After 2004’s ‘Half-Smiles of the Decomposed’, Dayton Ohio’s lo-fi heroes Guided By Voices went their separate ways. Frontman Robert Pollard embarked upon a ridiculously prolific solo career, yielding on average two records per year, in addition to an almost innumerable number of side projects. 2012’s ‘Let’s Go Eat The Factory’ breaks a long hiatus for the band, and reunites what many fans consider to be the “classic” line-up of GBV: Robert Pollard, Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Greg Demos, and Kevin Fennell – a group of people last heard as a cohesive unit fifteen years previously.
Halfway through the opening track, it feels like Guided By Voices – in any form – have never been away. And in many respects, they haven’t: each of Pollard’s post-GBV outings released between 2004-2011 often had a certain GBV feel, something especially true of the first of his 2011 releases ‘Space City Kicks’. Something which is clear right from the outset, though, is that ‘Let’s Go Eat The Factory’ is more than just another GBV record. There’s precious little here which echoes the polished indie rock which filled their last few records, for better or worse, there’s no ‘Glad Girls’, no ‘Teenage FBI’. Sweeping away most, if never quite all, of the radio-friendly indie jangle of the latter years, ‘Let’s Go Eat…’ is gloriously lo-fi, a pure celebration of everything the band had been circa 1995/6 so, naturally, most of the record sounds like something you’ve owned by the band for years. There are, however, a couple of surprising elements to be found within the album’s twenty one songs.
Those surprising moments prove pivotal during two of the obvious stand out tracks. ‘Hang Mr Kite’ will always be recognisable as the work of Robert Pollard due to his slightly drawling vocal, but musically it’s not very GBV-like at all. His vocal sits atop the sounds of strings which provide a very late sixties mood – more like something you’d find on Nick Drake’s ‘Five Leaves Left’ than your average GBV release. ‘Spiderfighter’, at first, offers plenty of fuzzed up riffing in a standard lo-fi indie-rock sense, but it’s during the coda where the real magic happens – the guitars stop and the vocals are met by a series of gently played piano chords. The coda lasts just over a minute, but it’s long enough for you to realise that something unexpected and magical may have just happened. The smooth use of the piano is contrasted by the use of distortion during ‘The Things That Never Need’ which utilises sampled voices playing over the piano riff. It may not have been the intention, but the results are spooky and unsettling, more like a hidden bonus track on a metal album than something which should appear midway into a Guided By Voices disc. While most of ‘Let’s Go Eat…’ is everything you’ve been looking for from GBV’s return, these three tracks really leave a strong impression.
Elsewhere, it’s often business as usual at camp GBV. ‘How I Met My Mother’ marries staccato riffs and slightly distorted vocals with a really atonal lead guitar part…before dissolving into nothing just over a minute later. Perhaps overly familiar, ‘The Big Hat & Toy Show’ pushes the bass up front, over which guitars noodle in a Greg Ginn jazz-punk style, while Pollard sounds like he’s shouting into a bucket. From most bands, this would appear frivolous, but from the world of GBV – like The Fall, surely their closest peers, despite being separated by geography – it’s all part of the charm. Working from the same basis, ‘The Head’ marks time via the bass before being overlaid by twin guitars, before Fennell’s drums round out the garage band antics. Fans of any pre-‘Bee Thousand’ releases are likely to get a warm glow of nostalgia from these numbers.
For those looking for something more accessible, the lovely – but all too brief – ‘Doughnut For a Snowman’ explores Pollard’s love of sixties style psych-pop, served up in a 90s alternative slacker way. The tune is summery and pleasant in contrast with its wintery theme, while the main refrain of “doughnut for a snowman” could stick in your head for days, much in the same way tracks like ‘Tractor Rape Chain’ and ‘Echos Myron’ have in the past. The decision to use acoustic guitar and keyboards during ‘Chocolate Boy’ to smooth out rather more typical rough edged guitar work is inspired. Attempting maximum jangle in minimum time, it has as much in common with Pollard’s late ’00 recordings as it does GBV; it’s a track which could have fit snugly onto – perhaps – ‘Robert Pollard Is Off To Business’ or ‘Standard Gargoyle Decisions’. Equally awesome, ‘Either Nelson’ tinkers with structures which could be likened to The Who circa 1966, but twists them into a spiralling ugliness, topped by clanking pianos and what could be a mellotron. At the centre, you’ll find everything that is enjoyable about mid-90s GBV, but there’s a sense that the band aren’t just repeating themselves.
The mellotron sounds make return during ‘Old Bones’, creating a sickly and unsettling backdrop over which a semi-whispered voice adds to the psychedelic air. While relatively brief at just over two minutes, it isn’t always pleasant: the droning sounds aren’t unlike a stretched cassette tape – in short, something quite hard on the ears after a while. The track ends abruptly, leading into ‘Go Rolling Home’, without a pause. ‘Go Rolling Home’ and the following ‘The Room Taking Shape’ tease the listener by offering little more than a half formed ideas; as usual, the acoustic guitar work is barely in tune and the vocal slap-dash at best. This pair may or may not be actual songs in the traditional sense, but for most GBV fans, these are set to bring a sense of the familiar; after all, GBV just wouldn’t be the same without these moments.
As always, half the fun here is separating the wheat from the chaff and then allowing the best material time to sink in. It’s likely to make the greatest impression after you don’t think it’s actually registered at all. It almost goes without saying ‘Let’s Go Eat The Factory’ is an album for fans only, but those fans are certainly going to find a dozen or so instant Guided By Voices classics within.