guided by voices: isolation drilled

Deftly he works, mixing a splash of early Pretty Things with a generous shot of the Damned. Now he has dumped Joe Perry’s Rocks era snarl, Syd Barrett’s melted whimsy, the verve of Nick Lowe, and some confused guy sawing on a cello into a shaker, given it a healthy whack, and poured out yet another icy, bombastic snake-bite of a song. No olives, fruit or whipped cream either. Something straightforward and powerful that you can wrap your mitts around, maybe sip at a while to build courage…”


by john richen


I’ve always been intrigued with the way songs come to trigger and define memories in people. How a particular tune can bring back a scene so complete that you can smell burning driftwood or taste a blood-red orange exactly as it was 20 years ago, on that day, at that time. Why it works that way I haven’t a clue. But it does. Every time I hear the Clash’s “Hitsville UK” I get flashbacks of visiting a friend’s apartment in Eugene the morning after some asshole blew up his bathroom sink with an M-80. It brings a very sharp image of him to mind, “Hitsville’s” reggae chords clipping along merrily on the stereo while, bathed in morning sunlight, he clutches his head in dismay. Or the first time I wrecked a car at 17 years old with Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love” cranked to 11 as I plowed my rotting-plum colored Fiat into some horrified Nigerian dude riding high in a giant Chevy half-ton. I don’t know what alarmed him more, the accident or David Lee Roth’s wolfish “Hey, Hey, Heys'” erupting from the 8-track under the dashboard of my totaled Italian sedan.

My latest hymn in the songbook of life secured it’s position on February 28th, the day of the major Nisqually earthquake. Working in the basement of an ancient brick building, I was listening to Isolation Drills, the new Guided By Voices album. On my second run through, the brutish opening of “Skills Like This” began rippling through the headphones and down my legs as I felt a rolling begin under the desk. Like all sensible GBV fans, I listen to music loud. It took a moment to realize that the rocking and rumbling wasn’t the byproduct of a new sense-surround mixing technique that replicates the experience of lying prone on an airport runway, watching jets take off. Rather, it was an unsettling shift of large tectonic plates 30 miles beneath my planted posterior.

“Skills Like This” made an immediate and very permanent impact on me. This I realized when bolting up the stairs and out of the building. Friends for life we are, that song and I, surviving such a scare and all. Every time it plays from now on I’ll go stand in a doorway somewhere, do a couple high kicks, crack a Bud and toast the great protector.

The distraction of a major earthquake behind me, the business of this new record remains. Although earlier titled Broadcaster House, it seems upon reflection to be better represented by the new title, as there is assuredly a solitary, searching feel to the proceedings from the get go. In the McGuinn-ish chords of the album opener “Fair Touching” Pollard has invited us in with a jangly, radio happy slap on the back. Lead guitarist Doug Gillard’s muscle-car chops in “Skills Like This” would have packed that perfunctory punch to vital internal organs even without the assistance of the rolling Nisqually rumbler. The soothing childlike verse of “Frostman” hints at something sinister to come, yet seems lifted completely formed from the grooves of GBV relics Self Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia or Alien Lanes. Here’s Bob in top vocal form belting away in “Chasing Heather Crazy”… there’s the uptempo rally cheer of “Glad Girls”…

...and as with last year’s respectable Do The Collapse I am struck immediately by the album’s preposterously loaded track lineup from start to finish.

Isn’t it amazing how we’ve come to expect such greatness from this bunch? Does anyone ever stop to think about the magnitude of that statement anymore? You can, and do, get one rock solid tune after the next in Isolation Drills, and yet, it doesn’t come as any sort of surprise. It’s expected. We’ve become so accustomed to the barrage of sonic goldbars GBV churn out that we’ve forgotten just how much they’ve accomplished since 1986, when their first EP Forever Since Breakfast quietly surfaced. By the time 1994’s Bee Thousand turned the indie world’s ears inside out, it was clear that Mr. Pollard and a revolving cast of beer swilling huns were no flash-in-the-pan magicians pulling occasionally brilliant, but never lucid, pop jewels from a hat. Today Bob remains the reigning mixologist of fragmented musical artifacts, peppering smoky club landscapes with bursts of pure pop magnificence and tempestuous rock anthems. It’s easy to lock onto the obvious influences — Beatles, Who, T. Rex, Beatles, Kinks, Beatles — but the tireless barkeep Pollard draws additional juice from less magnanimous sources. Deftly he works, mixing a splash of early Pretty Things with a generous shot of the Damned. Now he has dumped Joe Perry’s Rocks era snarl, Syd Barrett’s melted whimsy, the verve of Nick Lowe, and some confused guy sawing on a cello into a shaker, given it a healthy whack, and poured-out yet another icy, bombastic snake-bite of a song. No olives, fruit or whipped cream either. Just something straightforward and powerful that you can wrap your mitts around, maybe sip at a while to build courage.

