You can never trust the indie music press: they screw everything up. For the past month, the blogosphere has been abuzz with the ostensibly bad news that Guided By Voices‘ fourth album (!!!!) in the past year, English Little League, is a dud. And that’s dead wrong.
It’s the best of the four, in fact, one of the best albums of the band’s celebrated career, even with the reinvigorated “classic” lineup of guitarists Tobin Sprout and Mitch Mitchell, bassist Greg Demos and drummer Kevin Fennell. With their two-guitar attack, especially, there was always a hint that they were about to head in more of an art-rock direction, and this is the album where they finally do that. Which makes their ever-more anthemic sound even more intriguing, considering that none of the album’s sixteen songs go on for much more than two and a half minutes, if that. Frontman Robert Pollard is as inscrutable and sometimes frustrating as ever, but he’s still pretty unsurpassed as a surrealist visionary: among the unexpected lyrical gems here are a creepy recurrent theme of “friction in Japan,” a “fishtank with black sails” and a shout out to Zero Mostel, possibly the first ever in a rock song. Behind him, the band plays with fury and drollery and a rich, mentholated, reverb-toned resonance.
They get off on a good foot with the first single, Xeno Pariah, a post-Kinks romp with a tricky tempo and the gorgeous guitar sonics that will linger throughout all the other fully fleshed out songs here (impressively, most of them are). Know Me As Heavy works a solid backbeat drive, like Oasis with a sense of humor in lieu of insufferable attitude. Island (She Talks in Rainbows) rises from a hushed tiptoe to a killer four-chord hook, psychedelic 60s Britpop spun through Pollard’s wryly fractured lens. Trashcan Full of Nails pulses like mid-70s Who as it reaches for a tongue-in-cheek stadium rock swagger, while Send to Celeste (And the Cosmic Athletes) follows a trajectory up from elegant chamber rock, like the Church but with a smirk.
Quiet Game stomps along on a hypnotic riff in a gritty Steve Wynn garage rock way. Noble Insect is a dead ringer for apprehensive late 70s era Wire, except that it has a groove. The most nebulous, traditionally indie thing here is Crybaby 4 Star Hotel, which works because of the lyrics, followed by Flunky Minnows, which looks back to the Beatles and Kinks for a tune but gives the lead line to the bass.
Birds is dreampop as the Church (them again) would have done it if dreampop had existed in 1982. The Sudden Death of Epstein’s Ways is a Brian Epstein reference, given away by the gorgeously ornate Sgt. Pepper tune: what it means isn’t clear. The Fab Four are also referenced on Taciturn Caves, which is like Hey Jude with guitars, while the final track sounds like the Clash done as powerpop. Admittedly, there are a trio of what appear to be solo Pollard sketches featuring a disastrously out-of-tune piano that were unwisely included here. But that’s a small price to pay for tunesmithing this offhandedly brilliant. Count this among the best albums of 2013. To all the Bushwick and Wicker Park blogs who dissed this album: up yours.