Guided by Voices are one of those acts where I genuinely cannot remember where or when I first heard their name, but I’ve known it for a while now. I guess he first time they registered on my radar as anything more than just a name, was about nine years ago when a Canadian friend of mine at the time picked up a copy of Alien Lanes in London while she was visiting me here in the UK. She returned to Canada with me never having heard the album, so I remained aware of the Guided by Voices name, but not their music.
Fast forward to 2014 and here I am, reviewing Cool Planet, Guided by Voices’ latest album of their prolific thirty year career, which is perversely, the first album of theirs I’ve heard. I do that sometimes. When the new releases arrive here at Backseat Mafia, I occasionally glance up from listening to whoever I’m trying to write a buyers guide about at the time and take note that my fellow writers are scrambling over each other to get to discover the best new music available. Every now and then I’ll temporarily put aside the article I’m writing, wade in to the fray, grab an album, listen to it and research about the act in general in order to write the most informative article that they can. At the end of the day, my opinions about music aren’t more informed than anyone else’s, it’s just that I have the impulse to find out about a band or an album and write about it and Backseat Mafia have kindly given me the opportunity to do just that.
Given that I’ve never heard anything else by Guided by Voices, how does Cool Planet sound to me? It sounds pretty great actually. Robert Pollard remains at the centre of the action and with collaborative partner Tobin Sprout to lean on, guitar slinger Mitch Mitchell, bass player Greg Demos and Demos’ new partner in rhythm, Kevin March pounding the drums.
It opens with the life affirming “Authoritarian Zoo” lolloping from your speakers, then the vaguely sinister “Fast Crawl” makes its presence known, before the contrasting “Psychotic Crush” and it’s Mick Ronson-esque riff changes the feel of the album again. It’s these rapid changes in mood that mark Cool Planet out from the majority of new releases I have heard this year. Instead of having a unified dynamic, it is held together by the quick-fire changes in tone – nine minutes in, and we’ve already heard five very different songs and the whole 18 track album clocks in at a lean and no-nonsense thirty six minutes. This results in an oddly modern listening experience, as you’re given the feeling that you are listening to a radio which automatically tunes into another alternative rock station as soon as the previous track has ended. Cool Planet is not an album that permits you time to dawdle about, trying to decide if you like that particular song or not, because if you’re not on the ball, chances are you’ll have only realised how great the song you’re listening to is mid-way through the next song.
Given the prolific nature of the band (this is their second album in the space of four months), you’d probably expect an album by Guided by Voices to be patchy at best and Cool Planet really isn’t. The neat trick is that the brevity of the majority of the songs means that they pass by in such a flash that if that particular tune doesn’t appeal to you, the next one will be hit your ears so quick, that it just doesn’t matter.
After listening to Cool Planet for a week, I have to admit, I feel vaguely ashamed that I haven’t checked out Guided by Voices out before now. This is a band that, thirty years into their career, have released an album which I find reflects the experience of the modern music fan’s short attention span constantly getting distracted by the non-stop media / entertainment onslaught that we all experience every day in our lives.
Chances are Pollard and his bandmates never set out to make such a profound statement (it is at the end of the day, just a bunch of short songs), but for me at least, any band that can come up with the goods like “All American Boy”, “You Get Every Game”, “Bad Love is Easy to Do” and “Cool Planet” into their second album within four months, are unarguably a creative force to be reckoned with. How many acts of this vintage can you say that about?
Congratulations guys, I’ve taken the scenic route to get to you, but I’m a fan.