Scott Creney

Guided By Voices – Let’s Go Eat The Factory (Fire)

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By Scott Creney

From 1992 to 1996 Guided By Voices had one of the great creative runs in the history of music. A group of 30-something ex-jocks, schoolteachers and regular Midwestern guys, they created a type of music, both sonically and lyrically, that was nearly without precedent in rock music. Recorded on 4-tracks in their basements, GBV created a lo-fi sound that was magical, experimental, and crammed with hooks.

Since the dissolution of that original line-up, brought about by family commitments and substance abuse (applying to different band members), leader Robert Pollard has continued to make music of varying quality, but has never reached the heights he did back in the mid-90s. So returning to the classic line-up for Let’s Go Eat The Factory, after last year’s successful reunion tour, isn’t just an attempt to hook people into buying the new record (which it most definitely is), it’s also a challenge.

It’s pretty safe to say that 1994’s Bee Thousand is the greatest album Guided By Voices ever made. I bought it after Spin magazine named it one of their albums of the year. (The fact that their 2011 list is infinitely safer and more conservative than it was 17 years ago says a great deal more about today’s Spin than it does about today’s music.) There are songs on Bee Thousand that took me years to fully appreciate; I’m not sure I feel entirely comfortable passing judgment on the band’s new album after a half-dozen listens. But we don’t have time to wait a year. If you care about Guided By Voices at all, you probably need to hear this album.

Let’s Go Eat The Factory is a return to a sound as naturalistic, as called up out of the earth, as anything on The Basement Tapes, only there’s no question GbV lives in the present day of convenience stores and basketball courts. It’s raw and beautiful, the bleak gorgeousness of sunlight illuminating icicles. It’s a door with a window built into it that leaves you staring out into eternity.

It’s a world of threadbare trees and drive-thru liquor stores, the sound of driving through your hometown knowing that your best days are behind you. Which is something a lot of people have been thinking about GbV. And though there’s nothing on here as simultaneously heartrending and euphoric as ‘Echoes Myron’, nothing as leg-kicking as ‘Motor Away’, this is still the most vital work the band, or Pollard, have done in years.

Here’s the band performing the first single on David Letterman. And yes, the bass player falls on his ass within the first minute. It’s part of their charm, the mark of a band that has always coupled their bursts of genius with deliberate amateurishness.

A brain that rhymes sinkable with domino is a very creative brain indeed. You won’t find that in a rhyming dictionary. Robert Pollard’s language is a universe that is both abstract and familiar, a poetry informed by gray skies and basements, used cars and starch. And I don’t use the P-word loosely. As far as I’m concerned, you can keep your Dylans and Cohens, and even your Morrisseys — Pollard is, in a contemporary sense, the best poet in the history of rock (with Ghostface Killah and Mark E. Smith right behind him). ‘Hang Mr. Kite’ carries a Midwestern bleakness not far removed from the wry despair of John Berryman and his Dreamsongs, only Pollard’s voice is accompanied here by a brooding cello and a weeping violin.

It’s easy enough to latch onto the hooks, the soaring melodies, etc. to the point where you can skip right past the less straightforward stuff. But if you come for the hits, you should stay for the fragments. ‘The Big Hat And Toy Show’ is as strange and movingly warped as anything by Syd Barrett or Robert Wyatt. If anything, Pollard’s never gotten enough credit for the unique strangeness of his work.

And hell, Pollard didn’t even write the best song on the album. Sidekick Tobin Sprout turns in ‘Old Bones’, a two-minute drone of icy accordion synths, with wheezing vocals that sound like they are being excavated from underneath a frozen lake. It’s an elegy, a song to silently drink to. It as original and unprecedented as anything from Bee Thousand, and it might just be the most beautiful thing Guided By Voices has ever recorded.

Let’s Go Eat The Factory may not be their best album, but it’s easily in the top 10. And for an artist as prolific as Robert Pollard, that’s pretty god-damned impressive. They say there’s another album due sometime this year. I can’t wait to hear it.

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