Douglas Martin’s Dirty Shoes: Guided by Voices Eat the Factory

Douglas Martin was in the Sandbox-era lineup of Guided by Voices. He was the greatest four-year-old bassist in indie-rock history. No need to put the word classic in scare-quotes. Between 1994 and...
By    January 27, 2012

Douglas Martin was in the Sandbox-era lineup of Guided by Voices. He was the greatest four-year-old bassist in indie-rock history.

No need to put the word classic in scare-quotes. Between 1994 and 1996, the lineup of Guided by Voices released some immeasurably great output. If most pop-rock bands had the opportunity to slap their name on Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, they’d have the crowning achievement of their career. Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes are justly recognized as two of the greatest guitar albums of the past twenty years, the Rubber Soul/Revolver 1-2 combo of the indie-rock generation. Out of the dozens of configurations, the lineup Robert Pollard enlisted featuring Mitch Mitchell, Greg Demos, Kevin Fennell, and Tobin Motherfucking Sprout is the most celebrated for a pretty good reason.

As reunion-happy as the past five years have been, expectations weren’t astronomical when Pollard announced that he’d be reviving the Guided by Voices name after retiring it with a thrilling New Year’s Eve farewell show in 2004. After Pavement’s world-beating 2010 reunion tour, it’s safe to say that people were mainly anticipating a night of 90’s indie nostalgia– where arty undergrads turned investment bankers could relive their twenties and kids barely even born during the band’s heyday can have a live experience of the records their cool older siblings passed down to them. The greatest conjuncture made about the Guided by Voices reunion was that they’d run through five six-packs and thirty songs, and you’d hear “Watch Me Jumpstart” or “Gold Star for Robot Boy” and absolutely freak out. Mission accomplished.

When it was announced that the same roster would record the first GBV album since 2004’s Half-Smiles of the Decomposed, anticipation was expectedly lackluster. Par for the course when you realize that Pollard has recorded over a dozen full-lengths (under his government name and various others) since. Most people were expecting Let’s Go Eat the Factory to be little more than a run-in-the-mill Pollard effort hiding in the mighty Trojan Horse of the Guided by Voices name. And then something weird happened. The album came out and it is great.

Hinging on some of Pollard’s weirdest impulses and Sprout’s best songwriting, the sprawl of Factory diverges into at least a dozen different directions, from the balladry of “Who Invented the Sun“ and “Doughnut for a Snowman” (complete with recorder-led intro; shouts out to my fourth grade music teacher!) to 90’s era throwbacks “The Unshakable Fats Domino” and “Chocolate Boy.” Song lengths range from 34 seconds to 3 ½ minutes. Pop-rock tunes with didgeridoos sit comfortably alongside eerie, piano-laced spoken-word interludes. “Old Bones” sounds strikingly close to “Auld Lang Syne.” There are lyrics that could be framed as mottos: “We are living proof that God loves us!” “We won’t apologize for the human race!” There’s a song called “How I Met My Mother.” In other words, it’s a Guided by Voices album.

Historically, Pollard and crew’s flagrant irreverence is only matched by their attention to songcraft. He and Sprout– the album’s two primary songsmiths– rely on sheer instinct, knowing where to either put a fist-pumping chorus or to cut the song off completely and leave it charmingly unfinished. Their– especially Pollard’s– approach to songwriting is what made them so beloved in the first place, which has them placed out of time in the modern indie-rock landscape.

The real question you have to ask yourself here is would Guided by Voices even be a critically-favored– let alone canonized— band if Bee Thousand had been released in 2012 instead of 18 years ago? The album’s songs, even at their most pop-friendly, were fragmented, poorly-recorded oddities. It’s feasible that GBV sounds even weirder now than they did in their so-called “heyday,” because back then, you had to be weird to stand out. Now, all you have to do to be successful is have the right PR company and either ride a zeitgeist or offend as few people as possible.

So there’s a chance that you could be really into the adult-contemporary wave of indie-rock nowadays, or you could be a formerly closeted fan of second-tier 90’s emo. Guided by Voices could exist in some sort of weird vacuum to you, or come from an era of indie-rock you completely don’t understand. But that doesn’t make Let’s Go Eat the Factory any less of a stellar album, any farther away from the legitimately classic output of their best-liked lineup. It just means they exist out of whatever context you frame indie-rock circa 2012. And let’s face it; times change, people change, and you couldn’t have expected musicians who have been making music since probably before you were born to recreate some false magic that they had two decades ago. That’s what nostalgia bands do. That’s not what classic bands do.

MP3: Guided By Voices-“Doughnut For a Snowman”

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!