Guided by Voices (GBV) is an indie rock band that has been touring and recording for the last three decades. The band is led by their charismatic and iconoclastic lead singer and songwriter Robert Pollard, who is also a published poet and visual artist. From the beginning, the band championed a unique low fidelity recording style that pushed the Do It Yourself (DIY) artistic methodology to its most extreme horizons. With cult hit albums like “Bee Thousand” and “Alien Lanes,” GBV cemented their status as a hardworking and unflinchingly original indie institution.
The band’s 30th album, “Surrender Your Poppy Field,” was self-released by their own Guided by Voices Inc. label on Feb. 20. Conventional wisdom would hold that by the time 30 albums have been released, a band has nothing more to show the world. But GBV has never been all that concerned with anything resembling conventional wisdom. “Surrender Your Poppy Field” is the most recent addition to a vast discography, but it is by no means a poor one. In fact, its straightforward lo-fi rock chops and solid arrangements make it a fantastic listen from beginning to end.
To the uninitiated, GBV is a mess of contradictions. They are loud and gnarly, but also warm and inviting. It would be wrong to say that their music does not ask anything of the listener, but it would also be wrong to say that their appeal is confined to an impenetrable base of longtime devotees. “Surrender Your Poppy Field” could easily serve as an entry point for new listeners because of how the songs lean more toward traditionally composed songs. It probably shouldn’t be the very first GBV album for a new listener, but definitely one of the first five. That may seem like quite a commitment at first, but after one, a new listener will be dying for another, and then another, and so on.
The first major track is “Volcano,” a slowly building rocker that, at just over three minutes, is actually a bit long for a GBV song. The length allows a shift from a slow, rumbling bass into full-blown rock. It’s not all balls to the walls rock, though. “Cul-De-Sac Kids” starts as a slower, slightly nostalgic tune, but shifts into high gear right around the 90 second mark. This is one of the band’s trademark musical techniques, a sudden shift in tone or speed to keep things moving and interesting. It’s not unusual for a song to seemingly cut out and for an entirely new one to begin on their albums, and this is no exception.
It is extremely difficult to rate and rank GBV’s discography precisely because it is so expansive and varied. Different permutations of band members over many years of touring and recording essentially means that that band is in a constant process of reinvention. It’s a quantum state that, by its very nature, resists simple classification or analysis.
Suffice it to say then that Guided by Voice has always had one thing on their minds before all else: making music their own way. The band has long eschewed the traditional recording industry apparatus in favor of being in complete control of their own business. If that makes them sound like a bunch of ordinary guys who just happen to be in a band together, well that’s because they really are. Running their own recording and distribution of course means the band languishes in smaller venues and limited promotions, but this is a band that makes it work by being one of the hardest working bands in the world.
Plenty of indie bands are better known, and perhaps many others are more technically proficient musicians than Pollard and his motley crew of bandmates. But few bands bring as much heart — not to mention blood, sweat and tears — to their craft. This is a band that got as good as it is through its manic creative energy and a hectic touring schedule. “Surrender Your Poppy Field” is the result, as much a product of the band’s tenure as its humble life. I give the album 4.5/5 stars.