From SP #9 (April 2001):
Ever since the universal acclaim Guided By Voices received following the release of 1994's Bee Thousand and 1995's Alien Lanes, the indie spotlight that has focused on the band has produced intense scrutiny and controversy over each and every GBV release. Despite the considerable critical hype over last year's Do The Collapse, GBV fans had mixed reactions. To some extent it's the age old dilemma of judging an artist's new work independently of the works that preceded it, versus allowing the artist's past work to color that evaluation. In advance of the release of GBV's latest, Isolation Drills, I decided we would have not one, but two staff members review it, and print both. I didn't imagine we'd get a pair of opinions in such harsh contrast. As you can see both Robert and John are impassioned long time fans of the band. Mel C
As the first, last, and only original member of indie-godfathers Guided By Voices, Robert Pollard more or less commands the indie community's attention any time he releases an album. The fact that his last few have been mildly disappointing does little to diminish this.
And so it was with 1999's Do the Collapse, GBV's eight-millionth "make or break" album, an album so overdone and buried in studio tricks that it lacked the spontaneity to make it a classic in the band's canon. By recruiting Ric Ocasek to engineer and mix Collapse, GBV seemed both hopeful and desperate for mainstream recognition. In any event, you can't fault Pollard for trying. His talent as a songwriter is undeniable and he can, as far as I'm concerned, rest on his numerous laurels for the rest of his career.
Thankfully, he only does this to a minor extent, releasing low-grade fan club albums on his Fading Captain Series label and raking in the praise from cult worshippers. When his balls are to the wall (or when he has to release another "big studio" album for TVT) he can deliver with the hits: anthemic, catchy songs full of pleasingly familiar chord changes and raspy, perfect vocals that stick in your brain like sugar-coated nails. Pollard has this way of blowing me away with the most subtle of tricks, and Isolation Drills is thankfully full of these.
Unlike Do the Collapse, GBV's latest disc is one of modest, unassuming pop-rock tunes with straightforward lyrics and (gasp!) coherent themes. As much as Pollard has talked about making concept albums in the past, Drills is probably the closest he's come. The usual themes show up: relationship troubles, loneliness and longing, etc. But this is coming from the man who wrote "Hot Freaks" and "Hey Aardvark." And so it should seem odd that Drills coheres as well as it does, considering most of Pollard's trademark tactics are absent.
Isolation Drills shares more with 1997's Mag Earwhig! than anything else (and not simply because of the scattered 4-track moments). The production is tight and clean, thanks to producer Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliott Smith). Pollard seems more comfortable and loose in the studio than on Collapse. And as much as everyone misses the charmingly amateurish "classic" lineup, the new GBV can play the hell out of Pollard's songs. Guitarist Doug Gillard is technically proficient (as always), with rhythm guitarist Nate Farley adding a crunch and spark that lacked on Collapse. The bass (Tim Tobias) and drums (Jim MacPherson) are likewise solid and appealing.
Leading off with the previously released Fair Touching, Pollard wastes no time giving us the criminally appealing sing-a-longs we want and need. Chasing Heather Crazy is a gargantuan single, possibly the band's best shot at radio airplay. Twilight Campfighter is a great jangly, mournful song with plaintive vocals. The obligatory acoustic tune, Sister I Need Wine, turns out to be haunting and beautiful.
By the time you hit Glad Girls with its chorus of Brian Wilson's on methamphetamines, you can't deny the almost ridiculous subtlety with which Pollard is assaulting you. Not that the songs don't rock: most sound best when cranked on your stereo, especially the Who-ish Pivotal Film. It's the fact that more than ever, Pollard seems ready to let the raw elements speak for themselves, without cloaking them in Brit-rock conventions or varied production techniques. Isolation Drills is an honest, beautiful, and frequently hard-edged album that shows Pollard's willingness to change and reasserts his relevance because of it. - John Wenzel
I have just finished listening to Isolation Drills the newest Guided By Voices album for the third and final time. I say final because it is a dull, uninteresting and pointless release by this once great band and I have no intention of ever subjecting myself to it again. As the previous GBV album was the dire Do The Collapse this takes some doing. Collapse suffered from a mixture of uninspired songwriting and obtrusive production by Ric Ocasek on the few worthwile tunes.
