Release Date: May 13, 2014
Record label: Guided by Voices
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Lo-Fi
Guided By Voices' career has started to resemble seasons of the decades-long UK soap opera, Coronation Street. New albums are as frequent as afternoon reruns and the suspense of the saga stems from guessing what line-up of members make the best combination. In the case of Cool Planet, Tobin Sprout continues to be the necessary calming element to Pollard's boisterous songwriting, and ex-late version GBV drummer Kevin March is back on drums (replacing Kevin Fennell).For their sixth album since their 2010 reformation, the tempo has been slowed down.
So there have been a few changes recently in the Guided By Voices world. Kevin Fennell left the band and has been replaced on drums by Kevin March, who played with the band before their 2004 break. There’s another change on the new album, Cool Planet. For the first time since reforming in 2010, the band went into one proper studio and cut a whole record.
Being proud sons of Ohio, the members of Guided by Voices know that when the weather gets cold, it's good to have an indoor project to keep yourself occupied, and as a rare polar vortex hit the Midwest with one of the worst winters in history in 2013-2014, GbV responded in the way they know best: they hunkered down and made an album. Guided by Voices recorded 2014's Cool Planet in the midst of brutal cold snaps and extreme snowfall, and it sounds a little less lively than most of their best work, as if a chill in the air was holding them back. Despite that, the band sounds well focused and determined to make the most of the material, with the emphasis resting on the spontaneity of these sessions.
The first and most important question with any new Guided by Voices record is how many of these songs deserve to wind up on GBV playlists or mixtapes. (Because hardcore GBV fans are the type to hang on to cassette players long enough for them to be cool again.) By my count, there are four such songs on Cool Planet. That might not sound like much, considering there are 18 songs on here, but we’re talking about a band that releases a new album every three months.
When Guided by Voices played the Colorado stop of Riot Fest last summer, it might as well have been a time warp. The set was eerily similar to the group’s performances in their mid-1990s prime, all wobbles and grumbles with an occasional flash of off-kilter transcendence. But there were elements of the performance that were jarringly different as well, namely an exhibition of cold, canned efficiency that almost utterly undermined the air of confusion and chaos that Robert Pollard and company once brought to their music.
For Guided By Voices, Cool Planet isn’t anything new. The band has been making similarly-styled albums of ’80s-alternative rock over their 30-year career, with frontman Robert Pollard holding the torch as lead singer/songwriter. Along with The Replacements and R.E.M., Guided By Voices pioneered the early post-punk-influenced college rock phenomenon in the United States, even though Pollard’s music didn’t reach wider appeal outside of his hometown of Dayton, Ohio until the band was well into their first decade together.
Having used more mid-fi tailoring for the well-measured Motivational Jumpsuit, released only a matter of months ago, Guided By Voices return rapidly with a second LP for 2014, which keeps the now solidly established reunion rolling on, albeit via more lateral routes. With ‘classic-era’ line-up drummer Kevin Fennell having left somewhat acrimoniously to be replaced by ‘late-Matador-era’ GBV sticksman Kevin March and having largely been recorded in a proper studio, Cool Planet is a more complex beast than its predecessor, with familiar and fresher sonic tropes vying for prominence. Holding up the backbone of the record is a string of robust emblematic Kinks-meets-The-Who power-pop chuggers – such as “Authoritarian Zoo,” “Table At Fool’s Tooth,” “Pan Swimmer” and “Males Of Wormwood Mars” – that find March’s greater percussive heft giving the recordings beefier rhythmic undertows.
On Cool Planet (album number 22, the band’s sixth since their reunion in 2010, and their second so far in 2014), Guided By Voices make yet another bid for the title of greatest rock and roll band of the late 20th Century. The late 20th Century. Because although these veterans of alt-rock have more than proven that they still have the gusto to muster up album after album in the 21st century, their sound today is one that still grasps and clambers at the halcyon days of their mid-90s output.