There are precious few bands that remain relevant nearly 20 years into their careers. Bands are most usually products of their time, standing as aural encapsulations of an era's particular sound and, for lack of a better word, vibe. One only has to pick up a state-fair concert schedule to get a glimpse of what happens to a band when the welcome is long worn out.
Yet there are a few bands that have not only remained relevant, but have also produced thoughtful, creative work long after their 20-year anniversaries. Among their ranks are the names that help make popular music transcend banality and enter into the realm of art -- David Bowie, U2, Sonic Youth.
Guided By Voices, still relevant after almost 20 years after its formation, is a future addition to that list. Prolific frontman Bob Pollard has proved his mettle once again with his latest song cycle, Earthquake Glue, released on Matador Records. The very first song, "My Kind of Soldier," makes one point clear: This is not a record that GBV could have made when signed to TVT Records. Nor it is a record the band could have made the first time around on Matador. No, this record is something reflective of the here and now. Earthquake Glue is the first GBV record to convincingly sound like it was made by a band rather than a loose collective of support personnel.
As such, Pollard's songs have become deeper and richer. While his earlier material strung words together simply because they were interesting and sounded good, he now manipulates language to serve two masters. Though he is certainly not as storytelling-oriented as a Bob Dylan, he's no longer the basement-dwelling geek obsessed with being weird for no other reason than because he can be. This is perhaps why Earthquake Glue succeeds -- it is the perfect blend between the more personal Isolation Drills and the more eclectic, lo-fi-reminiscent Universal Truths and Cycles.
"My Kind of Soldier" is a quintessential GBV concert song: dramatic without being precocious, affirming without being trite and rockin' without being too macho. Thanks to the twin-guitar sound of Nate Farley and Doug Gillard, GBV sounds more powerful than ever, backed by the ever-competent Tim Tobias on bass and Kevin March on drums. Equally suited to carousing or reflection, the song is, hands-down, two minutes and 36 seconds of the best pop music recorded in 2003, guaranteed to make you sigh.
Pollard recruits a grade-school marching band to provide the introduction to the wispy, half-formed "My Son, My Secretary and My Country," a throwback to old-school GBV. "I'll Replace You With Machines" follows, and is perhaps one of the only missteps on the album, though its watery, swimming-through-the-sewer guitar effects will no doubt please fans of Alien Lanes and Bee Thousand. References to satellites, wizards and science run throughout the album as well, sating Pollard's (and hence, his fans') need for fantasy and make-believe.
The middle of the album is consistently strong, with the super-cool "Dirty Water" providing a slinky, rock 'n' roll buzz, nicely offsetting the anthemic feel of "She Goes Off at Night." Without "settling," Pollard has relaxed enough to share the spotlight with his musicians, letting them flex and guide his vignettes into something more than the sum of their parts. Earthquake Glue is literary in nature, requiring repeated listens to fully appreciate: It's an album that doesn't strangle you out of the gate, but rather tickles your ears and whispers its secrets.
One can only guess what Pollard has up his sleeve for the next go-round.