By Nathan Pavolko
When I was a freshman in high school, I was fortunate enough to have some great friends to point me towards some wonderful music at the perfect times in my life. Guided By Voices was first introduced to me through a CD-R from a friend who told me that I absolutely had to listen to it. He gave it to me, telling me nothing more and all he had on it was the title of the album, Bee Thousand, their seventh album, which says a lot. I walked into it blind, and found myself so taken aback by the loose instrumentation and raw lo-fi garage rock honesty. At the time I was really caught up in the classics like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, but slowly gravitated towards punk music, and hearing this was a happy medium. It taught me that anyone can play music and that you didn’t have to be incredible at guitar or amazing at singing. It taught me to be free with my musical ideas and have fun with genre norms. So, I am proud to be able to review Guided By Voices’ latest release Please Be Honest, their 22nd album in a little over a 30-year career.
GBV are still going strong after so many years, purely because of the existence and creative powerhouse that is Robert Pollard. Throughout their long and busy career they have had multiple line-up changes, but the only person who has consistently been through it all has been Pollard. The band, and often times Pollard himself under the GBV name, has relentlessly released album after album since the mid 80’s. This dedication and expressive energy that they have unleashed helped form their cultish following, sharing their love for the avant-garde approach to lo-fi garage pop music. GBV have never been perfectionists, so don’t expect much polish over the music. They have always bravely released their material with mistakes and all, played with just the right amount of slack that takes their music down to that human level.
At the foundation of GBV their music is both noisy and pop heavy, striking a strong resemblance to post-British invasion garage and psychedelic rock. Yet, through the magic of their uncanny songwriting they still belong in the present and sound like they could be a new band off the famed Burger Records. It’s amazing to me that after all these years Pollard’s songwriting still surprises me with how fresh it feels while being unabashedly true to himself. Much of their music is grooving with catchy hooks and overdriven guitars, simple poetic songs that shy away from typical pop formulas. Pollard’s voice and lyrics are gripping and distinct, completely his own style, much like the lead singers of The Talking Heads, Joy Division, or The Replacements. Each song contains cryptic lyrics worth taking the time to piece together the true meaning behind what is being said.
Please Be Honest, was written, played, and recorded by Pollard alone, much like a few previous GBV albums. As a fan of the band, it harkens back to titles like Bee Thousand or the often overlooked Vampire On Titus. It’s similar jumbled-up track order that oddly makes sense the more you listen to the record and experimental songs place it as one of their most innovative albums to date. For example, in “Hotel X”, being one of the oddest pop songs on the record, ended with a marching band-style finish. Another great example is “The Grasshopper Eaters,” with its throbbing pulse of a beat and sudden dings of a bell as the only percussion in the track. I love the small breaks in this song; it stands out so much because it happens so rarely, but it’s a beautiful acoustic melody that rings so clear, as the rest of the track is more rhythmic. Not all of the album is overly explorative however; the thing that GBV is best at is creating solid pop gems, and they deliver in some respects on this release.
The opening track “My Zodiac Companion” is a hard hitting anthem with its huge chorus. The drums pounding along with the big distorted guitars empowering Pollard’s lyrics “Come back to me // My zodiac companion.” It’s a strong opener with a slightly damaged side to it, opening himself up to you and giving you a glimpse at what’s to come. “Glittering Parliaments” shows his more traditional pop rock side, with drums and growling bass driving the song forward as a guitar line slightly mirrors Pollard’s vocal melody.
For a person just getting into GBV, Please Be Honest may not be a good starting choice, unless you’re craving something off the beaten path. There is a lot to take in on this album; however, each track rarely goes past three minutes. So the music, no matter how experimental, never gets too out of hand. Each track feels singular, self-contained, part of its own universe while still adding to the larger picture that is the album.
As with most experimental albums, not every track hit me as hard as previous releases. There is no big movement or standout half of the album. It more contains really solid tracks scattered throughout with experimental bits in between. However, I have great respect for Pollard. The fact that he is still as daring as ever after so many releases astonishes me. I find that to be a wildly sought-after trait as well, being able to remain interesting for so many years as a musician is a hard thing to achieve, and I think he still remains to do it.
Guided By Voices’ 22nd release, Please Be Honest, may not be their best album, but it is a bold one. Robert Pollard delivers a loose and raw honesty in his performance and it may catch your ear. I rather enjoyed it and hope you give it a listen. If you’re a fan of the band or of lo-fi garage pop music and looking for something out of the norm, check out Please Be Honest.