Between all of the words written about Guided By Voices and the prolific nature of bandleader Robert Pollard, it’s almost shocking that there are any words left to use. But what is important to say about Dayton, Ohio’s favorite sons with the few remaining words left is that Class Clown Spots a UFO is the second record GBV have put out this year, also the second with the reunited classic line-up, and about the 18th GBV album in total, not counting compilations, live albums, etc. This record also has the distinction of the title track being kicked around for nearly 25 years before finally being finalized here. It’s one of 21 songs the band knocks out in about 40 minutes.
GBV has a fairly rabid fanbase and the excitement of the reunion has saddled each new release with an enormous weight of expectation. Luckily the band seems immune to such pressure. With that said, Class Clown probably won’t have you rethinking your personal top five GBV records. However, that’s more a testament to the consistency of the band rather than a lack of quality. And with so many songs on one record there would have to be a great shift to shake up any longtime fans’ opinion.
What Class Clown does show is that there’s still plenty of life in this old dog. Of course, there are abstract song fragments here, but there are also complete musical universes created in less than two minutes. The only complaint one could make is that it lacks the hooks of some of GBV’s finer moments. But with solid songwriting from Pollard and Tobin Sprout and spirited performances from the whole band, such criticism seems like nitpicking. Besides, if this one isn’t to your liking, there’s another one coming out in a few months.
Dorian S. Ham
Youth: the period of possibility, room to grow, and spitfire resolve. The Young’s debut album, Voyager of Legend, released in 2010 on Mexican Summer, harbored all the emergent exuberance you could hope for in a first record. It was a combination of spritely hooks and a kind of musical formidability, like, say, punkers suddenly released from their genre shackles of enforced simplicity to find a newfound freedom in developing some chops.
To call their sophomore LP, Dub Egg a slump would be to abuse a critical cliche in dire need of being checked anyhow. A regression towards the mean may be more what I, ahem, mean. There is no slump without an amazing production to precede it, and how can we in good faith demand this to be consecutively met or exceeded when so many variables are uncontrollable and downright intangible? Perhaps it is not the failure of the artist, but an inflated expectation of the public that capitulated this idea in the first place. Although it speaks to an investment in the band—no doubt laced with good intent—overt disappointment here is as selfish as it is counterproductive; a band worth its salt needs the aforementioned room to grow.
Such should be afforded to The Young. Their titling is not making it easy to avoid the paternal-leaning metaphoric overtones, and neither does the fact that the album feels as if it is trying to harness a sound one size too big for its britches, exposing that youthful inclination to want to grow up too fast. Dub Egg excels in its musicianship, but presents an almost overbearing resemblance to worn again rockers such as Crazy Horse and The Byrds.
But Dub Egg does retain hints of what made Voyager of Legend so special and what we can bet on seeing more of in the future. The opening riff on “White Cloud” hits you without warning, “Don't Hustle for Love” espouses a smart sentiment, and everything works perfectly on the album closer “Talking to Rose.” In fact, the album is just fine on its own. Only alongside its predecessor does disappointment surface. Growing pains, natch.
MP3: “Livin’ Free”
I’m sorry to paint with such a broad stroke, but Canadian bands really do have a knack for surveying the landscape, choosing a few pleasing techniques, injecting them with an unabashed love for melody, and putting out something that sounds compelling but not quite new. (Case in point: Wolf Parade.) Critical tastes generally run in the opposite direction, so a band like Wintersleep could easily get slammed for their sing-along choruses and fluid guitar lines. The comparisons come almost too easy. They’re a muscular Shins (“In Came the Flood”) or an upbeat Damian Jurado (“Saving Song”). There’s a little Rilo Kiley (“Nothing Is Anything (Without You)”) and more than a little My Morning Jacket (“Rapture”).
If you can get past those critical reservations, it’s almost criminal how easily and relentlessly Wintersleep will stroke the pleasure centers of your brain. The band’s past work has been shot through with a large dose of angst, but on Hello Hum, they work with an equally large palette of invigorating tunes. They’ve always written memorable melodies, but this time they don’t seem so intent on crushing them with introspection and distortion. Don’t get me wrong, Paul Murphy stills sings like he’s always right on the verge of bursting into tears, but maybe this time they’re tears of gratitude. Love still isn’t treating him entirely right, but this time he’s not selling the drama so much.
