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Guided by Voices - Half Smiles of the Decomposed

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Artist: Guided by Voices

Album: Half Smiles of the Decomposed

Label: Matador

Review date: Dec. 2, 2004

It's really over. Robert Pollard's obsessive-compulsive version of a rock band, Guided by Voices, is finally calling it quits, leaving behind a literal mountain of recorded output and endless anecdotes surrounding beer-fueled mayhem and 4-tracking insanity. Indeed, so boundless was Pollard's songwriting that it seemed impossible for the songs to stop, impossible for Pollard himself to quit. But quit he has, and although Pollard has professed that his solo records will continue unabated, there is a sense of transition in the band's move, a whiff of an era come to its end. For those of us who believed in the band as a force that could conquer worlds and change the face of music, the end is a sad, slightly underwhelming moment. Not only the end of a great band, Guided by Voices' passing marks the death of a certain indie idealism.

The band have been around long enough now to survive their own clichés and have moved into a comfortable late-period niche of non-sequitur-driven garage rock, following a bumpy ride at TVT that ended with the band selling almost exactly the same amount of albums as it had on an independent. Their return to Matador a few years ago has resulted in three albums of sturdy quality: Universal Truths and Cycles, Earthquake Glue, and now, Half Smiles of the Decomposed. Fully in control of his gifts and relaxed with his players, Pollard has delivered a minor classic of a trilogy, full of the wit, melody and anarchic excitement that made records like Propellor and Alien Lanes such giddy pleasures. And if his recent records don't exactly recover the casual brilliance of his mid-'90s work, they successfully revisit the prog and classic rock leanings of his late-80s material, documented on the excellent compilation Box.

Along the way, Pollard has generated an increasingly eclectic and wide body of work as either a solo artist or in collaboration. With these releases, he's indulged almost every variant of rock music, from noisy drones and cut-up tape loops to dream-pop, folk and heavy metal. While many of these releases wouldn't be recommended for casual fans, they are surprisingly consistent records. Some, like Calling Zero, his collaboration with Mac McCaughan of Superchunk, rank with his best work in GBV. Others, like the Circus Devils project, are fascinating, if dark, entries into sonically challenging prog nightmares. What these albums are not, however, are hit records. They are curious, hard-to-find documents of a musician constantly chasing his erratic muse.

What Guided by Voices suggested early on was a marriage of the sweeping rock pageantry of bands like the Who with the handmade, small-club aesthetic of bands like the Replacements. Pollard's band sounded so fresh when they first broke out that a huge audience seemed inevitable, almost a done deal, at least to those of us who found ourselves enthralled with the band. It wasn't simply a desire to see one's own tastes validated by the masses, it was a feeling that this was music you wanted to talk about with strangers and hear on the radio on your way to work. Pop, in other words. And as pop, the music was brilliant: "Echoes Myron," "My Valuable Hunting Knife," "Exit Flagger," and "Queen of Cans and Jars" were just a few instant classics, made by a man who had effortlessly absorbed everything good about rock and now oozed its most perfect, primal sensibilities.

But the mass-market thing didn't quite work out. Guided by Voices are, when you get down to it, actually quite weird. They have tracks called "Tractor Rape Chain" and 30-second songs that sound like they took longer to play than to write. This is part of what makes them a great band, but it's also what keeps them rooted in a certain milieu. As a result, GBV fans have become rather cultish, and Pollard has turned inward, having quit his day job to give his full time to the production of teeming hordes of songs. Despite the foray to TVT, Pollard has long had more in common with the Fall's Mark E. Smith than with Michael Stipe or Jack White. Pollard is contrarian, wilful, and almost laughably prolific. Like Smith, he has seen several band line-ups come and go, and has released more albums than even the most ardent completist could hope to own.

Unsurprisingly, Guided by Voices' last record comes out more or less at the same time as two other Pollard-related releases: his Fiction Man solo album and Pinball Mars, his second album with the Circus Devils (a collaboration with Todd and Tim Tobias). Fiction Man is a lively, sprawling record, typically wide in its focus. Keeping with much of Pollard's solo work, many of the songs here are acoustically based and rather pretty, usually forgoing the anthemic urge that infects many Guided by Voices songs. It's loose and full of energy, with a solid handful of tracks that are strong enough to deserve a place on a full GBV record. Pinball Mars is, perhaps predictably, heavier and more fucked-up. Produced with the aid of the Tobias brothers, the music made by the 'Devils tends to indulge Pollard's early-Genesis tendencies, with odd chord changes and some inappropriate harmonies. But while it's no pop album, it's far more accessible than 2002's Harold Pig Memorial, with stronger melodies and a good sense for the simple joys of rocking out.

The record also says something crucial about Pollard. He's not some kind of indie messiah, he's an obsessive. He just needs to be in the basement, jamming with friends and inventing some beer-soaked rock songs. And he needs to do it over and over, for himself really, and no one else. Surely, he would still be doing this if indie stardom hadn't come his way, and he'll definitely keep making records even if his audience dwindles. Occasionally, the records are great; usually, they're good. Why should consistency matter when you can give your fans absolutely every song you've recorded and let them decide which ones they like? Why spend weeks laboring over a chorus in the studio when you can crank out crazy albums with your friends in a few days?

Pollard, for better or worse, has a vision, and he's followed it. Sometimes we like it, sometimes not, but it's always exactly what he wants, which is rare. In an age when bands and a ream of producers/handlers obsess over every detail of a release, Guided by Voices remind us that there's another way of doing things. And, oh yeah, the last album's good, good enough to make one wish the band weren't ending. Songs like "Girls of Wild Strawberries" and "Everybody Thinks I'm A Raincloud" have a casual brilliance that basically defines classic pop, with gorgeous melodies and heart-breaking hooks. There's a welcome dose of weirdness on tracks like "Sleep Over Jack," which sounds like the Who on loads of weed. Generally, there's a laid-back air to the proceedings. It feels less like a Last Album and more like a snapshot, which is probably why it works so well.

So, then, raise a glass (or more appropriately, a can) and give thanks to Bob and all those drunk Ohioans who have given us so much joy over the years. We'll miss you.

By Jason Dungan

Other Reviews of Guided by Voices

Universal Truths and Cycles

Earthquake Glue

Get Out Of My Stations

Human Amusements At Hourly Rates

Suitcase 2

Let’s Go Eat the Factory

The Bears for Lunch

English Little League

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