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John Wenzel

Guided By Voices
Universal Truths and Cycles
Matador Records

(4 Sponics out of 5) 

Despite the implications of the cover art, this is not Guided By Voices' attempt at medieval balladry or conceptual agriculture fundraising. In fact, it's not at attempt at anything except the perfection of the pop song, something head voice Robert Pollard has made his life's mission. And fortunately, this album will be accepted and listened to by both GBV's perpetually fickle hipster audience and the hardcore, Postal Blowfish types of the world.

Perfectly melding the experience and wisdom gained from Guided By Voices' major label attempts at mainstream stardom (two albums on minor-major TVT) with the spontaneity of the band's lo-fi, basement roots, Universal Truths and Cycles finds these middle-aged Ohioans back on Matador, where they resided from '95 to '98, and where they released their most accessible output to hordes of expectant hipsters and drooling critics.

In every way, UTAC is perfect Guided By Voices album. The melodies on songs like "Wire Greyhounds," "Zap" "Back to the Lake" and "Wings of Thorn" are consistently engaging and fresh. Minor mistakes and ambient noise are left in the recordings (mostly first takes, reportedly) lending the record a relaxed air not heard since Under the Bushes, Under the Stars. Recorded primarily at GBV's "homebase" studio of Cro-Magnon in Dayton, the production is surprisingly organic and clean. Of course, Pollard has been working with Cro-Mag svengali John Shough for so long now the two can probably smell each other's shit two states away.

The usual influences are apparent (Beatles, Bowie, Wire, R.E.M.), but Pollard's songwriting style is so spry and nuanced at this point in his career, it's silly to point them out in detail. Suffice to say, GBV's fixation with The Who has not abated one bit. "Christian Animation Torch Carriers," an absolutely spine-tingling, fist-pumping, Rock-As-Fuck anthem, is not especially coy in its borrowing of 70's prog structures. "Eureka Signs" and, to an extent, the thrilling "Storm Vibrations" are similar, with swelling choruses, bombastic guitar work and blistering drumming (courtesy of already-replaced drummer Jon McCann). 

Pollard's lyrics seem to have struck a delicate but appropriate balance here as well. Equal parts whimsy, clever wordplay and bruised romanticism, they incorporate the most focused aspects of the Fading Captain's keen ears and loose lips. What's more, the unusual variety of song lengths, structures and production aesthetics feels so damned natural that one can only wonder where Pollard's head was for the past few years. And I'm saying this as someone that quite enjoyed Do the Collapse and Isolation Drills. "Love 1" and "Father Sgt. Christmas Card" easily could have been closing tracks on Alien Lanes. "Wings of Thorn" and "Pretty Bombs" are the best songs Robert Pollard never put on his myriad solo discs. If sing-alongs get you off, this disc is an orgy.

The lulls on UTAC are few and brief. The awkward phrasing and asymmetrical vocal melodies on "Cheyenne" aren't enough to hold the buoyant tune to the ground, recovering quickly in the chorus and reprise with alarming strength. Solid, radio-friendly tracks such as "Back to the Lake" and "Everywhere with Helicopter" make you forget that GBV tried the major-label thing once, because you think to yourself, "Gee, I can see this on MTV." The encouraging path this album travels down is the one Pollard always should have taken. It's the one that finds him pleasing himself, first and foremost, and letting everything else follow.