It may or may not be in the Guinness Book of World Records, but Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices is commonly believed to be the most prolific songwriter ever, at least among the indie rock cognoscenti. Rock critic Jim DeRogatis famously diagnosed Pollard with a case of “songwriting diarrhea,” and for some of what the man has recorded, the label of “songs” would be a stretch.
Having said that, Pollard and company, most notably his George Harrison, Tobin Sprout, have produced at least 50 of the greatest indie rock songs ever, if not the best rock songs since The Who. But Pollard in particular has published over 1,600 songs with Guided By Voices, as a solo artist, and as the driving force behind many creatively named musical projects, according to BMI. As a batting percentage, a .320 would be pretty impressive, but almost 70 percent of the time, the songs of Guided By Voices are ideas never fully developed, just passable melodic snippets. The Dayton, Ohio-born group, formerly lo-fi by necessity, has an impressive amount of unlistenable, experimental dreck in its back catalog.
Pollard was, in fact, a pitcher in school and played the first no-hitter in the history of Wright State University. Now, he’s pulled another no-hitter with English Little League. Considering that this is the fourth record the “classic line-up” (featuring Sprout, Greg Demos, Kevin Fennell, and Mitch Mitchell) has released in the span of a little over one year, all on its own private label, English Little League is an even more painful listen.
Previous releases Let’s Go Eat The Factory, Class Clown Spots A UFO, and The Bears For Lunch were all solid overall (Guided by Voices has yet to release a perfect record—even the classic Bee Thousand has its soft spots) and should be characterized as “base hits.” Had this new record come close to the previous three’s quality, Guided by Voices would have hit the proverbial “grand slam.”
But compared to GBV’s recent energetic output of shiny rocking hooks and intellectual whimsy, English Little League is a dour affair, submerged in lo-fi murk, full of barely-baked ideas without satisfying conclusions.
There are a few glimpses of the group’s ’60s-inspired riff-rock greatness, like “Flunky Minnows” and the kick-off cut, “Xeno Pariah.” “Noble Insect” sounds like a Donovan B-side, and along similar lines, Sprout’s skewed psychedelic contributions, “Islands (She Talks In Rainbows)” and “The Sudden Death of Epstein’s Ways” are bright spots, if mellow. The former sounds like it was recorded under a whirlpool of lysergic acid.
A few of Pollard’s numbers start out promisingly enough, like “Crybaby 4 Star Hotel” and “Know Me As Heavy,” before the typically surreal lyrics veer into cringe-worthy territory (i.e., rhyming “hotel” with “Zero Mostel”) and his baritone goes wildly out of tune, and not in a charmingly amateurish way.
Perhaps the 21st century model of releasing records through one’s own label has its downside—you don’t have to wait until a label can fit you into its release schedule (to “market” it properly), and there’s no “head honcho” or “A&R” person at the label to tell you which songs are “hits” and which are “strike-outs.”
But over 20 years after Guided By Voices became more than just a collection of basement recordings and beer-fueled local shows injected with the former fourth grade teacher’s genius, anything with the GBV name on it has a built-in fan base. As far as loyalists are concerned, the group almost has a license to print its own money. Pollard’s philosophy on that topic can be gleaned from the title The Kids Eat It Up (The Best Of Robert Pollard 2010-2011). That record compiled 28 of his favorite songs from the ten albums he released in that two year span as a solo artist and the driving force behind Boston Spaceships, Circus Devils, Lifeguards, and Mars Classroom.
If, as Pollard puts it, “the kids eat it up,” then why bother with quality control?
Not only does GBV have its own label, but Pollard now has his own home studio, so there’s even one less barrier to stem his prolific output. Given that the group hasn’t worked with a producer since the reformation of the “classic line-up,” there’s yet another potential filter removed. Guided By Voices’ albums at their best have always been stellar mixtape material—it’s just that English Little League features such a dearth of possible “must have” songs.
The GBV diehards used to stick to the motto “In Bob We Trust,” but it’s hard not to have that trust shaken at this point. It’s like Pollard is trapped in the “Taciturn Cave” he’s singing about. Perhaps the title is a euphemism for the home studio which has given him even less of a reason to hire a Ric Ocasek type to tell him when his shit stinks.
Even after repeated spins, English Little League sounds like the perfect illustration of the law of diminishing returns—it’s C grade Guided By Voices at best. At this point, it seems like there’s no cure for Robert Pollard’s “songwriting diarrhea,” and this record may be the band’s Montezuma’s Revenge.
Guided by Voices – English Little League tracklist:
- “Xeno Pariah”
- “Know Me As Heavy”
- “Islands (She Talks in Rainbows)”
- “Trash Can Full Of Nails”
- “Send To Celeste (and the Cosmic Athletes)”
- “Quiet Game”
- “Noble Insect”
- “Sir Garlic Breath”
- “Crybaby 4-Star Hotel”
- “Biographer Seahorse”
- “Flunky Minnows”
- “The Sudden Death of Epstein’s Ways”
- “Reflections in a Metal Whistle”
- “Taciturn Caves”
- “A Burning Glass”
- “W/Glass In Foot”