GBV continues to stand as a forward-thinking unit, moving toward a new classic era.
Robert Pollard has always held progressive rock in high regard. You wouldn’t always know it, listening to the blink-length tracks scattered across the Guided by Voices discography. Lend a smart ear to past output and you can detect traces of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis and the whimsy of Giles, Giles and Fripp. Those acts, among others, have left their indelible mark on the ever-prolific Ohioan’s ears as much as the Who has. What, in fact, could be more prog than a double LP? (The first of its kind in GBV history.) There’s no grand concept here, though one might wish that Pollard would give The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway a fair shake. There isn’t one sidelong epic that traverses a narrow path between Buddhist ideology and an appreciation for all things environmental (and alien). In many ways, August by Cake remains standard issue from the Dayton crew: The songs are often infectious, the lyrics delightfully impenetrable and, more often than not, it’s all over far too soon.
It’s hard to recall a Guided recording on which the guitars have sounded as crisp and cracking or the drums as alive as they do across these 30-plus tracks. “5° on the Inside,” announces itself a triumphant call to arms, the lyrics touching on similar fare to the much-beloved “14 Cheerleader Coldfront” (from 1992’s Propeller) without feeling like a retread. In many ways, it’s the kind of song that Pollard should have written during his dalliance with mainstream acceptance: You can bang on the dashboard to it, even play it for your girlfriend.
The same might be said for “Goodbye Note,” which arrives about 10 years too late for inclusion on a TV tie-in record (something like “Scrubs”) but belongs on one all the same. Its throbbing, insistent beat holds the essence of summer, its choruses warm the skin and the heart. One can imagine for a moment that it provides evidence of what Kiss might have sounded like given a few more hours of weekly practice and a deeper appreciation of the Who. “Absent the Man” has all the power and prowess of classic GBV; “Keep Me Down” shows a rare appreciation for Exile-era Stones, and “Cheap Buttons,” no matter its influences, inspires instant smiles.
That’s probably what matters most about Pollard and his various bands: No matter how obtuse things get, no matter the dark corners he walks toward, the man rarely takes you on a bummer trip. That’s proven in “Deflect Project,” a piece that offers some of the most fascinating guitar work on the entire record, and again via the acoustic weirdness of “Whole Tomatoes.” (A river of razor blades? Why not!) Other bright spots including the muscular “Packing the Dead Zone,” the strutting “West Coast Company Man” and “High Five Hall of Famers.”
In the end, the off-kilter nature of the act prevails. “It’s Food” and “Chew the Sand” reveal some of the record’s darker, lysergic undercurrents. Still, they’re as much cause for celebration as anything else one can find here. Yes, there’s some stuff that could perhaps be categorized as filler, but that’s always been part of the charm: Not everything on a Guided record will fly, and watching the various ways in which certain tracks crash in fire-soaked glory while others fail entirely to get off the ground remains as exhilarating as the moments when everything soars and the band aims toward new highs.
August by Cake certainly serves as the latter. When the reactivated version stumbled upon the scene back in 2012 with Let’s Go Eat the Factory, Class Clown Spots a UFO and all the way up to 2016’s Please Be Honest, one couldn’t help but feel that from that point forward there would be fewer peaks and far more valleys. Luckily, this collections proves that assertion wrong. Not only does GBV remain vital, it continues to stand as a forward-thinking unit that could actually be moving toward a new classic era.