English Little League... Like a bridge over soiled paper
Review: Guided By Voices – English Little League
Published on May 4th, 2013 | Jonny Abrams
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…on which the reunited ‘classic era’ Guided By Voices lineup exceed* the number of studio albums they released back in their heyday; and all in just over a year. The three years that it took them to knock out the seminal run** of Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes and Under the Bushes, Under the Stars now seems whopping by comparison, a bit like whenever GBV do a song that exceeds three minutes.
(*Or match, if you count the fan club only Tonics & Twisted Chasers.)
(**Yes, we’re aware that “knock out the seminal run” sounds distinctly dodgy.)
So now we have a second ‘classic era’ run of LPs. Is it classic? Well, Let’s Go Eat the Factory, Class Clown Spots a UFO and The Bears for Lunch all had their fair share of great tracks in amongst the not-so-great, but then that kind of relaxed quality control is surely a natural byproduct of releasing three albums in a year. Considering the spread, they actually fare pretty well.
English Little League feels like the most consistent set yet of the new era. One distinguishing feature is the ever-emboldening sophistication of Tobin Sprout’s songwriting; it’s still not as idiosyncratic or spiky as Robert Pollard’s but it remains a satisfying counterpoint. Sprout’s “Islands (She Talks in Rainbows)” is worthy of alignment with the Byrds/Big Star/Teenage Fanclub holy trinity of fuzzy jangle and heavenly harmonies, channelling the spirit of the stuff rather than outright copying it like so many bands seem to think they can get away with.
His “Quiet Game” is an utterly tremendous round of driving, monotone psych, his “The Sudden Death Of Epstein’s Ways” a ‘solo Lennon’ piano ballad as reimagined by The Olivia Tremor Control; it’s swoonsome stuff, and Pollard’s on sparkling form too.
Opener “Xeno Pariah” has the muscular, poppy feel of some of their, er, post-original-classic-era output. It shares common ground with, say, “Cheyenne” from 2002’s Universal Truths and Cycles, but that’s cool because Rocksucker loves “Cheyenne”, and it segues seamlessly into the psych-tinged lo-fi “Know Me As Heavy”.
The pace then slackens a little with the sludge-rocking “Trashcan Full of Nails” and then “Send to Celeste (And the Cosmic Athletes)”, also considered of pace but fitted up with a cast iron Bob Pollard classic of a song. Think “The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory” from Bee Thousand meets “King and Caroline” from Alien Lanes and it still wouldn’t quite cut it as a description.
It’s just magnificent, its chorus of “Send to Celeste / Give it all of your best / You were heads above the rest from the start” landing like an instant classic. His piano ‘ballad’ “Reflections In A Metal Whistle” pretty much constitutes childlike banging about on keys in a vaguely minor key and rasping, tuneless vocals that sound like they were recorded in a dustbin. Suddenly, out of nowhere, it acquires big rumbling drums and a stormy guitar line…then fades out.
This is followed by the relative epic of the 3.55-minute “Taciturn Caves”, yet more gleaming psych-pop with majestic, My Bloody Valentine-ish guitar chords. It’s agreeably off its trolley and turns into a completely different song midway through, wearing the prog very well indeed. Prog is, after all, one of Pollard’s “four P’s of rock music” along with pop, punk and psychedelia (the punk on English Little League is perhaps most evident in “Crybaby 4-Star Hotel”). Shout out also to the line “Scorpio confuser / Gemini abuser”.
The verse melody of “Flunky Minnows” sounds too close to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” to take entirely seriously, while “A Burning Glass” presents a more refined Pollard piano piece (just the three P’s there), reminding a little of early Flaming Lips in the process.
By the time of final track “W/ Glass In Foot”, Guided By Voices are sufficiently in credit to bring the album to a close with a classic rock wig/fade out. What an absolute treasure this band remains.
Rocksucker says: Four Quails out of Five!
English Little League is out now on Fire Records.
For more information, please visit the official Guided By Voices website.