“It’s easy,” one would have to think when observing this Herculean output. “It’s got to be. Or else, how could he possibly do it?”

But we know better, don’t we?

There is nothing simple or ordinary about the mushrooming musical estate Pollard is constructing one hook at a time. Can it really be true that in his world every musical notion is exercised, every stored riff and harmony is recycled and brought to life anew? He may have released two more solo records in the Fading Captain series by the time you read this. Laugh if you like but it’s a distinct possibility, and it’s staggering to ponder. A mind boggling stack of wax…

Which lands us squarely back on Isolation Drills, a tightly-produced, sinewy explosion of harmonic virtuosity that continues the band’s stubborn march towards more mainstream acceptance: A horrifying prospect for some of GBV’s faithful acolytes, who remain more comfortable with the band’s elf-kicking sentiments and bastard-child credibility. The tone here is more contemplative than what we’ve grown accustomed to. “I’ve been in a more serious mood, so this is a much more serious record than usual,” Pollard reflects in the obligatory pre-release press memo. A listen to “How’s My Drinking” will underscore the bent of his words. Here we have possibly the most resigned song written tackling drinker’s remorse since Paul Westerberg’s heart-wrenching lament “Here Come’s A Regular” faded to black in the waning moments of the Replacements 1985 opus Tim. “Sister I Need Wine” is an ethereal ballad that finds the band in reflective repose, while Gillard’s subtle acoustic strumming and Bob’s soft-spoken phrasing mesh together in a poem of cryptic self-examination. Bob’s wispy words reveal, “I am hating the ignorance in my body, and I can feed on the heaviness, sister I need you.” One careful listen is all it takes to see that the trademark recklessness of past band staples such as “A Salty Salute” have been at least temporarily suspended. Something fundamental has shifted here. There’s more meat to chew on in Isolation Drills than in any previous GBV release.

This isn’t to suggest that the affair carries the emotional ballast of a heart-to-heart with your shrink. The grungy, Zeppelin-tinged stomp of “The Enemy” complete with Jim MacPherson’s Bonzo inspired drum fills will pull your head out of any contemplative funk you find yourself in after the seraphim-inspired plucking of the aforementioned ballad. As the song reaches towards it’s rousing apex, you can almost picture Pollard prowling the stage with his polluted swagger; Gillard, rhythm guitarist Nate Farley and bassist Tim Tobias bashing their way through a sweaty, thundering squall. It’s a haymaker skillfully landed in a frenzied barroom brawl. Concerns that the crew has lost their edge with this sudden bout of melancholia are further laid to rest in the one-two tandem of “Run Wild” and “Pivotal Film,” two melodic and hard-hitting back-to-back numbers sure to stand up to the rigorous live benchmark GBV has set for themselves.

But in the end it’s always about the abundant crop of songs isn’t it? Lord knows GBV have more great songs to their credit than 10 competent bands could hope for given the same timeline to work with. In Isolation Drills, as with all their prior efforts, I can’t help but gauge the material by how it will hold up live, as opposed to how well it works in the scope of an album. Why? Because the unending concussion-blast of GBV’s live performances is where one really comes face to face with Pollard’s stunning achievement. Taken as such, the songs of Isolation Drills are actually pieces of a much larger whole — a timeless, giant hit-vault of a GBV album that mutates and evolves before our very ears.

It’s these sorts of pieces that come to add substance to our memories. They wrap themselves around isolated events that leave indelible impressions on our frame of reference. Tunes that take root in our musical biographies are never scripted meticulously but instead assert themselves like persistent winds moving through desolate caverns, finding rest in nooks and crannies we’ve never fully explored. Troubling images are made softer by musical remnants that echo sentiments of words and recollections too painful to stand on their own. We isolate instances of specific music playing when we first fell in love. When first we danced, or crashed our cars or felt the earth shaking under our chairs — those songs are there, permanently embedded in the pink meatball that rests in a shell above our shoulders.

Mapping the track lists of Bob Pollard’s evolving personal jukebox, while an engaging mental drill, presents an impossible dichotomy. It’s no more plausible to put a finger to Bob’s creative pulse and codify the endless flow of inspiration and influences, than it is to script and micro-manage the music that lends texture to our lifelong recollections. It’s that cagey elusiveness that makes Guided By Voices so compelling, and finds them topping the list of the most pivotal musical narratives of the past decade. We don’t need to deconstruct the mystery of Pollard’s prolific song writing accomplishments, but rather, recognize that he has moved into a class of his own. Isolation Drills, for all it’s honest intensity and dark textures, merely fits another picture-perfect piece into the colorful puzzle that is one of the greatest of our contemporary bands, and the unrelenting force that drives it.


Originally published:
Issue Eight
April 2001


Comments are closed.