Is there some kind of tally on how many times a collection of Guided By Voices songs has been called slipshod? And, more importantly, does anybody even care anymore? Slipshod has pretty much been the legendary group’s M.O. for two decades now, and all signs point to mastermind Robert Pollard preferring it that way. And why shouldn’t he? The frenetic, jumpy pacing, almost improvisational mood, and rampant, rampant inconsistency are all part of what makes a Guided By Voices record a Guided By Voices record.
Point being: Class Clown Spots A UFO is a slipshod collection of Guided By Voices songs, but if you’re at all surprised by that at this point then this pretty obviously isn’t the Guided By Voices album you should be listening to anyways. Pollard and Co.’s strategy of loosely stitching together radically different selections of sunny psych pop, brooding post punk, anthemic lo-fi rock, and weirdo tape experiments has produced records classic, forgettable, and everything in between. And I mean a lot of records. Including Class Clown, there have been 17 albums attributed to the Guided By Voices name. Add that to upwards of 20 Robert Pollard solo records, five records from right-hand man Tobin Sprout, multi-disc rarities compilations (the Suitcase collections account for over 300 songs alone) and a myriad of side-projects, and, well, Mark E. Smith is starting to look a little lazy after all that.
So where does Class Clown fit into all of this mess? The big story behind it is that it’s the second record in under 6 months from GBV’s newly reunited ‘classic lineup,’ which is to say that this is one of the first collections of material from a group of musicians whose last records came out over 15 years ago and were widely celebrated as some of the best indie rock of the decade. But it also comes after January’s Let’s Go Eat The Factory, the vaguely disappointing comeback record that already reintroduced this lineup to the world. Factory found the group comfortable but plodding, and the album likely fell short of the expectations any fans waiting for an exciting comeback might have had. Now, with the hype surrounding the reunion eaten up by that record, Class Clown Spots A UFO would seem to be destined for the collectors in Guided By Voices’ fanbase, ignored by everyone else who’ve been too recently satiated to care.
Opening with a couple of rough, spontaneous rockers, Class Clown starts off sounding a lot like Factory: the songwriting is fun but noncommital, the sounds are slightly dated, the production hovers in the upper ranges of lo-fi, Pollard sounds enthusiastic but aged. But, as the record moves forward, Guided By Voices find their magic touch in a way that they never did on their previous effort. The first half especially works itself into a real groove, swinging between softer moments like “Chain To The Moon” or hypnotic Tobin Sprout cut “Forever Until It Breaks” and spazzy rock cuts like “Hang Up And Try Again” with an effortlessness that comes across as more exciting than jarring. Previously appearing as a home demo on 2009’s Suitcase 3, “Class Clown Spots A UFO” is the crown jewel in the center of it all, a sparkling 3-minute pop masterpiece. The recording here sounds as fully formed as Guided By Voices ever have, and the song itself can rank as one of Pollard’s finest. Almost as good is “Keep It In Motion,” which most benefits from the rekindled collaboration between Pollard and Sprout, who echo each other’s vocals in one of the album’s most instantly memorable moments.
The mid-to-late section of the record, rife with formless post-punk sections and hookless vocals, finds Pollard indulging his weirder side much as he did on Factory, but the results here turn out better as well, mostly due to Tobin Sprout’s contributions. Sprout’s light, airy pop nuggets are the perfect counterpoint to Pollard’s rockers, and their presence allows buried Pollard gems like “Jon The Croc” and “Billy Wire” to shine. They’re also very good in their own right – Sprout has always had a knack for taking the simplest of pop tunes and turning them into standouts, and his minute-and-a-half long cuts like “Starfire” and “All Of This Will Go” are some of the best earworms of the lot. Most importantly, the back-and-forth between Sprout and Pollard helps a lot to keep the back end of the record from trailing off too severely.
With these last two albums, this classic Guided By Voices lineup has proven that they still have something to offer the world beyond nostalgia. Class Clown Spots A UFO has enough killer to make it a worthwhile listen, and, even if they haven’t quite matched their previous high points yet, the crazy thing is that they actually sound poised to come close. For any fans of the group’s 90s material, Class Clown is a highly recommended listen, especially for those put off by Factory. For anyone else, well, you should really give Bee Thousand or Alien Lanes a spin. But keep in mind that the band’s history doesn’t end in 1996.