Figuring out how to rate a new Guided By Voices album is hard. Do I compare it against the most recent albums or their entire discography? How will I feel about it after the next four come out? Will the hardcore fans think I’m being too harsh? Will the casual fans think I’m being too generous? What is indie rock?
Anyway, Welshpool Frillies is the 38th GBV album (depending on how you’re counting), and it’s a very good one. Is it “Bob’s best album since Isolation Drills?” No. Is it “another bland album of the band going through the motions?” No. Is my review going to change anyone’s mind? Probably not. But here it goes.
One of the things you notice pretty quicky about Welshpool Frillies is that a lot of the “prog” elements have been scaled back. The songs are a little leaner, run a little shorter, and don’t sound like 4 different songs stitched together. I love that stuff, but I like a concise blast of catchy off-kilter pop too, and more of the tracks fit that description better than La La Land or Tremblers and Goggles by Rank. Songs like “Romeo Surgeon,” “Why Won’t You Kiss Me,” and “Awake Man” are good examples, their Cheap Trick-esque riffage guaranteed to become live set highlights when the band gets back on the road. “Don’t Blow Your Dream Job” does get a little proggy with its multiple sections, but it’s the exception rather than the rule (and a good track too).
A few of the tracks remind me of some of the higher points from Space Gun and Zeppelin Over China, specifically “Seedling,” “Cats On Heat,” and opener “Meet The Star.” The latter’s bass-heavy chug (thanks Mark Shue), turn-on-a-dime drumming (thanks Kevin March), anthemic chorus with descending chord progression (thanks Bob), and some Wire-like guitar lines from Doug Gillard and Bobby Bare Jr. is both melodic and punchy thanks to producer Travis Harrison’s decision to record the band together (rather than the remote recording approach of the last few albums). The result is a good distillation of the current GBV sound that kicks up the energy a bit.
Other tracks, though, reach back into the band’s past. One of the things I’ve missed on more recent GBV records is the quieter acoustic tracks, which have been increasingly absent in the band’s current iteration. On Welshpool Frillies we get two great folky songs: “Chain Dance,” almost sounds like one of the short snippets that ended Pollard’s 1996 solo debut Not In My Airforce but fleshed out into a full song with a few subtle embellishments. “Mother Mirth,” meanwhile, is 1:27 of sublime acoustic strums, mellotron, and Bob singing about a trip through “eternal Pennsylvania” on “the morning of the aftermath.” The final three tracks also remind me of this era in the band’s history, but more so the minor-key melancholy of Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, especially “Better Odds,” which gets my vote for the album’s biggest spine-tingling moment.
Welshpool Frillies isn’t perfect. There are a few tracks that don’t quite reach the heights of the others, or failed to leave much of a lasting impression. But there are no fewer than six tracks (out of fifteen) that feel like classics, and about as many that are just a notch or two below that status. It’s a very good Guided By Voices album, and while there aren’t too many surprises it manages to carve out a distinct identity for itself among the slightly more uniform-sounding last few records. Time will tell where it falls in the endless rankings and “best albums of this lineup” debates, but for now it’s one I’ll be spinning frequently (until the next one, that is…).
“Better Odds” / “Mother Mirth” / “Meet The Star”
ARTISTS WITH SIMILAR FIRE
Cheap Trick / Sebadoh / Wire
GUIDED BY VOICES REVIEW HISTORY
La La Land (2023) / Scalping The Guru (2022) / Tremblers And Goggles By Rank (2022) / Crystal Nuns Cathedral (2022) / It’s Not Them. It Couldn’t Be Them. It Is Them! (2021) / Cub Scout Bowling Pins: Clang Clang Ho (2021) / Earth Man Blues (2021) / Mirrored Aztec (2020) / Surrender Your Poppy Field (2020) / Sweating The Plague (2019) / Warp And Woof (2019) / Zeppelin Over China (2019) / Space Gun (2018) / Ogre’s Trumpet (2018) / How Do You Spell Heaven (2017) / August By Cake (2017) / Please Be Honest (2016) / Suitcase 4 (2015) / Cool Planet (2014) / Motivational Jumpsuit (2014) / English Little League (2013) / Down By The Racetrack EP (2013) / The Bears For Lunch (2012) / Class Clown Spots A UFO (2012) / Let’s Go Eat The Factory (2012)