There’s not a whole lot left to be said about the musical monolith that
is Dayton, Ohio’s Guided by Voices. After 15 years, 11 full-length
albums and god knows how many EPs, singles and compilation appearances,
nearly every label, slander and description has been hurled their way.
There have been band break-ups, band make-ups, lineup changes, label
changes and even full-blown career changes. But through it all Robert
Pollard has persevered, taking on all comers in his seemingly endless
quest to become the undisputed king of rock.
Pollard took what he, and many others for that matter, though to be a
huge step in the right direction with the release of 1999’s Rik Ocasek-produced Do the Collapse. In a sane world, its huge hooks, ultra slick
production and brilliant songwriting would have become staples not only
at college radio but also at Top 40 and MTV as well. But due to a poor
promotion campaign, the record went down as just another Guided by Voices
album -- huge in indie circles but entirely ignored by the mainstream.
Now, at the dawn of the 21st century, Pollard & Co. are ready take their
place among the rock pantheon as they unleash their 12th studio record
on the musical world at large. To put it bluntly, Isolation Drills rocks harder than anything else in GBV's seemingly endless
canon. If Do the Collapse was the group’s Candy-O, Isolation Drills
is most certainly their Who’s Next. With Rob Schnapf at the production helm, the
group has created an album filled not only with the timeless pop hooks
you have come to expect but with the anthemic swagger that is the hallmark of
many of the great rock recordings of the last 30 years.
One of the first things that strikes you about Isolation Drills is its
return to the sound of early Guided by Voices. The opener, "Fair Touching",
and the lead-off single, "Chasing Heather Crazy", both revel in the hook-laden,
British invasion-inspired jangly guitar glory that so thoroughly defined GBV's earliest recordings. Elsewhere, the infectious stomper
"Glad Girls" is rife with the terse riffing and catchy-as-hell demeanor
that permeated Mag Earwig, while "Run Wild"'s joyful chorus and pounding
rhythm will no doubt become a staple of the GBV live experience for
years to come.
But what you really want to hear these boys do is rock, and with "Skills
Like This" (featuring Elliott Smith), "Pivotal Film" and "The Enemy",
they deliver the goods in spades. Pollard leads his troops across the
battlefield atop arena-sized riffs injected with his own odd sense of
melody and interlaced with his particular brand of lyrical abstraction.
But as any good rocker knows, you have to slow things down from time to
time to let the folks catch their breath. Lighters will certainly be
aloft for the lulling "Sister I Need Wine", the tender salute to their
favorite pastime "How’s My Drinking" and the cello- and piano-led
mid-tempo gem, "Unspirited". In addition to slowing the pace, these
tracks also showcase Pollard’s newfound lyrical "maturity". For Isolation Drills, Pollard has at least partially replaced his usual stream-of-consciousness weirdnesswith an obtuse sentimentality, exposing a previously-unseen tender side of this rock songwriting giant.
Okay, maybe it won't be the album that catapults them into the
stratosphere, but Isolation Drills finds Guided by Voices moving ever further
towards the mainstream success that has so far eluded them. The album's
timeless sound and firm belief in the rigors of rock n’ roll will
undoubtedly make it one of the most talked-about releases of the year,
and with damn good reason.