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Guided by Voices - Universal Truths and Cycles

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Artist: Guided by Voices

Album: Universal Truths and Cycles

Label: Matador

Review date: Jun. 17, 2002

I love guitar pop. I love short, simple, driving songs made with beat-up instruments and guys singing into Radio Shack mics about…well, anything really. Love, drugs, aliens, trigonometry. It’s not about content, or even necessarily about instrumental prowess or lyrical insight. The production could be nonexistent, the lyrics trite, the playing sloppy, and I would still love it, provided the song had that ineffable, mysterious quality. It could be the way a melody breaks against the pounding of the drums, or a simple, insistent guitar line. Some bands manage to capture and harness this strange essence and make memorable, great pop out of the simplest of elements. Other bands fail and sound like a third-rate Big Star. It’s fine line to walk, and not everybody can pull it off.

Guided by Voices can pull it off, and have done so many times. The rotating cast of members, circling around mainman Robert Pollard, have produced a sturdy handful of classic or near-classic garage-fuzz wonders that have set countless heads buzzing with melodies and daydreams of garage rock stardom. For a time in my ever-receding teenage years, I was quite obsessed with GBV, to the point of picking up all of their pre-Matador albums, released by the Dayton, Ohio label Scat. Many of them were great, and for a time I was convinced that GBV was the best band of its ilk since the British Invasion. Time has tempered that opinion, as well as my desire to make such pronouncements, even in my own head, but I would still back up those albums as classic stuff. By the time GBV jumped Matador records (the band’s salad days) for TVT, I had lost some of my passion for their music—but they still rocked live, and they were often on my stereo. I didn’t buy the two TVT albums, simply because I was full. I felt like I had had enough GBV. I loved their albums, but in a lot of ways, I felt that the band had really said all that it could say. I appreciated the new songs live, although I always felt that the band’s push for big-time success was ill-conceived and not altogether true to their spirit. After all, part of their charm is imagining that these songs could and should be in the Top 40, bringing GBV to stadiums nationwide. Given the realities of today’s excruciatingly bland, super-marketplace, this seems a pipe dream at best, energy wasted that could otherwise be used to better ends.

So when it was announced that the next GBV album, Universal Truths and Cycles, would be self-produced and released on their old home Matador, it piqued my curiosity. Would Pollard take control and elevate his game, as he did on the sometimes-miraculous Mag Earwhig, his last album for Matador? The answer is yes—well, mostly yes. UTC is an album that varies from good to great, and it is the toe-tappingest album the band has made in quite a while. The basic structure and aesthetic of the record doesn’t deviate: 19 songs over 45 minutes ranging from dusty, lo-fi acoustic numbers to high production, harmony-filled rockers. It’s a format that has always served the band well, basically making the entire album one long pop song. And this record has some of GBV’s best. The rockers are great, pounding, catchy pop. More somber tracks are sweetly melancholic, and also get the job done nicely. Pollard has a full bag of tricks now, both with regards to his songwriting and his production techniques, and he is able to use them in such a way that it seems effortless. If he doesn’t say anything new here it’s because the genre in many ways is spent. This doesn’t mean it can’t generate good music, and Universal Truths and Cycles is proof of that. Pollard has mastered the form to the point that structure, content, and fidelity don’t matter to him. It’s all about that moment when the chorus hits, and nothing else matters. And when that happens on this album, nothing else really does.

By Jason Dungan

Other Reviews of Guided by Voices

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Get Out Of My Stations

Human Amusements At Hourly Rates

Half Smiles of the Decomposed

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Let’s Go Eat the Factory

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