Guided By Voices: How Do You Spell Heaven? 

click to enlarge gbv_pollard.jpg
Whether a new Guided By Voices album is newsworthy depends on the state of your fandom. They're one of the most prolific bands of the 90s and beyond, with 24 full-length albums under the GBV name, and even more under the name of principal songwriter Robert Pollard; so does the release of their 25th merit hoopla? That depends on your love of the unpredictable twists and turns of Pollard's songwriting – and Memphis has many fans. While you may still be absorbed with April's double album August by Cake, today sees the release of yet more pop sonic experiments from the band, How Do You Spell Heaven?

This newest platter offers much of what GBV fans are after, in a form more concise and disciplined than this spring's release. While I have a weakness for their earliest lo-fi ventures, they abandoned those tones 20 years ago when a revamped lineup of the band took on a more produced sound. The crunchy guitars, bizarre chord changes, and out-of-nowhere sonic flares remained, though. For some, it was more powerful than ever on the technicolor soundstage of a major studio recording. Heaven carries on that tradition, where the puzzling meets the polished, but with a more pronounced intimacy and vulnerability.

Part of the enigmatic quality comes from Pollard's delivery of his oblique lyrics as if his life depended on it. To be sure, GBV's songs require repeated listenings to digest. The title song is classic Pollard: “The first hand offers the hand, the first hand! The second hand offers the hand, the second hand! ... Information machines closing the casket. How do you spell heaven? Is bookshelf one word?” Inquiring minds want to know.

It really comes down to Pollard's compelling delivery, tacking between the wistful and the desperate. And in a sonic palette where anything goes, the oblique lyrics make sense. It's a postmodern world of disconnected meaning, re-contextualized observations. At any moment, the rug may get pulled out from under you. “How to Murder a Man (In 3 Acts)” may open up with a single chugging guitar, riffing menacingly, but just where you expect a big drum intro to kick off the song proper, it goes moody, as Pollard intones, “the counterculture is soaking/We cannot be held responsible.” Okay...color me intrigued. Then the song proceeds to explode, stylistically landing on several planets at once..

Grounding the proceedings are far-reaching musical allusions growing out of the tradition of power pop. While the experimental side is never far, neither are the melodies, weaving textures, and even acoustic balladeering of classic rock from the 70s through the 90s. These are finely crafted musings, played with the assurance of a lifer who lives and breathes the history of radio. If calling it “pop” is too generalist and vague for these peculiar song-poems, perhaps “odd-pop” captures the balance struck here, between the accessible and the idiosyncratic, the gut and the dreaming brain.
**** (4 stars)

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