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Guided by Voices - Earthquake Glue

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Artist: Guided by Voices

Album: Earthquake Glue

Label: Matador

Review date: Aug. 28, 2003

Brain Transplants and Band Identities

To what extent can you alter the constituent parts of an entity without substantially changing its identity? Or, to put it another way, if I were to lose a leg or get a kidney transplant, no one would question my identity. But what if my brain were transplanted into another person’s body? A robot’s? At some point, my self would shift and I would cease to be the “me” that I always been. There is, somewhere, a limit to identity, when enough changes have been made that the nature of a thing is entirely transformed.

This is a basic philosophical question, directed at issues related to the self. It can also apply, however, to rock bands. Line-up changes are common, but how do these alterations alter the basic essence of a group? Is Van Halen still Van Halen with David Lee Roth replaced by Sammy Hagar? With that guy from Extreme? Rock is often a very charismatic enterprise, with members often supplying more in terms of personality than actual musical talent. A particular member’s departure could have a much deeper impact than the mere loss of his bass playing or vocal stylings. The all-time champion of band “personality” was Pavement’s Bob Nastonovich, who had the notes on his keyboard marked with lettered tape, and more often was given to playing a cowbell or shouting. Gleefully honest about his lack of musical ability, he was nonetheless an indispensible part of Pavement, and one suspects that the band would have ceased to function if Nastonovich had dropped out. Pavement simply wouldn’t have been Pavement without him.

Guided by Voices, on the other hand, has always taken the opposite approach to its identity. There has never been a consistent GBV line-up in its twenty years of existence; there has simply been Robert Pollard and a cast of friends backing him up. For a time, in the band’s early ’90s glory days, there was a reasonably solid lineup, most notably including Tobin Sprout, Pollard’s songwriting foil. Their story is, by now, well-known: the band rose up from Dayton, Ohio, and the drudgery of day jobs to stand atop the indie rock mountain for a few years, as one of Matador Records’ flagship bands. Then, towards the end of the ’90s, Pollard jettisoned the whole line-up, signed to TVT, and went for radio play and some sort of rock stardom. Of course, this didn’t happen, and the band went through several more line-up changes, another so-so album for TVT, and countless solo records on Pollard’s Fading Captain imprint, where he has been free to indulge his every experimental whim.

Something else had happened, as well. For many years, fans and critics had found it difficult to accept the group’s new records because so much about the band was different. A member or two had left; new sounds had been explored. What people had known as Guided by Voices had changed, often quite substantially, and it was difficult for many not to be disappointed. Then, last year, Pollard returned to Matador and released a very good album, Universal Truths and Cycles, which improved greatly on their TVT records. It was a jagged, messy collection, swirling with prog melodies and 4-track noise, a completely unselfconscious return to what had made the band great without resorting to nostalgia. Hope held out and fans diligently bought the new record, waiting for a return to the glory of ’93.

This, of course, can’t happen. As the ’03 version of Guns ‘N Roses proves, you can’t recapture the magic. But you can accept change, and what’s exciting about GBV right now is that they’ve changed so much they are, indeed, a new band. If they still had the same members, they would most likely seem tired and past their prime. Instead, Pollard has filled the ranks with young, virtuosic rockers, guys who are still thrilled to be playing, who give Pollard’s songs an entirely different sound and context. So, it’s not without a little irony that the band, in its “new” form, has managed to recapture effortlessly everything that was magical and memorable about Guided by Voices when you heard them for the first time.

Earthquake Glue begins with a glorious roar, in the noisy pop of “My Kind of Soldier”, the kind of sharp, immediate rock song that Pollard does better than anyone. In its TVT form, Guided by Voices explored Pollard’s passion for thundering stadium rock, but in the process, ignored much of what made the band unique. The first few tracks of Earthquake Glue are a near-perfect return to the band’s strengths: an unaccompanied, wobbly horn intro to “My Son, My Secretary, and My Country”; soaring, prog-influenced acoustic rock on “I’ll Replace You With Machines”; the melancholy lament of “She Goes Off At Night”. The songs are loose, sometimes funny, insanely broad in their range of influences, and unpretentious in their delivery. Eclecticism and a pop-informed sense of oddness have always been a large part of GBV’s greatness, and it’s these sensibilities that Pollard has so triumphantly regained. Indeed, Earthquake Glue reminds one less of the band’s “classic” Matador albums than the suite of great records they made in obscurity for Dayton’s Scat Records in the early ’90s: Propellor, Vampire on Titus, and The Same Place The Fly Got Smashed. These albums had a perverse confidence that came from an honest understanding of the band’s limited fanbase. Why worry about indecipherable lyrics and extended conceptual epics when only your friends are listening? However, it was this kind of fashion-free thinking that brought Pollard’s band to wider attention, and it’s a sense that he’s lost sight of in recent years. When a band realizes that people are listening, things change; it’s hard for a GBV fan not to long for the joyous, electric spontaneity that characterized the band’s early albums.

Still, it’s a testament to Pollard’s talent that his band could endure a weak period of five years and still have an audience. Even during the group’s oft-reviled TVT period, the albums resulted in some great songs, and Pollard’s solo outings and collaborations have delivered some moments that are on par with his best work. If nothing else, Pollard has remained a consistent presence, and his band’s shows are still outstanding. In a way, we’ve become accustomed to Guided by Voices’ reduced status, producing so-so records with a handful of gems every six months, touring diligently. We’ve almost forgotten how good the band can be.

This is what makes Earthquake Glue such a startling arrival. You don’t simply listen to it out of obligation, but instead because you are compelled to return to it, again and again. Songs like “The Best of Jill Hives” fuse the band’s effortless melodic sense with Pollard’s newfound lyrical directness, and the result is an instant classic. The songs roll into one another, tumbling together in a blurry buzz of melody and an emotional mix of youthful enthusiasm and world-weary melancholy. Some songs stretch way beyond the five-minute mark, others are brief and lean. “Useless Inventions”, an Archers of Loaf-inspired rocker, makes use of the band’s increasing tightness as a unit, as well as Pollard’s enthusiastic return to melody as his primary songwriting tool. But Earthquake Glue is, more than anything, an album – a piece that’s best experienced as a whole. It also lays bare just how limited a range many “garage” bands are working from today, with its kaleidoscopic incorporation of rock history. Pollard may be old enough to be your dad, but he writes better songs, and he’s never sounded more inspired.

By Jason Dungan

Other Reviews of Guided by Voices

Universal Truths and Cycles

Get Out Of My Stations

Human Amusements At Hourly Rates

Half Smiles of the Decomposed

Suitcase 2

Let’s Go Eat the Factory

The Bears for Lunch

English Little League

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