I'm an Englishman living in Arizona and today is Thanksgiving, one of the big holidays of the year but one I never quite grasped. It's a remembrance of a historical moment but the history is wildly skewed; it's an opportunity to be thankful for everything that we have, but it's followed by the national greed day, Black Friday; and it's an excuse to gorge on turkey and pass out from the tryptophane, hardly my idea of how to spend a holiday. So, it seems appropriate to review an album by a major American band that I struggle to understand.
Guided by Voices have been around since 1983 and they're firmly in the indie rock genre, if that's one single thing. Their earliest releases were self-financed, self-pressed and circulated mostly amongst the family and friends of the band. They've always been prolific, but they've been outdoing themselves of late. They've issued no fewer than ten albums since reforming for the second time in 2016 and this one is one of three from 2020 alone, with Surrender Your Poppy Field and Styles We Paid For.
As you might imagine, such prolificity means that quality may not be the band's primary concern, but there's a strong sense of consistency here. No song seems more essential or more throwaway than any other and, especially with titles like Easier Not Charming, A Whale is Top Notch and Haircut Sphinx, I could easily imagine this being the result of a single day in the studio improvising songs from a slew of random words held up in the sound engineer's booth. "OK, the next pair of words are... 'nest' and... 'biker'. Go!" I do salute the band's creativity.
Actually, I rather like Biker's Nest and quite a few other songs, because it stands out from the crowd a little. It kicks in with a simple punk riff and I could have imagined any one of Iggy Pop, Pete Shelley or Nina Hagen jumping in for a guest vocal slot. None of those do, of course, so we stay with Robert Pollard, who's often uncannily reminiscent of David Bowie, especially on songs like Haircut Sphinx or Bunco Men, which sound like newly discovered lost BBC sessions from seventies Bowie.
The overall sound of Mirrored Aztec is kind of like the middle ground between Bowie and Cake, which is apparently in a garage somewhere in Dayton, OH. Whether the dominant sound of any song is Cake in the nineties or Bowie in the seventies, almost everything sounds like lo-fi garage rock recorded on an antique four track with no overdubs.
The songs are blink and you'll miss 'em quick, as you might expect from garage rock. Let's just say that the album only just nudges its way past forty minutes but it boasts no fewer than eighteen songs. I'm counting seven that don't even make it to two minutes and A Whale is Top Notch only just manages a minute. Maybe "whale" and "notch" didn't spark many ideas. Length appears to be a concern too; I haven't heard quite so many songs on a single album fade out in forever. Please Don't Be Honest is just reaching full speed when it fades out because, apparently, 2:29 is a long song for this album. Thank You Jane ends so abruptly that the tape might have run out.
And, while I'm probably sounding rather dismissive here, I liked quite a lot of this album. It's merely difficult to keep up. By the time one song's groove starts to sit well, that song's over and we're onto a fresh one before we can really acknowledge what it was. I like Bunco Men and Biker's Nest and even an apparent joke of a song called Math Rock. I liked some others too, but I kept losing track of which. In a year in which Guided by Voices have issued 48 new songs over three albums, that's easy to do.