'Surrender Your Poppy Field' Review: Guided By Voices waltz their way to another stunningly good rock masterpiece
This album sounds like a modern-day classic from one of the most beloved vintage bands of our times - they've aged like afine wine on this one!
When the American lo-fi rockers Guided By Voices first released their debut EP 'Forever Since Breakfast' way back in 1986, no one could have predicted that the disc's Charles Manson-inspired title would serve as such a fitting commentary on this revered band's prodigious creative output and inspiring longevity! Best known for their sparkling, punchy, indie pop-rock songs that barely cleared 3 minutes in length, and for releasing music for practically every year that they've been in existence, the seminal Guided By Voices have been guiding the ears of pretty much every rock musician that's currently active in the scene today.
In the last 35-odd years, the pop-rock band fronted by the enigmatic genius and legendary singer-songwriter Robert Pollard, have released 29 studio albums (officially), and Pollard himself has well over 100 albums to his name alone! Their timeless blend of lo-fi pop, post-grunge, garage, British Invasion, and punk sounds have earned the band a cult following in the United States and overseas as well, making them one of the most beloved indie groups of the past few decades.
So when February 20, the release date of their 30th official studio LP, 'Surrender Your Poppy Field' rolled around, the one criticism that has always been leveled against this band threatened to rear its head again. Given their prolific body of work, the five-piece outfit were always bound to have more misses than hits. By releasing so much in terms of quantity, the band risked diluting the overall quality of their considerable catalog. But all apprehensions about GBV's legacy being besmirched were cast aside once we actually listened to the record. Make no mistake, this rocker of an album is outstanding, and ranks up there with one of their numerous better efforts, like 'Mag Earwhig!', 'Bee Thousand' or 'Alien Lanes'.
The album's title itself is an homage to 'The Wizard of Oz' movie (there's a scene where “Surrender Dorothy” appears in the sky), as well as GBV’s own back catalog. As Pollard explained to Rolling Stone, “I think Wizard of Oz came to mind when it was first conceived. I did a five-song EP about four or five years ago under the name 'Sunflower Logic' and we included a mock catalog for the label name we used, Pink Banana Records. In it there are 50 or 60 fake band names with titles for 45s, EPs albums, and compilations and one of the songs was ‘Surrender Your Poppy Field’. It stuck and I decided to give it a real home on a Guided by Voices album.”
First impressions from the 15-track LP:
The opening song, 'Year of the Hard Hitter' conjures up of visions of old-school GBV, with its hard-hitting Stooges riffage and chiming guitar solo. 'Volcano', the second song and lead single from the LP, continues in the same rocky vein. There is a soaring, post-grunge vibe to 'Volcano', one could easily imagine that some '90s supergroup had spawned this fuzzy firebrand of a song. As usual, Bob Pollard's talent for writing amazing lyrics remains undiminished - "True is the time when I see you / Blue are the blinds that I see through / Red are the taillights in your eyes / Said what I needed, now it’s through."
'Queen Parking Lot', 'Man Called Blunder' and 'Stone Cold Moron', with their peppy drums and driving riffs are typically short and sweet GBV numbers - they sound like something the Pixies, Nirvana or even the Melvins might have produced. The track, 'Arthur Has Business Elsewhere' is another one of the stand-outs on this album, with its free-flowing guitars and the lyrics: "He likes to run around / Because he’s played up this old town / Arthur has business elsewhere" reminding one of Arthur Dent from 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.' This track is also one of several impressive songs on the album that employs waltz-time - along with the stomp-along 'Steely Dodgers', that revolves around an ascending bass line, and the groovy 'Andre the Hawk' that sounds like the indie band Pavement in its prime.
The euphoric 'Cul-De-Sac' kids is a straight-up punk rock strummer with some catchy whistling and a marching band drumbeat thrown in for good measure. 'Physician' sounds like something the band Franz Ferdinand might have come up with if they had spent the previous night out on the town and were none the worse for wear.
Another lovely touch on this new album worth highlighting is the addition of beautiful, melodic synth parts - it really adds to the atmospherics of the record throughout! A case in point would be 'Woah Nelly', probably the most surprising and gorgeous track on the album, with its swirling string section and old-school harmonies acting as the ultimate palate cleanser. The LP's last rock song, 'Next Sea Level' erupts from a rising, slow-build introduction into a full-blown orchestral climax, making it one of the best GBV album closers we've heard in recent years.
All in all, this is a lovely melodic chugger of a record, with some unprecedented left turns and sonic curveballs thrown in to keep the listener honest. And to be frank, this already sounds like a modern-day classic from one of the most beloved vintage bands of our times - they've aged like fine wine on this one!