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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Guided By Voices keeps grasping at former glory with a reunited lineup

Illustration for article titled Guided By Voices keeps grasping at former glory with a reunited lineup

Guided By Voices is currently in the fourth year of its “classic ’93-’96 lineup” reunion. And if there is anything particularly heartening to be gleaned from this new epoch, it’s that GBV seems determined to recreate the prolific creative output of their most vital era, even if that output amounts to photocopied retreads and small stylistic deviations only appreciated by GBV diehards. The group’s latest effort, Motivational Jumpsuit, is its fifth album since January 2012, and, like GBV’s most famous work (Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes), it’s a ramshackle collection of 20 one- to three-minute songs raging with crunchy power chords, fragmented power-pop melodies, and impressionistic lyricism from the group’s ageless anchor, lead singer-songwriter Robert Pollard. Again, this is a great thing for fans who follow GBV’s every move and value Pollard’s every word, but it’s hard to imagine the group gaining any new fans, or stirring up anything in the indie-rock zeitgeist, with an album that is essentially a rehash of what made its classic work so enduring in the first place.

That being said, Motivational Jumpsuit is a new Guided By Voices record with new Guided By Voices songs that can be appreciated in a vacuum isolated from the group’s mammoth influence and back catalog. In other words, it’s an album that’s enjoyable in the way that listening to all Guided By Voices records is enjoyable, namely by hunting through the long tracklists for flashes of brilliance while dismissing the train-wreck experiments and half-baked ideas. It’s also an album that interestingly buoys back and forth between the lo-fi scrappiness of the group’s early years—the grimy, Spector-esque pop of “Save The Company,” the snotty mod fits of “Evangeline Dandelion,” for example—and the slicked-up guitar-rock professionalism of 1996’s Under The Bushes Under The Stars, like on the tightly constructed alt-rocker “Alex And The Omegas.” 

And when Pollard’s most trusted collaborator, Tobin Sprout, pops up with a few of the album’s best moments—the shimmering psychedelic simplicity of “Record Level Love” and the wide-eyed Revolver-era Beatles riff “Jupiter Spin”—it provides a healthy contrast to the blocks of standard Pollard GBV songs that make up, and often drag down, large stretches of the album. The most interesting moment of contrast comes in the late stages of the album with Sprout’s strange version of a piano-driven power ballad “Some Things Are Big (And Some Thing Are Small),” with its dramatic builds and wide-open composition, butting up against Pollard’s nervy, uptempo crusher “Bulletin Borders” for a pretty drastic change in volume and scope. Those small victories do their best to make up for some of the album’s wince-worthy misses like the clunky, overwrought “I Am Columbus,” the plodding blandness of “Calling Up Washington,” and, even in the light of recent revelations, the tepid opening track ”The Littlest League Possible, ” but don’t quite tip the scale enough. With what is essentially their 19th overall release, Pollard and Guided By Voices are still going back to the indie-rock well they have subsisted on for 30-odd years now. And other than a compulsory desire to continue releasing music that rarely deviates from the free-form indie-rock template the band has established again and again, on record after record, it’s difficult to find any song on Motivational Jumpsuit that GBV lifers can place among the group’s most accomplished work.