Guided By Voices’ recently-ended hiatus wasn’t quite of the same length or significance as those of fellow indie rock legends Pixies or Pavement. Nevertheless, they could so easily have monetised their reunion even further by playing big festivals and rehashing their 1993-96 purple patch, when they monopolised the market for vaguely psychedelic garage rock composed of microscopic riffs and gigantic hooks.
And that seemed to be how things were shaping up for Guided By Voices last summer. But then their UK dates were cancelled, and now it looks like the band are concentrating on producing new music. And lots of it: Class Clown Spots A UFO is their second release of 2012, its 21 tracks following January’s Let’s Go Eat The Factory, another 21-tracker.
The prolific nature of their most recent output should come as no surprise. Principal songwriter Robert Pollard seemingly can’t stop writing songs. The band’s eight-year hiatus yielded a barely believable 13 Pollard solo albums. All of which is good news for Pollard’s songwriting statistics (he has over 1,500 songs registered under his name). It is, unfortunately, mostly bad news for the listener, as Class Clown… proves a typically erratic and frustratingly inconsistent listening experience.
Production-wise, the album sits closer to the pristine, Ric Ocasek-produced Do The Collapse from 1999 (the most polished thing GBV have done) than the ultra-lo fi days of classic mid-’90s albums Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes.
And it’s undeniably an eclectic collection of tunes. Trouble is, that eclecticism encompasses areas that really weren’t worth exploring in the first place. Ever wanted to hear what some cheap-sounding trumpet noises, some tinkling piano and a listless, stoned vocal sound like when combined? Well, look no further than the almost comically slight They And Them.
Fortunately there are at least three keepers. The title track is among the poppiest things GBV have committed to tape. Against a musical backdrop that, weirdly, recalls Carter U.S.M., Pollard belts out a joyously sing-song melody emboldened by full-throated backing vocals and handclaps. Elsewhere, Keep It In Motion is breezy and instantly accessible. Rather like Colin Moulding in XTC, co-songwriter Tobin Sprout can be relied upon to contribute a handful of decent tracks per album, and Starfire – a pretty piece of bucolic psychedelia – is another one of them.
In among these sporadic highlights, however, are numerous slices of tossed-off nonsense. Any momentum gained by the propulsive Keep It In Motion, for instance, is instantly killed by the ugly, lurching Tyson’s High School. And, as good as these songs are, there’s nothing to hold a candle to previous career highlights such as Game Of Pricks, Echos Myron or Fair Touching. But given that GBV’s best songs are among the very best in the indie rock canon, that’s a harsh appraisal.
Still, one doesn’t go to Guided By Voices for consistency. And it could be argued that the flimsy filler is an integral part of their appeal, making the arrival of the better songs akin to the discovery of treasure in the middle of a barren field. And, with 21 tracks clocking in at 37 minutes, if the listener doesn’t like one track, then there’ll be another one along very shortly.
Needless to say, this isn’t the place for GBV newcomers to start. Instead, they should go to 2003’s compilation Human Amusements At Hourly Rates – not just a brilliant introduction to the band, but also one of the finest discs ever released by any act, ever. Now, is it too much to ask for some UK tour dates?