During his long run as lead guitarist for Guided by Voices, Doug Gillard was the calm eye of the storm. While Robert Pollard drunkenly leg-kicked, and Nate Farley slugged Jack Daniels and mugged at the crowd, Gillard stoically knocked out precise, innovative licks and fiery solos. He also worked with Pollard on his 1999 solo album, Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department, writing the music for future GBV live staples like “Do Something Real” and “Tight Globes.”
This is all to say that Gillard is often just what Pollard needs. And though the two missed with 2003’s overworked Mist King Urth, their first record under the Lifeguards moniker, their return on Waving at the Astronauts starts off with a lot of promise.
“Paradise is Not So Bad” and “Nobody’s Milk” are the impressive first two songs on the record. The first is a rolling power-pop number, playing pastoral acoustics against grinding electric guitars, while “Nobody’s Milk” tightens up into a leaner but effective chug. Pollard sings to the rafters here, and on top of Gillard’s music tosses out some tight vocal melodies. Throw in the surprising punk-rock speed of “Sexless Auto” and the echoing space of “They Called Him So Much” and you’ve got the makings of another compelling Pollard-related pop record.
Unfortunately, as he’s wont to do on his side projects, Pollard dives into his weirdest song writing tendencies. It’s not that he can’t get strange without success, but often likes to claim he’s trying his hand at prog-rock to excuse being needlessly odd. In getting weird here, he often undersells Gillard’s solid compositions. His speak-singing verses in “Product Head” feel underdone and kind of silly over Gillard’s off-kilter tune, while the piano experimentation of “You’re Gonna Need a Mountain” finds Gillard following Pollard into that uncharted, and mostly fruitless territory. These eccentric tendencies take over as the album moves along, and all of a sudden those intricate, catchy rock songs that led off the record become a distant memory.
Maybe Gillard needs more control — his lush music is a nice change of pace from Todd Tobias’s sharp production on the Pollard solo records — or maybe these guys need to edit each other a little better. Either way, something else needs to happen. Because when these guys are in control, and in sync, they’re as good here as they were in those late-GBV years. When they’re not, though, and they start to wander, it’s pretty tough to follow where they’re going.