For Guided By Voices, Cool Planet isn’t anything new. The band has been making similarly-styled albums of ’80s-alternative rock over their 30-year career, with frontman Robert Pollard holding the torch as lead singer/songwriter. Along with The Replacements and R.E.M., Guided By Voices pioneered the early post-punk-influenced college rock phenomenon in the United States, even though Pollard’s music didn’t reach wider appeal outside of his hometown of Dayton, Ohio until the band was well into their first decade together.
Pollard is unrivaled in his prolificacy; Cool Planet is Guided By Voices’ sixth album since 2012 and the second of 2014, being released less than four months after their 20th overall full-length Motivational Jumpsuit. One would expect such an enormous discography with quick output to be racked with filler, a fate that Cool Planet avoids with generally positive results.
Cool Planet contains 18 songs packed within a 36-minute time frame. Only four songs pass two minutes and 30 seconds in track length; like their forbearers Wire and The Voidoids, Guided by Voices only play songs for as long as they need to be and typically eschewing the standard verse-chorus-verse format for a laconic approach to songwriting. On the other hand, the longer songs have more in common with The Clash, being simple three- or four-chord songs that are easily digestible and have a jam quality.
Guided By Voices is not a complicated band: while their musicianship certainly has improved over their career, their song structures are still just as straightforward. The sophistication lies in tightness of songwriting and the ability of the group to make impressively cohesive songs that need no further embellishment. However, what is a potential strength is also a potential weakness: because Guided By Voices have rarely branched out of their lo-fi alternative rock roots, there’s little here to entrance a listener who has already become well-acquainted with the rest of Guided By Voices’ discography. For this reason, Cool Planet will appeal most to the completely uninitiated, to whom this will sound fresh. Costume Makes The Man and Bad Love Is Easy To Do sound like Guided By Voices are trying to ape their own style; although the fatalistic lyricism of the latter may speak to the kids, the rest of us will be rolling our eyes.
One of Guided By Voices signature aspects is Pollard’s vocal style; on Cool Planet, it has a mixed impact. His untrained, sometimes off-key voice vacillates between relatable and grating. Whereas Stephen Malkmus and Thurston Moore play the disaffected Generation X well into the latter parts of their careers, Pollard can’t help but feel worn-out. On songs like Fast Crawl and Pan Swimmer, his voice sounds like it’s about to break, and it’s not pretty. At 56, perhaps Pollard’s voice is showing the wear and tear of over three decades of use. This type of singing simply isn’t effective except at very particular moments: as an example, The No Doubters is not just flat, it’s dissonant; whereas Pollard perfectly pulls of Cream Of Lung in his low droll. Divergence from the norm is a classic tenet of the alternative scene, but Cool Planet intermittently passes that and dips into inharmonious cringe.
Tobin Sprout does much better on his vocal duties. All-American Boy and Narrated by Paul are easier on the ears while retaining an independent musician’s appreciable unrefinedness. While the songs themselves (especially Narrated by Paul) may not be as hot structurally, his voice makes them pass from “bearable” to “appreciable.”
Cool Planet’s strongest facet is by far its structure and composition. Fans of the early alternative and college rock scenes will instantly recognize The Replacements in All-American Boy. The penultimate track Ticket To Hide uses almost the exact same chord progression as Disarm by The Smashing Pumpkins, and evokes similar emotive qualities. This style is becoming progressively more popular in the independent music consciousness, as seen by bands such as The Whigs and The Gaslight Anthem, although Guided by Voices is tempered by comparison.
There’s a little bit of power pop too: Psychotic Crush is a fun, bouncy addition to the band’s catalogue, and is the perfect example of Guided By Voices’ coherency. Some other tracks have very little to them except for Pollard’s voice and electric guitar, such as These Dooms and Cream Of Lung, and they’re extremely effective as Guided By Voices just barely push past the college rock boundaries into something a bit more experimental and provocative, which is what put Pollard on the map in the first place. If there were more of that present, Cool Planet would be much more satisfying. But there isn’t, and so Guided By Voices don’t transcend their past or current contemporaries, much less themselves, making Cool Planet a release that’s only irregularly engaging.
Guided by Voices needs, if anything, an editor. Eighteen songs is a hard call for any band to put on one album without overloading with filler or sacrificing songwriting. Picking the best tracks off of Motivational Jumpsuit and Cool Planet into a 12 to 14 track would absolutely increase Pollard’s output, but instead we have a passable release that’s half what you’d want and half what you’d rather forget from a Guided By Voices album.