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Guided By Voices

Who said that climate change couldn’t be useful? Certainly not Robert Pollard and his Guided By Voices brethren! It turns out that the chilling temperatures and unprecedented snowfall of the Polar Vortex practically forced them indoors in order to churn out infinite amounts of laundry-room lo-fi, just like they did in the halcyon (and warmer?) days of their mid-90’s peak. Pollard, Tobin Sprout and company are certainly older than they were when Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes dropped, but they’ve never been more prolific, releasing six new studio albums since 2012. This month’s Cool Planet plays like a whiskey-spiked toddy: warm and soothing on a sub-zero day and slightly intoxicating.

Fri., May 23, 8 p.m., 2014

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Guided By Voices

The reunion of the “’93–’96 classic lineup” of indie-rock icons this year was a surprise, given the way that mercurial frontman Robert Pollard seemed pretty OK with the group’s demise, and New York was lucky enough to get a performance by the band last month. Well lightning will strike a second time tonight (and a third time tomorrow at GBV’s New Year’s Eve performance at Irving Plaza). In another awkward move, the opener for the Irving show is “non-classic” GBV member Doug Gillard. Diehard fans shouldn’t hem or haw about going to these, though, because who knows what 2011 or any other year will bring?

Fri., Dec. 31, 8 p.m., 2010

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Zs

They’re not quite up to Robert Pollard’s prodigious output, but Brooklyn experimental troupe Zs have released about eight records since 2003. Oddly enough, it was radio maven Howard Stern who put them on the map; he decided that they were a prime example iof whether avant music is full of it or not. Now prepping a release party, you can judge for yourself—they come off more on the improv/jazz side of things, but in the vein where you’ll need some good earplugs to appreciate it. With Excepter, Mick Barr, and Silk Flowers.

Tue., May 11, 8 p.m., 2010

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Another Robert Pollard Record?!?

It’s September 2027, and you’re authoring a program for the 96-hour “Robert Pollard Flying Party Marathon,” to be held next month in celebration of what would have been Our Hallowed Bob’s 70th birthday. An arduous undertaking: Having spent the last year living, eating, imbibing, and excreting the many and sundry by-products of Guided by Voices, Lexo and the Leapers, the Soft Rock Renegades, and so forth, you’re up for it. Your concerns are tactical, with an eye to placating the armed and ornery Postal Blowfish contingent, limiting the size and expense of the guide itself, and maximizing concession-stand purchases of all-beef franks and Budweiser. Which recordings demand breathless appreciations (e.g., Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department, Bee Thousand, his mid-1990s Matador output)? Which bear highlighting for select nuggets (e.g., Isolation Drills and Universal Truths & Cycles)? Which selections could simply be listed unceremoniously (e.g., Suitcase, Airport 5 in general, Normal Happiness)?

You reach an impasse at the one-two solo punch of Coast to Coast Carpet of Love and Standard Gargoyle Decisions, released in October 2007. The former is stolid but unremarkable, while the latter, though intriguingly rough-and-tumble, is a more accessible shadow of earlier Pollard diversions wherein the erstwhile Fading Captain seemed to cast aside watery-domestic for some harder stuff, à la Kid Marine and Waved Out, about which you’ve already been overly effusive in your praise. Yet there are glad girls skinny-dipping in the bath water. Carpet coughs up the faux-chippy, McCarthyesque “Nicely Now” and the autumnal shrug-chuggery of “Miles Under the Skin,” its pretty, sunny strum gripped by droning keyboards that one could mistake for strings. But Decisions is where the real action almost is: “The Killers” doles out reverse-negative blare props to Brandon Flowers and Ernest Hemingway, joined by the starched-note paranoia of “Don’t Trust Anybody,” the mid-tempo gang-chant “Here Comes Garcia,” and the buff, bludgeoned strut of “Butcher Man,” which Danzig totally should’ve covered before that fatal bench-pressing incident in ’09. So Carpet‘s just another title on the list, Decisions rates a coupla begrudging sentences, and hey, only 29 discs left to go!

