Right now is a great time to be a fan of Guided by Voices. Chances are you’ve read at least one headline every month or so announcing a new album or single from the Dayton, Ohio band or its beyond-prolific mastermind Robert Pollard. It’s a near-constant release schedule that can be traced back to when the band first gained prominence in the early ’90s. But ever since Pollard revived the project in 2016 with Please Be Honest, the band has been on an unbelievable hot streak releasing 14 full-length albums that have enriched his unique blend of pop, prog, psych, and punk and, at times, has rivaled his most celebrated works. Their most recent album Tremblers and Goggles by Rank only reaffirms the importance of Pollard and his band in the lineage of indie rock as we know it.
Longtime fans of Pollard’s expansive, high-kicking world know that Guided by Voices is only one part of his larger oeuvre. As if the feverish schedule of sometimes releasing multiple albums a year with GBV wasn’t enough, Pollard established numerous side projects as well as a solo career that stayed active concurrently with his main claim to fame. Tracing the many different configurations of bandmates that have called themselves one-time members of the group to the current day line up can be an arduous task, and could take multiple compendium articles to get it right (for a detailed account of the band’s history, I’d recommend Matthew Cutter’s fantastic 2018 biography Closer You Are: The Story of Robert Pollard and Guided by Voices).
But to sum it up as plainly as I can, Pollard had revived the “classic lineup” of the band after 13 years of not playing together, and after six years of putting the moniker to bed following the band’s 2004 album Half Smiles of The Decomposed. That iteration of the lineup—which featured key collaborative songwriter Tobin Sprout on guitar, lead guitarist Mitch Mitchell, bassist Greg Demos, and drummer Kevin Fennell—reformed at Matador’s 21st anniversary extravaganza in 2010 and did a victory lap tour which saw them performing selections from classic lo-fi albums like Propeller, Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, and Under the Bushes Under the Stars. Reinvigorated by those shows, the old band went back into their creative mode releasing a staggering six albums in just two years. Once it became clear that that lineup had served its purpose, Pollard put the band to rest once again to focus on the next thing.
“I’m working with much more challenging structures, and I can pretty much go anywhere and back because I know [the band] can pull anything off. They hit all the intricacies from my boombox demos. They even learn the mistakes…and then they become no longer mistakes.”
After a slight detour that included a short-lived project called Ricked Wicky, Pollard went into the studio to record an album all by himself that he felt was fit for the moniker, 2016’s Please Be Honest. From there, he built the lineup for Guided by Voices that we know today. The band features familiar essential players like ace lead guitarist and indispensable collaborator Doug Gillard and thunderous drummer Kevin March, who both did their time in the band from the late-’90s throughout the 2000s and 2010s. Rounding out the band is Mark Shue on bass and Bobby Bare Jr. bashing it out on rhythm guitar.
With producer Travis Harrison taking on the role of the band’s George Martin and assuming live-sound duties, this tightly knit unit has been delivering an astonishingly up-to-snuff onslaught of air-tight records that could convert any new listener unaware of Pollard’s rich history as one of rock’s most prolific and enigmatic songwriters. With two fantastic releases this year alone—Crystal Nuns Cathedral from March and Tremblers and Goggles by Rank from June—Pollard and GBV don’t just have fight left in them, they’re ready to take on the whole world. You can feel that greatness culminate on Tremblers. Fans of the band’s beloved 2001 Who’s Next–sized album Isolation Drills will find a lot to love on the record, with its outsized riffs, gargantuan drums, and Pollard’s ever-powerful vocal delivery.
For Pollard, getting back into the swing of things with this new lineup wasn’t an issue at all. “We hit the ground running with a sprawling double album [2017’s August by Cake] and everyone contributed great songs,” he tells me over email, “I'd already worked for many years with Kevin and Doug, and Mark, Bobby, and Travis were very familiar with my music and very tuned in. They were a welcome addition.”
Listening to the music made with this new lineup, you get a sense that Pollard’s writing is being pushed into exciting new territories that indulge his love of immaculately structured prog akin to the Peter Gabriel–era Genesis records, and kaleidoscopic psych-pop reminiscent of Love’s masterpiece Forever Changes. “I’m working with much more challenging structures, and I can pretty much go anywhere and back because I know they can pull anything off,” says Pollard of his telekinetic relationship with this new wrecking crew. “They hit all the intricacies from my boombox demos. They even learn the mistakes…and then they become no longer mistakes.”
“We have an album finished and ready for release in January. It's called La La Land, and it’s in a similar vein to Tremblers. Eleven songs. There’ll be a second release in 2023 called Welshpool Frillies. I sent everyone the demos. Fifteen songs.”
Not one to stop and wait for fans and critical praise to catch up with his tireless work ethic, Pollard has already mapped out not only the first Guided by Voices release of 2023, but also the one after that. “We have an album finished and ready for release in January,” says Pollard, “It's called La La Land, and it’s in a similar vein to Tremblers. Eleven songs. There’ll be a second release in 2023 called Welshpool Frillies. I sent everyone the demos. Fifteen songs.”
Between Tremblers and La La Land, the uninitiated, as well as casual fans who may have lost their way amidst the voluminous body of work, have just around five months to dig through the 14 studio full-lengths GBV has released in this period of the band. To get any curious readers up to speed on why this phase has been so exhilarating to witness, we asked Pollard if he could provide readers with 10 of the songs he views as the best from this current golden age of the band. Luckily for us, the man obliged.
“Please Be Honest” (Please Be Honest, 2016)
Title track and hit. Reminds me of ’60s Johnny Rivers or something.
“It’s Food” (August by Cake, 2017)
It’s pretty, and I think it makes somewhat of a statement, which my songs don’t typically do. Partly to do with my issues on animal cruelty.
“The Rally Boys” (Zeppelin Over China, 2019)
Anthemic, and great live. Everyone sings the chorus. Carl Newman of New Pornographers did a great cover of it.
“Man Called Blunder” (Surrender Your Poppy Field, 2020)
Another one for Johnny Rivers. Like “Secret Agent Man.” Should have been the theme song for a television series, or at least the end credits of a movie.
“Haircut Sphinx” (Mirrored Aztec, 2020)
It just kicks ass and is great fun to play live. Ridiculous lyrics.
“Crash at Lake Placebo” (Styles We Paid For, 2020)
I think it’s moving when it reaches the crescendo right before it lets up at the end.
“Never Mind the List” (Crystal Nuns Cathedral, 2022)
Sounds like it should be a hit to me. My standards of what should constitute a hit are somewhat antiquated.
“Alex Bell” (Tremblers and Goggles by Rank, 2022)
Marks a new era. A much more progressive one. Structures are getting more challenging.
“Focus on the Flock” (Tremblers and Goggles by Rank, 2022)
Along with its companion piece intro, “Boomerang.” Again, complicated and interesting. Like something from a ’60s Broadway musical. It just keeps going, and I want it to go longer.
“Who Wants to Go Hunting?” (Tremblers and Goggles by Rank, 2022)
Six minutes long and good to the last drop. Dig the coda. FL