It is a well-known fact in the indie rock community that Guided by Voices is one of the greatest living bands. They started the entire low-fi revolution, for crying out loud. GBV is one of the greatest bands out there right now, but you wouldn’t know that from their last couple releases. 1997’s Mag Earwhig! was the beginning of the end for GBV and their leader Robert Pollard. Mag has its moments but the moments don’t come close to Alien Lanes, Under the Bushes Under the Stars, and the essential Bee Thousand. Why are these albums so good and everything after Mag so bad?
The answer is the departure of Tobin Sprout. He was the only person in the rotating cast of GBV that could be as good as (I think he is better than) Bob. But once Tobin left after Under the Bushes, Bob needed a new collaborator.
Enter Doug Gillard of Cobra Verde fame. Doug is completely different than Tobin. Whereas Tobin had elfish vocals and jangly guitar, Doug has almost heavy metal guitar riffs that seem forced onto otherwise melodic songs.
Since Mag, GBV has released three records: Do the Collapse (1999), Isolation Drills (2001), and Universal Truths and Codes (2002). While these albums have their moments, they are all extremely sub par.
Most GBV fans, myself included, almost cringe at the thought of a new Guided By Voices album. So, naturally, I was scared when I found out that they were releasing The Pipe Dreams of Instant Prince Whippet EP. This EP contains outtakes from the Universal Truths sessions. Upon hearing a favorable review, I bought the EP and I must say I am thoroughly impressed.
Maybe I have just grown used to the past albums enough that I like the mundane sounds coming from Bob and his band now. Or maybe they have just reached their stride as a new band without trying to be the GBV we all have loved since 1987’s Devil Between My Toes.
Song for song, Pipe Dreams is better than Universal Truths. But that says very little, since Pipe Dreams is only 10 songs. There are seven good songs on this EP and three (“Swooping Energies”, “Actions Speaks Volumes,” and “Request Pharmaceuticals”) that make me want to take Bob’s mic away from him so he can’t sing another line. However, “Dig Through My Window” is one of the best songs they’ve done since “The Official Ironmen Rally Song” from Under the Bushes. Another selling point of this EP is the lack of gloss found on their last couple of albums. Pipe Dreams has its low-fi moments not seen since 1996.
So, is Bob back? Well, the short answer is yes. The long answer is no, he never left us; he just got worse over time. And now, with Pipe Dreams, he has just done a job that isn’t horrible. But as long as he puts out at least three good songs a year I will be happy. I just wish he would do some stuff with Tobin and make us all happy.