While Guided By Voices' debut EP certainly betrays Robert Pollard's innate songwriting prowess, it gives little indication of the group they would subsequently develop into. On Forever Since Breakfast they often sound like an REM tribute group, with the band emulating that jangly guitar college rock paradigm while Pollard does his best Michael Stipe impersonation.
While this makes for a somewhat derivative experience, it's ultimately redeemed by the emergence of Pollard's faculty for conjuring strong vocal melodies and riffs. While the EP tends to sound criminally reminiscent of early REM work, the band handles that style quite well, producing a number of tracks that, if not original, are at least fundamentally solid and entertaining.
The EP is somewhat marred by its brevity, however. Only around 23 minutes long, the EP is over far too quickly, without even functioning as a suitable introduction to the band given that they abandoned this style by the time of their first album. Ergo the EP has more worth as a historical curiosity for hardcore devotees than as a starting point for casual fans interested in Guided By Voices' oeuvre.
Nonetheless the EP can certainly be enjoyed independently of its historical context. While Forever Since Breakfast is bereft of any prime Guided By Voices' material, it is sufficiently well written so as to be entertaining for the duration of its short length, providing the listener can deal with its horrendous production (induced, needless to say, by their dearth of funds at the time) and its perpetual resemblance to early REM work.
In the long run Forever Since Breakfast is only a necessity for diehard Guided By Voices fan, but it can be enjoyed by just about any follower of indie rock. Unfortunately, at this point it can only be acquired as part of the Hardcore UFOs box-set, a rather pricy investment that once more should be pursued solely by Guided By Voices aficionados and connoisseurs.
Ultimately Forever Since Breakfast is certainly an auspicious, if misleading debut, exhibiting the group's talent if not their future style. While it's forgettable in the long run, it's certainly a fun listen, depicting the band's aptitude in areas that they would tend to neglect on future projects.
For most the history of Guided By Voices begins with their label debut, the epochal classic Bee Thousand. As tends to be the case with these arbitrary abridgements of band's discographies this is an egregiously flawed viewpoint, as the band's early material has much to offer, and omitting this early work from the group's catalogue makes for a decidedly incomplete depiction of the group.
Admittedly indie rock is the quintessential oversaturated genre, overflowing with faceless, generic, interchangeable acts playing the same five chords and, if noticed at all, garnering acclaim solely on the basis of their obscure status.
This album, however, represents indie rock of the highest order. While he hasn't yet reached the zenith of his abilities, even from the beginning Robert Pollard was an exceptional songwriter; riffs and vocal hooks abound, and the album is utterly devoid of the filler that usually constitutes ninety percent of a typical indie rock album.
It may seem absurd to claim that there's no filler on an album where a number of the tracks are undeniably mere fragments, but that is and always has been the genius of the group; they're capable of taking a half-formed idea, a mere toss-off, and imbuing it with enough personality and craftsmanship that it's superior to most groups' full fledged songs.
Additionally, this proliferation of fragments enables the group to continually crank out creative idea after idea; when necessary, they flesh out these ideas into fully developed songs, and these make for some truly special moments. But when they don't the tracks never suffer, as the songs last just long enough for them to make their points.
This eliminates any of the padding that plagues most indie group's bloated songs, where inflated running times dilute the potency of their work and endless repetition turns the melodies into a joke. GbV's fragments deliver their melodies and end, with a conciseness that's truly refreshing.
Best of all, these fragments don't need to endlessly repeat their melodies to stick in one's head; they're sufficiently memorable that even in abbreviated form they won't fade away once the next track starts.
The songs are uniformly excellent, ranging from rockers with occasional Fall overtones to instrumentals that succeed due to impeccable songwriting rather than the presence of any actual virtuosos in the band's lineup.
One inherent obstacle for most people will be the quality of the production. These albums were self-released, and as one would surmise from that statement their budget was negligible and thus the production quality was abysmal. Given that many complain about the lo-fi recording of Bee Thousand, which actually received the backing of a legitimate label, many are bound to have a problem with the amateurish production found on this album.
Nonetheless, any GbV fan or connoisseur of superior indie rock should persevere. I'm pretty much desensitized to poor production after wading through the discographies of a plethora of obscure indie rock bands, but casual listeners should simply focus on the excellent songwriting and allow themselves to be lost in the melodies, at which point the production won't be an issue. What matters is that the melodies aren't obscured by the production, and ultimately a lo-fi treatment works for this kind of material. The slick, shimmering production of Isolation Drills simply wouldn't have worked here.
