The old school line-up of Guided by Voices – that’s Bob Pollard, Tobin Sprout, Greg Demos, Mitch Mitchell and Kevin Fennell – started its second run only two years ago, for the Matador 21st Birthday Concert in 2010. The Bears for Lunch is the third album since this configuration’s mid-1990s break, and also the third of 2012. That’s a remarkably fast restart. Just for comparison, it took Mission of Burma five years to add three new albums to their catalogue, and Big Dipper and Gang of Four have released just one since reforming.
Of course, Pollard-related projects are, almost by definition, insanely prolific, so the real question is not how many songs the reconfigured band can record, but how good they are. The answer: pretty good, and almost surely getting better. The Bears for Lunch is a far more solid affair than Let’s Go Eat the Factory, balancing Pollard’s Who-like aggression and Kinks-like whimsy in punchy, melodically memorable songs. There are fewer throwaways and sound experiments this time. (I’d nominate “Military Dance School Dismissal” for fast-forward, but it’s the only one that springs to mind.) The band is more assured, too, crisp and almost tight by this beery outfit’s standards. Even the sound is more professional, capturing wavery harmonies and fuzzed-out guitar lines with unusual clarity.
Pollard’s songs sound like Pollard songs always do, the knife-edge balance of bluster and vulnerability, the slight surreality, the pealing, chiming, 1960s mod-guitars wrapped in mid-1990s distortion, the diffident lift of modal melodies. Songs like “White Flag” are as comfortable as old chairs for long-time fans, their clangorous guitars crashing against soft contours of folk melodies, their blister and hiss wreathed about inevitable hooks. “She Lives in an Airport” is, at once, heavy and fanciful, its thundering eight-note vamp a bedrock for Pollard’s free associative wordplay and whimsical imagery. (It’s also fun to imagine the king of lo-fi waiting at home for his high powered, frequent flier girlfriend.)
The Bears for Lunch also makes room for the very different sensibility of Tobin Sprout, who contributes a couple of the disc’s best moments. Sprout’s “The Corners are Glowing” is see-through and delicate where his partner’s songs are beefy, its ticking rhythms and interlocking phrases evoking a stripped-down R.E.M. A wah wah mutters in the background, there are strings throbbing along underneath, and though the song stays contained, it bulges at the edges with suppressed excesses and complexities. “Waving at Airplanes” is, quite possibly, even more engaging, its high vocal line tripping through luminous layers of jangly guitars.
Maybe that’s the benefit of the old-line up, that it contains two very good, very different songwriters who compete for track space and rehearsal time and hold each other to account. There are no real duds on The Bears for Lunch, no obvious self-indulgences, and that is quite possibly because both songwriters had to come up with material that held up against the other guy’s stuff. Add that to the fact that practice is obviously doing this band some good, and you have to ask: Why not three in a year if No. 3 is this enjoyable?
By Jennifer Kelly