Isolation Drills does not contain one decent song - not one! The opening track Fair Touching was the fourth best song on the 6 track CD Pollard released as Lexo & the Leapers. A big studio rehash of a mediocre song to open the latest attempt at mainstream glory does not bode well. The best thing one can say about this record is that it mercifully isn't as long the 50 minute plus Do The Collapse. When GBV released Mag Earwhig in 1997 I honestly felt as if they couldn't possibly make a worse record but after Collapse and now Isolation Drills that seriously flawed Guided By Verde effort seems a masterpiece in comparison.
A brief track by track summary is regrettable but necessary. Fair Touching - Weak. See above. Skills Like This - Yet another ponderous rocker of the sort Pollard apparently is convinced he excels at. He is mistaken. Chasing Heather Crazy - Pollard used to effortlessly write catchy classic witty pop songs. Now he strains to write dumb not as catchy as he thinks songs with lyrics a 14 year old would be embarrassed by. Frostman - An acoustic vignette obviously included as a cop to longtime fans who dislike his big studio forays. Unfortunately, these fans (myself included) have heard Crocker's Favorite Song of which this cynical throwaway is a pathetic shadow. Twilight Campfighter - A parodists idea of a GBV song title wed to nobody's idea of a GBV song. Sister I Need Wine - Brother that's the last thing you need. Want One? - NO! Ready to do battle with Optical Hopscotch from Collapse and Isolation Drills ' Pivotal Film (wait i'm getting ahead of myself) for the worst ever GBV song crown. Makes Zoo Pie sound like I Am A Scientist. The Enemy - There is no reason this song should exist. Unspirited - In the interest of truth in advertising this should be the title track. Glad Girls - That a 43 year old man wrote this pap is pathetic. That it's the same man who wrote Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory is profoundly depressing. See Chasing Heather Crazy above. Run Wild - See The Enemy above. Pivotal Film - Sample lyric "Pivotal Film selling out your monkey." Confessional Lyric "Grotesque and Arrogant." How's My Drinking? - Not as fruitful artistically as when you wrote "Drinker's Peace" Bob. According to the TVT press release this is the most depressing song ever written. Whatever. Elliot Smith apparently plays organ on this song though it might as well have been Jim MacPherson judging by the results. The Brides Have Hit Glass - If I really tried I would probably like this song. I didn't have to try to like Propeller, Bee Thousand or Alien Lanes. Fine To See You - Tobin Sprout apparently plays piano on this. See the organ part on How's My Drinking. Privately - "Selling Dayton by the Pound" or was that Emerson Lake & Pollard?
What's wrong with this record and GBV in general? 1. Pollard is very defensive about longtime fans complaints that he is no longer "lo-fi." He misses the point in a few ways. The reason the lo-fi records appealed to us was that they were different than the slick overproduced music of the early 90's. No one outside of the Rolling Stone magazine office thought GBV would be better if only they could get some slick production. These records (I'm basically talking about everything from 92-96 including King Shit & The Golden Boys) moved us because they were an amalgam of all the great experimental pop music from The Beatles and Bowie to Wire and The Soft Boys but they also had a bootleg quality as well. By not recording in big studios GBV were able to leave in offhand gestures, imperfect playing and vocal meanderings that gave the music life warmth and immediacy. The lack of precision was a breath of fresh air in a sterile musical environment. The do-it-yourself ethic of classic GBV spoke both to ageing punk true believers & young indie rockers raised on homemade zines as well as anyone who loved classic pop hooks. Big studio production has smoothed out all the rough edges in GBV's music and Pollard's formerly endlessly inventive vocals have become stiff and listless. The newer material is also sorely lacking in the whimsical humor of the earlier GBV. Pollard's lyrics have been on a steady decline which has its roots as far back as Tonics & Twisted Chasers and they've hit the dirt recently. What was once effortless is now calculated and getting the Foo Fighters producer to record the results is no help, especially when the songs aren't even as catchy as the Foo Fighters. 