September 02, 2004

GBV "Half-Smiles Of the Decomposed"

If you’ve paid attention to my reviews on this website over the last couple of years, then you knew that this review was coming. (Ninjas, don’t pull out your swords yet.)

Whenever someone asks me about my favorite bands, Guided by Voices is the first name to pop into my brain and out of my mouth. The response is quick enough to suggest being triggered by a Pavlovian stimulus. I try to keep my fan-boy gushing to a minimum whenever GBV is mentioned in conversation, but I almost never succeed. Therefore, when the announcement was made some months ago that GBV would disband at year’s end, I briefly lost all perspective. I forgot that GBV had been making music for 21 years, 10 of which I spent dutifully consuming as many of their records as my wallet and my patience would allow. I forgot that GBV guru Robert Pollard would continue to make solo records, and that if his recent solo collection Fiction Man was any indication, they’d be just as good as any proper GBV release. I forgot that touring can be a job as grueling as any manual labor position, especially when you’re as drunk and hyperactive a performer as Pollard, and that it takes an indescribable toll on one’s body (for example, Bob blowing his back out after their most recent Houston show). I also forgot that I had already seen GBV live more than 30 times over the last nine years. All I knew was that the Best Rock Band in the Universe was leaving me, and I can’t lie --- I damn near wanted to cry.

Once I put things back into perspective, I turned my focus toward what I thought GBV’s final album would sound like. Most bands’ final albums either sound tossed-off or reek of desperate attention-seeking, but I expected GBV to go out in a blaze of glory. While Half Smiles of the Decomposed lives up to almost all of my expectations, I was surprised that it wasn’t more reckless, more scattershot. Most GBV albums come off as the musical equivalent of action paintings, in which Pollard’s endlessly recombinant vision of rock history is quickly slapped onto an unsuspecting canvas. Half-finished fragments are placed next to fully formed songs and, in the case of their more recent albums, overcooked epics. In contrast, Half Smiles consists of 14 tightly compressed tracks, most of which betray a consideration that most people didn’t associate with GBV even after they ditched the four-track as their primary recording tool. Half Smiles isn’t the kind of farewell you’d find in an action flick, where the hero disappears amongst a whirlwind of explosions and bullets. It’s the kind of farewell you’d find in a love story, where the woman struts out of the front door of your house (and, most likely, your life) with the quiet confidence that comes from knowing that, although you may never see her again, you won’t forget her any time soon.

The first side of Half Smiles might be the strongest seven-song sequence that GBV has ever committed to plastic. “Everybody Thinks I’m a Raincloud (When I’m Not Looking)” is, like most classic Pollard tunes, a slice of driving, droning power pop with a melancholy core. Pollard sings in his trademark sweet-and-sour faux-Brit voice about feeling alone in an ever-changing world, seeking “a miracle cure for my sorrow/with pillows of self-esteem/alone in a satellite dream.” His backing band is the tightest and most creative that it’s ever been, which is no small feat when you consider that GBV hasn’t recorded consecutive albums with the same lineup since the mid-’90s. The hard-panned guitars of Doug Gillard and Nate Farley are caught in a speaker-hopping lockstep. Bassist Chris Slusarenko, who joined just in time for the final hurrah, plays wandering melodies that are even more captivating than those coming out of Pollard‘s mouth, and Kevin March’s stop/start drumming adds a necessary amount of tension to the song. Throughout all of Half Smiles, Pollard’s backing band proves without a shadow of a doubt that they are the REAL reason fans should be sad about the breakup.

The rubber-band bass line, choppy guitars and metronome rhythms of “Sleep Over Jack” sound as if Bob’s been taking cues from his most famous fans the Strokes. Pollard imagines himself as a dangerous wanderer: “Fit me into your thimble/I’ll be your comeback trail/All wheels and no control/A restless shadow.” This is nothing new, though, as Bob’s been writing anthems for lone misfits throughout his entire career (“I Am a Scientist,“ anyone?). The difference is that “Sleep Over Jack” has no discernible verse/chorus structure, choosing instead to get its point across with pure atmosphere. After Bob sings the album’s most quotable couplet (“You’re gonna fuck up my makeup/You’re gonna make up my fuckup”), the song becomes a noisy collage of decaying tapes, faraway shouting, and seesawing guitars. “Sleep Over Jack” sounds like all of the more experimental moments of Pollard’s polarizing Fading Captain series crammed into three minutes, and despite not being as immediate as the average GBV song, it works beautifully.

