| Home | Fading Captain Series | GBV News | The Band | The Music | The Critics & Fans | Merchandise | Other Stuff |
By Stuart Berman
Guided By Voices
Half Smiles of the Decomposed
This review combines Half Smiles with Paul Westerberg's Folker.
Between the two of them, Paul Westerberg and Guided by Voices main man Bob Pollard are responsible for severe Budweiser shortages in the American Midwest, but these indie-rock icons do their most memorable work when they soberly take stock of their own mortality. Their respective careers are each other's inverse: as the endearingly ragged voice of The Replacements, Westerberg was college radio's American idol in the '80s, but has been shadow-boxing with his own myth since that band's 1991 demise; Pollard spent the '80s creating a myth in his mind, before GBV's belated mid-'90s breakthrough made it real.
Now both in their mid-forties, they find themselves at a similar crossroads, taking different directions. After 10 relentless, beer-belly busting years of touring, GBV's grand new album, Half Smiles of the Decomposed, represents the band's last can in the cooler. Westerberg, meanwhile, has followed up failed major-label solo stints on Reprise and Capitol with a steady stream of casually consistent, home-cooked releases for indie Vagrant -- both under his own name and his Grandpaboy guise -- that suggest he'll keep bashing away in his basement till he collects his social security.
The title of Westerberg's latest, Folker, speaks to this curmudgeonly stubbornness, but unlike 2002's joint Westerberg/Grandpaboy release, Stereo/Mono --recorded in a fit of post-major-label uncertainty -- the new disc lacks any impassioned sense of purpose; even the most caustic statements ("Buy it now! This is my single, this is my jingle") are delivered with slack smirks. An acoustic-rock record in both senses of the term, Folker's roughest, most strained performances -- "23 Years Ago," "Breathe Some New Life" -- sound more lethargic than cathartic. But even when he's on autopilot, Westerberg can still lead you to the right
destination: in this case, the effortlessly affecting "Lookin' Up in Heaven" and the irresistible candy-pop bounce of "As Far as I Know" score instant free passes to future box-set canonization.
If Westerberg is content to strum along like someone who could give or take his legend, Pollard has clearly designed Half Smiles as his Abbey Road-sized send-off. It's almost as if Pollard made the album's so-so predecessors -- 2002's Universal Truths & Cycles and 2003's Earthquake Glue -- intentionally underwhelming to set up the grand finale.
Half Smiles' first seven tracks alone could be GBV's most consistently rewarding opening string since the Bee Thousand/Alien Lanes days (though a spottier second half keeps it from maintaining the same orbit). Ironically, on the eve of their demise, GBV drop hints of intriguing new evolutions for their post-punk psychedelia, contrasting distorted, disturbing screams, flute-like keyboard refrains and a motorik groove to creepy effect on "Sleep Over Jack." But if it's anthems you want, you got 'em: "The Closets of Henry" and "Asphyxiated Circle" generate enough Townshendian windmill power to make us hope that, if this is truly GBV's last call, Pollard finds an after-hours booze-can pronto.