This album is simply first-rate indie rock, displaying the limitless potential of the band and the already active genius of Robert Pollard. The album is finally available again as part of the box-set innovatively entitled Box, which features the group's first four LPs and the rarities collection King Shit And The Golden Boys, an exceptional value and a must buy for any GbV fan with even a modicum of interest in their early work.
Material of this caliber should not be eclipsed by any subsequent triumphs, no matter how brilliant; anything by a group with this much talent is indispensable to a rock fan, especially when that group is so adept at utilizing their talents even from the beginning.
More of the same, not a surprise given the proximity of its release date to their debut. The group is still firmly entrenched in the Nuggets mold, cranking out anachronistic sixties tinged garage rockers suffused with a classic rock vibe and a moderate experimental flavor.
While some may grow frustrated by the dearth of tangible progression, impatiently awaiting a reinvention leading to a masterwork of Bee Thousand-like proportions, for the time being the group has found a niche that they're comfortable with, one that enables Pollard to hone his already considerable songwriting abilities.
By growing adept at penning meticulously crafted sixties style rockers Pollard has mastered the art of creating creative, catchy melodies, a skill that would later be translated into more ambitious ventures. His subsequent more experimental enterprises would never have worked were it not for this secure foundation of expert songwriting, and these early albums were an indispensable component to Pollard's development (I say Pollard because the rest of the members weren't long for this group; Pollard decided that he was Guided By Voices, and the other members' enforced exodus tends to reinforce this philosophy).
With so little progression, what makes this album as enjoyable a listen as it is is the simple fact that the first album was such a solid outing, and Sandbox has inherited its strengths. The album is incredibly consistent, a procession of catchy, well written rockers, filled with clever riffs and creative vocal hooks. The Nuggets motif complements the group's strengths, and provides them with a suitable forum for their development as a band.
But don't mistake the album's obvious homage to the sixties zeitgeist as some pedestrian retro kick used to conceal a lack of talent or originality. GbV are not hiding behind the sixties mystique; they're not the Strokes or the Darkness or any of the myriad of interchangeable outfits currently populating the airwaves in a desperate attempt to cash in on the resurgence of the superficial aspects of classic rock (note that I actually like the Strokes and the Darkness, along with many other such groups; I'm merely attempting to differentiate them from an infinitely superior group, a group with its own vision).
Rather, GbV are attempting to find their own voice, a rather difficult feat. Even at this embryonic stage of their development they manage to engender a good deal of their own personality into their songs, far more than a mere tribute band like the Strokes could ever hope to. The Nuggets style isn't the destination, it's a mere stepping stone in the band's evolution into something far greater.
A group can't be expected to emerge out of a vacuum with a unique sound fashioned for themselves, and this somewhat unique blend of indie rock, sixties fare and latent experimental tendencies is rather impressive for this phase of a band's development.
Even if the band doesn't have the sound that they'd become known for, however, they certainly have already made great use of the assets they do possess, namely Pollard's impressive songwriting skills. When the group does sixties style numbers they make them their own, and moreover imbue them with a level of care and craftsmanship that can only make for a satisfying experience.
On this album the band make major strides toward establishing their own identity, resulting in easily their strongest outing to this point. The band have extricated themselves from the narrow, restrictive confines of the Nuggets paradigm, enabling their songwriting to move in new and interesting directions, with a much heavier accent on experimentation.
This is not to say that this album is devoid of sixties influences, but that's all they are, influences; the band derives inspiration from the music of that era, but doesn't attempt to faithfully mimic it, merely educing whatever aspect of it is apt for the moment and adapting it to their own vision.
The time is right for this evolution; Pollard has honed his songwriting to a point where the band can easily survive on its own without the crutch of sixties rock stylistics. The band has outgrown this inhibiting, claustrophobic shelter, and as successful as the group were with this formula they're capable of achieving far much more with this new artistic freedom.
Don't think, however, that the album is such a radical departure from their earlier work. The core elements remain the same, they're merely presented in a style that's more unique and distinctive. The songs are more adventurous both in structure and in content, and they abstain from the sixties clichés that were so ubiquitous on their previous outings. Many of the ingredients are the same; they're simply filtered through the band's unique vision.
In the end, however, what makes this album such a leap up from their first two LPs isn't merely the genesis of a more distinctive voice; Pollard has experienced a tremendous growth in the songwriting department as well, and, while his melodies were unimpeachable to begin with, they're far stronger on this album.
