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The Broken Face
By Nick Bensen
Guided By Voices
Universal Truths and Cycles
Universal Truths And Cycles marks the return of Guided By Voices to the Matador label. Bob Pollard took somewhat of a critical beating for trying to follow his vision as his commercial opportunities increased with a high profile deal with TVT records. Pollard has been so influential on me that I've mostly stuck with Guided By Voices through the major-label period but I admit that it's nice to see them back on a smaller label. Matador is not exactly an indie label at this point. Its releases are manufactured by the monolithic AOL Time Warner and distributed by Alternative Distribution Alliance (notorious for recent policy shifts designed to largely cut small mom and pop stores out of the equation). However, Matador does give Guided By Voices the artistic autonomy to record the songs they want to however they want to.
On this new album, Guided By Voices drops the bombastic compression-heavy production of the previous releases Do The Collapse and Isolation Drills while retaining the some of the sonic lessons learned from working with more prominent producers. Universal Truths And Cycles sounds more like a new chapter in the vintage Guided By Voices catalog than an extension of their other recent work. The line up is the same as it was on the last few albums (Doug Gillard and Nate Farley on guitar, Tim Tobias on bass) aside from the addition of John McCann on drums. Todd Tobias, who contributed to the strange synth-based atmospheres on the Circus Devils CD, co-produced Universal Truths And Cycles with the band and also provides some keyboards.
Right away, the short blast of "Wire Greyhounds" lets us know that the element of fragmentary chaos that marked albums such as Bee Thousand is back. Clinking bottles and drunken background talk give the opening acoustic section of "Skin Parade" an intimate feel before the song locks into a powerful rock groove. "Zap" is a breezy little '60s ballad augmented by unusual percussion sounds. The guitar solo of "Christian Animation Torch Carriers" reverberates in a hard psychedelic way that Guided By Voices has not really approached since Vampire On Titus and Propeller. "From A Voice Plantation" also achieves a brooding psychedelic mood later in the album. If you can go along with the octave-jumping chorus of "Cheyenne", the song is a pleasant pop single with a chiming guitar line. "Back To The Lake" is a direct sequel to "A Salty Salute" from the 1995 classic Alien Lanes, and a clear statement of what Guided By Voices is attempting to recapture on this new album. "Love 1" also recalls Alien Lanes as it builds to a full-blown song and then disappears 54 seconds in. "Storm Vibrations", "Everywhere With Helicopters" and "Car Language" have a confident rocking quality that reminds me of the 1996 album Under The Bushes, Under The Stars (the last one with the early line-up). These songs are also monumental staples of the current live shows. The melodic strings on "Pretty Bombs" are new territory for the band and they work perfectly. The title track is a rousing Kinks-style pop anthem. Pollard has always had an aspect of American normalcy, military enthusiasm, and boys' club unity that is a little hard to reconcile with his eccentric musical style. Therefore, it made me a bit nervous that he was preaching when he sings "Oh, God bless you" over and over at the end of the final song "Father Sgt. Christmas Card". A quick check of the lyric sheet revealed an ironic intent to the verse that precedes the blessing.
It is extremely difficult for bands to summarize and comment on their previous work without simply recycling old songs and sounding they are out of fresh ideas. Universal Truths And Cycles succeeds remarkably well at reminding listeners what was great about various stages in the development of Guided By Voices while offering something new. Along with the excellent Go Back Snowball CD reviewed above in this issue, this album proves that Bob Pollard is going strong many hundreds (or is it thousands?) of songs into his recording career.