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Sound & Vision
By Brett Milano
Guided By Voices
Half Smiles of the Decomposed
Someday you'll be able to tell your grandkids about Guided By Voices. Yes, there really was a band that could release - if you count all of mastermind Robert Pollard’s solo projects - 100 songs a year. A band of guys who recorded their early albums on crummy cassette equipment because they liked it, then got into stadium rock because they liked that, too. Most of all, there was a band that channeled its 1960s pop obsessions into something truly original.
And if ever a band seemed indestructible, this was the one - in part because numerous personnel changes never sank it, and in part because of Pollard’s superhuman energy. Yet he pulled the unusual step of announcing, months before GBV’s new album is released in late August, that the band is over. And one listen to the intended swansong, Half Smiles of the Decomposed, is enough to prove that he means it.
Children of the ‘70s that they are, GBV have always conceived their records as unified statements. Even their 2003 best-of, Human Amusements at Hourly Rates, was a 32-song epic that used link tracks from their albums to put their dozen-odd killer singles into a new context. (if you must have just one GBV set, go ahead and pick it up). Half Smiles, like Phish’s Undermind, feels like a farewell, evincing both the bittersweet tone of a summing-up statement and the band’s determination to go out on a high.
In fact, it ranks as a breakthrough. On GBV’s early low-fi discs, they were out to recapture the mysteries of an old transistor radio. More recently, they went through an arena-rock phase - fair enough, since their definition of an arena band was the Who in the early ‘70s. But now, they’ve quieted back down a tad, made sure the big guitars enhance the melodies, and (at last) found the perfect medium-fl middle ground.
It doesn’t hurt that the songs are some of the strongest that Pollard has ever written. While he still loves his wordplay, he finally gets emotional enough to use "Baby, don’t go" in a chorus. There’s melancholia in the band’s prettiest-ever ballad ("Window of My World") and in evocative touches like the Harrisonesque slide guitar on "Sing for Your Meat." But a neo-psychedelic wonderment still rules - and it makes perfect sense that the finale "Huffman Prairie Flying Field,’ fades out in the middle of a joyous hook. Just one more glimpse of Guided by Voices’ pop nirvana for the road.