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Key Tracks: “Class Clown Spots a UFO,” “Keep It in Motion,” “All of This Will Go”
Guided by Voices have churned out more lo-fi pop gems than any other band over the span of the past 20 years--even if you take that brief six-year hiatus period between 2004 to 2010 when the band wasn’t making anything at all into account. Besides, during those couple of years, frontman and song-writing-probably-part-robot Robert Pollard managed to release a couple of incredible solo albums that sounded remarkably like the best GBV material (2006’s dazzling Normal Happiness and 2008’s well-constructed Zoom (It Happens All Over the World) EP).
That being said, it’s important to acknowledge that the band has released its fair share of clunkers, as well. Thankfully, it is pretty hard to honestly isolate any given GBV record and declare it to be the stinking one of the lot, as the weakest of the band’s material typically co-exists alongside its shoddiest. For a lot of folks, Do the Collapse was the ultimate disparity in the band’s discography. But those folks seem to forget that that album starred a couple of fantastic tracks, including “Wrecking Now” and “Teenage FBI.”
When the original line-up of GBV dissipated sometime around 1997 and Robert Pollard enlisted the help of Cleveland’s Cobra Verde, the albums that followed (especially Universal Truths and Cycles and Do the Collapse) were just as rocked out as Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, but in an entirely different, decidedly more rock-poppy way. Cleaned up and occasionally longer than three minutes, this new material was just not as fleeting or as vital as “Gold Star for Robot Boy” and “Blimps Go 90.” But there’s something charming about oddball pop songs with surreal lyrics, like “Everywhere with Helicopter” and “Back to the Lake,” so this newer stuff can’t be totally discounted.
When GBV reunited in 2010 with the original line-up (Tobin Sprout, Kevin Fennel, Mitch Mitchell and Greg Demos), they played exclusively the material that they recorded together, so that goofy stuff that Rick Ocasek produced in the late 1990s was out. However, with the release of the band’s newest material (Let’s Go Eat the Factory in January of this year), the sound that Pollard and co. are working with now is a sort of mash-up of pre- and post-Cobra Verde GBV.
Let’s Go Eat the Factory was a tad bit disappointing for anyone looking for a great album, but it sure was comforting for any GBV fan, eager for new material. Class Clown Spots a UFO is decidedly more accessible and more refined than Factory, and, frankly, a finer recording.
When GBV played the Nelsonville Music Festival last month, Pollard prefaced the band’s rendition of “Class Clown Spots a UFO” with the remark along the lines of “Isn’t it great when you get to hear the best one?”
And he has a point.
“Class Clown Spots a UFO” is the finest track on the new album, with that trademark, inexplicable melancholy that accompanies all the best GBV material. Heck, there are even horns. And drumming so fine from Kevin Fennel that the tune moves along seamlessly. You feel pretty bad for the class clown--no one is going to ever believe he saw a UFO!
Some tracks on the album abandon the typical GBV format, like “Keep it in Motion,” which trades Pollard’s custom wordiness for simplicity in the lyrics department that perfectly accompanies a steady drum beat--one to which you can practically see Pollard swinging his mic chord to.
Sure, there are some really terrible songs on this record that you will probably skip over even on repeated listens, like “Worm with 7 Broken Hearts” and “Jon the Croc” (although the latter does have an appealing title that is oh-so-reminiscent of GBV before Pollard had fluffy white locks.
Class Clown Spots a UFO is up there with the best, most highly regarded lo-fi rock, even if it doesn’t have the pops and skitters that made Alien Lanes and Vampire on Titus some of the most remarkable music to come out of the past three decades.
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