It sounds like Robert Pollard has started to drink his own Kool-Aid. Fresh on the heels of releasing The Kids Just Eat It Up, a “best of” compilation of 28 tracks from his 10 albums of solo work under various incarnations released in the last two years, here’s 21 more “songs” released under the guise of Pollard’s original group, the newly reformed and recording Guided By Voices with their 17th proper release (but who’s counting, right?).
As veteran listeners of Dayton, Ohio’s favorite sons have come to expect, most of these “songs” are little more than sketches and ideas, and Pollard is still desperately in need of an editor. If he could just splice three or four of these ideas and guitar hooks into one song each, this would be a truly wonderful record, but as usual, by the time most tracks are one minute in, his legendarily short attention span has moved on to the next cut. It comes as no surprise then that the highlights are the most fully fleshed-out numbers with the longest running time. Like most GBV records, there is a dichotomy between the wonderful idea snippets that vie for attention and the execrable exercises that should have been left behind on the cutting room floor.
It’s clear from the outset that this is a return to the sounds and aesthetic of the Under the Bushes, Under the Stars (1996) era, and the studio players are the “classic line-up” from the recent tour, including Greg Demos, Mitch Mitchell, Kevin Fennell and Pollard’s George Harrison, Tobin Sprout. Five of the 21 tracks were penned (or co-penned) by Sprout, including “Old Bones,” which uses “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” as a jumping-off point and then cribs significantly from the traditional “Auld Lang Syne.” Despite the lovely piano-based ending to “Spiderfighter,” one has to endure a discordant guitar vamp for over two minutes before that. Regrettably, although Sprout is a gifted writer (and singer) in his own right, his contributions are not that remarkable, save “Who Invented the Sun,” but like so many of their best moments, it begs for the anthemic, shambling sprawling treatment, but just ends after less than ninety seconds.
Any enjoyment of “Sun” is outweighed and any good will generated is erased by the next track, the meandering and execrable “Big Hat and Toy Show, a collaboration between Demos, Pollard and reclusive early bandmember Jimmy Pollard (Robert’s brother), punctuated by Bob’s blowhard and bloviating bellowing.
There is some upbeat optimism, expressed on “God Loves Us” and The Unsinkable Fats Domino,” but it’s so watered-down by the inclusion of so many proto-David Lynch experiments (“The Things That Never Need,” “Cyclone Utilities [Remember Your Birthday]”) and snippets of tuneless vamping (“Go Rolling Home”) as Pollard monotones robotlike on one track, his hope is that “noble experiments” will “spark positive reactions,” but that regrettably is not the end result of Let’s Eat the Factory. Maybe if he had at least tried to meld the songs into one cohesive theme, the record would have been ultimately successful, and perhaps that is the goal here, but his lyrics are written at their typical opacity in such a way as to make their interpretation an impossible exercise.
Among the 21 tracks are lovely contemplative ballads such as “My Europa,” (a love song to his favorite moon of Jupiter, inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey?), midtempo psychedelic exercises such as “Chocolate Boy,” the Beatles-esque “We Won’t Apologize For The Human Race” (think “Rain” meets “I Am The Walrus,” but more humorless, with strings that want to be from R.E.M.’s “Feeling Gravity’s Pull” but can’t quite pull that off) and “Hang Mr. Kite” (with its “Eleanor Rigby” strings). The “Robot Boy” that received the “Gold Star” in their 1994 breakthrough Bee Thousand has evolved to become a “Chocolate Boy,” but it’s hard to tell if Let’s Go Eat the Factory is suffering from hypoglycemic shock or nodding off into a diabetic coma.
The concluding cut, “Apologize” is one of those songs that benefits from being given some running time with which to work; at four minutes (which is not a record length for a GBV track, but it’s close), it benefits greatly from being able to stretch its wings and gets some air, which propels it forward. After repeated listens, that one, “Fats Domino,” and others like Sprout’s “Waves” do elicit some ear-worm buzz and insiduously winnow their way into the listener’s soul, but there’s still an uncomfortable feeling that there is “no there there.”
This line-up seems to be sonically and philosophically aligned with the Ohio Brainiac/Enon/Cobra Verde axis, especially with its utterances of “fabulous” on the minute-long “How I Met My Mother,” but without at least one more verse and one more chorus, it feels like another throwaway.
Like a lot of “lo-fi” bands, Pollard has always made it clear that they weren’t low fidelity by choice: this was a consequence of a basement tapes-type recording budget (and expertise), but at this is release number 17, and although they may not be rolling in money, they’re no longer banished to a Dayton basement. Listeners are justified in thinking that the sound could be better, the guitars and singing could be better in tune, and the parts could be executed more tightly. Leaving mistakes in has an amatuerish charm, but it seems like if they spent more time working on the songs and music, the finished product would be a much more enjoyable listen. But, maybe Pollard’s right; if “the kids just eat it up,” then why bother going to the trouble?
Guided By Voices – Let’s Go Eat the Factory tracklist:
- “Laundry and Lasers”
- “The Head”
- “Doughnut for a Snowman”
- “Hang Mr. Kite”
- “God Loves Us”
- “The Unsinkable Fats Domino”
- “Who Invented the Sun”
- “The Big Hat and Toy Show”
- “Imperial Racehorsing”
- “How I Met My Mother”
- “My Europa”
- “Chocolate Boy”
- “The Things That Never Need”
- “Either Nelson”
- “Cyclone Utilities (Remember Your Birthday)”
- “Old Bones”
- “Go Rolling Home”
- “The Room Taking Shape”
- “We Won’t Apologize for the Human Race”