By Chris Anderson
Guided By Voices: August By Cake
In 2016, Bob again revived the GbV moniker on Please Be Honest, an album that saw him perform all of the instruments himself, proving once and for all that he is Guided By Voices. However, while he was doing that he formed an all-new GbV that featured a couple of veterans (guitarist Doug Gillard and drummer Kevin March) as well as newcomers Mark Shue (bass) and Bobby Bare Jr on guitar. A new album was inevitable.
Of course it was. With Bob, there’s always gonna be an album. Several every year, in fact. Under a variety of names. In addition to solo and GbV albums, he has vast discographies with bands such as Ricked Wicky, Boston Spaceships, and Circus Devils, as well as dozens of offshoot bands like The Takeovers, ESP Ohio, Teenage Guitar, and Psycho & The Birds, just to name a few. And they are all important pieces of the puzzle. Trust me, being a fan is expensive…but worth it.
August By Cake is Robert Pollard’s 100th album (or so he says – who am I to argue). So it stands to reason that this should be monumental. And monumental it is. Like the White Album, this is a sprawling double set that covers a fair bit of ground, sometimes stumbles, sometimes shines, and is often quite visionary.
Like a typical GbV album, but much bigger.
What is interesting, however, is that, for the first time ever, the songs are split among the entire band. Sure, whenever Tobin Sprout is in the band, his songs make it to GbV albums, but he’s the only one. On this album, everyone contributes at least two songs. It’s a cool move on Bob’s part, especially since theirs are some of the best.
Kicking off with Bob’s majestic “5° On The Inside”, it’s clear this band means business. Pollard’s contributions run the gamut from brilliant pop-rock (“Hiking Skin” and “Cheap Buttons”) to lo-fi drunkenness (“Fever Pitch”) and some dark, weird pastures in between (“Generox Gray”, the proggy “West Coast Company Man”). This is cleverly broken up by the other guys’ songs, and that just further elevates this experience.
Side one features Doug Gillard’s “Goodbye Note” which brings back fond memories of the 90’s, while Mark Shue’s “Absent The Man” makes me think of the mid-80’s indie scene. Along with the aforementioned album opener, Bob’s “When We All Hold Hands At The End Of The World” is one of the best songs on this slab of wax. Other songs, however, such as “We Liken The Sun” and “Fever Pitch” merely pad out the double album and would probably have otherwise been issued as b-sides.
Side two spotlights Kevin March on the outstanding “Overloaded” (a single if there should be one) and Mark Shue hits paydirt on the shimmering “Sudden Fiction”. Bob shines on “Keep Me Down”, chills out on the side-opener “What Begins On New Year’s Day”, frustrates on the too-short “Hiking Skin”, and confounds on “West Coast Company Man”. Bobby Bare Jr was already a very accomplished solo artist prior to joining GbV and it stands to reason that he’ll save his best material for his main gig. But his two contributions – “High Five Hall Of Famers” and “Upon The Circus Bus” – fit in quite perfectly.
With so many albums always in the works, it can be tough to sort out which songs belong to which albums. Bob gathers songs from all across his psyche and that sometimes that results in unconventional representations. Such as the mini rock-opera, “Substitute 11”, which should have gone on a Circus Devils album, but it can still sit beautifully next to songs like “Cheap Buttons”, with its epic refrain – “10 billion Ringo fans can’t be wrong”, and the propulsive side-three opener, “It’s Food”. “Chew The Sand”, courtesy of Mark Shue is one of the few instrumentals to ever grace a GbV album. And it’s a good one. Doug Gillard’ offers his delightfully odd “Deflect/Project”, which segues into Bobby Bare Jr’s “Upon The Circus Bus”, closing out the side on a bit of a trip.
Side four is dominated by Bob; the lone exception being Kevin March’s “Sentimental Wars”, a really pretty little song that calls to mind Tobin Sprout’s past contributions. The side kicks off with “Try It Out (it’s nothing)” which would have fit on one of the band’s 80’s albums. Elsewhere, Bob conjures the Isolation Drills-era on “Circus Day Hold Out” and “Amusement Park Is Over”, delivers one of his finer acoustic songs in “Whole Tomatoes”, summons the spirit of Jandek on “Golden Doors”, gets downright odd on ’The Possible Edge”, and then closes out the album on a spark of power-pop glory called “Escape To Phoenix”.
August By Cake is being hailed as a masterpiece and while I’m not sure of that just yet, I will say that it is good. Really good. There are times when I wish that Bob would save more of his top-shelf material for GbV but the variety of songs he brings keeps it fresh. And the democratic thing was cool, though apparently the next album is already finished and it’s all Bob songs.
When you have 100 albums, it’s important to make ones that stand out, from time to time. For every reason above, and so many more, this is an album that stands out, and probably always will.
Monumental….the club is open…here’s to 100 more!