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Work Shy

In “Recovering,” the last track on his new album, Robert Pollard sums up his artistic modus operandi: “Tomorrow will be,” he sings, “let today still be now.” As his dizzyingly dense Guided By Voices discography tells us, Pollard believes in immediacy—even when it’s to his own detriment—and From a Compound Eye finds Uncle Bob dancing yet again on the distinction between prolific and profligate. While his dedication to capturing the moment can lead to some gloriously vital rock ‘n’ roll (“Gold”, “Love Is Stronger Than Witchcraft”), it can also lead him to accept ideas for songs (“Kensington Cradle”) and gibberish for lyrics (“Kick Me and Cancel”).

The album won’t surprise anyone familiar with Pollard’s work with the recently defunct GBV. His traditionalist’s love for psych, prog, and folk is still rendered alive and well, and rendered with melody and verve across each of the disc’s four “sides.” But slices of irresistible guitar pop like “Dancing Girls and Dancing Men,” and regal pocket epics like “Conqueror of the Moon,” are tarred with the brush of sketchbook goop like “Denied”—a threadbare riff in search of some discipline. Pollard’s disdain for self-editing can even have the effect of preventing good tracks from being better: If the crunching jam of “The Numbered Head” had received some pruning, it might be hypnotic instead of tedious.

For all his impressive fecundity, Pollard’s output has more to do with laziness than a hardy Midwestern work ethic. It’s easy to fill your basket if you don’t separate the wheat from the chaff. When you’ve written 5,000 songs, like Pollard says he has, but have yet to record a wholly satisfying album, something’s wrong. That Eye is neither great nor terrible and often very good can be attributed to one part talent and two parts luck. But the fact remains that Pollard is far too willing to leave all the heavy lifting to the listeners.

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Slaps in the Face

Major-label consolidation would seem to bring closer a system where all well-known recording artists work for four big corporations. There’s an impression that this machine could roll over indie music and finish it off. We like to say: on the contrary.

Indie music may have lost some loose change. But isn’t it indie’s nature to lose along the way—to be subject to shortage en route to artistic satisfaction? At Puncture, the magazine I edit and publish, the feeling is strong that whatever independent music loses, two constants will remain.

Its independence. And its music.

It’s fine when it’s so concealed.

—Robert Pollard, “Do Something Real”

Ordinary pop fans can easily overlook a few hundred bedroom artists, and cloistered creators like Illyah Kuryahkin and his whispered sermonettes to Meg Lee Chin and her sing-outs of electro malaise rarely set off shocks of recognition. Yet even bedroomists tour—venturing briefly from gear-cluttered sanctuaries into the pressboard aisles of crampy record shops or storefront one-rooms a mile from any downtown. They also release records. Musicians want to be heard.

Indieists have often spoken a partly private language—Comet Gain list what’s cool, Deerhoof call up a pantheon of cute yet godlike animals. But a change is gonna come. If you’re looking for tendencies, you can see a striking surge—millennial, or just a natural next step—in the way indie artists address their followings.

It’s not long since masterpieces of interiority like Plush’s More You Becomes You or Neutral Milk’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Plush threaded tempting piano chords spiked with lapidary sobs through his portrait of desperate insecurity. NMH etched youthful nightmares in excruciating personal detail. It’s not as though music this subjective is on the way out. Rather, a fresh faction is stepping up newly prepared to deliver their briefs—and to knock us about in the process.

Punk did this two decades ago, but any punks who’ve stuck at it tend to sound dried out, mechanical. What’s camped on the doorstep today is the new sound of struggle. Sleater-Kinney, having recorded their forthcoming album here in Portland, wasted no time circulating the lyrics. Hear them grab the lectern in a pop activation of critical theory: “You don’t own the stage/and we’re here to raise the stakes/Now do you hear that sound/as the Model breaks/Take the Stage!”

