Guided by Voices

Class Clown Spots a UFO

(Guided by Voices Inc. ; 2012)

By Brent Ables | 22 June 2012

Guided by Voices are victims of their own greatness. Hiatus notwithstanding, they’ve been so good for so long that we’ve come to take them for granted, greeting each new release with some lazy variation of the same lazy response. Critics will mention Pollard’s prolificacy first and foremost, and the general unevenness and all-over-the-placeness of his band’s albums is inevitably deduced as a consequence; clearly the guy just shits out thirty songs a day, and decides their placement on albums through some aleatory ritual involving Budweiser and a dart board. Which: maybe.

But why not give Pollard more credit than that? It would be one thing if his prolificacy was marked by monotony, and every new Guided by Voices album and song sounded like the last. Any discerning listener can see that’s not the case: Pollard and co. are endlessly experimenting, and the wonderful inconsistency of their enormous corpus can be seen less as a case of poor self-editing and more as the byproduct of an endless attempt to exploit the unending possibilities of rock music. So what if they miss the target almost as much as they hit it? The song will be over in two minutes anyway. Is your time really so fucking important?

Case in point: Class Clown Spots a UFO is a pretty good record, but really doesn’t sound that much like Let’s Go Eat the Factory, which was released all of five months ago. Yes, they both sound like Guided by Voices—no one’s going to mistake Pollard or current co-captain Tobin Sprout for anyone else at this point. But where Factory found the newly-reunited band indulging their latent prog tendencies on epic three- and four-minute (!) tracks, Class Clown has them chugging out twenty-one songs in forty minutes and focusing on a slightly grimier, more aggressive version of the GBV sound. This might make it a less welcoming record than Factory, but it’s just as playful and sprightly: the band is still pushing at the edges of what they can do on many tracks—are those horns I hear on “They and Them”?—even while others (“Billy Wire”) see them returning to the rough minimalism of their late-‘80s heyday. It’s new and old Guided by Voices all in one brisk package, and has all the strengths and weaknesses of both.

One of the immensely pleasant surprises of Let’s Go Eat the Factory was that Tobin Sprout was writing songs that were not just on Pollard’s level, but sometimes better: “Waves” and “God Loves Us” are still two of the straight-up best rock songs of the year, in my book. So it’s a little disappointing to find Sprout’s contributions to Class Clown tending more towards the forgettable side, although his resourceful use of basic guitar textures remains as ingenious as ever. For better or worse, Pollard steps back into the spotlight here. In so doing, he releases some of his best songs in a long while. The anthemic title track, complete with handclaps and synth-horns, is every bit as joyful as its “Up, up, up we go!” lyrics would have you expect; “Fly Baby,” on the other hand, showcase a more gentle, acoustic side of Pollard’s songwriting that we’ve seen on classics like “Drinker’s Peace.” Overall, his contributions might not be as impressive here as on Factory, but Pollard is really no better or worse than he’s ever been.

Which, really, is an accurate way to describe the second coming of Guided by Voices. They’re like your friendly neighborhood drunk: you always know they’ll be sloshed, but you can never quite be sure what they’re going to say or do the next time you see them. Class Clown gives us what is most best and most constant about the band—their sonic restlessness, shambolic hooks, broken glory—and nothing less. The next sixteen albums, we can only assume, will do the same.