Ladies and Gentleman, Presenting… Short Songs!
A few decades ago, recording shorter, two-and-a-half to three-minute songs was an incredibly common trend. In recent years, this tendency for bands to only release these shorter songs hasn’t been quite so prevalent. However, Guided by Voices have kept short songs as a staple of their musical output. The Dayton, Ohio band’s newest album, August by Cake, is a thirty-two track effort that is crawling with tunes that don’t quite make it to the two minute mark. This album works in a manner opposite to that of many rap albums, in which the interludes (skits or short songs) are outnumbered by the full-length songs. A very small number of August by Cake‘s tracks reach three minutes, and those tend to be the better songs. The atypical setup of this album does not mean that it is of lower quality… or does it?
Despite the “ladies and gentleman” opening of the first song, the album really begins on track four, “Goodbye Note.” Introduced by a simple yet compelling guitar lick, it sounds like a perfect fit for a lower-budget movie about the struggles of high school — particularly a montage scene in which the geeky-looking kid tries to make sure he can keep his crush around (before a school dance, say). This and the rest of the songs so far already showcase Guided By Voices’ emo/punk interior; coupled with an alt-rock sound, it’s an interesting mix.
The band’s influences spread wide on this one: there is Beatles-esque guitar work on “We Liken the Sun,” horror movie and somehow also country influences in “Fever Pitch” — which, until vocalist Robert Pollard’s country-sounding riff, is quite trippy — cheesy ’80s-style electronica on “Dr. Feelgood Falls Off the Ocean,” and a substantial handful of samples, some commenting on youth’s obsession with technology, at the start of “Packing the Dead Zone.” This variation between the songs, despite the nearly seamless transitions, doesn’t seem to be very well executed; rather, the album does have some sort of unifying sound/idea, but the more absurd tracks like “Fever Pitch” don’t really sound like they belong. Most of the messages — lyrical or musical — that the band try to share don’t get enough time to sink in. As soon as the listener feels comfortable, the song is already ending.
“Overloaded” may very well be the best track on the album, serving a cinematic purpose similar to that of “Goodbye Note,” yet also working for a speedy drive through open farmland roads. The comfort and joy of the tune is slightly diminished by an uncertain-sounding guitar solo in the middle — if this were debuted live, that very section would be greeted by squints and raised eyebrows. One thing the listener is comfortable with at this point is the presence of fluid transitions, and “Overloaded” sets one up with a new drumbeat at the very end, but changes as soon as “Keep Me Down” comes on. Trying to trick us, ay Pollard?
Another theme presented in this album is the presence of decent lyrical messages buried by difficult-to-understand lyrics or sub-par instrumentals. One of the best instrumentals is the melancholy guitar ostinato in “Warm up to Religion,” but the emotion felt through the guitar alone is lost when the chorus comes in. That said, a better verse than chorus is no crime.
The remaining gems include “Sentimental Wars,” which is actually pretty good rural driving music (at least in the beginning), and “Upon the Circus Bus,” a song right at home around a campfire. Unfortunately, there are a lot of strange, unappealing moments featured on this album. For example, during “Chew the Sand,” the guitarist sounds like he was drunkenly playing whatever notes his fingers could make out, over the rest of the band’s groove. Pollard’s voice is tired and no longer excites the ears. This project would’ve benefitted from fewer songs, more full-length ones and fewer haphazard vocals and instrumentals. It almost seems like Pollard was picking the dustiest ideas off the old songwriting shelf and combining pieces of songs when it wasn’t necessary. “Substitute 11” sounds like Pollard chose a song title out of a hat after being dared to use that title as the first lyrics and the hook, a reluctant tune at best. The good ones — “Overloaded” and just a handful more — stick out, but not enough to make this a memorable album; the shorter songs are a microcosm for the entire record: uncertain and surprisingly short. Fear not, though, Guided by Voices: this does not undo your past successes.