They named that song “Male Model” so we don’t come away with too abstract an idea what kind of obstacle they’re talking about. And late last year, Elisabeth Vincentelli called Le Tigre “a slap in the face to the fratboy sexism that’s shoved its way back into music this year.” This could be the start of a new swell of demanding rock polemics. And polemics are always a good thing.

Now you’re gone/and to me you’re done

—Diane Izzo, “The Real One”

In his novel Boy Island, Camden Joy describes touring the South with a band flagrantly based on the real-life Cracker. The plot revolves around Joy’s failure to cut much of a figure in the band’s intramural contest to screw the most groupies. Believably or not, the only person who perceives that Joy doesn’t much care to go to bed with girls is a gay roadie, who promptly and not unlovingly seduces him.

But the real story is the tour. We who take an unflagging interest in the doings of rock bands want to hear, like it’s news, that the fucking van and the daily weight of the gear are inesca-pable, that the biz types are phonies (there’s a priceless biz brunch, complete with total failure to mention music), and that the Cracker guys are surly.

In one sense this is an exposé of the big time (the plot has them wooing majorish labels). Yet the band wouldn’t have enough money to eat if they didn’t sell T-shirts at every stop. Big or small time (the David Lowery character wistfully posits that people will “look back later and wonder how we slipped through and, like, managed to stay out of sight while being this cool”), their shortage of fun is laid bare so we can have fun reading about it.

Back to the underground!

—Prince Paul, liner note, 1997

It was hip-hop’s pioneering polemics, superadded to the triumphant persistence of riot-grrrl drive, that helped blaze the trail for a new indie didactics. While middle-class bedroomists were amassing gear and tinkering with effects ranging from madrigal to beepery, rappers blasted racism’s crushing delimitations. This often sounded samey to indie buffs—but then, oppression is samey. At the same time, the indie songwriters’ pals were buying rap and layering heavy speakers into their vehicles.

So the next wave of indieists got it—and the art of the tirade began rippling outward again. It was possible after all to say more than they’d been saying, to say it more rudely, and perhaps be more widely heard. Not since the Clash had this been so clear. So now there are multiple private and public indie spheres. Personal stocks of images and compulsions will still be counted over by the more hermetic bands. But a new and forceful strain will compel our attention.

One step behind the drum style

—Le Tigre, “Hot Topic”

At the same time there is a welcome opening out of hip-hop. It’s a mellow thrill to hear Handsome Boy Modeling School’s So . . . How’s Your Girl? The leaflet photos—martinis and cigars, hovering lovelies—slant off what’s inside: a cascade of varied and cunning song material plus impressive guest shots from a kaleidoscope of genres.

We know musical inspiration transcends boundaries; what’s new is that many indie artists look set to tackle gender, social, and racial themes as never before. Far from conceding that music is indie’d out, we can look forward to a very good year—and decade.

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Lo-Fi Dead in O-hi-o?

Guided By Voices have the keys to the alt-rock kingdom. They are adored by thousands of critic types (and even some people who don’t live in their mom’s basement) for adhering to the Indie Music Purity Act signed in Geneva in 1986 by Bob Mould, Paul Westerberg, and various members of Killdozer— provisions of which entail being honest in an impoverished and obscure manner, showing a strong nondenominational midwestern work ethic, traveling in a van, being shafted by record labels, and recording albums with a Mr. Microphone and a Radio Shack boom box in your bass player’s rec room.

In the past, the fact that the pride of Ohio, Robert Pollard (and whoever he could get to play with him), released albums simply as an excuse to come up with as many goofy song titles as possible only made him more endearing to cranky fanzine editors and art-garage aficionados the world over. And Guided By Voices were arty and of the garage— the best of their early stuff sounded like unreleased demo tapes some acid-rock casualty might have made in Dennis Wilson’s guest house.

