Crystal Nuns Cathedral / Tremblers and Goggles by Rank / Scalping the Guru
Guided by Voices Inc. – 2022
2022 was a characteristically productive year for Robert Pollard and his cohorts in Guided by Voices; two all-new GBV albums, one compilation from the group’s classic era, and a reconfiguration of a pair of Pollard solo records were added to the ever-expanding discography of the busiest man in modern pop music.
Last November, I inaugurated Strange Currencies‘ Catalog Crawl feature with a considerable task: ranking the discography of the most prolific rock group of the past forty years. It was quite the undertaking, and while no such project could ever reasonably claim to be definitive, I’d like to think that the piece served a valuable function to both the pro and the uninitiated. However, it was all for naught. Within three months, that list became obsolete, as Dayton, Ohio’s beloved indie rock institution, Guided by Voices, released their thirty-sixth LP, Crystal Nuns Cathedral.
Okay, not obsolete, but at least outdated. This was of course inevitable. Robert Pollard and his rotating cast of collaborators have always been prolific, but ever since solidifying the present-day lineup of Guided by Voices in 2016, that prolificacy has made the one-album-per-year pacing of the group’s heyday look like a leisurely gait. Not only did GBV drop two records of entirely new material in 2022, but both the band and Pollard himself also each issued reconfigurations of previously-released material. And of course as I write this, GBV’s looming LP, La La Land, has been advertised as merely their first of 2023.
What this means is that our GBV Catalog Crawl feature remains a work in progress; after all, I consider that installment in particular to be more of a “power ranking” than a definitive list. However, rather than tinkering with that original offering, I felt it appropriate to craft a 2022 addendum – besides, that leaves the rather excellent playlist that I engineered for the initial piece intact. Cheers to Bob on a solid 2022, and here’s hoping for more in 2023!
The deluge of releases since Guided by Voices settled into its current-day lineup has made it necessary for fans to offer up descriptors that differentiate each new record: there’s the proggy one, the long one, the collage-like one, the psychy one, the longer one, and the best one. After the requisite half-dozen-or-so listens, I’m still not exactly sure how to characterize Crystal Nuns Cathedral, the first GBV release of 2022.
Everything here is thoroughly competent in that late-period GBV way. The hooks are there. The band has settled into the sweet spot between muscular and jangly, in the same way that defined 2003’s outstanding (and in sore need of a vinyl repress) Earthquake Glue. It’s just that, when it’s all over, I find myself struggling to remember much about Crystal Nuns Cathedral.
After the plodding opener “Eye City,” Cathedral puts its best foot forward over the next three tracks: “Re-Develop” has that inviting open-chord thump of the band’s early-2000s work; “Climbing a Ramp” spices things up with warm cellos and guitar heroics from Doug Gillard; “Never Mind the List” recalls mid-tempo Pollard classics, and even if it’s a few notches below “Twilight Campfighter,” it’s still a fine song.
Unfortunately, aside from the solid lead single, “Excited Ones,” and the closing title track, the remainder of Crystal Nuns Cathedral is largely forgettable. I’m certain that fans who have spent far more time with the album will point to other personal favorites – and I’m not in the business of talking anyone down from their GBV enthusiasm – but as a follower of two decades, I’m left largely underwhelmed by Crystal Nuns Cathedral. Of course, the next time I go on a month-long nothing-but-Pollard kick, I’m likely to kick up a few more highlights that I missed on these initial go-arounds.
Arriving only four months after Crystal Nuns Cathedral, Tremblers and Goggles by Rank immediately establishes itself as a very different kind of Guided by Voices record. Containing just ten tracks – the fewest of any GBV album – Tremblers recalls the prog rock impulses of 2019’s Sweating the Plague, but concentrates them in longer, often multi-part songs. While Pollard has offered hints toward his love of prog all the way back to the early nineties – for instance, 1990’s concept album, Same Place the Fly Got Smashed – the expanded track lengths of Tremblers results in some of the most exploratory work of his career.
This widescreen approach yields immediate dividends on Tremblers‘ opening pair of tracks: “Lizard on the Red Brick Wall,” and the Big Star nods of “Alex Bell.” Hooky, propulsive, and shape-shifting, these songs offer the best one-two opening punch on a GBV record since the band’s mid-nineties heyday; and while Tremblers doesn’t quite maintain this standard throughout its run-time, the remaining eight tracks are generally strong, and arguably benefit from their relative scarcity. In all, aside from 2018’s fan favorite Space Gun, Tremblers and Goggles by Rank may be the finest release from the present-day incarnation of Guided by Voices. There’s a sonic consistency and sense of purpose that unites its tracks, and the expansive nature of the songs allows for the now well-oiled machine to flex its considerable muscles.
Between Crystal Nuns Cathedral and Tremblers and Goggles by Rank, Pollard released Our Gaze: a reconfiguration of his simultaneous 2007 solo releases, Coast to Coast Carpet of Love and Standard Gargoyle Decisions. On the surface, this would seem like both a minor and inessential addition to Pollard’s ever-growing catalog. After all, those LPs were hardly among the most celebrated works of his career, and though I acquired both in real-time, I was surprised to see how little I remembered from each upon revisitation.
The thing is, recasting this old material in a new light has done wonders for these largely-forgotten offerings. Coming in at a tight forty minutes, Our Gaze makes a case for the “would have been much better with an editor” argument that has followed Pollard throughout much of his career. It just turns out that the best editor was Pollard himself, with fifteen years worth of hindsight. In this new presentation, several of these tracks leave a far greater impression than they did the first time around, and a handful of them – “Miles Under the Skin,” “Youth Leagues,” and “Our Gaze” – come off as near classics. With the recent prolificacy of Guided by Voices, Pollard’s solo material has taken a necessary backseat, but Our Gaze makes it abundantly clear that there are plenty of legitimate gems stuffed away in the neglected corners of his discography.
It’s the same spirit of revisitation that yields the finest “new” addition to the GBV canon from 2022. Gathering most of the tracks from the 1993-94 EPs Static Airplane Jive, Get Out of My Stations, Fast Japanese Spin Cycle, and Clown Prince of the Menthol Trailer, Scalping the Guru is the first such repackaging of previously-available GBV material. While some of these songs have remained staples of the group’s live repertoire, and all but Static Airplane Jive are presently on streaming services, these twenty tracks have been tough to come by in physical form for several years.
That alone would make Guru an essential pickup for most fans, but impressively, it plays as an alt-GBV record from the band’s most fertile era. It’s tough for even the most devoted of fans to be a Pollard completist, and though I’ve had Get Out of My Stations and Fast Japanese Spin Cycle in mp3 form for many years, they’ve always been left overlooked in favor of their contemporaneous full-lengths. Recasting them as part of a cohesive whole allows for the tossed-off charm of the minor tracks to work their magic, while the comparatively grandiose statements of “My Impression Now” and “Big School” get the album treatment that they always deserved. Perhaps it’s akin to shooting fish in a barrel, but for this fan, hearing Pollard and Tobin Sprout collaborating in all of their lo-fi glory will never get old.
And in the end, perhaps 2022 sets a template for the future of Guided by Voices Inc. Imagine if you will, a scenario that finds Pollard committing to two new GBV records per year: one that indulges in his innate sense of pop hooks, and one that demonstrates the kind of musical dexterity on display with Tremblers and Goggles by Rank. Couple those with a thoughtful look back on material that has either fallen out of print, and/or may have been missed the first time around. All of a sudden, a four-releases-per-year schedule actually seems not only sustainable, but highly rewarding. This guy really does allow us to come off as pretty greedy, right?