“If it’s me and your granny on bongos, then it’s The Fall”. These famous words from Mark E. Smith illustrated his fundamental creative role in the group throughout its countless incarnations. From Anton Newcombe’s Brian Jonestown Massacre to Billy Corgan’s Smashing Pumpkins, there are plenty of examples around today where bands have become a one man circus, and names are almost synonymous with their acts.
While always remaining the primary driving force behind Guided by Voices, it seems the “me and your granny on bongos” ethos has now been definitively adopted by prolific indie-rock veteran Robert Pollard. Previous post-2010 releases featured the band’s classic lineup of their mid-ninties heyday, but on this album Pollard plays all the instruments , as well as recruiting a brand new touring group.
Largely abandoning the polished production of his most recent solo and Guided by Voices long players, Pollard opts to return to the lo-fi recording styles which characterised the group’s most acclaimed output. Disorientating vocal effects, edgy warped guitar sounds, treble heavy bass riffs, abrasive distortion and rudimentary keyboard lines are recurring motifs. The grainy production style and erratic instrumental mix, along with Pollard’s distinctively surrealistic lyrics, combines to create a dramatic yet dream-like atmosphere.
The album walks a fine line between bizarre spontaneous brilliance and forced aesthetics, however. The crude orchestral keyboards on tracks like ‘Come on Mr Christian’ and ‘Hotel X’ are deliberately minimal and unsophisticated. The acoustic guitar strums in album opener ‘My Zodiac Companion’ are deliberately eerie and dissonant. The loose, treble-heavy bass guitar production is deliberately jarring, especially on ‘Nightmare Jamboree’ where a single ragged bass note forms the rhythmic backdrop. By the same token, the drumming ranges from primitive electronic loops, to washes of cymbal noise, to irregular abstract percussion. Pollard throws every lo-fi trick at this album, including the kitchen sink on ‘The Grasshopper Eaters’, where the drum kit is ditched in favour of an edgy kitchen-ware clang.
There are plenty of moments where the lo-fi aesthetic works, though. A rough, abrasive guitar distortion is used to surprisingly melodic effect on tracks like ‘Glittering Parliments’ and ‘Kid On A Ladder’, as well as the title track. The picked guitar and dual vocal of ‘I Think A Telescope’ is particularly engrossing, and the ridiculous theatrical vocals of ‘Sad Baby Eyes’ are disconcertingly memorable. The album also finishes strongly. The gentle guitars, emotive vocals and broken piano chords of ‘Defeatists Lament’ are genuinely affecting, while the overlapping vocals and powerful catchy refrain of ‘Eye Shop Heaven’ is a resounding finale.
Overall, this album proves that four track recorders, retro keyboards and beat-up guitar amps still have a place in modern music, and the granular production sound, like a cassette that’s been recorded over too many times, is still relevant. Perhaps Pollard should have been more honest and released it as a solo album, though.
‘Please Be Honest’ is out now via GBV Inc.
This Guided By Voices article was written by Tadgh Shiels, a GIGsoup contributor. Edited by Zoe Anderson.