Riffs, instrumental hooks and catchy vocal melodies abound, not only in greater number but more sophisticated in general. Liberation from the Nuggets structure, which had made the overall sound of the last two albums somewhat uniform, makes for greater diversity, enabling Pollard to experiment more with his songwriting. This means that the hooks aren't transparent sixties hooks, but very much Pollard's own; they're unmistakably the work of the band.
This album came at precisely the right moment, and was exactly what the group needed. Had they attempted to forge a unique persona from the start they may have lacked the maturity and discipline to pull it off, while had they remained submerged in sixties stylistics after Sandbox they would invariably have begun to stagnate. This album represents a necessary step in the group's progression, but it's hardly only valuable for historical reasons; it's an incredibly entertaining listen, filled with catchy, creative melodies that aren't diluted by the imitation stigma. DBMT and Sandbox are undeniably enjoyable works, but they're marred by the feeling that they're mere practice sessions for a fledgling group; this album is the fruits of their labor, and the first true GbV album.
Having established an identity for themselves independent of the influences that had shaped much of their prior output, GbV were finally in a position to embark on loftier projects, fulfilling the ambitions that had lain dormant during their formative period.
Thus Same Place The Fly Got Smashed is by far the most risky, ambitious undertaking, a full fledged rock opera, certainly a bold move for a group as unestablished as GbV. After the comparatively obscure Pretty Things incepted the genre with the psychedelic masterpiece SF Sorrow, the medium was primarily reserved for more established groups like the Who, Pink Floyd, the Kinks, Genesis and Neil Young. However, ultimately it was their very anonymity that enabled the group to take a risk of this magnitude, as there was no label to castrate this ambitions and no real audience to alienate; the group were free to experiment as they wished.
This particular rock opera chronicles the life of a doomed alcoholic, evoking the pathos of his tragic existence. The subject matter and presentation truly differentiate the album from other rock operas; while many others depict tragic subjects, they usually infuse a measure of theatricality to them, inflating the importance of their tale with showmanship and melodrama. SPtFGS is far more gritty and realistic, conjuring a dark, despairing feel, and never diluting its harsh, visceral potency with artificial theatrics or a bloated epic stature.
One inherent flaw to the archetypal rock opera is that the primary focus is on conveying the story, and the melodies will often suffer as a result. While the songwriting is still strong for the most part, this is undeniably a less compelling set of melodies than on S-IAN.
One must apply a different criteria when assessing rock operas, however. The main question is if the album successfully envelopes you in its world, and the answer is yes, it does. A pervasive atmosphere of bleakness and hopelessness is evoked and sustained throughout the album, and this atmosphere is brilliantly complemented by the melodies which, while not as immediate, striking or creative as those on the previous album, are nonetheless a perfect match for the subject matter.
SPtFGS is an anomaly in the GbV catalogue. A project of this nature was never attempted again, and it doesn't really fit into the band's developmental cycle; the progression from S-IAN to Propeller makes far more sense, almost as if this album never happened. This makes it sort of a dark horse in the band's discography, and it's one eminently worth any fan's attention. While the melodies are somewhat weaker, they're used very effectively, and that compensates for any deficiency in the songwriting department. More importantly, not only is this a good rock opera, but a good album as well, depicting the strengths of GbV applied to a new context, revealing sides to the band not normally glimpsed. This is easily the darkest the group ever got, and that alone merits a look.
Interpreting SPtFGS as a sort of digression, Propeller is the natural follow up to S-IAN, forwarding the progress made on that album. Where S-IAN sowed the seeds of the band's identity, Propeller further delineates the band's distinctive persona, as they emerge from the sixties shadow that had previously eclipsed their unique strengths.
This progress is most evident in the experimental department, as the group shed any inhibition that impeded them in the past and never hesitate from taking a risk. Whether it be the dubbed crowd opening or the unexpected genre shift that bifurcates Over The Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox or the dissonant encoded vocals of Particular Damaged, the group makes few compromises in establishing a unique voice for themselves.
Of course no experimental development would be worth anything without an equal leap in the songwriting department to complement it, and this album doesn't disappoint. This is Pollard's strongest set of melodies to this point, augmented by the fact that, having developed his own voice, the melodies are all in the distinctive GbV style, idiosyncratic, unconventional and full of personality. The tracks are highly diverse without ever losing or betraying the character of the band, and Pollard proves his adeptness at translating his songwriting skills into any genre.
