Guided by Voices’ Cool Planet: The Best Album of Short Songs Ever Made?
Guided by Voices’ sixth album (!!!!!!) since the turn of the decade, Cool Planet, is out today (this Spotify link should work once the album officially hits). As usual, Robert Pollard and Tobin Sprout eschew conventional pop song structure. Is this the album that they didn’t have time to finish? Is it the collection of sketches that Pollard didn’t have time to flesh out? Here’s another theory: these songs were meant to be exactly as they are: most of them two minutes or less, a single verse and chorus at the very most. Meaning that this album will never bore you. Even if you don’t like what the band is doing – which is hard to figure, considering how deliciously tuneful pretty much everything here is – it will be over practically before you could reach for the fast-forward button. Is this the best album of short songs ever made? Probably. Has anyone even made an album with so many short songs, for that matter? Outside of hardcore punk (and that lame-ass Magnetic Fields hundred-song monstrosity), you have to go back a long ways, to the Minutemen and Young Marble Giants and the postpunk era, and this is infinitely more interesting.
There are eighteen tracks here, alluding to the Beatles and the Who and the Kinks and especially David Bowie and others from the glamrock canon but never completely embracing any of those artists’ styles. Pollard’s genius is that he’ll nick a tune or an idea from that period but never go over the top with it. And Sprout’s creepy folk-rock is characteristically excellent, if more stripped down here than ever. And there’s zero filler! That’s a big deal – over the ongoing album marathon, for every Trashcan Full of Nails, there’s been one of those half-baked 4 AM piano-and-drums interludes that you put up with from Pollard just because the other stuff is so good.
The ba-bump Beatlesque stomp of the Orwellian Authoritarian Zoo (an Animal Farm reference) opens the album. It would be the Move if it had a busy bassline, but bassist Greg Demos keeps things pretty low-key in tandem with Kevin March’s even simpler, hard-hitting drums, although what Demos does as the album goes along, spinning and soaring as chorus after chorus hits a peak, is awfully cool.
Fast Crawl works a muted Syd Barrett vibe and then goes out with sputter barely a minute thirty seconds in. Psychotic Crush is sardonic early 70s glam and it’s over in barely over a minute. Sprout’s brooding acoustic frames Costume Makes the Man, the electric guitars (Mitch Mitchell and probably Pollard, who seems to be the one playing the occasional jagged, incisive lead here) coming in at the end.
Hat of Flames (a T.S. Eliot reference, maybe?) is arguably the most prototypical GBV number here – Sprout’s signature, roaring, reverb-drenched low register is the dead giveaway every time. These Dooms sets one of a litany of surreal lyrics to a simple reverb guitar track: it could be a demo, but then again, it’s fine just the way it is. Table at Fool’s Tooth is a clinic in how much 60s psych a band can throw at you in a minute fifteen seconds. By contrast, the album’s longest song, All American Boy blends Ziggy Stardust riffage with a steady All the Young Dudes anthemic pulse, stately piano and a woozily wistful aging rocker’s perspective.
The Bone Church goes unexpectedly and successfuly into early 70s Move/Sabbath riff-rock. Bad Love Is Easy to Do layers the guitars dynamically, with a very funny quote at the end. The No Doubters, a catchy glamrock tune, seems to be a low-key dis directed at haters. Cream of Lung, with its vintage 60s effects and enigmatically creepy tune, is the one song here that screams out the most loudly to keep going for another four minutes or so. But the rumbling, Beatlesque Males of Wormwood Mars, a puckish outer-space scenario with some of the album’s most luscious three-guitar sonics, makes perfect sense in under three minutes.
Ticket to Hide pairs Sprout’s wary acoustic against organ and electric guitar, with a funny mantra on the way out. The title cut, with its tumbling drums and catchy descending riff, is the closest thing to the Who here. There’s also You Get Every Game, a snidely deadpan one-chord miniature; Pan Swimmer, which perfectly crystallizes the band (catchy powerpop verse, nebulous turnaround); and Narrated by Paul, a woozy if simple piano-and-synth sketch. Do we know what Pollard’s droll stream-of-consciousness lyrics are about? That’s something to consider as the riffs kick in, one after the other. We take this band for granted: what they’ve done over the past couple of years is pretty amazing by itself. Add to that the fact that they’ve been making albums for over twenty years, Pollard for ten more than that. To put this in perspective: could the Stones have made one this good in 1994?