohio long enough, such incidents are as inevitable as unemployment or diabetes. What I am getting to is objectivity: I don’t have any. My credentials imply a need to recuse myself slightly from the case for a review, and to counteract my own biases I have retained an esteemed panel of moderately-employed individuals across state-lines to assist in this review. In the spirit not only of Guided by Voices’ live shows, but in honor of the title of this release (“Please Be Honest”), this review will be written drunk in an apartment in New York, incorporating rebuttals, counter-arguments or insights from individuals in various cities who are likewise drinking and listening to the album simultaneously.
From our Ohio panel, in Columbus, joining us late because of the Cleveland Cavs-Detroit Pistons game: Mon Frere Games – purveyor of auto-erotic erotica, soft-core cellphone pornography and another man who once had a drunken conversation with Mitch Mitchell in a Dayton bar about new, exciting forms of capital punishment. In Cincinnati: Gravy Daffodil-11 Swain – bartender, weekend cross-dresser and arbiter of human malady; comedian. In New York, myself – wearing a hula skirt in the guise of the insidious Fu Manchu in a panama hat – as well as my female partner, Bonnie Elizabeth Gutter – portraitist of cowgirls, cats and fat-hipped, Boticellian brides; patent-pending on ball-breaker handshake. I attempted to contract an old roommate and Pollard enthusiast in Iowa City but this arrangement fell through owing to my own indifference. He has been replaced by an above-ground swimming pool in Altoona, Iowa. Mon Frere Games’ reflections come to us by way of text message. Gravy Daffodil-11 Swain sent his thoughts scrawled drunkenly with cryptic drawings on bar receipts via photograph. The above-ground swimming pool in Altoona conveyed its own thoughts through miasmal, celluloid-like stills in moody lighting.
Prefatory note: stop asking why this is a Guided by Voices album instead of a solo album, another Teenage Guitar record, or another side-project possibly named Motor Jonas and the Whiskey Shits. It’s a Guided by Voices album because Pollard says so. What else do you want.
“Zodiac Companion” – A voice comes through the speakers with a sea-shanty rhythm. I see row-boats and broken oars in green water: “Orbital ghosts/Attract sparks/Aftermath heavens/The unborn called: they missed you,” accompanied by carpet-squares of 70s prog synths. “So it starts with a stroke?” asks Bonnie Elizabeth, sipping gin from a hi-ball glass after a bottle of Brooklyn Lager. Pollard slurs his way through the acoustic intro like he’s chasing balloons over the fields of Huffman Prairie, and the album inaugurates with the kind of awkward awakening reserved for rub-on erections during a high school slow dance. The quiet breaks. There are trash-can drums, layers of tractor-tire guitar chords as the chorus leaps in, with Pollard regaining his vocal agility and screaming “Come back to me/My zodiac companion.” It’s a good way to start the album and as Mon Frere reports, the chorus grabs him “by the balls.” Gravy says it’s a succinct psych pop jam. I’m on the fence but not embarrassed. Good tune but no surprises. Old hat in Pollard land but the faithful will dig the fire.
“Kid on a Ladder” – Gravy digs this one and Mon Frere’s diagnosis is “catchy as malaria.” Triscuit-thin snare hits summon the ghost of “Valuable Hunting Knife” but I’m thinking it sounds like something done to appease the pissy pulpit who hate their jobs at CopyMax but love “Alien Lanes.” There’s predictable (by Pollard standards) chord progressions and the repetition of two main lyrical themes. One, that the “kid” is indeed on a ladder and secondly, “he knows.” Bonnie wants to know “what he knows” exactly but I have no answer. The above-ground pool in Altoona echoes my own inability to answer with judging silence.
“Come on Mr. Christian” – This one is heavily atmospheric. “Classic GBV” says Mon Frere and it reminds Bonnie of the “King Shit and the Golden Boys” vibe. More synth gobs and garbage percussion. The first lyrical rose comes out with “pity the light/say goodnight” over an air-conditioner guitar flange. To Gravy’s ears it’s “a Beatles album track that everyone skips” but damn if I don’t nod my head to it. Reminds me of the hard midwestern weather feel of “Cool Planet.”.
