Guitar rock seems dead. Matchbox 20 gave it an unprovoked kick in the crotch, Creed smashed it over the head with a beer bottle, and a slew of Top-40 crap merchants are celebrating its apparent demise with Cristal and coke. But guitar rock is not dead yet, and the proof is Guided by Voices’ new album, Isolation Drills. It isn’t the best release of the last few months, but it may very well be the most refreshing.
Somebody recently told me despairingly that all the good music nowadays comes from Britain — that America just isn’t making anything worth listening to anymore. This just isn’t true: Modest Mouse, Outkast, Wilco, Bright Eyes and even Pearl Jam are still making good music, just to name a few. And it’s certainly time to add Guided by Voices to that list, though they’re quite different from the others. What distinguishes GBV is their stubborn refusal to give up on the long, glorious (and very American) tradition of catchy pop that sounds like it just surfaced from some garage down the street. The ineluctably American feel to the music on Isolation Drills is part of what makes it so wonderful.
Originally from Dayton, Ohio, GBV has soaked up all the influences that cross and combine in the middle of our country. They sound a bit like the Revolver-era Beatles in one of the better songs on the album, “Chasing Heather Crazy.” They remind you of early R.E.M. in the bizarre “Want One?”. And like every other band worth its salt, they’ve listened to their Pixies albums long and well, and this comes out in the angry “Enemy.”
Their main strength is not their musicianship, which is good but not great, nor the voice of the lead singer and songwriter Robert Pollard, which is versatile but not unforgettable or unique. The forte of Guided by Voices lies in their ability to produce immediately accessible pop songs that don’t become painfully annoying the second time you hear them, if the appeal even lasts that long. They write pop songs — in other words — that would make Lenny Kravitz weep if he weren’t too busy shagging models. “Glad Girls” and the tragicomic “The Brides Have Hit Glass” are better than anything on the radio, but it’ll be a miracle if we ever hear them on KC-101. That hardly matters, of course. The consumer who selects Isolation Drills can rejoice in his own good taste.