With their 12th album, Dayton, Ohio, low-fi popsters Guided by Voices continue to pursue new avenues of growth. On last year’s Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, GBV finally checked into a proper studio and achieved nearly mid-fi results. Here, leader Bob Pollard takes a much bigger leap — he switches bands. Pollard recorded most of Mag Earwhig! with members of Cleveland neoglam rockers Cobra Verde, and the difference is immediately striking.
Till now, the nonchalance of Pollard’s uncannily catchy songwriting, a unique fusion of English-classic and indie-contemporary styles, has been mirrored in the music’s execution. But these guys from Cobra Verde — guitarists John Petkovic and Doug Gillard, bassist Don Depew and drummer Dave Swanson — simply rock harder than the old GBV, scrapping the off-handedness that goes hand in hand with low-fi. “Bulldog Skin” and “Mute Superstar” swagger where before they might have just staggered. The old band’s appearances on a few of Mag Earwhig!‘s cuts not only emphasize the contrast but also remind us that limitations aren’t necessarily charms, as when longtime GBV timekeeper Kevin Fennell drags the tempo, per usual, on “The Finest Joke Is Upon Us.” Under the Bushes was purportedly the first GBV record you could turn up loud; Mag Earwhig! is the first one you can head-fling to convincingly.
Also surprising are the stretches of seeming lucidity in Pollard’s notoriously obtuse lyrics. The tender, nearingsappy “Learning to Hunt” could be about and for his kids. Elsewhere he ruminates on his indie-rock fame (“I Am Produced,” “Mute Superstar”), recalling Steve Malkmus of label mates Pavement. And like that once-low-fi band did a few years back, Guided by Voices are proving that they can play it clear and straight if they want to — without losing who they are.