One of Pollard’s better achievements this decade.
With founding member Robert Pollard’s recorded output now over the 100 releases mark, one could be forgiven for wondering if there’s any creative gas left in Guided by Voices’ tank. There is such a thing as being too prolific, no? But that’s never been the case for Pollard. Even in the moments when GBV isn’t issuing utterly classic sets, there’s always a sense that the man and his band won’t let us down. Steady are the hands, steady is the muse. Zeppelin Over China’s 32 songs provide plenty of high-energy rockers, mid-tempo contemplations and just enough general weirdness to let you know that this is, indeed, a Guided by Voices record.
A listen through headphones seems an absolute must here. Listening in an open room, speakers ablaze, and you’re likely to miss some of the defter, more sophisticated production touches such as on “Blurring the Contacts,” a reminder that Pollard has long been a prog fan, as concerned with the composition itself as the delivery. Thankfully, one never overrides the other here, ear candy extras and superhuman compositional skills coexisting peacefully like all those people in the band’s native Ohio.
As ever, there are doses that are almost hallucinatory in their brevity, such as the opening “Good Morning Sir.” There are songs that spotlight the airtight rhythm section of Kevin March (drums) and Mark Shue (bass), namely the early arrival “Carapace,” the stomping “The Rally Boys,” the alien pop-cum-macho-country piece “Questions of the Test” (with a nice shout out to the “robot boys”) and the racing “Where Have You Been All My Life.” But there are moments of brooding brilliance (“Windshield Wiper Rex”), an arena stage strut (“Holy Rhythm”), moments of the sublime (“Bellicose Starling,” the Who-ish “Wrong Turn On,” the chiming, charming “You Own the Night”) and delightful lo-fi recollections (“Jam Warsong”).
Moreover, the brooding and haunting “Nice About You” demonstrates Pollard’s particular genius for the well-made song. Though it’s impossible to say that Pollard has never written a song like “The Hearing Department,” its arrival in this sequence seems like a revelation, the kind of song a man decades his junior would attempt as an “experiment,” but which a man of his experience and expertise fires with a confidence and ease which makes you believe he’s been penning material in that vein his entire life.
Appropriate danger arrives in “Lurk of the Worm,” which, oddly enough, feels like the Cars in a three-way collaboration with Shellac and John Lennon at his most acerbic. It’s a strange world that Pollard and his cohorts introduce us to there, the kind of delectable weirdness fans of ‘70s concept albums will recognize/categorize as some sort of late album bridge. Have no, fear, though, GBV bring us back to “normalcy” via “Cold Cold Hands.” Plus, leave it to this lot to name an album after a 30-odd-second acoustic guitar excursion that sounds like a hotel room demo.
There’s even time to channel the Cure and Emerson, Lake & Palmer via “We Can Make Music,” the very definition of a “deep cut,” landing in the LP’s tail end but elevating the spirits and restoring energy when we least expect.
Opinions about what GBV has done right and wrong across its storied career are as prevalent as corporate coffee shops in the suburbs but Zeppelin Over China serves as confident reminder that the Dayton band can still surprise, stun and astound at moments we least expect. This may not usher in a kind of renaissance in the GBV oeuvre, but it stands as one of Pollard’s better achievements this decade. There is still plenty of creative gasoline left in the tank and plenty of hope that we’ll see a few more GBV double-discs in the coming years.