If you've ever been to a flea market, then you have some idea of what listening to a Guided By Voices record is like. Led by the stumbling, staggering muse of front man Robert Pollard, most GBV records are maddeningly scattershot affairs, with one throwaway for every minimalist lo-fi rock gem. Indie rock cognoscenti split between praising him as an enigmatic genius or reviling him as a lazy hack, but in truth, he's neither; Pollard is simply an avowed fan of rock's dingy, forgotten corners, from the Shaggs to "The Kinks Kronikles" to Wire's "154." If he falls on his face half the time, it's worth noting that he has the guts to stand up in the first place.
Which does nothing to prevent the urge to exercise the CD player's skip function on even their best records, 1994's "Bee Thousand" and the next year's "Alien Lanes." But with the band's 12th album, "Mag Earwhig!" Pollard has finally found a reliable gold mine in rock's junkyard, a 21-song album of surprising diversity and consistency. Having dismissed his old backup band and replaced it with members of fellow Ohioans Cobra Verde, "Earwhig!" sports a sound that's both tighter and more experimental. Much of the old weirdness remains -- inscrutable titles like "The Colossus Crawls West" and Pollard's unfathomable lyrics ("we race each new morning in the vegetable's dream ...") -- but all of it is sensibly crafted, from the scratchy folk of "The Old Grunt" to the blistering rave-up choruses of "Not Behind the Fighter Jet" and the hype-damaged acoustic ballad "I Am Produced."
Pollard's real talent is in the tiny details that turn a song from passable to great -- the Stonesy "whoo-whoos" on "Bulldog Skin," his tender, ethereal whisper on "Learning to Hunt," a whiskey-stained harmony on "Jane of the Waking Universe" -- all of them hallmarks of previous GBV songs, but this time he's hitting the bull's-eye instead of raiding the cutting room floor. Instead of sketches released as singles, "Sad If I Lost It" and "The Finest Joke Is Upon Us" are fully formed classic pop sculptures, with chord changes that can either bring a smile or break your heart. New guitarist Doug Gillard contributes the sole non-Pollard track, the pop-punk "I Am A Tree," as an obvious GBV homage, but Pollard's craft is too slippery to truly mimic. His unique rock vision is encased in bulletproof glass, precious and fiercely personal -- and with "Mag Earwhig!" finally worth being truly in awe of.