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The word 'institution' gets thrown around, but July 2012 in Dayton, Ohio was official Guided by Voices month. Thanks to The IT Crowd, GbV are now emblematic of geeky obscurity to the extent that my (retired) father has heard of them, and I’ve had to explain that 'they’re basically like The Who, with offcuts from The White Album mixed in.' Of course, there’s no danger of GbV selling out (to whom?) nor of becoming obsolete, but without a distinct concept you have to wonder what’s going to make their zillionth album special.
Their third record since coming off sabbatical, and also of 2012, The Bears for Lunch re-unites the line-up who made Under the Bushes, Under the Stars (1996), and the press release claims a return to similar territory. Now, that was a landmark record, for me; not the number one choice of every GbV fan, but always well-regarded alongside Alien Lanes and Bee Thousand, also from the mid-Nineties. The other two are slightly more heads-down, race to the finish, Husker Du-style sprints, but UTB, UTS, like Sebadoh’s Bubble and Scrape (1993) seemed to have the perfect ratio of indie-rock to bedroom psychedelia.
Bear in mind, Pro-Tools and even GarageBand were a way off, so there was still a lot of charm to just messing around with a four-track and cheap microphones. You felt like you were there, the moment the wallpaper peeled back and disclosed another world. That was the record when it all gelled, and the sequencing of the weird and the poppy felt absolutely perfect. Partly because of the cross-fades, the record felt like a tour through a surreal (Svankmajer?) landscape that Robert Pollard had completely visualized, rather than listening to a swarm of endearingly trashy songs that occasionally shot out startling lyrics like jewelled mutant bees.
I mention all this because I’m in two minds about GbV Version 2012, and want to salvage a shout-out for a favourite record from a review for a disappointing one. In a sense, The Bears for Lunch is business as usual: more songs about airplanes and beer, as David Byrne would say. At his most coherent, Pollard’s knocking out songs that are as energetic and immediate as the last two REM albums, and if that sounds like damning with faint praise – well, so it is. At his least coherent (say, “Tree Fly Jet”) the sketchiness is somewhere south of Jandek in his own garage-band years. One or two are funny – 'Finger Gang' pretends to be the theme tune to a TV show whose opening montage you can imagine for 100 seconds or so – but more often pointless.
On the other hand, Pollard’s long-time foil, Tobin Sprout, is better than ever. Whereas Pollard tends to be gruff, Sprout’s double-tracked falsetto harks back to the psychedelic shimmer of The Byrds, early Who, or The Pink Floyd (as it were). There’s always been a sense of sweetness and innocence to the three or four songs per album that’s accentuated by the contrast with Pollard, but the sequencing often disguises their greatness in their own right. Sprout’s contributions, here, are all among his best, from 'The Corners Are Glowing' to 'Waving at Airplanes' (a song that’s doubly cute for the fact that its singer is still at it in his middle-age). These are the songs that sent me back to the last few GbV albums to assemble the Greatest Hits of Tobin Sprout, and after 20 or so years in Pollard’s shadow perhaps it’s the sense of incredibly slow but steady progress to producing a secret classic that does make this feel special after all.
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