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Mid-Fi Finale

 

Guided by Voices: Half Smiles of the Decomposed

Matador, 2004

Rating: 3.7

 

 

Posted: August 20, 2004

By Laurence Station

Last year's best-of collection and career-retrospective box set (not to mention 2000's basement-clearing, 100-song Suitcase monstrosity) were the initial tip-offs. And then came the inevitable announcement: Guided by Voices' upcoming album, Half Smiles of the Decomposed, would be the respected indie-pop band's last. Founder and lead singer/songwriter Bob Pollard was busting up the band. After 15 full-length studio releases (16 if you count the originally fan-only 1997 release Tonics & Twisted Chasers), innumerable side projects and marathon touring schedules, Pollard, who'll turn 47 this Halloween, was ready to call it a day, aptly concluding in a statement regarding the breakup: "I'm getting too old to be a gang leader."

Which means a review of Half Smiles of the Decomposed isn't merely an assessment of the new Guided by Voices album but also a consideration the band's legacy, as well. Guided by Voices' legacy is interesting because there's always been such an impulsive, slapdash quality to the band's work, as if Pollard wrote first drafts of every song and refined his craft with entirely new pieces rather than going back and fine-tuning the sketch he'd just birthed while waiting for his coffee to percolate. Pollard's brilliance stems, in part, from a priapic ability to pen more songs in a week than most songwriters manage in a year. Of course, it also diminishes the overall value of his creations, reflecting a disposable, assembly-line aesthetic, as if he can simply plug in delightfully absurdist phrasings and micro-anthemic hooks to manufacture a prototypical GbV tune.

To be fair, Pollard clearly strives to craft perfect pop songs, but is simply too restless or careless to separate the diamonds from the cubic zirconias. The simple fact is, Pollard never confronted a songwriter of equal prolificacy to challenge and/or complement him. Seldom has he had to share an appreciable amount of space on an album with a fellow artist. (It can't be a mere coincidence that Pollard's strongest work came during the early-to-mid-'90s, when Tobin Sprout was on board.) Consequently, rarely was Pollard  forced to cherry-pick from his mountain of available material. Thus, Guided by Voices' legacy will likely be that it is one of the most productive but maddeningly inconsistent bands in indie-rock's pantheon.

Half Smiles of the Decomposed is not a summation of all that Guided by Voices (or, Pollard, specifically) has learned over the past two decades. There's no cross-section of early period lo-fi, mid-period big studio slickness and late period mid-fi compromise. No, Half Smiles definitely falls in line with the later-period sound of 2002's Universal Truths and Cycles and last year's Earthquake Glue. The main difference is the lack of hooks (a Pollard specialty). These 14 tracks (evenly subdivided on either side of the three-minute mark) are less obvious in approach, not as eager to charm and more thoughtful. Intermittent keyboard player Todd Tobias' production emphasizes an unpolished and distortion-friendly feel, but with far better recording equipment than a bargain basement four-track would afford.

And, true to form, there's a fair amount of unexploded duds mixed in with the direct hits. "Asia Minor" is crippled by a surprisingly obvious rhyme scheme ("Nothing could be finer/ In Asia Minor") while the tedious back-to-back tandem of epic-length (by GbV standards) four-minute tracks ("Sons of Apollo" and "Sing for Your Meat") bring things to a grinding halt. The forward-looking "Everybody Thinks I'm a Raincloud (When I'm Not Looking)" (in which Pollard observes how tomorrow can be "A miracle cure for my sorrow / The pillars of self-esteem"), the dirty rocker "Sleep Over Jack" (with its skinny bass lines and panicky guitar work), and the generous pop munificence of "Girls of Wild Strawberries" stand tall. The bogeys outweigh the pars: typical for any Guided by Voices album.

As a finale, Half Smiles of the Decomposed isn't the comprehensive, "out with a triumphant bang" finish most fans will be hoping for -- and besides, we got that last year, in spades. It's a solid effort, however, rating somewhere in the middle tier of Guided by Voices' incredibly scattershot catalog. And, honestly, isn't that somehow more appropriate, given the group's stagger-and-swagger history?

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