Guided by Voices – La La Land (Guided by Voices, Inc.)
A colleague recently quipped that “it is a new fiscal quarter, so there must be another Guided by Voices album coming out.” Indeed, Robert Pollard and company (a rotating list of musicians) are prolific almost beyond measure, a situation in which one might wonder about issues of quantity versus quality: they needn’t worry.
Joining Pollard on La La Land are a slate of long time collaborators: Doug Gillard and Bobby Bare, Jr., guitars, Marc Shue, bass, and Kevin March, drums. They know Pollard’s style thoroughly; even in his most ambitious songs they turn on a dime to meet their intricacies.
It would be difficult to ascribe a throughline to Pollard’s writing style. Recently, there are more complex songs, and long songs, amidst the sparkly, incisive singles. La La Land has both the microcosms and macrocosms that the songwriter explores. The opening track, “Time to Heal,” at less than two minutes long is an example of one the more aphoristic Guided by Voices songs, (yes, Pollard creates musical worlds, evocative ones, with even less time). It transitions directly into “Released into Dementia,” another two-minute song with a mournful melody.
It is the lyrics for “Instinct Dwelling” from which the album title is derived: “Don’t let them see your contraband, You’ll wind up in La-La Land.” It is a song with grit and a dose of anti-institutional paranoia. “Queen of Spaces” is a standout, with a delicate, extended acoustic guitar introduction and a yearning, captivating vocal.
“Slowly on the Wheel” clocks in at six minutes, double or triple the length of most of Pollard’s songs. Repeating bass and guitar octaves accompany a constrained introduction and verse. The band and vocals open up on the chorus, with harmonies abounding. After the second verse follows an emphatic interlude and a return of the chorus. The intro’s material then returns, and is succeeded by the stark guitars of the interlude to finish the song. A non-standard structure for a popular song, closer to prog, makes for a fascinating formal experiment. Another is “Cousin Jackie,” which combines the refrain “Make it rain” with a number of vocal countermelodies and guitar solos. One of the best hooks of La La Land, Pollard is not content to let it remain in a straightforward context, again demonstrating a playful sense of organization.
On La La Land, Guided by Voices manages the unusual feat of balancing recognizability, like the punchy “Caution Song” and “Face Eraser,’ with the adventurous work mentioned above and the varied treatments of the refrain “An invitation to suffering” on “Wild Kingdom.” The final song “Pockets,” consists of lists of what one can use to fill up their pockets, which then turns to small groups, phrases such as “pockets of weak information.” A minimalist guitar break outro ends the proceedings enigmatically. Guided by Voices still keeps us guessing.