G.B.V. also spawned a DIY movement of sorts. It was composed of vinyl junkies of a certain age, who, although enamored with the rarefolkpsychmonster aspect of the ’60s, had also learned a thing or two from postpunkers the Fall and Wire. (I’m thinking of Thinking Fellers Union, the Grifters, the Strapping Fieldhands, Sebadoh, Pavement.) And even though English majors need glorified bar bands as much as anyone else, most if not all these groups have since learned to embrace actual stereophonic recording studios, leaving room for a new generation of record-store clerks to dazzle us with the crudity of their art.

Robert Pollard, whose music hasn’t sounded like an AM radio at the bottom of a well for years now, has gone further than any of his partners in production-value crime on Do the Collapse, his 400th album. Thanks to used Car Ric Ocasek’s production job, this ex-schoolteacher’s hobby band has a shiny new coat that would have been unimaginable five years ago. Ocasek makes rock so clean you can eat off it, and a lot of this album even has the punch and energy of the Cars’ wondrous debut. (An energy not found on G.B.V.’s last two G.B.V. releases, although they both had their share of keepers, like for instance “Learning To Hunt” on Mag Earwig, an uncharacteristically poignant song about fatherhood that reminds me of “Kooks” on David Bowie’s Hunky Dory. At least I think it’s about fatherhood— it might be about hunting.) On Collapse, “Teenage FBI” has those rinky-dink synths that Cars cover-band the Rentals revived not long ago, and the sweet guitar leads that waft in from nowhere on “Much Better Mr. Buckles” rank with powerpop’s greatest gifts. Sturdy, dirt-simple riffs start off 95 percent of the album. (I never liked the Nirvana/grunge jangly-bumpkin intro approach; you just knew any second they were gonna stomp on their effects pedal, set for “long hair.”)

I’m not going to get into band members here besides our hero Mr. Pollard. You can look up their tangled family tree on the G.B.V. Web site, and who knows, you might even be on it! I like the band shots that adorn the new album, though. What with the guys dressed up in custodial-crew gear, the pictures don’t convey the long-standing indie chic of trucker hats, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and somebody else’s work clothes so much as they resemble promo shots of cleaned-up Ohio pub-rockers the Rubber City Rebels, circa 1979.

And G.B.V.’s on TVT now— same label that gave long-in-the-tooth Aussie punk Chris Bailey of the Saints a new lease on life, and the label that made Nine Inch Nail Trent Reznor so mad he spit out a million-selling record. I guess their former label, Matador, now a cutting-edge dance imprint, didn’t hear enough drum ‘n’/or bass in the new G.B.V. sound (but there’s plenty of both!). Has this band sold out its underground cred by creating a slick pop-rock album on a label founded with sitcom theme-music money?

First of all, nobody cares. Second of all, Robert Pollard is old enough to be your father’s older brother. More important, he lives in Dayton, Ohio. What’s he gonna do, buy the swankiest house in Dayton with all that dough TVT throws around? Put a moat around his above-ground pool? People from Ohio are incapable of selling out. Just ask Devo, the Bizarros, Pere Ubu, and the Dead Boys— all major-label heavyweights in their day. The only way you can do it is if you move away to England like Chrissie Hynde and dis your smelly shores from afar. And so what if Do the Collapse has the best Collective Soul song ever recorded (“Hold on Hope”) on it? You’ll still never hear it on the radio. In a perfect world, the cliché goes, kids would flip their lids for whatever collegiate rock icon is being neglected this week. In the real world, somebody with a flair for language and a good hook should be able to earn a happy living without ever leaving home.

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Recordings

Ministry

Dark Side of The Spoon

Warner Bros.

Ministry has always been made up of astute students of the transmutation of sound and its infinite possibilities. They continue to show the fruits of this education on their latest CD, which offers a stunning series of epics with surprisingly little reliance on silly gimmicks. In fact, the only joke to be found is in the twisted Pink Floyd-referenced title, which (heroin reference aside) is actually apropos for an album exploring the peculiar potentials of production. True, departures like the squalling sax and obsessive banjo-plucking on “Nursing Home” and the swinging shuffle of the rehab sneer “Step” provide only temporary respite from the overwhelming drill ‘n’ drone sound of most of these cuts. But the variety is welcome. It’s obviously not everyone’s cup of absinthe, but pretty amazing and beautifully engineered. If the lyrics and vocals were as consistently accomplished as the hell-raising music, this would be in the same league as the Birthday Party. As it stands, it will awe young misanthropes and piss off everyone else within earshot. — Michael Murphy