When a group grows more experimental there will inevitably be a few missteps. When GbV tackled the Nuggets milieu it wasn't much of a challenge to pen a consistent album, as that style constitutes eminently safe territory, with few risks; a lesser Nuggets song is infinitely more palatable than an experimental track gone awry. Thus Particular Damaged, while not quite an aural ordeal, is rather grating, which is especially a pity as, without the discordant vocal encoding it could've been a decent enough track. In that instance their desire to be experimental got the better of them, but, by and large, they adhere to the golden rule, which is to never allow experimentation to come at the expense of the melody.
While there are certainly catchy riffs on the album, like on the anthemic rocker Exit Flagger, and myriad strong instrumental hooks, the main attractions on this album are the brilliant vocal melodies, an art that Pollard has proven himself to be a master of. His vocal melodies are never banal, predictable or trivial, often complex yet never needlessly so, and never to the point of compromising their memorability or catchiness. These exceptional vocal melodies are ameliorated by Pollard's constantly improving vocals; while he was never lacking in that area, with each album he sounds more assured, and he seems more comfortable in a style that's more distinctively his than aping sixties garage rockers.
Propeller is yet another milestone for the group, a portrayal of a group steadily realizing their considerable potential. Few, if any, sacrifices were made in the process of establishing the group's unique identity, and Pollard never neglects his commitment to catchy songwriting with his newfound focus on experimentation. Aside from a few lapses of taste, like the gratuitous vocal encoding on Particular Damaged, the experimentation never seems intrusive or extraneous; rather, it's been integrated into the songs in an organic fashion, complementing the melodies rather than obscuring them. This experimentation opens up new horizons for them and new forums for Pollard's brilliant songwriting and boundless creativity, as evidenced by Over The Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox, a song the group simply couldn't have pulled off a few albums ago.
Propeller is simply a great album, filled with catchy melodies and creative ideas. Diverse, idiosyncratic and adventurous, Propeller features all of the group's strengths in full force, and may be the peak of the pre-Bee Thousand period. Pollard seems to pen brilliant melodies effortlessly, such as the fan favorite Weedking, with a constantly flowing stream of lyrics where every line manages to be catchy and hard hitting. That track can be seen as a microcosm for the album, and perhaps the band as a whole.
Perhaps the best showcase for Pollard's complete mastery of the art of conciseness, Vampire On Titus features seventeen tracks, nine under the two minute warning. What this makes for is an experience somewhat akin to listening to a version of Back To Saturn X Radio Report elongated enough to occupy a whole album, with song fragments culled from a plethora of disparate genres fading I into one another at alarming speeds, staying only long enough to make their point with but a modicum of repetition.
Not all of these songs are fragments, however. Pollard's art is no crass method of writing a song, crudely slicing off two thirds of its running time, slapping a bandage on and sloppily recording the remainder. On the contrary, more often than not he genuinely writes songs that feels fully developed at its diminutive running time, with no sense of arbitrary abridgement or an abrupt abortion.
Admittedly this doesn't apply to all the songs. Some tracks are undisputable fragments, though this isn't a condemnation, at least not a severe one; Pollard's always had a knack for making even his fragments interesting, featuring far too much creativity and artistry to be dismissed as utterly expendable filler.
It's with the fully fleshed out songs, however, that the album shines. Pollard's songwriting is as strong as ever, and the material is highly diverse, an essential component to an album of this length.
If one listens to this album and comes out with the conviction that the LP should be purged of its fragments with the remaining tracks extended to more conventional rock song length then they obviously have an inherent incompatibility with the GbV style. Certainly, many of the songs could, if necessary, be extended with the typical rock padding (redundant choruses, pointless jams, etc.), but this lengthening would add nothing to the material; on the contrary, it would dilute the potency it derives from its sharp conciseness.
As for the fragments, they're hardly filler that needs to be excised; in reality they're an essential part of the album, always intriguing, and an integral aspect of the LP's charm.
On the whole this is a highly enjoyable album. It doesn't break any new ground, but it offers more of what the band does best, and a lot of it. Few groups are capable of filling such a long album with this much strong material, but GbV are up to the task, and Pollard pens as compelling a collection of tunes as he ever as, making sure that even his toss-offs have something meaningful to offer.
