Review Summary: 28 supersonic lo-fi high-fives.
Meet Robert Pollard, songwriter. Well, song writing machine, more accurately; he’s been credited with more than one-thousand of them in his time. A quick look at his sizeable discography, and that of Guided by Voices, the band of which he was the creative force, reveals that there has barely been a moment when he hasn’t been working on something or other. You can imagine the man hot-footing frantically from one project to the next with ADHD tendencies, nothing ever quite mastered and ultimately leaving a trail of half baked hodgepodge in his wake, too enthralled by creation itself to bring accomplishment to the final product. Even by laws of average there are bound to be some mis-fires. But ‘Alien Lanes’, in itself a similar creative blitzkrieg with 28 (!) quick fire tracks, is flawless. Not one false move is made.
Think on that; how often does any artist produce 28 different tracks, in such a short space of time and not one – not one
– is a duffer? Rarely, I would wager. Even so, if that were achieved, would there really be any more than a few standout moments, if the collection ever rose above average at all? I doubt it. It would be logical to assume so, even. But ‘Alien Lanes’ scoffs at logic, and ends up not an assortment of mediocrity, but a smorgasbord of excellence. Persistently fantastic, tiny production time, great wealth of ideas presented, all in the same album. It’s a mindboggling achievement. What could have ended up as a misadventure of multiple B-sides has stood its ground as an album of epic – yes, I’ll use that adjective – proportions. This can be put down to the individual care and attention that, despite the tightness of time, has gone into the production of each track. All of them are album-worthy, like an expertly crafted wooden carving, a chunk of creativity whittled down till only the finest nuggets of brilliance and fun are left. Whilst other musicians could easily spin out the key ideas and workings of much of ‘Alien Lanes’ into creations twice, three times as long, ‘Guided by Voices’ like to keep it snappy. The genius of this is that the album is a bombardment of staggeringly good songs, with nothing less than the staggeringly good anywhere to be found. That they managed to preserve so much brilliance, without giving it a vacuum-packed feel and managing to do the thinking justice with their delivery in such a small space of time, is astounding. And what’s more – oh, so much more – is that everyone involved has an absolute ball doing it.
That’s the key to why the untainted brilliance of the creative idea behind every song shines through so brightly; nothing is taking itself seriously. Even in the tracks trying to sound vaguely depressing, like “The Ugly Vision”, with nigh-monotone acoustic riff accompanying the singers wailing lament of… something, and the howling horns. Half-heartedly veiled is the irrepressible, characteristic buoyancy that you can sense bubbling under. It’s enjoyable, and is a necessary break from the tumultuous sugar rush that we’re launched straight back into with the desperately happy sing-along “A Good Flying Bird”, then into something else equally joyful sounding, then another… it all meshes together into a high-flyin’ feel-good expression of nothing at all – nothing serious, anyway – that conveys only the joyous, the catchy, the anthemic, each one packaged in one streamlined, lean and ultimately masterful musical vehicle or another, all polished with that lo-fi sheen that gives it a magical good-time feel, as if it wasn’t showing off and poking fun at itself enough. Catchy hooks, high strung guitars, vocals you can soar with, always upbeat and often uptempo; the works. It’s a relentlessly, flawlessly, air-punchingly jubilant experience, set to a backing track that, while often not complex, is it’s own beautifully delivered creation of Mr Pollard’s on one of his very, very good days. The successful separation of his ‘serious’ passion for polishing and his initial imagination from the mastering of the album from the childlike enthusiasm and wonder he brings to it’s conception, that allows the brilliance of the latter to go unpolluted is a masterstroke.
There are twenty-eight opportunities for the elation that begins with the plunking bassline and naturally complementing fuzz of ‘A Salty Salute’ and ends with the simply majestic soaring, swirling guitars of the euphoric ‘Alright’, and twenty-eight times it stays relentlessly superb, not letting the good times roll but physically rolling them along. None of them are highlights, because all of them are; all of them sound like they could be Robert Pollard’s pet favourite, the one he took care to make it especially
good from his catalogue of thousands. But to pick the best from these 28 gems would be cruel – like picking your favourite child. After listening to this, I believe that the listener is left feeling the same way.