Through the 1990s and early 2000s, Robert Pollard was one of indie rock's slyest songwriters. As the leader of Dayton, OH's Guided By Voices, he cranked out warped, classic-rock indebted songs at an unmatched pace. Pollard could make a mean hook out of a nonsense phrase, but he was just as likely to sabotage a sentimental moment with odd studio effects or an abrupt ending. His prolific nature ensured that his songs rarely felt calculated, and his ability to blend poppy hooks with lo-fi experimentation more than made up for his relative inconsistency.
A few of these characteristics still shine through on August By Cake, which bears the honour of being Pollard's 100th album overall (including solo and side projects). The record ups the ante on Pollard's usual productivity, squeezing 32 songs onto one double-album. Yet, aside from a few standouts, Pollard's songwriting lacks the playful spirit of his earlier work.
When the singer's mirthful side does peek out, it's never far removed from a boilerplate rock track. "Packing the Dead Zone," for example, features a faux-hysterical voice-over and a slower tempo, but "Absent the Man," a generic garage rock track, immediately precedes it. Pollard relies heavily on worn-out motifs like blues shuffles ("Keep Me Down") and big rock riffs ("Five Degrees on the Inside," "Cheap Buttons"), but he does little to reinvent the wheel.
August By Cake gets interesting when tracks like "Warm Up to Religion" and "What Begins on New Year's Day" tap into the melancholy that's occasionally haunted Pollard's melodies. Aside from those tracks, though, he shows little interest in the tinkering that made his earlier work so interesting. (Rockathon)