Fast Japanese Spin Cycle is everything that its contemporaneous full fledged GbV albums were, albeit in miniature. It packs a comparatively enormous number of songs into a very short time frame (in this case eight songs are crammed into around ten minutes), with each track sounding so raw and unpolished that it's as if no producer had ever set eyes on the EP.
The fragment syndrome certainly manifests itself, as many of the tracks simply feel like several ideas haphazardly grafted together, but this never poses much of a problem, as the songs are sufficiently well written that their ragged, underdeveloped forms contain more than enough substance to animate them no matter how hastily tossed together they feel.
Each song, in spite of their brevity, offers something worthwhile, be it a catchy melody or a memorable hook. Not every track is fully original, as there are a few alternate cuts on the EP, but even these are intriguing, doing enough to differentiate themselves from their album counterparts to warrant a listen.
The best track is the fan favorite My Impression Now, a catchy pro-suicide anthem that became a staple of their live shows. With irresistible vocal melodies and a raw, rocking arrangement, it fits more musical ideas into a diminutive track than are featured in some entire albums. It was never placed on an LP, so its presence alone on here is enough to merit a purchase of the EP.
As always with the group the lack of studio polish is an asset rather than a defect, with the lo-fi production infusing a certain casual charm into the proceedings. The rawness never obstructs or dilutes the melodies, rather complementing their spontaneous feel.
Overall Fast Japanese Spin Cycle constitutes a highly enjoyable ten minutes, as each second feels like it was used to its fullest. The fact that one has to pay a dollar per minute for the EP ensures that it can only be recommended for diehard GbV fans, but for hardcore Pollard disciples it's a must own, as it features myriad great melodies and a plethora of stellar hooks throughout its short length that followers of the group won't want to be without.
There is no innate virtue in producing an album with twenty tracks. Anyone can pen a few chord progressions, label them a song, repeat the process and boast of having completed a magnum opus of epic stature.
For a twenty song track listing to have any meaning there must truly be twenty songs, not half-baked snippets designed to pad an album of normal length to inflate its importance. The album must genuinely need to be twenty tracks long; there must be a reason for it; it must be more than a publicity stunt to attract the attention of numeric fetishisers or coveters of bargain values.
Having twenty tracks has no meaning. What does have meaning, however, is having twenty tracks that are uniformly brilliant, a vast selection of songs utterly devoid of blandness, repetition or superfluity. Bee Thousand has no misfires, filler or extraneous tracks; every song is well written, every song is memorable, and, most importantly, every song is a song. The track listing isn't elongated in a pathetic attempt to artificially inflated the album's importance; every song not only deserves to be on the album, they need to be on the album.
The multitude of tracks is hardly surprising, merely a natural progression in a trend started much earlier in the band's life cycle. And the reason for this trend is perfectly understandable; it stems from a self-awareness of the band's strengths and limitations.
Pollard's strength is not composing long, complex tracks; the band's dearth of instrumental skills isn't conducive to prolonged jams, and Pollard tends to write tracks that, at heart, are rather simple. Pollard's strength is producing an endless supply of strong melodies and creative musical ideas, and that's exactly what this album features. Each track boasts strong melodies and clever hooks, and with twenty tracks that's quite an impressive feat.
Of course the album isn't a masterpiece due to its number of tracks, but due to the simple fact that it represents a peak in Pollard's songwriting. Never have his melodies been more diverse, more imaginative or more memorable, as he guides his band from style to style in a parade of compact masterworks.
The GbV formula has been honed to perfection, a fusion of a sixties rock sensibility and more experimental indie rock aesthetics. A contract with a legitimate record label hasn't dispelled the abysmal production so ubiquitous in their early work, but by now the lo-fi plague has become a staple of their sound and they work with it rather than against it.
The art of conciseness is truly one of Pollard's greatest asset, as more happens in some of his minute long tracks than in the entirety of most bloated rock songs. The universal brevity of the tracks ensures that there are no wasted notes on the album, with every moment of the LP gripping, engaging and never predictable.
Bee Thousand is a true masterpiece, offering twenty tracks that are brilliant by any standards, not just by the standards of typical short songs. The tracks are rock music of the highest order, encapsulating everything that's good about the genre in the course of a two minute or less package (though admittedly a few tracks have the audacity to exceed a two minute running time).
It's a rare album that presents the listener with this many catchy, creative melodies, and this constant propulsion from hook to hook and idea to idea truly lends the album a magical feel. It's impossible to become bored with this album, and impossible not to become caught up in the spell of track after track of rock brilliance.
