Thursday, October 08, 2020

Guided By Voices: Class Clown Spots a UFO (2012)

 TOTAL SCORE: 62, AVG: 2.95

The return of the classic lineup with Let's Go Eat the Factory was a great event, and the way the record merged the classic sound with Pollard's current (at the time) songwriting was overall a success. It turned out we were going to get six albums between 2012 and 2014 from Robert Pollard, Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, Greg Demos, and Kevin Fennell (Fennel would be replaced by Kevin March by the last one) before the next big mix up and return of Doug Gillard in 2016. If you were to separate Pollard's work in eras, these six albums (and possibly the 4 or 5 Pollard solo's) would make up the classic GBV reunited era, and the return of that classic mid-fi sound. Class Clown Spots a UFO is held together a bit more solidly than GBV's previous effort, with a military orchestral vibe that permeates throughout, and a general consistency that doesn't quite have the large split of highs and lows that Factory had...
    Speaking of eras, the previous one covered the time between the first end of Guided by Voices (2004) and its return in 2012. I'm sure it can be broken down further, but it was highlighted by some very strong solo Pollard albums between 2006 and 2007 and the Boston Spaceships run from 2008 to 2011 (and more solo Pollard and Takeovers stuff). I remember being somewhat disappointed that the Boston Spaceships were not going to continue as Pollard's flagship band (honestly, in another timeline where Boston Spaceships continued past 2011, wouldn't that have been ok?), but feeling a bit better after hearing Let's Go Eat the Factory. Class Clown cemented all assurances that this reunited GBV was for real and were going to continue growing the GBV legacy.

    I mentioned already that there is a military orchestral vibe running through Class Clown, and I'm sure there is a better way to describe it. It starts with the first two tracks, the interesting and heavy He Rises! Our Union Bellboy and Blue Battleships Bay, which combined sound like they could be part of the same song. Other songs like Fighter Pilot and Worm w/7 Broken Hearts, as well as the Tobin Sprout penned Lost in Spaces and They and Them, build thematic glue to the album as a whole while not being solid tracks in their own right. The title track, Class Clown Spots a UFO, appropriately merges both the theme with melodic pop whimsy, acting as the centerpiece for the album as a whole. 

    Class Clown has its share of rockers. With the previously mentioned He Rises! and Blue Battleships Bay - Hang Up and Try Again, Tyson's High School, Roll the Dice, Kick in the Head, The Opposite Continues, and the closer No Transmission are all more than serviceable rock and roll tunes that Pollard has a penchant for crafting. The stand-outs in this group, however, are Billy Wire and Jon the Croc. Billy Wire is a straight-up rocker with a great chorus ("Lays the grids, open my lids/Humble thyself to the King of the Kids") and interestingly could have easily ended after one go of its parts, but GBV stretched this one out to a whole two minutes so we could enjoy it for a bit longer. Jon the Croc was released as a single (along with Keep It In Motion and the title track) and for good reason. It is an excellent mid-tempo rocker that shows off Pollard's ability to play with words ("Let him cry like a crocodile around you now") and whip up interesting and unique choruses. 

    With regards to Keep It In Motion, I remember when I first heard it. This Pollard/Sprout duet was released with a video on GBV's website, and at first it didn't draw me in. At the time I didn't get why it was selected as a "single", but over time its folk vibes and slow buildup sounds more mature and important to me in the overall view of their work. Seeing these two get together and create a song like Keep It in Motion in 2012 is really cool since it sounds exactly like a something that meets at the intersection of Pollard and Sprout's strengths (even better than 14 Cheerleader Coldfront did).

    Be Impeccable stands out on Class Clown for being completely different than everything else on the album, but also sounding so genuinely GBV. It is a slower ballad with a great melody and lyrics, and it probably the finest and most intentionally crafted song on the record. Regarding the lyrics, Be Impeccable is an interesting take considering the criticisms often laid down on Pollard and GBV, especially around Pollard's tendacy to intentially avoid perfection and to record songs half-baked ("Be what you are/The impeccable/The untrackable star/I'll shine my flashlight to where you are"). Do the Collapse, GBV's attempt at a flawless record production-wise, was seen as a lowpoint for many, or at best a distraction from what really encompasses GBV as a band. One of the things that makes GBV so great is how their faults are laid bare in the songs and those few steps away from perfection are always present. It can be frustrating as a fan (as I often comment on), but at the same time it is part of what makes the music so relatable. There are not many songs of GBV's that make me reflect on the band and their music the way Be Impeccable does. The other irony is that Be Impeccable for the most part is fully cooked and without flaws. It is nearly perfect, and that is not what we expect from Pollard. It is disheartening to see that Be Impeccable is not played live, as I see it has having live-staple potential as the "ballad of GBV", just like Drinker's Peace and Don't Stop Now have been.

    I believe Sprouts contributions were stronger on Let's Go Eat the Factory. I already mentioned Lost in Spaces and They and Them, but Forever Until It Breaks and All of This Will Go are not exceptional either. All of Sprout's songs are nice and beautiful, so it is hard to say anything worse than "they're fine". On Starfire he nails the chorus, and it is the best of Sprout's effortless beauties on Class Clown.

    With Chain to the Moon Pollard packs his verse->pre-chorus->chorus into a minute of beautiful melody that leaves us wanting more. It is a great example of how Pollard can lay down a sweet melody over a simple song structure. I get a bit of a Pink Floyd vibe with Fly Baby (and perhaps the title of They and Them is a homage?), but it is ultimately a forgettable, if not decent slower tune.

    Class Clown Spots a UFO is GBV at fine form, and with time may be seen in similar light to the classic lineup albums of the early-mid 90's. It is a stronger follow-up to Let's Go Eat the Factory, yet it still represents the range of styles and quality that make GBV both definable but at the same time so hard to define. 

    You can read about the new ranking style here. And without further ado, here is the ranking of Class Clown Spots a UFO:

    Among Bob's Best
    19 Be Impeccable

    07 Keep It In Motion
    15 Jon the Croc

    Almost Gems
    04 Class Clown Spots a UFO
    05 Chain to the Moon
    12 Billy Wire

    They're Good
    01 He Rises! Our Union Bellboy
    02 Blue Battleships Bay
    06 Hang Up and Try Again
    08 Tyson's High School
    11 Roll of the Dice, Kick in the Head
    14 Starfire
    21 No Transmission
    They're OK
    03 Forever Until It Breaks
    09 They and Them
    16 Fly Baby
    17 All Of This Will Go
    18 The Opposite Continues

    Could Live Without
    10 Fighter Pilot
    13 Worm w/7 Broken Hearts
    20 Lost in Spaces

    Toss-Offs & Throwaways
    -- none

    Given the scoring above, the album would get 62 points total (and an average of 2.95). 

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