“Grasshopper Eaters” – Pots, pans and a car antennae ass-whipping over bullfrog burps and general strangeness. Pollard does Faust rock and ambience. It sounds like he’s throwing aluminum pie-plates over a diner counter. The above-ground pool feels at home and Gravy likes it, but Bonnie and I side with Mon Frere: “boring and ends with a whimper.” Bonnie’s roommate, Laura’lye enters. I ask her impression of what she hears. She shrugs her shoulders, giving half-a-shit less, and leaves to read Joan Didion.
“Glittering Parliaments” – The bullshit is over and the hog has been slapped. Guitars and drums roll out of the gate and my face widens in cheshire-like wildness. It doesn’t “go” anywhere necessarily but it falls over the ears like cool water, startling the listener awake and sticking a beer-shaped stake in the ass. It’s known, medically, as Pollard Syndrome – when the scissor-kicks begin and the glasses are raised (as they currently are, simultaneously across state-lines).
“Caterpillars Workforce” – “Why is there so much happening?” asks Bonnie. Toy locomotive sounds begin another track falling over itself with no clear direction. There are roughly 4 tempo changes in 50 seconds but the ending is absolutely gorgeous and builds a fine living monument from acid church organ and guitar octaves. Then, like God, nothing. Already the album is reminding me of the experiments on the solo album “Motel of Fools.” Says Mon Frere: “caterpillars are silly.”
“Sad Baby Eyes” – A plate of mashed potatoes singing to a pair of pants that have been shit in. Piano clusters move like a spider on crutches. “Bob drunk and rambling” rages Mon Frere, while Bonnie claims its everyone’s Aunt Linda who’s had one-too-many and is fucking around on an electric piano. She’s had a lot of miscarriages, we decide. “Oh Linda,” she says. This is Bob’s Oatmeal Woman voice which he has applied – to similarly unsettling degrees – on such internationally ignored tracks as “Serious Bird Woman (You Turn Me On)” and whatever the hell “Sex She Says” was supposed to be. “This is just, just terrible” says Bonnie and reconsiders her involvement with this review committee. More drinks are needed. More drinks are rendered.
“Quickers Arrive” – I drop my pants and load the t-shirt canon for this one: gorgeously weird bass melodies weave with sporadic modulator noise and radar guitar, culminating with an end section that sounds like a holy flood. We marvel at the line “the spores of creation.” Bonnie thinks it’s amazing but wants to hear “Sad Baby Eyes” again for some reason unknown to anyone except the above-ground pool in Altoona. My endorsement: fucking delicious and capturing the kind of singular, janitor cosmos groove of “Vampire on Titus.” To my mind, this is why anyone listens to Guided by Voices. It is surprising, achingly strange, wonderful. From Gravy, however, we receive a crudely-drawn cartoon hand wrapped over a fat cartoon cock with ejaculatory raindrops.
“Hotel X (Big Soap)” – Bonnie Elizabeth requests “Sad Baby Eyes” instead, so I have to hear the Oatmeal Woman voice again. I will be forced to hear it at least 10 more times before the evening ends. Coming back to this one…I ain’t got shit. More abrupt structural changes. It ends with a fucking marching band recording, which suggests Pollard has less of an idea what to do with this one than I know what to say of it. Mon Frere calls it “old school” but Gravy has rendered a headless, thin man drawn stroking a femur-shaped cock.
“I Think a Telescope” – A thumbs-up emoji from Mon Frere. Insect flickers of open-tuned acoustic guitar melodies and double-tracked, call-and-response vocals create heavenly bliss. The delivery of the line “I think of where you are” is heartbreaking. Mood-wise, melody-wise, straight out of the “Not in My Airforce” playbook. Incredible. The above-ground swimming pool in Altoona sees shooting stars over the prairie grass.
“Please Be Honest” – There is no more tonic for the gin so we have resorted to shots. There is a reason no one saunters up to a bar counter and orders a straight shot of gin – the pain lingers. A grilled chicken burp is blown in my face from Bonnie but the title track of the album settles the myriad particles of digestion, quells the straight gin shots and buries my ass in the ground. Gravy says its makes him want to kiss a stranger and Mon Frere claims it soothes the soul. Words disobey whatever I have to say about it – an incredible back-to-back punch with “Telescope.”
