Release Date: Feb 18, 2014
Record label: GBV Inc.
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Indie Rock, Lo-Fi
There's no end in sight for the seemingly endless stream of album releases from lo-fi rock gods Guided By Voices. Following yet another announcement from mastermind Robert Pollard that GBV were throwing in their 31-year-old towel after last year's English Little League, Motivational Jumpsuit, the band's fifth studio album since the band's recent reformation finds the band continuing to the mix of psychedelia, garage-rock, post-punk and pop that they've perfected over time. Right off the top, the album opens with perfect pop tune "The Littlest League Possible," an upbeat, catchy song that sets the tone.
“Writer’s Block” isn’t the strongest song on the fifth album by the so-called “new era GBV,” but its title is the most sardonic. It encapsulates what some music reviewers (cough, cough) suffer from when reviewing GBV albums—because, really, what hasn’t been said about this band by now?—and also references a condition from which Mr. Robert Pollard has apparently never suffered.
After reuniting in 2012, Ohio's gods of lo-fi songcraft Guided by Voices flooded the world with a rush of new songs, releasing three full-length albums that year and following up with another long-player and the slapdash Down by the Racetrack EP in 2013. Motivational Jumpsuit marks the first GBV album of what seems like it could be a few in 2014 and a monumental 21st proper record for the band. Never short on songs, the issue with the maelstrom of post-reunion material was more an issue of inconsistency.
Reading critical opinion of the reformed Guided By Voices output is a drag. It appears as though reviewers begin with the assumption that nothing Robert Pollard will ever make will compare to pre-breakup classics Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes and Propeller. So, apparently, critics refuse to listen to whatever record Guided By Voices have presented them with – be it Pollard’s first or 14th record that calendar year – and draw loose connections to his previous work, and give the album middling marks lest they be caught out by other critics’ positive or negative opinions.
From the Pixies to Pavement to Neutral Milk Hotel, the most notable indie-rock reunions have transformed merely influential bands into actually successful ones who can headline large theatres and festivals for audiences five times the size of the ones they entertained in their former lives. But the success of the rebooted “classic” Guided by Voices line-up of 1992-96 can be measured not by ticket sales (they’re pretty much playing the same sized venues Robert Pollard frequented before he first deep-sixed GBV in 2004) but stamina. Not only have they channelled their 2011-tour momentum into making new records, their current rate of production makes their industrious 90s incarnation seem lazy, as if Pollard needed to maintain his reputation for being crazy-prolific even by the standards of our current, hyper-accelerated musical culture.
Robert Pollard and Guided by Voices have released so many songs that the quality of their music is often overshadowed by its quantity — a song library that quintuples that of The Beatles. Pollard has manifested a dedicated following around his prolific output and idiosyncratic songwriting; he’s essentially a genre unto himself, with fans that buy everything he releases, from solo albums to side projects. Taken at face value, the daunting amount of material he’s penned verges on gimmick.
“Writer’s Block.” Were it another band, another album, this would be another kind of review. But this is Guided By Voices. How do I start when I can’t help feeling that my assessment, however spot-on or erudite, means little under the planet of this artist’s back catalog, which boasts around two dozen albums as a group, with more than a dozen solo albums by their founding frontman.
For all the booze-soaked turmoil they’ve weathered since beginning as an Ohio bar band over 30 years ago, Guided By Voices have never really lost their hardcore following. New album ‘Motivational Jumpsuit’ arrives about nine months after its predecessor – as fierce a workrate as they chalked up in their early-’90s era of high-cultness – and teems with sub-two-minute songs that jangle Anglocentrically and have eternally teenage garage production values. In other words, a GBV record that sounds like everything GBV fans love about GBV.
It’s hard to fault Guided By Voices' prolificacy, with the number of studio albums released now reaching into the 20’s since the band’s 2010 reformation reignited their fire. With a range of genres delved into each time they put ideas to record, there’s always something to tickle everyone’s fancy yet they are still mostly remembered for 1994’s Bee Thousand - which is rather disappointing considering the quality of material issued both before and after. With three albums released in 2012 plus English Little League in 2013, Motivational Jumpsuit becomes the fifth release since the reunion instigated by Matador Records’ 21st Anniversary, somewhat surprising considering the doubt expressed over future releases by chief songwriter Robert Pollard on several occasions.
Three songs into Motivational Jumpsuit, we get a song titled “Writer’s Bloc (Psycho All the Time)”. This is a pretty weird title from Robert Pollard, a guy who put out six records with different projects last year, who is known, really, for putting out six records in any given year. If you’re considered prolific as an artist, the comparisons inevitably turn to Pollard.
Whatever you think about Guided by Voices - and I don't think it's unfair to say they've always been something of an acquired taste - there's certainly no faulting their work ethic. Motivational Jumpsuit is their fifth record in a little over two years, with singer Robert Pollard nixing his own suggestion that their last album, English Little League, would be the final Guided by Voices release by announcing Jumpsuit to be the first of two new efforts this year, with Cool Planet to follow. There are certain circumstances in their favour, of course, when it comes to being this prolific; they don't have the distraction of overseas touring - Pollard's crippling fear of flying sees to that - and have a tendency to turn out tracks that average two minutes in duration, and that don't sound as if they were pored over especially carefully in the studio.
Although Robert Pollard slipped on his pledge to put out three albums a year with the reassembled Guided By Voices – by only releasing one LP with the group in 2013 – it’s perhaps been a good thing. After the appearance of English Little League in the first half of last year, there was a need for the reassembled posse to slow down and refocus, to avoid dimming the glow of reunification. Even though the newly-released Motivational Jumpsuit is not a radical affair, it is a warmer and tighter selection than its predecessor, possessing enough self-refreshing zest to continue justifying the band’s ongoing existence, despite the recent departure of drummer Kevin Fennell.
Motivational Jumpsuit is the point where the Guided By Voices reunion gets real. Now, this may sound like a strange thing to say, given that it’s the reconfigured band’s fifth album in two years. But think of it this way – the three albums GBV put out in 2012 were something of a deck-clearing exercise. Last year’s English Little League (mooted by Robert Pollard to be their last) had the group stretching out, diversifying into far-out balladry and freaky soundscapes, alongside Pollard’s patented pop.
In the early ’90s, when Guided By Voices enjoyed the first of many fan-debated heydays and had what is nonetheless by consensus referred to as the “classic” lineup, its albums sounded like the band had absorbed the power pop canon through half-received transmissions and then sent its response back in the same manner. For its fifth album since reactivating in 2012, GbV stays true to its slapdash home-recording roots, with the percussively acoustic “Until Next Time” and the lumbering “Child Activist” pushed deeply into the red. But “Motivational Jumpsuit” overshoots its mark, recalling the era when the band hadn’t yet fully jelled, quite.
Guided By Voices is currently in the fourth year of its “classic ’93-’96 lineup” reunion. And if there is anything particularly heartening to be gleaned from this new epoch, it’s that GBV seems determined to recreate the prolific creative output of their most vital era, even if that output amounts to photocopied retreads and small stylistic deviations only appreciated by GBV diehards. The group’s latest effort, Motivational Jumpsuit, is its fifth album since January 2012, and, like GBV’s most famous work (Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes), it’s a ramshackle collection of 20 one- to three-minute songs raging with crunchy power chords, fragmented power-pop melodies, and impressionistic lyricism from the group’s ageless anchor, lead singer-songwriter Robert Pollard.