Zeppelin Over China by Guided By VoicesRelease date: February 1, 2019
Label: rockathon records
Bob Pollard cannot stop. High kicking his way into 2019 with the massive 32 track double Zeppelin Over China. It’s a lot to absorb. Last year Guided By Voices put out just the one album, Space Gun. A smooth drinking, great tasting, serving of their unique indie rock brew you could happily down without any unpleasant bloating. But clearly their main man was chomping at the bit as the songs continued to pour out of him. In December they dropped two EP’s which will make up half of their next album. Due in April, Warp And Woof promises to pack 24 songs into 37 minutes. Before that there’s this catering pack slab to go at. Where Space Gun was gleaming and streamlined Zeppelin Over China is teeming and densely packed, overloaded with ideas spilling into one another. The real miracle of it is how despite the plentiful quantity they maintain such steady quality.
Although the title track is one of those throwaway studio scraps of strumming and giggling and many of the songs are destined to fall by the wayside not one of the 32 tracks stands out as a terrible misstep. Indeed they struggle to stand apart at all, the jump cut song structures and attention deficit run times (a third of the tracks don’t reach 2 mins, none of them 4) making them feel like fragments of the whole. A lot of the time, no doubt due to deliberate programming, this creates a pleasing flow through the record and the band seem fleet of foot, charging hungrily forwards. At others it all blurs into a kind of Pollard’s soup. It’s like they’ve got a gleaming industrial vat of the stuff and they’ll fill whatever container you bring. Half the tracklist reads like the small type on a festival line up, Cobbler Ditches, Einstein’s Angel, The Rally Boys, Charmless Peters, Carapace, The Hearing Department, Jack Tell and so on. I imagine Transpiring Anathema to be a pretentious and tune free post metal band.
How does he do it? We should be making plans to save Robert Pollard’s brain for science, if it’s not already preserved by what made Milwaukee famous. On his Red Hand Files site Nick Cave recently gave a thoughtful answer to the question of whether AI will ever be able to write truly great songs. Guided By Voices might be an ideal test subject, there’s such a huge back catalogue to feed into it and a degree of random generation already feels built in to the arrangements and oblique words. It’s not impossible a devoted fan is already trying to code this somewhere in a midwestern bedroom. Would it work? Or is the fact this all spills from a unique mind the magic ingredient that makes it work?
The band return to the UK for their first show here in 15 years and you can picture the crowd lurching into the air when they hit the big riff of ‘Step Of The Wave’ early in the set. Lead track/single ‘The Rally Boys’ finds Pollard in one of his brighter pop moods and it rises on synthetic strings, stepping out from the crowd if not quite up to the giddy heights of great GBV moments past. ‘Bellicose Starling’ has a magnificent title that pushes right to the edge of absurdity. It’s not quite ‘Lesbian Seagull’ but it is all delicate strums, appears to concern the habits of migratory birds and offers up the lovely phrase “the ink of amnesia”. Similarly ‘Cobbler Ditches’ feels like a tour diary rumination on breakfast and closes on the pleasing “candy bar credit card”. And so on and so on. Favourite track for me on first few listens is ‘You Own The Night’. Multifaceted but light of touch with a heart swelling, triumphant chorus and over in less than three and half minutes. We can all think of at least a couple of UK bands who’ve built stadium filling careers on two songs not even half this good, it’s great. The penultimate track ‘My Future In Barcelona’ is another keeper, with that insistent propulsion they’re so good at cresting in another of those effortless and underplayed choruses. At first I thought the lyric was “saying nothing, make it rhyme” and wondered if it was a confession or a dig at some one else but I’m fairly sure it’s actually “saving” and so, as usual, I’m not sure what Bob’s on about but I’m here for the hooks and dizzy tumble of wordplay. Still mysterious, still magnificent.