You could compare Guided by Voices after 1996 to a coffin. And you could call each post-Tobin Sprout record that frontman Robert Pollard has released under the GbV moniker a nail in that coffin. You could have dismissed the band after they jumped ships from Matador to the semi-major TVT to produce 1999’s Do the Collapse, their lamest album to date. You could have tossed them aside when he jettisoned his band of ten-plus years in favor of Cobra Verde as back up, or when he opted for GbV’s current smoothed-over studio sound rather than the crackle, fuzz and hiss of home four-track recording. But if you did, you wouldn’t have been paying close attention to one of indie rock’s reigning champs.
Sure, the records released during Part II of the Guided by Voices saga have sometimes been spotty. But last year’s The Best Of Guided By Voices — which in retrospect should have hinted at the band’s planned December 2004 break up — highlighted GbV’s great moments. “Everywhere with Helicopter,” from 2002’s Universal Truths and Cycles, was one of the best tacks on the comp. Ditto for “Chasing Heather Crazy,” from 2001’s Isolation Drills. It almost seems the band had a second coming of age; each subsequent record after the turning point/slate-wiping “break up” in the aftermath of 1996’s Under the Bushes, Under the Stars was slightly better than the last. And Half Smiles of the Decomposed, their twenty-somethingth and most likely final record, nails this shift in sound in several capacities.
Everybody knows this band is prolific; it’s become apparent that Pollard can’t sit on the crapper without writing three new songs. Since he hasn’t been in the habit of flushing the shit but including it as filler as a way to stack eighteen-plus songs on a record, Half Smiles is refreshing at fourteen tracks.
Pollard still wears his penchant for all things classic rock on his sleeve, which works in varying degrees. “Sons of Apollo” looks to Roger Daltry for its riffs. Pollard rethinks structure to great effect in the lengthy (for him) four-minute ballad “Sing For Your Meat.” “Asphyxiated Circle” continues something of a theme for the record, with Pollard shouting his vocals, harkening back to the wonderful Alien Lanes closer “Alright.” Unfortunately everything here doesn’t work. “Asia Minor” feels like a phoned-in attempt to recreate elements of their earlier “Cut Out Witch”; and “Window of My World” teeters on the sap of “Hold on Hope” from Collapse.
“Huffman Prairie Flying Field,” another of Half Smiles excellent tracks, is highlighted by a driving riff. Pollard, in his best faux Rod Stewart voice, yells, “If that’s what you want to hear/ Then that’s what I will sell you/ … For far too long.” This last line refrains, and the guitar fades out perfectly. It’s the record’s final track, and thereby the band’s final statement. But long live Guided by Voices.