Review: Guided by Voices, August by Cake

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Guided By Voices, August By Cake album cover

Echoing the “GBV! GBV!” chant that opened Propeller, Pollard’s last installment beings with the resounding announcement of the title. It’s not Bob’s first double record, but it is the first double record for Guided by Voices, and that means something because, in this universe of fandom, everything means something. I say that with zero sarcasm because I am one of the ranks. Pollard for President. I think we can all agree that would be an improvement. 

“Goodbye Note” has Earthquake Glue guitars and clearly someone else singing. Hearing someone other than Bob or Tobin on a GBV record is alarming at first, but after a few listens, it fits as a more generic respite from the record’s pervasive psychedelia. It basically rips off of “My Kind of Soldier” in tonality, but there are so many Pollard songs that everything here has some kind of precedent in his catalog.

“Packing the Dead Zone” is full of low register howls and never quite takes off, but its followed immediately by “What Begins On New Year’s Day”, a classic late 90’s track that could have fit well on Isolation Drills. Bob is often at his best when he is at his simplest, and they play out in full on August By Cake. “Overloaded” has shoegazey guitars, a side of rock Pollard has rarely, if ever, dipped in and it sounds like someone in Bob’s band doing an impression of Albert Hammond doing an impression of Bob. Somehow, that is a good thing.

“West Coast Company Man” is one of those echoing, booming Pollard tracks that were common in 2004-2009 on his solo records complete with tempo slow downs and a big chorus and it leads seamlessly into “Warm Up to Religion”, one of the records best tracks. It has two separate types of verses and a chorus that pops like an alternate-world Weezer track, including even the falsetto “oohs” behind his melody.

The main pitfall of this record is its pacing. Bob’s best moments are lightning fast, like the 28 tracks in 41 minutes Alien Lanes. By contrast, this record is 32 tracks in 71 minutes. Its top moments are when it is moving the fastest. Some of the longest tracks are the ones sung by other singers here, a little trimming and we could have had something in line with the 2012 reunion records.

August by Cake is also being billed as Pollard’s 100th LP, which is a feat hardly any lyric-based pop songwriter has ever achieved. My count is 101, but I suppose that’s even more impressive. With EP’s and singles, it’s more in the neighborhood of 200. I suppose after that much music it’s crazy that this record is as good as it is. At this point in Bob’s discography, we should just be happy with a few solid tracks per record.

Another track indicative of where the collective Pollard discography is at is “Hiking Skin”. Its verse is almost non-melodic jumble but it has a chorus that hits strongly and carries well through its coda. It isn’t really a song in the classic sense. It is a verse, three choruses, and an ending, one of Pollard’s calling cards, but the energy just isn’t there like on “Blimps Go 90” or any of the songs that paved this way first.

Gillard’s guitar hearkens back to those late 90’s records that sounded hi-fi before Do the Collapse, the drums rumble under the hooks, the lyrics are kitschy and tongue-in-cheek and the whole thing just works. The next song “Cheap Button” continues mining the same space with the hilarious opening line “10 Billion Ringo fans can’t be wrong.” It’s a target market anti-corporation Pollard song.

“Chew the Sand” is a rumbling instrumental with a few David Gilmour flourishes. It highlights the best parts of August By Cake, the parts where they break from the paint by numbers latest Pollard record and add in some fresh unused elements. Bob has been making records with the same 4-5 ingredients for so long that a track like this really freshens things up. The strings on “The Laughing Closet” are a nice touch, but the melody is far too undecided to merit release. It sounds like Bob is making final note decisions during the recording of the vocals. “Sentimental Wars” adds a drum machine or heavily filtered drums into the mix, but it’s a weak attempt at the spoonful of sugar that Tobin Sprout used to add to these records. Its over simplistic lyrics fall flat in the midst of Pollard’s abstract poetry and its chorus melody seems catchy at first but annoys by its last repeat. It’s also too long—which is pretty sad for a 2:48 song.

The closest thing to precedent here is one of the four Suitcase records, those were clearly not meant to be listened to in one sitting. Or perhaps sifting is a better word. Listening to Guided by Voices since any record label input has been taken out has been more like panning for gold in California in 1849 than listening to a rock record. Each record since about 2006 has had its fair share of gems and toss-aways. Class Clown Spots a UFO has “Keep it in Motion”, which is as solid and melodic as anything on Under the Bushes but it also has “Tyson’s High School” immediately following.

Last year’s underrated Please Be Honest could have gone out under Pollard’s name but follows the same pattern. “Kid On A Ladder” is a top-shelf Pollard toss-off: simple, clear, clean, and done before it overstays its welcome. A few tracks later is “Sad Baby Eyes”, the kind of thirty-second ditty that most songwriters would trash or hope never saw the light of day let alone a proper release on a legacy band’s record.

This factor has kept Guided by Voices fans split. The 90’s fans are long gone, all that’s left are people who like to sift through these records and find their perfect moments, and those truest Bob fans who believe in all of his records all the way through. I have been one of those on and off, but its hard to defend a double record on one disc half full of stellar rock tracks. Asking Bob to edit himself is probably the most overwritten on thing about GBV other than his prolificacy. It’s well documented, why comment on it now? Because this record actually follows a different pattern. There aren’t any weak tracks here, rather, an armful of average ones, and another armful ones done better in the last decade.

Perhaps it’s a pointless argument. Pollard is old and set in his ways and I will keep buying every GBV record until he hits 200, and if you are still reading, you probably will too. I don’t listen to Guided by Voices like I listen to any other band. My expectations aren’t to enjoy almost any of them cover to cover. I listen to them more like looking through a photo album of a family member, searching for moments to compile into something better than it actually is.

Here is my playlist of what could have been his 100 LP edited — 36 minutes long.

01. 5° On The inside.
02. Generox – Gray
03. Goodbye Note
04. Absent the Man
05. What Begins on New Year’s Day
06. Overloaded
07. West Coast Company Man
08. Warm up to Religion
09. High Five Hall of Famers
10. It’s Food
11. Cheap Buttons
12. Chew the Sand
13. Dr. Feelgood Falls Off the Ocean
14. Amusement Park is Over
15. Escape to Phoenix

Liking Robert Pollard is like eating Chuckles. Do you remember that candy? It was the five jelly candies sitting in a rainbow line. The first was delicious, the second good, the third bearable and the fourth ends up in the trash. Is it worth it? You tell me. C PLUS