To state the obvious: Guided by Voices is a band defined by the lyrical and musical voice of Robert Pollard. Since they formed in the mid-'80s, Pollard has been GbV's leader, and these days, as the frontman and only consistent member of the group, his status as their absolute ruler is uncontested. Which is one of the reasons 2017's August by Cake is a pleasant surprise. While this music is certainly governed by Pollard's prog-addled smart pop worldview, August by Cake unveils a GbV lineup that sounds more like a band than anything that's appeared under the band's rubric since the early 2000s. August by Cake introduces yet another new edition of Guided by Voices, with Pollard joined by guitarists Doug Gillard and Bobby Bare, Jr., bassist Mark Shue, and drummer Kevin March. Gillard and March have worked extensively with Pollard in the past, but with Bare as the wild card, this album sounds like a group effort, rather than the work of a handful of musicians taking orders from one guy. August by Cake suffers from a few of the flaws that mark many of GbV's albums -- most particularly, a less than ideal balance between the great and merely good songs -- yet there is a sonic diversity and playful energy that recall the spirit of early lo-fi triumphs such as 1994's Bee Thousand and 1995's Alien Lanes. Pollard's songwriting tropes haven't changed much, but with his bandmates contributing to the tunes, there's more variety in the textures, and the performances recall the anything-goes spirit of their best early work. August by Cake occasionally sinks into a chaos from which it has trouble escaping, but in its way, that's a real asset -- this is Guided by Voices sounding free and wild, and it's ultimately more satisfying than any of the "classic lineup" GbV reunion efforts that appeared between 2012 and 2014.
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