It’s also worth noting the influence of co-producers Tony Doogan (Belle and Sebastian, Mogwai) and Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, MGMT). Wintersleep has been working with Doogan for a while now, so maybe it’s Fridmann who is responsible for the synths newly scattered here and there. Whoever gets the credit, their producers have really helped the band add more contrasts to their sound. The album’s most raucous moments (“Resuscitate” and “Hum”) are louder and fuller, with bigger drums on the bottom and electronics filling the corners. Meanwhile, stripped-down numbers like “Saving Song” and “Smoke” are even more minimalistic than the band has been before. These differences bookend the album, beginning it with a thick, oscillating synth note and the words “hello, hum.” Then, after 45 minutes of passionate highs with long, quiet meditations in between, the record slows and fades to nearly nothing, just a cymbal, a cello and Murphy mumbling something about “the life I led,” before “close the door, close the door” and the fade to black.
The backing band from Anika’s excellent eponymous 2010 debut, Beak> is lead by multi-instrumentalist, producer, label maven of Invada Records, and Portishead visionary Geoff Barrow. If you’re familiar with the Anika record, be assured that >> follows the same expertly engineered aesthetic (and if you’re not familiar with the Anika record, waste no time availing thyself). This time around, Beak> skipped Anika’s ethereally accented vocals in favor of an unaccredited shoegazing male (we’ll assume it’s Barrow), which pushes >> towards the classic dub reggae end of the spectrum as opposed to the opium den psych of the Anika record.
Anika’s charismatic vocals cut a wide swath through the dry reverb of the rest of the band, so on >> that space is filled not by more vocals, but by letting the other instruments get a little freakier. On the instrumental leadoff track, “The Gaol,” that vocal hole is filled by a sound mimicking a Damo Suzuki vocal line on a modified Leslie speaker with a homemade synthesizer running through it. Or maybe it’s a helicopter engine screwed through a pitch shifter? That would be quite a feat, seeing as part of Beak>’s creed is recording everything live “in one room with no overdubs or repair.” Whatever esoteric synthesizer it is, it makes for an unsettling drone that forces you to ignore it like a trick of the ear before it changes slightly and commands your attention. “Eggdog” drifts into Faust IV territory, as if “Picnic on a Frozen River” was playing on an eccentric turntable; this might be as close to pop as Beak> gets, which is surely not a bad thing. “Liar” is the sound when Broadcast and Kennelmus collide in Neu’s practice space, and it abruptly ends into “Ladies Mile,” which is whale mating calls and Daft Punk in a padded room. The sequencing of the album is exceptional, if you hadn’t gathered that. Clearly, Barrow and company have a firm handle on the sound they want to make and are beyond experimentation and focused on execution, which makes the production of the recording paramount in capturing the precise mood of the music. Too many bands forget about this, relying on Pro Tools to supplement and enhance the art, instead of incorporating the studio as an integrated part of the sound. Beak> captures their magic as genuinely and consistently as could be desired and is on the way to creating a resolute and bold body of work.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy
The Ready Stance is a foursome that call the Queen City, or more accurately, Newport, Kentucky, home. (If you’re from Southern Ohio, you know it’s basically one in the same, being a literal walk across the bridge from downtown.) The band, formed by Wes Pence and Chase Johnston, was an idea borne one fortuitous evening from a mutual love of music ranging from ’70s power-pop outlet Big Star to post-punk pioneers Television. After recruiting Pence’s former Middlemarch bandmate Eric Moreton, the creative sessions began. The fruits of these labors is Damndest, a solid, wonderfully refreshing, 1990s throwback that, fitting of the band’s Ohio River roots, pays homage to the steamboat culture of yesteryear.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this record is how quickly it was written and recorded. Though Pence had amassed an arsenal of songs in the years since Middelmarch’s demise, The Ready Stance sounds like these guys have been playing together for years and years, not months and months. Damndest’s catalyst is a track that could very well have been a college rock anthem 15 years ago, the literate, guitar-driven “Rancho Cristo.” A charming energy propels the album, and songs like the buoyant, enlightened “Long Arm” and the Replacements-esque “Very Necessary” really shine. Rather than relying on inane hooks and obvious choruses, the songs are intricate and thoughtful, hearkening back to an era of perceptive, pre-grunge alternative rock, even on the Americana-tinged “Little Carmel.”
Damndest showcases The Ready Stance’s inherent musical prowess and heavy ’90s influence. (Added bonus: since recording the album, the group has gained bassist Randy Cheek of innovative Ohio-based indie bands the Ass Ponys and The Libertines). Packed with reflective lyrics and subtle, introspective arrangements, this record is a masterful work of honest, gimmicks-free rock & roll from the heart of it all.