To a certain degree, I feel like Guided by Voices might have been bad for rock ’n’ roll. I know, I know, Bob Pollard is a brilliant songwriter. There's something wonderfully endearing about his prolificacy, his completely unselfconscious collections of songs: unpolished, half-finished, and occasionally wonderful. Yet, charming as this approach is, it helped fling the doors wide open for a certain kind of lazy aesthetic to seep into the indie rock world. Casiotone for the Painfully Alone is a perfect illustration of how the GBV mentality can be detrimental to the community.
Probably the biggest problem I have with Vs. Children, the band's fifth full-length amid an innumerable legion of EPs, singles, and compilation cuts, is the tossed-off feeling I get from most of the songs. Owen Ashworth, the stable center of Casiotone's rotating cast of guest musicians, has a talent for arranging sonic landscapes. His marriage of acoustic instrumentation with ghostly, wavering synth melodies makes for consistently enjoyable listening, and his flat, somewhat world-weary delivery provides a perfect counterweight to the music's ethereal beauty.
What suffers, unfortunately, are the songs. After several tracks, the album settles too comfortably into a down-tempo malaise that inures the listener to some of the more transcendent moments. A song like “Harsh the Herald Angels Sing,” with its steady-as-she-goes programmed drumbeat and ringing piano intrusions, could be a real stand-out if the songs around it showed a little more melodic variety. And quite frankly, I think Ashworth is at his best when he's got a little pepper in his step. The best song on the album by far is the ludicrously named “Optimist Vs. The Silent Alarm (When the Saints Go Marching In).” Jangling keyboard drives the galloping bass thump as Ashworth weaves a Bonnie-and-Clyde escapist outlaw fantasy that combusts into that venerable Louie Armstrong standard at the minute-and-a-half mark. It's a luminous moment, and one that goes by all too quickly.
It's not that I want to fault a songwriter for being prolific; some of my favorite bands fired off their best releases in an incredibly truncated timeframe. I do, however, believe that there is an art to self-editing that some artists neglect. Vs. Children is a pleasant but uncaptivating album, and I'm inclined to believe, especially when confronted by his album's deliriously enchanting highlights, that Ashworth is spreading himself a little thin at his current pace. As romantic as the Bob Pollards of the world are — those artists driven inexorably to create — anyone who's tried a hand at the arts knows that great works are not written; they're edited.
1. Casiotone for the Painfully Alone Vs. Children
2. Tom Justice, The Choir Boy Robber, Apprehended at Ace Hardware in Libertyville, IL
3. Optimist Vs. The Silent Alarm (When the Saints Go Marching In)
4. Natural Light
5. Traveling Salesman's Young Wife Home Alone on Christmas in Montpelier, VT
6. Man O' War
7. Northfield, MN
9. Harsh the Herald Angels Sing
10. You Were Alone
11. White Jetta