The latest release from the busiest Midwestern rockers around, a mini-album (think The Replacements’ Stink) called Down By the Racetrack, is perhaps the best example of what Guided By Voices really do. A better example, even, than the three excellent LPs the band released last year after reforming. The songs here are short and sound sort of like they may have been recorded on old answering machines or cassette recorders (nothing new for longtime fans). Minimalist tracks focused on the absolute core of the song – words and melody – is what these guys do best. There are no repeated hooks or verse / chorus / verse structure. No solos or codas or intros. No swells. No choirs. No strings. Probably not even any computers or pedals. The songs start, hit you with what they’ve got, then end – usually in less than two minutes (and sometimes in less than a single minute). The absolute essentials.
Thanks to records like Do the Collapse and Isolation Drills, music fans know by now that GBV frontman Robert Pollard is perfectly capable of putting together great studio recordings. You wouldn’t know that, though, if you came into Racetrack cold. The songs are so simple, so lo-fi, so imperfect that they feel like four-track demos, at best. In truth, the record plays through almost like the first chunk of Bee Thousand – rough cut songs focused on brilliant melodies, vocals and writing … with a touch of noise and hiss for style points. Bare bones songs that, after a few listens, all feel completely essential. They feel lean and perfect in a way we don’t really hear from the computer-produced bands of today.
“It Travels Faster Through Thin Hair” opens up the record calmly, Pollard singing as softly and sweetly as he can about, I think, about one of his favorite subjects – the fine art of not aging. The track could easily be played next to last year’s “The Military School Dance Dismissal,” another gentle, perfect Pollard ballad. “Pictures of the Man” is one of the record’s three anchor tracks, featuring full arrangements and feeling, for lack of a better term, like a “full” song more than many of the record’s other compositions. Pollard sings sharp, apathetic words over simple, soaring riffs and what appears to be some Zen-like chanting. It’s one of those strange, hard-to-explain GBV moments that pop up here and there and remind us that Robert Pollard is an ideas man who can’t help but follow through on every weird little hunch he has. A few listens deep and, luckily, “Pictures” reveals itself to be one of his winning weirdo moments.
Next up is “Amanda Gray,” an incredibly short, tight and light Tobin Sprout-penned track that’s just right at only 44 seconds. There’s a keyboard, Sprout’s cozy voice, some nostalgic words and some vocal effects – we need no more. Then comes “Standing In a Puddle of Flesh,” another strange, sloppy, loose Pollard work. Uncle Bob sings his always surprisingly brilliant poetry over a bouncy, piano-driven trash can arrangement and, somehow, it works. It really works. It works like it’s 1992 – back when GBV’s accidental version of pop music was the most charming thing around. “Copy Zero” is one of the album’s other anchor moments, feeling like a leftover from the crew’s last – and great – record, The Bears for Lunch. The track is still simple, but it’s longer than most of the others and seems to have been recorded in a studio, actually featuring something that resembles a full arrangement. Closer “Down By the Racetrack” is similar, if more rocking. The band gets sloppy and loud in their heroic way, making what feels like the latest entry in their seemingly never-ending run of low-life rock n’ roll anthems. A beauty, it is, for sure. The record’s best track.
As much as I sincerely loved and enjoyed last year’s three new GBV records, there’s something about this little tossed-off collection that has me even more satisfied. Those albums, all great, had their classic GBV moments, surely; but they also had moments of clean, perfectly recorded pop rock. None of that here. Down By the Racetrack could never be mistaken for anything other than a Guided By Voices record. It’s weird and short and sloppy and lo-fi. Yet still, somehow, there are more brilliant song ideas stuffed into the mix than most modern bands can manage in a three-record stretch. What we get is the raw essentials – the outsider blueprints, written on the bathroom wall in the middle of the night while coming down from an all-day drunk. Rock n’ roll’s fingernail clippings. Here they are, the songs fans of Bee Thousand have been waiting for.