It’s oft-remarked, and as recently as May in these pages, by me, that one of the hoariest clichés of music criticism is that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and so on this occasion I’ve endeavored to avoid writing about music at all. Such music-writer clichés are so indelibly spray-painted upon the flying buttresses of gothic dance halls in Uptown and stickered on the mirrors in the bathrooms of revival punk clubs of Pilsen, it could drive a skeleton crew of masked and vaxxed antiseptic-spraying employees beyond distraction. But there I go, performing the three-girl rhumba espousing the brilliance of brutalist bricks again.
No, the real thrust of my proscenium is to share that I am enthused about the latest offerings from the Scottish trio Chvrches and the pride of Dayton, Ohio, “Uncle Bob” Robert Pollard’s Guided By Voices. But I have deliberately avoided, to the best of my ability at least, listening to either of their new albums.
Before continuing I should make it clear, assuming their gigs go on as planned, given the uncertainties of the pandemic, the Delta variant and whatever other horror show October brings, I highly recommend seeing both Chvrches on November 19 at the Uptown echo-chamber Aragon (allegedly if you stand in the middle of the floor and have the right audio engineer, the sound isn’t that bad) and Guided By Voices on November 12 at Thalia Hall in Pilsen, a more reasonably sized venue for a more reasonably sized following who have the patience to wade through the group’s recorded output. Chvrches have celebrated their ten-year anniversary as a band with four released albums, whereas GBV formed in 1983 and have released thirty-four albums, not including Pollard’s too-numerous-to-count-unless-you’re-obsessed (and many are) side projects and solo albums.
Rather than listen to “Screen Violence,” which Chvrches released in September, or the new GBV record that came out last month, I’ve chosen to seize upon this occasion to further advance the technique of criticism by title, in which I argue that, just as there is an artistic relationship between the title of a piece of poetry or fiction, painting, sculpture or photograph and the work itself, there is also a poetic relationship between the music of a recording artist and what they choose to call that recorded music.
From the album title “Screen Violence,” I can extrapolate that while this may not be a “concept record,” the position of Chvrches as a gothic electronic trio whose lead singer, Lauren Mayberry has become a spokesperson for feminism and has fought back against sexist trolls online, there may be a throughline of horror/anti-horror and anti-misogyny philosophy coursing through the new record. “Asking for a Friend” highlights the anonymity that can both protect and offend online thoughts that should require policing, whereas “He Said She Said” is not a Beatles parody but the dialogue that permeates the struggle to prove sexual assault allegations. “California” is the fifth-largest economy in the world on its own and home to millions of people, and vastly different landscapes and environments, so assessing the music of the song without listening to it would be a fool’s errand, but it has historically been the home to America’s moviemaking machinations and machinery (including the pornography depicted in “Boogie Nights” and perpetuated by such bastions of depravity of the Playboy mansion), and when followed on the track listing by “Violent Delights,” one wonders if indeed the milieu being evoked is of the horror movie creators, along with the seedy, violent dark side of the Sunshine State that brought to life real life monsters like the Manson family and the Hillside Strangler, and fictional avengers embodied by Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood in “Bullitt” and “Dirty Harry” movies, respectively.
The darkness that permeates these titles is enough to make one wonder “How Not To Drown,” and Robert Smith’s guest vocals (and his remix of the track on the Japanese version of the album) provide an unlikely response, given the leader of The Cure has been known to wallow in his lullabies of self-pity and homesickness from time to time, most egregiously on 1989’s classic gothic rock masterpiece, “Disintegration.” Smith is also a co-writer of the track, so his advice on keeping one’s head above water should be extra salient, if not necessarily saline.
That song is followed by “Final Girl” and “Good Girls” and it’s not hard to imagine that the word “girl” is being used ironically, given that it’s often employed as a diminutive reference to the female gender. The word “final” might be the last survivor of the horror movie serial killer or the last avatar to be played in a sexist video game (akin to the female version of Ryan Reynolds’ “Free Guy”). Of course, what constitutes a “good girl” is also the subject of debate. Is a “good girl” someone who stays quiet and accepts a pat on the head after being abused? Is a good girl someone who does what her male boss tells her to do, even if it’s unethical and immoral? Is a good girl someone who saves herself for her wedding night? Or are “Good Girls” women who stand up for themselves, fight back and don’t acquiesce to the demands of the institutionalized patriarchy? I would argue that the latter are a better representation of what “good girls” can and should be, and I know Mayberry would agree. She would also agree, I bet, that I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, at least in passing, that although she is the lead singer and focal point, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty are the other two-thirds of the trio Chvrches, and all three share writing credits on each of the ten cuts.