2. The musicians Pollard chooses to work with have moved his music in a plodding and predictable direction. Songs like Zoo Pie, In Stitches, and Skills Like This would have been unthinkable with the Tobin, Mitch & Kevin lineup. Jim MacPherson is exactly the kind of heavy-handed drummer Pollard didn't need to hook up with. The greatest single evil confronting fans of GBV's classic songs however is Doug Gillard. GBV was never about wank ass guitar noodling and there will never be another good GBV record if he is involved. He keeps the solos to a minimum on Isolation Drills but the cliched arpeggiated bass note figure he brought to the party gets an airing in virtually every song. Pollard's prog tendencies were thankfully kept to a minimum by the technical limitations of his earlier collaborators but with Gillard in the mix the arena rock seeps in. [Note to Bob - Ramones Good, Rush Bad.] 3. The biggest problem with GBV is unfortunately attributable to Pollard himself. When I first met Bob after a San Francisco show when Alien Lanes had just come out he was as funny, accessible and warm as could be imagined. He has always been gracious with me both as a fan and when I had the oppurtunity to interview him. However, his continuing descent into the worst cliches of rock star behaviour on stage is getting the better of him. The frat-boy drunken antics are way past their sell-by date. After six years of catching every GBV show I could (even driving to LA from the Bay Area) I wouldn't attend a current GBV performance if you paid me. In addition to the aforementioned neanderthal hijinks I have no interest in seeing songs that mean a great deal to me mauled by the palookas that now call themselves GBV, who evidently can't wait to play Zoo Pie or I Am A Tree. A big part of the problem are Pollard's acolytes and sychophants who are using the party atmosphere of GBV shows to regain some lost frat house glory or glory they never had. Bob has people telling him his every turd is a pot of gold so why take a look within right? These hangers-on are doing fans of Pollard's music an injustice by encouraging mediocrity and refusing to take him to task when the shit just isn't cutting it. I recently watched "Watch Me Jumpstart" the GBV documentary movie from a few years ago, and felt sick to my stomach as Pollard said his only hope for success was being happy with the records he makes. Now as he claws so desperately to attain radio hits and mass success I have to turn away. I'm done. I'll listen to Bee Thousand for the thousandth time and enjoy my memories, but not without some bitter sadness. - Robert Haines
- Reader Responses -
Since you asked readers to share their thoughts about
the new GBV album, I thought I'd send you mine.
I neither like it as much as John Wenzel did, nor hate
it as much as Robert Haines. I think it's a lot better
than "Mag Earwhig," but doesn't have a song as catchy
as "Teenage FBI," from "Do the Collapse." That song is
grossly overproduced, but a good song is a good song.
However, what makes Guided By Voices GBV isn't so much
the good songs as the mediocre ones. I mean, look at
cover bands: any lousy band can do a good job with a
great song. But it takes a really great band to pull
off a bad one.
There are a lot of factors that make a song great, but
the thing that makes a band great is the force of its
personality. "Bee Thousand," "Alien Lanes" and other
GBV releases from that time have great songs, but more
than that, the band on them has an appealing
personality. That's why the lo-fi sound and sloppy
performances are endearing, rather than distracting.
The band seems like people we know, goofing around in
the basement and coming up with some great songs. And,
since we know they're just goofing around, we don't
really mind when the lyrics don't make sense or when
they toss off a song that's kind of lame.
I don't blame Bob Pollard for wanting a radio hit. The
radio would be better with him on it. I don't blame
him for getting tired of lo-fi sound and sloppy
performances. But those are what made up the old GBV
personality. The slick production and professional
musicianship on late-model GBV may not be entirely
lacking a personality, but it's hard to recognize one.
That just makes it all the more obvious when Pollard's
songwriting isn't up to snuff. A good song is a good
song, but a bad one had better have some personality. Will Crain (SF)