This whole Guided By Voices reunion thing has been curious from the beginning. What started as a set of shows from the “classic” line-up– another reunion tour that both gives us a great rock band and smartly cashes in on nostalgia– has now (at least for the moment) turned into a studio-only project. In other words, it’s become another of Robert Pollard’s myriad of projects. But with the solid effort of their first comeback record, Let’s Go Eat the Factory, the band could be poised (as Pollard has done with much fo his solo work) for a renaissance.
Class Clown Spots a UFO finds them still on that path but not quite there. With the focus now on studio recording — another album is already on the way later this year — you have to expect some refinement to these songs, even if the collection itself is a scattershot 21 tunes in under 40 minutes. The best moments here don’t surprise so much as they remind you how great these guys can be. The title track is a bright, bouncy tune, catchier than just about anything on Factory and, coming four songs in, the song that really kickstarts the album. The other singles here — “Keep It In Motion” and “Jon the Croc” — hit the mark, too, and show the various textures the album tackles. The former is a home-recorded gem, with Tobin Sprout layering shimmers of sound over Pollard’s drum-machine demo. The latter is a swampy rock tune, and gives us one of the more towering choruses on the album.
These are the more fleshed-out moments — along with Sprout’s songs, “Forever Until It Breaks” and “All of This Will Go”, both highlights — and it says something about the reunited band that these are the finest moments. Since these are the guys who made Alien Lanes, they seem locked in to making that kind of patchwork album, but while some of the shorter tracks work on their own (Sprout’s “They and Them” stands out) the brevity here can make the songs feel forced, even stilted. On top of that, Class Clown follows Factory down the same not-quite-lo-fi road, where the band barely cleans up their tape-hiss sound in the studio. Where twenty years ago, their hometape recordings sounded fresh and vital, here the brittle guitars of “Tyson’s Favorite Song” or “Billy Wire” feel forced, the muddled fidelity prescriptive. The murky fidelity also seems to weigh things down, so that songs “Blue Babbleship Bay” sound more bloated than arena-sized, while brighter moments, like closing barn-burner “No Transmission,” make you wish the band would just polish up their sound a bit more, the way Pollard has successfully done with his solo records.
Class Clown Spots a UFO is a fine record, but now two records into their return, it feels like this “classic” version of Guided By Voices is following too closely to a script. It’s great to see Sprout’s hushed, sweet songs playing off Pollard’s gonzo-rock tunes again, and they remain great songwriting foils. But as the band moves forward, one can only hope it stops considering itself the “classic” line-up and starts thinking of this as the “current” line-up, because yesterday’s sound seems to be running out of steam, and the highlights here prove there’s plenty Guided By Voices can run with. First, though, the band’s got to turn around and face forward.