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Weekly Alibi Speaking in Tongues

Guided by Voices with Flake and Cobra Verde

By Michael Henningsen

It can be argued that the Beatles made their best noise while under the influence of LSD and other select hallucinogenic substances, just like it can be argued that the Beatles--or any band for that matter--sound best with the listener similarly under the influence. And for those willing to entertain the above argument, there is modern salvation to be found in the music of Guided by Voices.

Beatles comparisons, of course, have almost always been synonymous with the Dayton, Ohio, band whose records--whether they be highly experimental or straightforward--always manage to evoke the mystery, magic and sheer brilliance of the mythical Lennon and McCartney collaborative sound, updated. Beyond all the slick production tricks and industry analysis in the book, the simple fact is that Bob Pollard has always been able to convey his musical ideas and ideals so effectively that it's never really mattered much who's playing the stuff.

Since 1983, 51 different lineups--Pollard being the lone thread that has tied them together--have recorded 10 Guided by Voices records that run the gamut between ultimate low fidelity basement recordings to intricately looped samples and expert pop craftsmanship. Hinged on Pollard's songwriting and frighteningly broad vision, Guided by Voices occupy an exclusive space in the commercial jungle that is Indie Rock 1997: the band--no matter the most recent incarnation--remains inherently "indie." And that's saying a lot when one considers that much of so-called indie rock is now available on haphazardly compiled CDs pitched like FloBees on late-night Fox TV.

Some would--and have--argued, though, that the Golden Age of Guided by Voices included those records made by the semi-original, semi-solid core of Pollard, guitarist Tobin Sprout, bassist Mitch Mitchell and drummer Kevin Fennell. Rumors of the band's demise began flying around during the fall of 1996, when an anonymous post appeared on the Internet, reading, "No G-B-V! No G-B-V! It can't be! Does anyone know why Guided by Voices is breaking up--I heard Bob wants to go back to teaching. Is it true?" At about the same time, Pollard released his solo debut as did Sprout. Things only got worse--not to mention the appearance of more Beatles references--upon the release two months later of the Sunfish Holy Breakfast EP, whose cover--adorned with highly unrecognizable naked, bearded men--hinted that the band was in a period of transition for the band if nothing else. Of course, none of the rumors were true. Pollard, as has always been his nature, simply picked up and moved on.

Mag Earwhig, the new Guided by Voices record, is in some ways, a return to the grandiose "pop-ness" of 1995's Alien Lanes. And although the album is marked by a sound different from previous releases, it is refreshingly representative of the best of GbV's work--harrowing melodies, guitars unleashed, passionately strained vocals. Recorded in Cleveland with local underground stars, Cobra Verde, and in Dayton with contributions from Pollard's brother Jim and Tobin Sprout, at its center Mag Earwhig combines the signature GbV sound with a new freshness, due in part to the relative youth of the latest lineup. And with more power, definition and coherency in their corner, Guided by Voices are now destined for a larger part of the pie they so richly deserve.

The methods behind the brilliance, though, are the same. Pollard's knack, to put it lightly, for writing savage hooks wrapped in 90-second teasers, for instance, is completely intact on the new record, as is his admirable penchant for nonsequitur lyrics and sweeping arrangements. His confidence thrives within the new collective of musicians bent on shaping his vast--if ostensibly short--compositions into gala affairs.

And the cohesiveness that sets Mag Earwhig apart from previous GbV records could be the ingredient that sets the stage afire. Pollard and Co. haven't toured in two years, and their return to the stage as Guided by Voices is bound to be triumphant at the very least. You're about to become a believer.

--Michael Henningsen

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