On Second Thought
Guided by Voices - Isolation Drills

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It’s so darned satisfying to see someone achieve their dreams. Of course, unless the person in question has explicitly told you that’s what is happening, it can be difficult to tell sometimes if that’s what you’re seeing.

Take Robert Pollard, for example. The ex-schoolteacher has been churning out songs via Guided By Voices by the bushel, of variable quality, since the early eighties. And by variable quality, I don’t just mean songwriting quality (although it’s that too); GBV are, if famous for anything besides sheer volume, known for the often drastically lo-fi approach they take to recording.

But a quotation from an interview done by the band with The Onion has stuck with me ever since I’ve read it. When asked what he thought of Ric Ocasek’s production of Do The Collapse, Pollard said “His intention was to make a big, polished rock record, a guitar-predominant record, and he did that. That's what I wanted”. Sure, Pollard likes the lo-fi and the scraggly, but he also wants to make “a big, polished rock record”. He wants, and here’s where my thesis tips over into the purely speculative, to be a rock star.

And Isolation Drills, far more than the patchy Do The Collapse, is where he succeeds. I first encountered GBV in this shiny, monolithic form, and it remains my favorite version of them. There a few detours away from what (to paraphrase from Akiva Gottleib’s interview with the Wrens) was Pollard’s “go-for-broke, last-ditch attempt at rock-God status”, but mostly the focus holds, producing the most musically cohesive album Guided By Voices has ever made.

It starts with “Fair Touching”, which admittedly does not tip the band’s hand immediately. It’s sturdy and ringing, promising “a queen’s prize awaits”, but generally sets the stage. For the big, widescreen effort Pollard is making, though, you want something a tad more dramatic. You want “Skills Like This”. With one of GBV’s indelible riffs (and were any other contemporary “indie rock” bands as good at riffs at GBV at their prime?) and some “ooh ooh”s to start it off, Pollard speaks of wanting to “reinvent you now” as the song drives on to the stomping post-chorus bit. It’s the first of many songs here that sound great on your stereo while breaking speed limits.

From there we go into one of Isolation Drills’ utterly perfect songs: “Chasing Heather Crazy”. The lyrics are the normal beautiful gibberish that Pollard specializes in (his lyrics make even less sense out of sung context than most), but if the bit where the drummer pulls an Animal and then Pollard sings “anywhere I want to/and if you want to come too” doesn’t make you feel good, then… well, then we have different conceptions of rock, I guess.

But Guided By Voices haven’t completely abandoned their normal album structure (brilliant collage) completely; next we get the 55-second acoustic reverie “Frostman”, resetting the pace of the album and then leading into another perfect song, “Twilight Campfighter”. Like most of the best moments here it’s an openhearted, expansive rock song, sweeping without being either cinematic or grandiose. GBV then run through a couple of quick pieces (the dark, acoustic “Sister I Need Wine”, and the almost comically stomping “Want One?”, both great) before getting to the longest song on the album, the almost five-minute “The Enemy”. After a bleary intro, another of those riffs starts up before Pollard and the drums start locking everything in place, then it all busts out—the moment where everything stops fractions of a second before Pollard portentously intones “the enemy” is a great one. Eventually the songs goes back to just the riff, now mirrored by strings.

There are only strings on four of the sixteen tracks here, but each track uses them brilliantly. “Unspirited”, for example, follows hard on “The Enemy” with a swirling, circular guitar-and-string part and marks the beginning of Isolation Drills’ finest three-song burst. It’s still Guided By Voices banging away at these tracks, but the production and performances make them sound like they’ve conquered the world. It’s wonderful.

And of course, without pause for breath Pollard hollers out “hey-ey glad girls/only wanna get you high!” and “Glad Girls” leaps into action. Similar to Teenage Fanclub’s “Norman 3” in that the repetitive lyrics will annoy some to no end, “Glad Girls” is a highlight if that sort of thing doesn’t bug you. I’m not sure which of the two parts of the song are supposed to be the chorus (it could be either, or both), but the part where Pollard sings about “the light that passes through me” invariably increases the speed of whatever vehicle I’m in by around 20 kilometers per hour.

And from there we go to a song that would have worked beautifully as a closer. It’s one of the most intriguing things about Isolation Drills; from “Run Wild”, at track 11, ‘til the actual ending five tracks later, there’s a prolonged coda to the album. Not that the quality tails off by any means, but we have a succession of songs that feel like the end.

“Run Wild”, with its sturdy construction and great finale of Pollard singing “leave your fears in the street/and run wild” while the band blares behind him, feels valedictory. But instead of silence, we get the mildy creepy “Pivotal Film” (“showing cloaks of rubber/digital relay/fingers stroking/like mechanical lover”), another strapping rocker equipped with a killer riff and by the time it’s ending with “into thin air…” the album feels restarted, or at least back on its feet.

But the understandably slurred “How’s My Drinking”, which is the most direct comment on the band’s beer consumption (“how’s my drinking?/I don’t care about being sober... I won’t change”), follows, and again the slowly tolling guitars feel perfect for an ending. The first time I heard Isolation Drills, I cringed each time another song started after one of these endings, afraid that what had been up until that point a great album was about to fall prey to poor self-editing.

But each time I was wrong; for GBV to have omitted “The Brides Have Hit Glass” would have been a dire mistake. Again, any lesser band would have been well served to have saved “Run Wild”, “How’s My Drinking?”, “The Brides Have Hit Glass” and the next two songs for the end slot in different albums, but Robert Pollard apparently writes songs this good every day.

By now, the feeling of being in the denouement of the album has become almost parodic, so when the rueful, stately “Fine To See You” ends you may have forgotten again that there’s another track left. The instrumental outro to “Fine To See You” takes up roughly half of its just over three-minutes, the song slowly ticking to a stop.

But, as much as I like “Run Wild”, I can’t argue with the choice of “Privately” for an ending. Clomping to string-assisted life in the wake of “Fine To See You”, it’s even more of a send off than the other songs, Pollard seemingly addressing the listener directly, instructing them to… well, I’m not sure what. But as the lilting strings and churning guitar fade out, the powerfully prolonged ending feels just right.

What makes Isolation Drills so surprising, and so good, isn’t just that it’s as fine a batch of songs as Pollard has ever written, or even that they’ve been buffed to a muscular sheen, sounding ready for arenas as much as bars; it’s that in one 16-track, 47-minute record they’ve managed to have two totally discrete sections, divided at “Glad Girls” and “Run Wild”, with a distinct feel to each, working despite this as one organic whole. After all the joyous rock of the beginning, the more melancholy and subdued ending doesn’t deflate the proceedings, but heightens them. Sure, you might miss the tape hiss, and Pollard has evidentially decided to go back to his old ways, but that doesn’t matter: he set out, I believe to make one of the finest rock records of the recent past, and he succeeded.

By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2004-02-24
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