Still, as amazing as Bee Thousand is, it shouldn't eclipse the band's previous output. Many treat it as the band's debut, which is an oversight of egregious proportions. Much of their early work is in quite a similar style, and Pollard was an exceptional songwriter since the inception of the band.
Bee Thousand was the first installment in the band's most famous trilogy, with the latter two being Alien Lanes and Under The Bushes Under The Stars, both brilliant albums in their own right. For some this trilogy constitutes all the GbV they'll ever need, and while I can't agree these three albums can be said to represent a creative zenith for the band, a golden period when Pollard's songwriting skills reached their apex.
At any rate, this album turned a group shrouded in obscurity into indie rock favorites, and justly so. This album relentlessly bombards you with catchy melody after catchy melody, never giving you the chance to zone out or allow your attention to drift. Every moment of this album is compelling, and once you've had your fill of one idea another will instantly take its place.
Obviously at a loss as for how to follow up their commercial breakthrough and magnum opus BT, Pollard opted for a quantitative rather than qualitative solution; if he couldn't surpass the level of songwriting displayed on his previous album, he'd merely raise the already inflated track listing to absurdist levels, cramming more songs onto a single disc than are featured on a typical double album.
Invariably, this makes for a somewhat more erratic listen, with an elevated proportion of fragments and a few misguided efforts at innovation (like arbitrarily inserting the sound of a man snoring into an otherwise decent enough track), but the inevitable symptoms of deterioration inherent to oversaturation of this nature are countered by the simple fact that the songwriting high attained on BT still hasn't evaporated; on that album Pollard was able to tackle a seemingly insurmountable track listing of twenty and emerge with a classic, and on Alien Lanes Pollard is able to reprise this feat with an even more indomitable twenty-eight.
Alien Lanes borrows the same basic formula from its seminal predecessor, and Pollard is seemingly able to crank out an endless array of brilliant tracks in this mold with such ease that it creates the illusion that, if called upon to do so, he could produce a limitless number of exceptional albums in this style without ever running short of ideas.
At this stage in his career Pollard could seemingly do no wrong, with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ideas, a reservoir so full that it comes close to justifying the insane number of tracks.
While any album with twenty-eight tracks can't help but be at least partially guilty of accusations of self-indulgence, the truth is that, even if his songbook didn't warrant translation into an LP of that length, it certainly merited one of close to it. In this phase of his career the way Pollard operated was to simply pour out an endless stream of ideas which, due to his songwriting genius, could mostly be transfigured into brilliant rock songs. As is inevitable, however, some of these ideas are lackluster at best, and Pollard was never quite diligent enough about excising this effluvia.
Alien Lanes is remarkably consistent for an album boasting twenty-eight tracks, but Pollard did get a tad carried away, leaving the LP an imperfect masterpiece rather than a perfect one like BT. As I said, the album comes close to justifying its length, falling just a bit short, but that any group could even come close to fulfilling that ambition is astonishing.
Ultimately Alien Lanes is the best one could hope for in the aftermath of a creative and commercial breakthrough, a spiritual sequel that nearly matches its predecessor in quality. While its attempt to outdo BT through inflation may have been ill-advised and a bit gratuitous, the fact is that Alien Lanes offers a staggering number of brilliant rock songs and very little that could be called offensive or even unwelcome. BT may have boasted a few more instant classics and been somewhat more consistent, but Alien Lanes proves that their well of ideas if far from depleted; and, in the end, as long as Pollard's songwriting remained at that level he should have been allowed to write as many songs as he wanted to.
GbV were nothing if not prolific, and thus even the sessions of an album like Bee Thousand which sported an extremely long track listing yielded myriad cuts that were ultimately omitted from the final product.
This rarities and outtakes compilation derives the majority of its tracks from these sessions, along with salvaging some older material from the intentionally unreleased albums Learning To Hunt and Back To Saturn X (some of the tracks of which had already surfaced in heavily abridged forms as parts of the 'radio broadcast' that constituted the track Back To Saturn X Radio Report on Propeller).
Unlike standard rarities collections, which tend to slap together anything that could be construed as a rarity with but a modicum of discernment, a great deal of thought went into selecting these tracks. Only the best tracks were liberated from the ill fated unreleased albums, and the BT sessions produced such an immense surplus that the group were able to be quite selective in that department as well.
The result is an immensely entertaining listen, and one on par with much of the best of the band's 'legitimate' output, essential for fans but eminently accessible to casual listeners as well.
