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By Mark Deming
Guided By Voices
Half Smiles of the Decomposed
Ever since they first burst into the consciousness of indie rock fans across our great nation in 1994 with Bee Thousand, Guided by Voices seemed like one of those bands that was always going to be there for us, letting loose with a steady stream of albums, singles, EP's, live shows and side projects that even devoted fans had trouble keeping up with. But in April of 2004, GBV commandant Robert Pollard announced that the band would be calling it quits at the end of that year, and that Half Smiles of the Decomposed would be their last album. Given its status as GBV's sort-of-official recorded farewell, Half Smiles of the Decomposed carries significantly more psychic weight than previous albums from the group, so it's a bit surprising that the results hardly equal a" typical" Guided by Voices. Comprised of a mere fourteen songs in 42 minutes, half of which are over three minutes in length, Half Smiles of the Decomposed is a final departure from GBV's tradition of compact pop masterpieces, and while the production (by occasional keyboard player Todd Tobias) doesn't approach the slickness of Do The Collapse or Isolation Drills, this may be the polished and attentive "indie" album Pollard and GBV have ever made. And the songs appear to be reaching for an epic quality that goes beyond their length; Pollard's way with a melody is very much in evidence, but rather than going for simple blissful hookiness, this set approximates a homegrown version of the big-screen sweep of, say, The Who on Who's Next or Mott The Hoople on Mott. But even though Half Smiles of the Decomposed sounds great, the band plays with impressive skill, and it represents one of Pollard's most successful attempts to balance his low-fi musical impulses against the demands of proper record production, it lacks the ineffable fire and energy that has always set their best work apart. In short, Half Smiles takes Guided by Voices to the edge of their musical possibilities, but instead of leading them to a final glorious victory, it just seems to stop at the end of the road. But then again, maybe this is really just where Robert Pollard picks up a ride to his next destination.