In a fit of creativity that rivals the audacity of the production of their string of classic mid-Nineties offerings, Guided By Voices have dropped a new LP less than a half-year after the release of the sprawling double-album, August By Cake. The new record, How Do You Spell Heaven, is out on Friday via Rockathon Records, and it's a joyously-dense collection of riffs, a bright distillation of so many of the things that have made this band so good for so long. Robert Pollard has tapped into something here on his 101st release and one can only rave about most of what he's shared with us on this record.
If a number like "Steppenwolf Mausoleum" recalls pre-Tommy Who, the slow-burn of "Pearly Gates Smoke Machine", an instrumental, lets this line-up of the band indulge a bit in the style of T.Rex, swatches of Sixties-era Rock-with-a-capital-R setting the scene for what Guided By Voices are after this time around. The line-up on How Do You Spell Heaven -- Doug Gillard, Bobby Bare Jr., Mark Shue, Kevin March, and Robert Pollard -- here exhibit a real mastery of past forms, tackling the sharp power-pop of "The Birthday Democrats" with the same sort of confident ease they bring to the more ornate title cut, a burst of both chamber pop and hard rock that stands out as an instant classic in Pollard's oeuvre. It is, like so many numbers here, tightly constructed and there's a certain conciseness at work on How Do You Spell Heaven that was missing from the otherwise masterful August By Cake earlier this year. Whether it's due to the GBV line-up this time out, or Robert Pollard's joy at hitting release 101 with this one, it's noticeable. Even on something more ambitious, like the multi-tracked "Low Flying Perfection", the boys sound comfortable whipping up a blend of Simon and Garfunkel-style vocal harmonies with early Kinks-inspired hard riffs. Elsewhere, on the beautiful "Nothing Gets You Real", Pollard pursues a more gentle melodic and lyrical peace, one that's closer to The Beatles than it is to The Who, to refer again to an era that's given this guy so much in terms of inspiration. Still, for all the lovely bits here, there are plenty more that surrender to the joy of riding a riff into oblivion (the punchy "Diver Dan", or the mod-ish "Boy W", or the near-roar of "King 007").
And as Robert Pollard sings "I dreamed of drinking" in the spry "Cretinous Number Ones", a listener can take a certain satisfaction in realizing how familiar this track, like many here, feels. To say that is not to say that Bob is stuck in a rut but, rather, that he's captured for a glorious near-40 minutes, a clutch of the mojo he was high on in 1997 as, really kids, How Do You Spell Heaven is as good as so much of we'd call classic Guided By Voices records from nearly 2 decades ago. In any other hands, with anyone other than Robert Pollard at the helm, this sort of ride into the maelstrom in search of past glories would be a colossal failure. But, here, on the hard "How To Murder a Man", or the choppy "Paper Cutz", long-time fans can hear so much of what we loved about this lot back in the early Clinton years brought back to life. I'm all for allowing this band to explore new paths, and pursue new goals, but, sometimes I just need Pollard on the mic, the band rocking behind him, perpetually -- or at least for two-thirds of an hour -- in search of the perfect riff, the most majestic hook one can crank up so as to feel like the world is still a bright and bouncy place to be. Go play "Diver Dan" when this one drops and see if you feel the same way.
[Photo: Screencap of Robert Pollard from the album trailer]