I have to open this review with a disclaimer: Guided by Voices is my
favorite band in the entire universe. After the Beatles gave me the desire to make rock music, GBV gave me the drive to follow through on this desire through any available means. Listening to their 1993 masterwork Bee Thousand opened me up to a new world of do-it-yourself home recording, and it is one of the main reasons that I am the person I am today. I own all of GBVís official releases. I have seen them live at least once in every one of its incarnations from the so-called ìclassic lineupî (with Tobin Sprout and Mitch Mitchell) onward, forming a total of almost twenty shows. The members of the current lineup have seen me front and center at their Texas shows so many times that they know me by my first and last name. GBV guru Robert Pollard has even given me the affectionate nickname ìUrkelî because Iím a smart black guy who wears glasses. Because of all of this, the fact that Iím able to compose a review of this album with slightly more objectivity than it would take to simply say ìTHIS ALBUM PISSES ON EVERYTHING THATíS BEEN RELEASED THIS YEAR, SO BUY IT NOW OR I WILL SEND NINJAS TO YOUR HOUSEî is nothing short of a miracle.
Here we are, though, with Earthquake Glue, this yearís entry in the rock and roll sweepstakes. Every year, we can expect GBV to give us a series of songs with quirky titles, lyrics that initially sound nonsensical but reveal deeper meaning after close study, and Pollardís British Invasion vocals turning these lyrics into indelible melodic hooks. This album is no exception, but it is among a rare breed of GBV albums that demonstrate a surprising consistency from start to finish. The first three and the last two songs are Earthquake Glueís strangest. Opener ìMy Kind of Soldierî recalls Seamonsters-era Wedding Present due to its dense wall of guitars and Steve Albiniís trademark gunshot snare sound. A last-minute addition, itís the only song on this album that Albini worked on, which is a shame. He did good work for them on 1996ís Under the Bushes Under the Stars, and it would be nice for them to do an entire album under his wing. The second song, ìMy Son, My Secretary, and My Countryî begins with a horn fanfare from a middle-school band, and serves as little more than a short acoustic climax designed to set the stage for the next song. ìIíll Replace You with Machinesî bursts in with a gurgling noise that sounds like a whip hitting sheet metal forming a sort of click track for the rest of the band. Itís the kind of heavy-handed sonic statement that one would expect from Rush, but the song overcomes it by the force of its own catchiness.
ìShe Goes Off at Nightî is where the album really gets going. The cymbal splashes and rat-tat-tat snare fills are pure Keith Moon, and the slashing power chords are pure Pete Townshend. The bridge of the song, though, is pure shoe-gazer loveliness. ìBeat Your Wingsî is a lighter-waving stadium anthem, one of many songs in which the current lineup of GBV shows off its musical chemistry. Listen to drummer Kevin Marchís beat displacements during the guitar solo, and youíll see what I mean. ìUseless Inventionsî is an anti-technology punk screed that will have you jumping around the room in mere seconds; it has already ascended into my list of favorite GBV songs ever. ìDirty Waterî is bluesy prog-rock complete with harmonized wah-wah guitars and meter changes. It is successful in ways that previous attempts at prog (see Do the Collapseís ìLiquid Indianî and Universal Truths and Cyclesís ìStorm Vibrationsî) failed because of its comparatively brisk tempo and brief running time. ìThe Best of Jill Hivesî could have been a long-lost Under the Bushes out-take. ìDead Cloudî is another propulsive mishmash of stop-start dynamics and meter changes, and ìMix Up the Satelliteî puts four distinct riffs together in a combination that doesnít sound the least bit disjointed.
The lyrics of ìThe Main Street Wizardsî ooze wistful nostalgia: ìWill you exchange the past? Nothing is meant to lastÖstill they are coming back to you.î The music follows suit in a way that would conjure up the majesty of Bee Thousand if it were recorded on a cheap four-track. The next two songs could be interpreted as, respectively, Pollardís internal and external dialogue about the state of GBV. ìA Trophy Mule in Particularî betrays his desire for the band to be a messianic musical force. He considers it ìa challenge, one to go for and celebrate, with the stock market tumbling and the rock market crumbling.î He then refers to himself as ìa soldier, a trophy mule.î ìApology in Advanceî could be interpreted as a rebuke to the critics who have hounded him over the last couple of years. ìA disabled vet? Well, Iím not there yet! [Iíve] been around the block; Iíve even threw up one street over!î Anyone who has studied GBV over the last couple of years knows that it hasnít been exactly easy for them. Pollardís dealt with a divorce, acrimonious lineup changes, and failed attempts at hit making. He deserves to characterize himself as a weary but persevering soldier in the battlefield of rock. The ten-song stretch from ìShe Goes Off at Nightî to ìApology in Advanceî on Earthquake Glue serves as a good case for him to keep fighting the good fight.
The last two songs make a slight return to the awkwardness of the albumís beginning. ìSecret Starî is really two brilliant two-minute songs shoehorned together by an ill-advised drone interlude. Three simultaneous guitar riffs, all of which fit the song individually but donít work well together, drive album closer ìOf Mites and Menî. If any one of the guitars were punched out of the mix, the song would improve as a result. However, as is the case with almost every GBV album, even the failures can only be considered such when compared to Pollardís best work. They still tower high above the best songs on the majority of rock records released nowadays. Pollard has often said that the four Pís of rock drive his music: pop, punk, psych, and prog. Whereas most of GBVís albums sound like collages of songs that fit these four categories, Earthquake Glue puts them into a fairly homogeneous mix. The proficiency of the bandís current lineup has enabled them to integrate jerky dynamics, meter changes, and subtle keyboards and sound effects into their songs in ways that the classic lineup never could. Thus, there are very few songs on this record that can be easily categorized as one of the four Pís. This, more than anything, is what makes the album such a rarity on GBVís discography. What is so amazing about the band is that even after almost twenty years in the game, theyíre still undergoing the process of self-actualization. Theyíre still figuring out what kind of band they want to be, and this indecision yields more surprises than one would expect within the rigid parameters that Pollard has set for his music. In conclusionÖ
THIS ALBUM PISSES ON EVERYTHING THATíS BEEN RELEASED THIS YEAR, SO BUY IT NOW OR I WILL SEND NINJAS TO YOUR HOUSE!!!!!
(He will, too.--ed.)