Guided by Voices Half Smiles of the Decomposed

[Matador; 2004]

Styles: indie rock, lo-fi
Others: Robert Pollard, Pavement, Bob Mould, Cheap Trick

It's the end of a name and only that. Robert Pollard, hopefully the only ex-school teacher who writes songs with the word rape in the title, will continue writing and recording as a solo artist. But Half Smiles of the Decomposed -- and the tour that follows -- will be the last time he evokes the power of the name Guided by Voices. The ubiquitous cooler of beer onstage is being permanently closed.

But even if it turns out to be only the end of a name, that name has always meant a lot. Independent rock couldn't have wished for anything like Guided by Voices. For over 20 years, Guided by Voices have stood for cryptic lyrics, DIY production, unfocused and brilliant frontmen, economic song structure, obtuse lyrics and titles, impassioned live shows, and prolific songwriting. If all of the above sound like indie rock clichés, it's not an accident. GBV changed things. The idea of what Guided by Voices was became a template for new bands. Heck, through their actions, they even gave other bands the permission to release whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.

That last one? Yeah, that's the complication in the story here. Because most of the time Bobby Pollard makes an omelet, a hell of a lot of shell falls into the fixings. But even when things get ugly (Do the Collapse, half of every album since 1996), critics and fans alike have always reacted like the Cubs just missed the playoffs, with sympathetic frustration and a faith in next year.

Half Smiles of the Decomposed matches any of those three albums released in the new millennium, and of course that blows. GBV has settled for being a mediocre recording act in the past decade, while everything else about them screams that they're one of the most important rock bands alive. It's a dissatisfying finale for such a prolific and beloved band.

But "Everyone Thinks I'm a Raincloud (When I'm Not Looking)" opens the album on a high note, with a Cheap Trick meets the Who bop that has Pollard sounding younger than he has in years. And in opposition, the second track, "Sleep Over Jack," allows Pollard to sound his age, with a rubbery bassline accompanying his half-mumbled speak-singing. In the album's mid-fi production, the band sounds excellent, a tight and disciplined unit as Pollard confesses, "You're gonna fuck up my make up/ You're gonna make up my fuck up." And the next song, "Girls of Wild Strawberries," sounds refreshingly off-the-cuff and jubilant. It makes me want to add the tape hiss myself!

But after the fifth song, it's obvious that Guided by Voices is having the same problems that have plagued their later career. Songs with great choruses ("Tour Guide at the Winston Churchill Memorial") or verses ("Asia Minor") are stretched to their limit, killing the immediacy and power of, well, a great Guided by Voices song.

And that's probably Pollard's biggest headache. Like Sonic Youth, GBV is judged solely against its own body of work, with Bee Thousand and Daydream Nation entering every review ever written about each band. But Sonic Youth has two (eh... maybe three) talented songwriters to share the load and has recently added a prodigious musician to the mix to remain vital and live up to the standards it has created. Pollard, on the other hand, has steered the ship himself for years, with only one other songwriter (Tobin Sprout) ever making more than a peep in the band's whole back catalog.

And the mythology and lore of this band has to be weighing the man down. He's going to be 47 this Halloween, and every stream-of-consciousness lyric he has ever sang continues to be endlessly analyzed. I'm sure it's no coincidence that his recording career with the band ends with him screaming "For far too long" for over a minute over the closing of "Huffman Prairie Flying Field."

And maybe it has been too long. But they wouldn't have been Guided by Voices if they hadn't kept it going until the steam was all gone. And, anyway, Guided by Voices -- the idea, not the band -- would never have quit now. They would've kept playing until at some second stage of a county rib cook-off they played their last show, a last show only because during the third song an amp blew out and they couldn't afford another.

It's true; Guided by Voices is better as an idea and always has been. But maybe years from now someone will be able to look back on Half Smiles of the Decomposed and see that Pollard put all the tired energy he had left into ending a legacy he couldn't (but tried) to control. But right now, it's just a middle-of-the-road release that, because of the context of the band's end, is the most heartbreaking release of the year so far.

1. Everybody Thinks I'm a Raincloud (When I'm Not Looking)
2. Sleep Over Jack
3. Girls Of Wild Strawberries
4. Gonna Never Have to Die
5. Window of My World
6. The Closets of Henry
7. Tour Guide at the Winston Churchill Memorial
8. Asia Minor
9. Sons of Apollo
10. Sing For Your Meat
11. Asphyxiated Circle
12. A Second Spurt of Growth
13. (S)mothering and Coaching
14. Huffman Prairie Flying Field

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