Nostalgia has its limits. While the past ten years has seen practically every big name alternative rock and indie rock band round up the mates for another go at it, there has been a gathering sense of late that ’90s nostalgia rock is nearing its end. Everyone seems to have a tenth or twentieth anniversary to celebrate. Or, in the case of the Dandy Warhols, the thirteenth anniversary of their album 13 Tales from Urban Bohemia was perfect excuse to separate aging gen x-ers from their money.
Perhaps, no event speaks of nostalgia fatigue more than the ill-fated Sugar Ray cruise. It was no joke. Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath thought he could haul in massive profit by coaxing every one-hit wonder from the alt-rock era onto a cruise. Smash Mouth, Gin Blossoms, Spin Doctors, Marcy Playground, Cracker, The Verve Pipe, Vertical Horizon, and the lead singers of Collective Soul and Live had all signed on to the bill.
The Sugar Ray cruise will not set sail in 2013. McGrath blamed the poop cruise and the industry’s other high profile troubles for its cancellation a mere month after its unveiling. The truth hurts. There’s only so many times a fool can be separated from his money and one time seeing either Sugar Ray or the Spin Doctors in the 21st Century is one time too many. The Gin Blossoms are still cool with me. “Hey Jealousy” was a jam.
As much as we’d all like to blame Sugar Ray for reunion rock fatigue, the truth is it’s not all his fault. Of all the name acts who have reunited for the festival circuit or other high profile gigs across the country, very few brought the band back for anything more than to tour and get paid. Portishead and My Bloody Valentine have both released albums to wide praise. Blur and Pulp have put out singles hinting at their past heights. Rarer still, are bands like Mission of Burma, Dinosaur, Jr, and Guided by Voices, who have plotted out second careers able to be considered independent of their past glories.
Yes, Guided by Voices. This is a review about the new Guided by Voices record, English Little League, isn’t it? Perhaps the best thing that can be said about English Little League is it’s just another Guided by Voices album, equal in quality to the three 2012 releases which preceded it — Let’s Go Eat the Factory, Class Clown Spots a UFO, and The Bears for Lunch.
Guided by Voices are no longer a curiosity. There are no more question marks. Robert Pollard and Tobin Sprout have matured as songwriters. Their voices carry the wisdom which comes from aging, too. Well, that is as long as you aren’t expecting to decipher Pollard’s lyrics. He sounds wiser, but his words remain as cryptic as ever.
With Mitch Mitchell (guitar), Greg Demos (bass), and Kevin Fennell (drums) on for the fourth straight album, Guided by Voices 2012 sounds more put together, if not professional at times. And they’ve done this all without sacrificing their characteristic whimsy and quixotic pursuit of the Rock ‘N’ Roll dream.
“Noble Insect” could be about Godzilla or Mothra or the Fukishima nuclear disaster or a Japanese painting Pollard picked up at a garage sale. It’s meaning isn’t terribly important. The mood it sets with clean guitar lines and a weeping organ melody effectively communicates contemplation and change. That’s the beauty of a Pollard song — he can connect with the listener when speaking in his own alien English.
Side one, track one, “Xeno Pariah,” is considerably less oblique. Its sharp guitar riffs and group backing vocals suggest a frequent GBV inspiration, the Rock and Roll operas of The Who.
Sprout’s time to shine, meanwhile, comes early with “Islands (She Talks in Rainbows),” a mid-tempo folk song, more easy-going West Coast than hardscrabble Midwest, and sung impeccably in light, somewhat weary tones.
All of the proceeding tracks would fit in well and would likely receive a welcoming, near roaring applause when played live (with or without the classics and depending on the number of domestics imbibed by the fans), as would the ballads “Biographer Seahorse” and “Reflections in a Metal Whistle” and the rockers “Crybaby 4-Star Hotel” and “W/ Glass in Foot.” And that got me thinkin’, never before would the adjective workman-like be used to describe Guided by Voices. They were brilliant, wild, and free, engaging, energetic, and often drunk. However, now, four albums into their second career and with this new focus on quality to go with their insane productivity, perhaps it is time to ask a new question: How long can they possibly keep this up?