“Lullabies” comes up next, and I’m willing to bet that this isn’t your mother’s “My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean,” especially given that the next song in the sequence is “Nightmares.” Clearly those lullabies must not have been very soothing, given the nightmares that follow, but what do Chvrches see in their nightmares? Is it the gothic horror of “The Omen” or Freddie Krueger’s glove of metal claws? Is this the “violence” we find on the “screen” or are we supposed to be “screening” for, or screening out, this violence? One thing’s for sure, just as it doesn’t belong on a submarine, this is clearly not the place for a screen door.
“Better If You Don’t” could be about horrible jokes in music reviews, but more likely it’s about someone telling someone else it would be better for them if they didn’t go there, let sleeping dogs lie, let the abuse of the past and the offenses of the future go unreported and unstopped. Ten songs later and just under forty-three minutes, “Screen Violence” is what I expect to be a harrowing journey through what it’s like to be a twenty-first century feminist in a digital age of few consequences for incel trolls lurking under drawbridges.
Next up in the church of immaculate discovery is the new album by Guided By Voices, ironically entitled “It’s Not Them. It Couldn’t Be Them. It Is Them!” This is ironic because this is the second album GBV has released this year and their eighth full-length in the last three years, after leader and sole original member Robert Pollard (vocals, guitar) almost pulled the plug just before their 1994 breakthrough “Bee Thousand,” retired the moniker in 2004, reunited in 2010 and broke up again in 2014 and then brought it back in 2016 (after which his henchmen have been stable, including Doug Gillard, guitar, Kevin March, drums, Mark Shue, bass and Bobby Bare, Jr., guitar). The title alludes to GBV being the “supermen” of indie rock, and while Pollard’s publishing name was inspired by an early band name The Needmores, Needmore Songs has come to reflect a philosophy of plentitude, which at its best boasts more Who-inspired hooks than a Pete Townshend deep sea fishing trip and which at its worst provides what critic Jim DeRogatis has dubbed songwriting diarrhea the likes of which would be akin to the way a Dave Matthews Band tour bus mishap would dampen a sightseeing boat excursion on the Chicago River.
Because Pollard’s writing (and he is the lyricist most of the time) can be highly impressionistic, not to say seemingly nonsensical and nonsequitorious, the new record features tracks that, when employing a titular analysis, seem very “of a piece” with the majority of the GBV output. Thus there are song titles like “High In The Rain,” “Dance Of The Gurus” and “Flying Without A License” near the beginning of the record, employing psychedelic frameworks (and the Dayton denizens continuing their obsession with flight), as his infatuation with collections of 1960s “Nuggets” compiled by Lenny Kaye is regularly exhibited. Both “Psycho House” and “Maintenance Man Of The Haunted House,” which follow, tell very different stories rooted in similarly constructed houses. “Razor Bug” and “I Wanna Monkey” continue Pollard’s obsession with insects and odd animals, although it’s hard to know if he has caught a bug for razors and if he sincerely “wants a monkey” or he “wants to monkey,” as in some primate inspired dance. “Black And White Eyes In A Prism,” “People Need Holes” and “The Bell Gets Out Of The Way” continue the altered states of consciousness on parade. If a prism creates colors, what do we see when we see black-and-white eyes? Or what do the black-and-white eyes see? Do they see colors? Pollard is not only a great songwriter (for the most part), but he’s also a gifted collage artist, having created many album covers for bands real and imagined, including Guided By Voices. Are these holes that he claims that people need the same holes that The Beatles used to fill the Albert Hall on “A Day In The Life?” If a bell gets out of the way, doesn’t that cause it to toll? Are these the same bells of St. Clements that XTC referenced in their psychedelic masterpiece “Oranges and Lemons”? Will actually listening to the record answer any of these questions?
“It’s Not Them. It Couldn’t Be Them. It Is Them!” concludes its fifteen tracks with “Chain Gang Island” and the early single “My (Limited) Engagement,” which I must admit I have heard, and is the typically strong “rock and roll” for which GBV has become known. The title alludes to more irony afoot, given that Pollard has toyed with “limiting” the band in the past but in recent years has apparently concluded that there are no limits to Guided By Voices.
Craig Bechtel is a freelance writer and has also been a Senior Staff Writer for Pop’stache. He is also a DJ, volunteer and Assistant Music Director for CHIRP Radio, 107.1 FM, and contributes occasionally to the CHIRP blog. As DJ Craig Reptile, you can hear him play music on the FM dial or at www.chirpradio.org most Sunday nights from 6pm to 9pm. He previously worked in radio at KVOE AM and Fox 105 in Emporia, Kansas, and served as a DJ, music director and general manager for WVKC at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where he also won the Davenport Prize for Poetry and earned a B.A. in English writing. Craig has been working in various capacities within the hotel and meetings industry for over twenty years, and presently works at a company that uses proprietary systems to develop proven data strategies that increase revenue, room nights and meeting attendance. In his spare time, he also fancies himself an armchair herpetologist, and thus in addition to a wife, son and cat, he has a day gecko and a veiled chameleon in his collection.