Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Please Be Honest by Guided by Voices

Please Be Honest by Guided by Voices (3.5/5)

How do you define Guided by Voices? Do you have to include members of the “classic lineup,” excluding everything after Under the Bushes Under the Stars (1996) and before the reunion albums (2012)? Is Guided by Voices even a “band” or is it just an outlet for Robert Pollard who decides to let other songwriters play in his sandbox now and again? Is it just a name? This leads us to a tautology: It’s a Guided by Voices album because it’s released under the Guided by Voices moniker. Robert Pollard, whose work has been released in a seemingly endless series of bands, seems to believe that an album is a Guided by Voices album simply because he has said so. Well, actually, he has said that the songs off the latest GBV release just felt like GBV songs, despite the fact that he handles all of the instruments on the recording.

I have to admit that while Pollard’s latest GBV album, Please Be Honest, put me into an ontological conundrum, he has a point about the songs feeling like GBV songs. I don’t think the latest GBV is up to the standards of the best of the reunion albums, but there’s enough here to satisfy those who don’t have the patience to sift through every Pollard-related album released in a year. And while Please Be Honest might be guilty of some of the common complaints about Pollard’s songwriting--unevenness and a lack of quality of control--it still offers up some great songs for GBV die hards like myself.

Please Be Honest opens with two killer tracks, “My Zodiac Companion” and “Kid on a Ladder.” The former builds out of a sparse guitar and off-key singing by Pollard but continues to layer on strings and drums until Pollard has fashioned a mini-epic in just over two minutes. Like the best of Pollard’s songwriting, “My Zodiac Companion” gives you just enough to want to return again and again. “Kid on a Ladder” is the first showcase of Pollard’s interest in playing around with drum machines, which make another appearance on “Unfinished Business” during the album’s second half. The former though is one of those perfectly crafted pop songs you can expect to appear at least once on any Pollard released album.

The rest of the album’s A-side is less successful. A fifteen-song album is short for Guided by Voices, which means you might have less patience for some of Pollard’s basement tapes noodling, especially when it comes to filler like “Sad Baby Eyes,” which might have worked on a masterpiece like Alien Lanes, but here just trips up the flow of the album. The exception is “The Grasshopper Eaters” (perhaps a play on the lotus eaters from The Odyssey). Here Pollard does a superb job of playing with atmosphere and tone, and the track is somewhat reminiscent of some of the best experimental work of another Ohio band, Pere Ubu.

Pollard hides some of the best songs on the album’s B-side. “Hotel X (Big Soap)” once again channels the Who by stuffing several musical movements inside of three minutes before a surprise ending made out of a sampled high school band. “Hotel X” is followed by two other major highlights, “I Think I’m a Telescope” and the title track. The album is capped by yet another great final track, which Pollard has become an expert in crafting at least since the 2012 reunion. (Each reunion album has ended in an appropriate blast of energy whereas earlier GBV albums often just sort of ended).

So the worst of my fears regarding Please Be Honest have not come to pass. Pollard did not just cynically use the GBV name to scare up some extra cash to buy Jose Cuervo and PBR. The album isn’t as strong as the last six under the GBV name, but it has its charms, and by whatever definition you choose to use, it at least “feels” like Guided by Voices.

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