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SPIN Essentials

Review: Guided by Voices, ‘Let’s Go Eat the Factory’

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: December 20, 2012
Label: Guided By Voices Inc.

You almost could hear Bob Pollard sigh when last year’s reunion dates with Guided by Voices‘ mid-’90s, Bee Thousand-vintage lineup were announced. Though there’s certainly nothing shameful or shocking about an iconic indie outfit strapping it on for an ostensibly lucrative go-round, Pollard is a guy who’s prided himself on working with whomever he wants however he wants; in 2004, he went so far as to dramatically (if temporarily) retire the name of the band of which he was the only core member.

And while each proper GBV album since 1997’s Under the Bushes, Under the Stars (the last to feature the “classic” line-up) had its share of great songs and a fluid supporting cast of able, iron-livered characters, none of those crews captured the public’s imagination or fed GBV’s myth as touched, late-blooming barroom heroes like the one featuring guitarist/singer Tobin Sprout (George to Bob’s John and Paul), striped-pants-wearing bassist-attorney Greg Demos, guitarist Mitch Mitchell, and drummer Kevin Fennell. As far as musicianship or charisma, this wasn’t the best team Pollard ever fielded (that honor goes to the late-’90s/early-2000s Doug Gillard/Nate Farley/Jim McPherson gang), nor did it produce the band’s catchiest, most commercial songs (“Teenage FBI” and “Glad Girls,” courtesy of Gillard/Farley/McPherson, were the most successful fruits of Pollard’s earnest efforts to turn pro). Rather, these guys were about an idea, and a moment — when a bunch of Dayton, Ohio, basement lifers ditched their families and day jobs to pursue a wildly unlikely rock dream. These things are awfully hard to re-create.

Certainly recent events have done nothing to dispel the notion that this reunion is a begrudging one: An announcement that this iteration of Guided by Voices had broken up again and cancelled all 2012 live dates was followed in quick succession by announcements that the band was playing Letterman and finishing a follow-up. So, it’s strange enough that Let’s Go Eat the Factory, recorded over the past year, even exists, but it’s downright bizarre how effortless and welcome it feels: Turns out that all the savant-like songwriting and Roger Daltrey-meets-Norm Peterson hangdog wit in the world are no match for a little chemistry.

The 21 songs here are no more or less inscrutable than the hundreds of tunes Pollard has penned since he last played with this band, but they gel in ways that so many of those didn’t, reveling in their limitations rather than trying to overcome them. It’s the difference between the White Stripes and the Raconteurs. “How I Met My Mother” and “The Unsinkable Fats Domino” are stone-cold, pantheon-ready classics, clocking in at one minute and two minutes, respectively, and not requiring a second more. “Chocolate Boy” and “Doughnut for a Snowman,” both also under two minutes, attest that Pollard’s mindset is more about sweetness than bitterness. But it’s the shock of the six (!) Tobin Sprout songs, including “Waves,” the mournful “Old Bones” (the closest thing the album gets to a self-reflexive moment), and the better-than-it-sounds “God Loves You” that shoot the record, against all odds, toward the top of one of rockdom’s most voluminous discographies. Pollard does well with a foil, whether he wants one or not.

The fact that these songs were made by business associates in their fifties rather than sozzled buddies in their thirties only reaffirms that personalities, even clashing ones — or especially clashing ones — count as much as choruses do. There’s blood flowing through this record, even if it’s bad blood, which is often not the case even in Pollard’s most well-crafted records. At the time, it was easy to romanticize Bee Thousand classics like “Gold Star for Robot Boy” and “Ester’s Day” and “I Am a Scientist” as happy accidents. But knowing what we know now — about indie rock, about not-indie rock, about getting older, drinking too much, and getting pissed off at your stupid friends, about wishing things had worked out differently and knowing that they never could have — doesn’t it make much more sense that they were neither?