“Nightmare Jamboree” – The Ohio panel sends this one back down the toilet with a hard pass. It’s a bare-bones arrangement of guitars buzzing like felled power lines, with lyrics such as “Personal strangers in your sleep/Unknown eyes in the approach of logical mind/Are you alive?/Then come down and dance the painted feet.” Bonnie and I decide it’s hypnotic. A brutal after-hours hangover from the previous two tracks’ greatness.
“Unfinished Business” – I’ve listened to it countless times but retain no memory, but Gravy says its brevity keeps it solid – “the right way to write a short song.” As unmemorable as the air in Akron to me, but dissenting opinion continues with Mon Frere, who claims the song synchronized nicely with the Cavs closing out the game. Bonnie’s response consists of another grilled chicken, gin-and-beer combo burp.
“Defeatist Lament” – Or as Mon Frere calls it, “the Detroit Pistons.” Acoustic guitar arpeggios accented with sparse piano. “No more shots in the arm/No great comebacks in the bottle/Rise to the top/Nearly offering the plate.” This is another of Pollard’s short acoustic diamonds, disarmingly simple and haunting. The man knows how to double-track his voice to create an otherworldly effect.
“Eye Shop Heaven” – Pollard singing amid broken guitar figures and sparkling cymbals, all the while you wonder where the hell it’s going. Then the bastard hits you: “You are simply lying/If you look away” as the drums kick in with a 4-horsemen synthetic organ. The album goes out quickly, differing from the cataclysm and doom-prophesying rock ballast of “Cool Planet”’s end track. It’s a short goodbye but satisfying.
Bonnie Elizabeth Gutter: “A discombobulated montage of prior successes and farcical and melodic pleasantries but ultimately it falls short and flat. Too much, too little and an overwhelming amount of self-awareness. But fun because it seems no flying fucks were given. And that ladder song is garbage.”
Gravy Daffodoil-11 Swain: “…a pretty decent Robert Pollard record with a couple of tracks that could have been great GBV songs.” Elaborating on the jerk-off cartoons he sent, Gravy says they lack “the cohesion one can only achieve with an ensemble.” He also wishes to add, while still drunk, “I’m sorry, Felicity. I wish I hadn’t pulled the plug. Anyway, ‘Please Be Honest’ is pretty good and there are a few tracks I’ll definitely revisit.”
Mon Frere Games: “First listen I thought it sounded pretty solid and had the things I expect from them. I wasn’t really blown away but that’s true of a lot of GBV records. I need more than one listen to appreciate it. In all fairness I was distracted by the Cavs.”
The above-ground swimming pool in Altoona is stoical, having been violated by teenage delinquents who filled its chlorinated waters with white patio furniture and a fire extinguisher.
If you’re looking for your Pollard pop fix, turn elsewhere (or genetically, to “Of Course You Are,” his latest solo record). This is a fractured, post-industrial Guided by Voices – one of abandoned corn silos, reclaimed foundry buildings and tin-plated advertisements for pop products found rusting in barnyards – resembling more the environs and bleak landscapes of its home state of Ohio than any previous incarnation the band (or its namesake) has previously taken. Word of mouth on this release has been as well-received in some circles as Ben Carson’s presidential campaign. Lest we forget, yes: Robert Pollard can write a pop hook that’d knock you out of your celestial bearings and make you grateful you listen to music for any kind of warmth. He is also an eccentric former school teacher from a Dayton suburb who creates bizarre collages and sound experiments in his own home. The two sides are not mutually exclusive, and often they find house in the same album. The difference is “Please Be Honest” is essentially an inverted version of “Alien Lanes.” Whereas that album had snippets of glorious one-off fuck-arounds buffering its pop hits, this one has snippets of pop-like tunes between longer, mostly meandering mood pieces. When it works, it works and works well, but when it doesn’t, shit falls apart.
Not a disaster so much as a possible indication of future directions the band will take. Pollard is too restless to fall back doing the same thing out of formula, and this is the sound of him stretching out the map borders.