Joy Electric

Christiansongs

Bec

With boyish charm, excessively cuffed pants and sideburns that could cut through butter, the techno-pop missionaries of Joy Electric look like old-school rockers applying for membership in the Lollipop Guild. So it’s not too surprising to find that their newest album, which celebrates youth (“Voice of the Young”) and faith (“Children of the Lord”) with candy-coated, bubbly synth riffs, would have made a suitable soundtrack for The Wizard of Oz. Ronnie Martin’s devout but surprisingly rebellious lyrics add a refreshing dichotomy to this otherwise overly-cheerful undertaking, making it reminiscent of Erasure. Tracks such as “Disco for a Ride” and “I Sing Electric” twinkle with analog keyboards and robotic drum patterns. The purely new-wave “Make My Life a Prayer” frolics with an instantly catchy dance beat and features Martin’s voice sailing above the melody. Filled with childlike voices periodically shouting “yeah” and “c’mon,” Never-Never Land has never sounded so good. — Kenyon Hopkin

Godflesh

Us and Them

Earache

Until recently, it seemed that Godflesh was lost to the lethargic strokes of masturbatory self-indulgence, never again to recapture and revel in the mechanized horror of classics like Streetcleaner. But then, with the release of the excellent Songs of Love and Hate and the remix album, In Dub, that followed, the band suddenly remembered not just how to inflict pain, but how to do it almost surgically. In many ways, Us and Them is a mesh of the band’s sound on the previous two releases, slyly balancing the cruel groove of manipulated hardware with human combustion. It is harsh, innovative and ultimately brilliant. — Rich Black

Guided By Voices

Do the Collapse

TVT

Dayton’s lo-fi legends are ready to crash the alternative rock airwaves with this disc, their impressive major-label debut. Frontman Robert Pollard leads a full-scale attack on the senses with a series of mind-crunching send-ups consistent with the band’s prog-rock myth. While Pollard is easily the most prolific and underrated songwriter in pop today, his desire to make it big, fueled by many cases of Bud Light, has blurred his historically precise vision. Here he misguidedly relinquishes some artistic control to producer Ric Ocasek, the ex-Cars leader who made over Hanson and Weezer. From the techno/synth-wash that opens “Teenage FBI”— a perfect pop song about getting caught picking your nose— there is reason to be suspect. Ocasek’s twirpy, dated keyboard layers serve as a major distraction in the same way Todd Rundgren damaged the New York Dolls’ debut. But some songs survive the technical melee: bits like “In Stitches” and “Zoo Pie” are ready made for the hi-fi indulgence, showcasing the arena-rock strength of lead guitarist Doug Gillard. — Bill Miller


LI Sounds

Men of Respect

Fair Warning M.O.R.

Entertainment

Here’s one for all underground hip-hop lovers, consisting of six emcees flexin’ their vocal chords over well-known beats. This group— Hempstead’s Nobel Jah, along with Rob West, Mustafa, Rising Sun and Khailil & Kha— has what it takes to make it in the big leagues. The Nassau County emcee is featured on five songs, flowing over a slowed-down rhythm from EMPD’s “So Whatcha Saying” on the album’s title track and borrowing from Notorious B.I.G’s “Ten Crack Commandments” on “Seven Degrees of Separation.” Mustafa proves his worth on “Have No Fear,” where he lets the rhymes flow for two minutes and change, over the Craig Mack classic “Flava in Ya Ear.” Risin’ Sun also stands out from the pack, representing angry youth in “Time for War.” These rhymesters more than make up for the lack of original beats with loquacious lyricism. Contact: M.O.R. Entertainment, PO Box 2, New York, NY 10035, 212-426-4880. — AJ Woodson