Fire Note Says: Cool Planet is a strong follow-up to Motivational Jumpsuit.
Album Review: Another month, another GBV/Robert Pollard-related release. Some critics argue that Robert Pollard needs an editor, someone to cherry-pick the best of his numerous compositions—and it’s an understandable opinion. Between his “solo” records, GBV, and various side-projects, Pollard writes enough songs in a year to keep other bands stocked for decades. Cool Planet is the second Guided by Voices album this year, and while not every song is a winner, it has more than enough high points to make it a worthy addition to the catalogue, even if it’s not as consistently great as the last outing, February’s Motivational Jumpsuit.
First, a little disclaimer: if you’re a huge GBV fan (like me), feel free to add a half “headphone” to the rating above; if the band isn’t really your thing, you’ll probably want to subtract at least that much. While Motivational Jumpsuit was an album that had the potential to convert the uninitiated, filled with hooks, riffs, and near-perfect sequencing, Cool Planet is very much an album for the already-converted. Recorded (except for Tobin Sprout’s tunes) at Cyberteknic Studios in Dayton on analog equipment, Cool Planet sounds great, feeling both immediate and charmingly ramshackle like their earlier lo-fi recordings while maintaining highly-listenable production values of their early 2000s releases. Guitars crunch, vocals jump out of the speakers, and the drums (courtesy of the newly-returned Kevin March) are huge—it’s probably the most consistent-sounding GBV release since the reunion.
But let’s get the bad out of the way first: Cool Planet is not as well-sequenced as the last album. Motivational Jumpsuit felt like a return to the days when GBV albums were like one giant song, each track segueing perfectly into the next. Cool Planet just doesn’t have the same sense of progression—it’s not badly sequenced, but it doesn’t feel as purposeful. There are also a few slower tracks that some listeners might consider “throwaways” (an accusation that has been leveled against GBV/Pollard’s entire career): “These Dooms,” “You Get Every Game,” and “Cream of Lung” come to mind. These tracks do improve with repeated listenings, but casual listeners may be deterred by their crawling weirdness before they’re able to develop an appreciation for them.
Lest you think Cool Planet is a failure, however, the bulk of the album contains some of the strongest post-reunion material, easily matching some of the best tracks on the other albums. “Males of Wormwood Mars” is a late highlight: buried sixteen tracks in (only two from the end), multiple guitar riffs and Pollard’s effortless trademark vocal delivery are driven forward by Marsh’s excellent drumming, making for another GBV classic. In fact all the singles (“Males” included) are top-tier GBV, from the propulsive opener “Authoritarian Zoo” to the start-stop dynamics of “Table At Fool’s Tooth;” and the Beatle-esque “All-American Boy” may unseat “Waking Up The Stars” as my favorite reunion-era Tobin Sprout track. Every Sprout track is a highlight, actually—Cool Planet is a treasure trove for Toby fans, featuring his most consistently great songwriting in years (“Psychotic Crush” and “Ticket to Hide” are the other obvious standouts). Major Pollard-centric highlights include “Bad Love Is Easy To Do,” which is catchy as all get out and includes some great back-and-forth vocals from both Pollard and Sprout, as well as “Hat of Flames,” “Pan Swimmer” and “The No Doubters.” And don’t miss the straight-up rock ‘n’ roll of the closer/title track—which should be fantastic live—or “Fast Crawl,” which ends with a bowling ball being thrown through an acoustic guitar. (Seriously.)
While it may have its shortcomings, Cool Planet is a great album by any standard: it’s just as good as any of the other reunion-era albums—save Motivational Jumpsuit—and it may top that list for some. It’s a “typical” 2010s GBV record, and if you’re already a fan then there’s plenty to love, it just doesn’t have that extra little spark the last one had. They’re probably just saving up their energy for the next album—we shouldn’t have to wait long to find out.
Key Tracks: “Males of Wormwood Mars” / “All-American Boy” / “Cool Planet”
Artists With Similar Fire: The Beatles / The Olivia Tremor Control / Eyelids
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-Reviewed by Simon Workman