“The Girls of Wild Strawberries” and “Tour Guide at the Winston Churchill Memorial” are jangling prom-quality love songs far more earnest and straightforward than their weird titles would imply. “You’re Never Gonna Have to Die” begins with a descending vocal melody and insistent snare-driven beat that suggests a lost ’60s Motown pop single refracted through a classic rock lens. Halfway through, though, just when you expect a squealing electric guitar solo to come in, Gillard instead plays a clunky yet endearing acoustic guitar solo that sounds as if he didn’t know the tape was rolling when he played it. The song meanders to an anticlimactic coda, but anyone who’s already familiar with GBV won’t feel gypped by it. It’s just the same kind of deconstruction Pollard’s been applying to pop songwriting throughout GBV’s entire existence. “The Window of My World” uses unexpected key and tempo changes to segue from folksy acoustic verses to rocking, reverb-drenched choruses; even when a snippet of classical guitar pops in, the transitions sound seamless. “Closets of Henry” is a fist-pumping Who-style anthem with a vocal melody that’s probably too difficult for Roger Daltrey to take on at his age.

The second side of Half Smiles is what will separate the diehards from the casual fans because it indulges in Pollard’s more progressive-rock tendencies. “Asia Minor,” with its barroom piano, cheesy rhyme schemes, and goofy singing, might get a bad rap from most listeners, but the song is catchy and it makes me laugh. The beginning of “Sons of Apollo” is a tribal stomp atop which a televangelist rants about pornography. Once Bob starts singing, the song becomes even more overwhelming, with two simultaneously drum tracks and two simultaneous backwards guitar solos. “Sing for Your Meat” is a subtle condemnation of the war in Iraq that expresses sympathy for “the boys under friendly fire” and contains the album’s second most quotable couplet: “21 is the legal age to kill yourself slowly/but 18 is the legal age to die.” From the lackadaisical acoustic intro to the weeping slide guitars, the song possesses a stately grace reminiscent of Pollard’s 1999 solo album Kid Marine.

“Asphyxiated Circle” is an anthem of defiance so bad-ass that it begins with a killer hook that doesn’t even repeat itself, as it is replaced by an even stronger hook. This song is the first of what I interpret to be a trilogy in which Pollard addresses the outside world about the impending breakup. This song seems to be a middle finger to critics. “You write me out,” Bob sings, “[but] I reappear/To criticize, you interfere/but I will say what I want to/and there is nothing you can do!” On the tender ballad “A Second Spurt of Growth,” Bob asks his fans (and possibly himself), “Are we changing to the taste of the haste-makers?” The song begins with confusion and ends with reassurance: “A second spurt of growth will come about me…don’t doubt me.” The next song, “(S)mothering and Coaching,” is another ballad in which Pollard ponders the post-GBV fate of his band mates. His lyrics make assertions only to tear them back down, as if he isn’t sure whether going solo is a good thing or not. As soon as Bob sings “They might not be playing for the team,” he follows it up with, “…what team?”

Of course, it is possible that I’m overanalyzing Pollard’s words, as they’ve always mixed sense with nonsense in roughly equal proportions. However, this album’s lyrics are downright lucid compared to his usual fare, and I feel there are too many other elements of Half Smiles that coincide with the lyrics for these interpretations not to have a modicum of validity. The album’s very title conjures up the image of a dead man happily reflecting on the life he once lived. The artwork is littered with images of sunsets, moons, and lone men watching the ocean. You can tell that GBV tried to make the album a truly cohesive statement…which makes the final track, “Huffman Prairie Flying Field,” even more of an anomaly. It is a triumphant song that would’ve been the perfect capstone both to Half Smiles and to GBV’s career were it not for its flat, wavering vocals. It is the only song on the record that finds Pollard in poor voice, and the fact that in theory, the song is one of his best EVER makes such imperfection even more of a travesty.

Then again, that might also be part of the package. Pollard has often remarked in interviews that he feels mistakes can add character to a song, and that an overbearing emphasis on perfection is slowly robbing today’s music of its human touch. I agree with him, but I still wish that he didn’t use the final song on his band’s final album to prove his point. A lot of GBV fans have been waiting for them to make an album filled entirely with home runs, one that they can use to convince anybody who hears it of Pollard’s genius. We just have to accept that that album’s never going to come, that Half Smiles of the Decomposed is as close as we’re gonna get to getting it, and that there will always be a small amount of work listeners have to do uncover Pollard’s genius. Of course, that makes GBV come off like a straight-A student who intentionally bombs a quiz every once in a while to keep the teachers from ceaselessly kissing his ass. However, in an industry saturated with bands who are content with a C average, GBV at its most contrary is still a band to be appreciated and cherished.

I thank GBV for all that they’ve given me, and hope that each of its members continues to rock in his own special way well into old age. (Ninjas, you can pull out your swords now.) If you’ve gotten this far in the review, you already know what to do.

--Sean Padilla

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