Introducing a startlingly straitlaced cover of the Guided By Voices song “Game of Pricks” in 2010, elfin violin/electronics master Owen Pallett recalled how after a live encounter with the band’s rowdy following, he found himself suddenly less comfortable with calling himself a fan of Rob Pollard and his rotating cast of drunks. “They were amazing,” he clarified, “the best live band… but there were a lot of jocks. I had no idea!” The image of Pallett, bewildered amid waves of meaty arms and beer bottles borne aloft illustrates a clash of indie rock epochs and sensibilities. GBV hail from the sozzled, sloppy, rigidly gendered, rockist 90s (sure, their earliest albums came out in 1987, but they only started to get their shit vaguely together with 1992’s Propeller). Pallett, on the other hand, is all mid-to-late aughts sonic lushness, poise, and fragility. As the guy who arranged the strings on Arcade Fire’s Funeral, he had a significant hand in the Canadian-led orchestra-fying of indie rock, and via collaborations with Bang On a Can and an upcoming piece with Anonymous 4 and The Mountain Goats in New York City’s Ecstatic Music Festival, he’s led the further dovetailing of the genre with classical New Music. So it’s a striking contrast: plastered v. sharp-witted, craggy v. voguish, rock v. something else.
But amid all this cultural dissonance, the song comes through just as clearly rendered with precisely enunciated, trilling vocals and layered violin as it does in its original snare-heavy, chromatic-riffing form. Because it’s a fucking good, self-contained song, and for those of us not indoctrinated into the Cult of Uncle Bob, that’s all we really ever asked of a Guided By Voices album. As Pollard’s acolytes (who, if they’re reading this right now, may well be wishing this page had a comments box with which to thoroughly ream me) like to remind us, GBV are a rock ‘n’ roll band, and this categorization requires, even more than it does dipsomania, mic-swinging, douchebaggery, and cigarettes, compelling songwriting played loudly and simply.
The reunited “classic lineup” of the band — as it’s been tagged in press material since their reunion at Matador’s 21st birthday shindig (a seeming admission that, yes, Guided By Voices were only consistently worth listening to in the 90s) — seem to have forgotten this in their dotage. Let’s Go Eat the Factory, the first album made by this fivesome (Pollard, sideman Tobin Sprout, axeman/human chimney Mitch Mitchell, bassist Greg Demos, and drummer Kevin Fennell) since 1996 and the first under the GBV banner in seven and a half years, plays like a failure not only to recreate but to even recall the brightly dull-edged musical flotsam of Bee Thousand or maybe Vampire on Titus. Pollard has typically gotten away with faking accents from indeterminate parts of the Commonwealth of Nations and leaving tracks underdeveloped as an aesthetic choice via commitment and melodic robustness, but when his songs fall flat, they really screw the pooch.
“Doughnut For the Snowman,” unwisely sequenced third on Let’s Go Eat the Factory, screws it pretty thoroughly. Pollard’s written some wonderfully clunky lyrics over the years (and some super-pithy ones), but whatever he was aiming for when he wrote “Starts off her day with a Krispy Kreme donut/ As sweet as life can get/ Runs out to play with the promising uncles/ Who promise her a pet,” it really doesn’t translate. The song’s sound, landing somewhere in the Flying Nun sector like much of his less overtly riffy or acerbic work, would thoroughly embarrass the area-rocking alter ego he’s strained so hard to inhabit, the melody flopping around spinelessly.
Good ideas occasionally emerge from the record’s morass of songs that don’t live up to their titles: the synth-strings and Anglicisms of “Hang Mr. Kite” suggest a more viably weird, tonally varied aging process “classic GBV” might undergo; “The Unsinkable Fats Domino,” with its quarter note thump and sinewy bedded guitars, actually sounds like it could’ve slotted into the 1995 outtakes collection King Shit and the Golden Boys; and “Imperial Racehorsing” comes on big and dumb and a little bit Magical Mystery Tour, with brief trumpet toots and disorienting repetitions. But more often, it feels sadly unbelievable that the same guys who produced “Tractor Rape Chain,” a track that just begs to be scavenged for parts that can be filched undetected — and I’m clearly not the only one who thinks so, as one in five songs written by Colin Meloy of The Decemberists seems to have directly pilfered from one moment 1:20 into it — have fallen to such bungling depths. Let’s Go Eat the Factory works as an offering to those obsessive enough to be satisfied just to see Sprout and Pollard up on the same stage and little else. I can’t imagine anybody would think to cover any of these songs, but if somebody did, even somebody with the keen reconstructive sense of Owen Pallett, outside their 90s-bound cult context, they’d disintegrate at first touch.