The original line-up of lo-fi luminaries Guided By Voices have produced their first album in nearly 20 years. Does it live up to their own massive legacy?
For a line-up that hadn’t played with each other in nearly two decades, the Guided By Voices I saw this past summer was a tight rock n’ roll muscle-machine. Front-man and ceaseless song-writer Robert Pollard could still pull off a mean jump-kick. Mitch Mitchell still chain-smoked during the entirety of the three hour-long set. Greg Demos still knew how to rock pajama pants. And Tobin Sprout still seemed really serious when he sang “Awful Bliss”. The music growled the way it should have. The beer flowed freely, and the Tequila was drank heavily. For a few twilight hours, an otherwise awkward match-up of indiecentric Gen-Yers and blue-collar, middle-aged men huddled around Penn’s Landing in mutual joy that the boys were back together and rocking just as hard as ever.
When I heard GBV was making a new record (a first for the original line-up since 1996’s Under the Bushes Under the Stars), I knew it was going to be amazing. These were the dudes who pretty much established the lo-fi rock scene and were responsible for some of the most memorable and endearingly well-written albums of the 90’s. I was even more thrilled to learn the band was returning to a 4-track sound, something Pollard had set aside (along with most of the original band members) in the latter half of the group’s career. With the prospect of becoming a worthy followup to Alien Lanes or Bee Thousand of the 21st century, Let’s Go Eat the Factory had a lot riding on it from the very start.
The band’s 17th record starts off promisingly enough. The raucous growl of “Laundry and Lasers” recalls some of the driving rockers of the group’s late-80’s records with youthful energy rarely heard from dudes teetering on senior citizen status. The following set of songs are classic GBV affair, short and sweet, if somewhat unassuming: as passable as these mini-ballads may be, they lack the pop-y punch of their progenitors on earlier albums. “Spiderfighter” is something of an enigma: though it starts with a classically distorted, repetitive riff it abruptly collapses into a piano-based finale. While this thoughtful second half of the song aims for emotional peaks, it’s jarring transition mars the final product. “Hang Mr. Kite” relies far too heavily on ugly Moog compositions where guitar-based attacks are clearly needed.
Still the record finds footing on certain stand-out tracks. “God Loves Us” is fantastically anthematic and “How I Met My Mother” recalls some of the better burst-rockers of the band’s stand-out records. “Waves” showcases Sprout’s writing capabilities, as well as the band’s flair for eccentric sound manipulation. “Chocolate Boy” stands amongst the best balladry Pollard has produced in 20 years. If not for some head-scratchingly weird underwater-esque vocal-distortion and volume manipulation on “Cyclone Utilities (Remember Your Birthday)”, the song harks to the better aspects of the badass-ery in classics like “Hit” and “Hot Freaks”. The finale, “We Won’t Apologize for the Human Race” is both the record’s longest track and most intriguingly realized, featuring full breakdowns and an evolving composition rarely seen in most of the otherwise dwarfed songs of Factory.
Unfortunately, despite the occasional standout, Let’s Go Eat the Factory is less of a triumphant return to a band on the top of its game than a struggle to re-adapt to the genre they were birthed in. While GBV have adequately mimicked the lo-fi sound they are famous for, they have as of yet to prove they can write a truly memorable song fit for the new century. To be fair, these guys haven’t written cohesively in over 20 years, so the rust is completely forgivable: let’s just hope the next go-around they’ll be back in full-swing, offering those awesome hooks worthy of jump-kicking and drinking tequila to.
Stand-out Tracks: “God Loves Us” (.m4a)