Whether or not the unreleased albums were justly consigned to their anonymous fate, their highlights are undeniably strong, comparable with the best of the band's material from that stage of their lifecycle. In terms of the overlap with the Back To Saturn X Radio Report medley, sadly the fragments included there conveyed pretty much all of the songs' melodic development, and few surprises await the listener in their unexpurgated forms, but they're still good tracks, and the 'new' material is uniformly strong and make excellent additions to the band's catalogue.
The bulk of the album, the outtakes from the BT sessions, are the main attractions, seldom betraying their outtake status. Many of them could have sat comfortably on the BT track list, featuring the same level of craftsmanship as the songs that made the cut.
Pollard was obviously on a songwriting roll, to such a degree that even his outtakes are studded with melodic brilliance. This is a strong album by any standards, and for an outtakes collection it's absolutely brilliant. What should be a cheap cash-in is instead an indispensable listen for any GbV fan, fan-bait that's more a gift than an extortion.
This is simply a superb rock album, with catchy rockers interchanging with pretty acoustic ballads and the group's signature concise magic animating every track. Memorable riffs and vocal melodies abound, resulting in a set of songs that's impressive by anyone's standards.
That these are outtakes doesn't signify that the band thought them weak; it merely illustrates how easily these compositions came to Pollard at this point in their career. Pollard was simply overflowing with ideas, and any time this stream of creativity was captured on tape it resulted in something very much worth listening to.
For the last entry in their classic trilogy GbV attempt to segue their ever increasing cult status into a more mainstream niche in the alternative rock universe. Under The Bushes Under The Stars is a transparent crossover vehicle, meticulously fashioned to translate the band's strengths into more marketable forms while omitting whatever tendencies might be construed as too blatantly indie or inaccessible.
One needn't even turn the album on to notice one of the more glaring modifications to the band's formula. The group had been steadily elevating the track listings until they hit critical mass on this album's predecessor, Alien Lanes, at twenty-eight. Here the number's suddenly plummeted to eighteen tracks, all with more conventional running times than the band was accustomed to, meaning that, for the first time, the album is devoid of the eccentric fragments that littered (in a good way) their previous albums.
If fans regard this drastic renovation as a betrayal then they'll be incensed by the biggest change: for the first time ever GbV have a real, legitimate producer: erstwhile Pixies bassist/Breeders frontwoman Kim Deal. Thankfully Deal doesn't feel compelled to infuse any Pixies mysticism into the recordings; while the Pixies were an incredible group, by this point GbV had developed their own unique identity, and nothing could mar their progress more than being seen as a tribute band for a more well known indie rock outfit.
But while the production doesn't transfigure the material into a procession of Pixies (or Breeders) soundalikes, it still undeniably has a huge impact on the sound. For once this sounds like a real album, not like some homemade garage rock project. This isn't to denigrate their previous work; on the contrary, the brilliant songwriting always shone through, and the raw (or nonexistent) production had its own unique charm.
So that leaves the question: does the modern production sterilize or improve the songs? I'm inclined to stay in the middle. At times I miss the rougher sound, which certainly complemented the band well, but by and large the production works for these songs, and they never become too polished or lose the GbV feel, which is ultimately what matters.
But what truly matters, of course, is the quality of the songs, and this album doesn't disappoint. Pollard was still at a songwriting peak, and this album is regarded as part of a trilogy with Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, production disparities aside, for a reason: they present the group at their very, very best, the absolute pinnacle of their abilities.
Due to the exile of half-baked fragments and the abridgement of the track listing the album has a more focused feel, and that's evident in the quality of the material, which is uniformly brilliant. Combined with the newly implemented regime of actual production, however, it makes this the most normal sounding GbV album so far. It still bears the group's charm, but in a more controlled, restrained setting, and this can be equally welcoming to newbies and off-putting to long time fans.
Enough of the group's personality invariably shows through to prevent any major problems, though, and all grievances are eclipsed by the brilliant songwriting, studded with excellent riffs and irresistible vocal melodies. Whether they're menacing dark rockers (Cut-Out Witch) or rousing anthems (The Official Ironmen Rally Song) these tracks pack just as much melodic punch as anything in the band's catalogue, and are hardly diluted by the evils of modern production.
What helps is that Deal, an indie rock diva herself, seemed to completely understand the group, and thus attempted to work with their strengths rather than struggling to fashion them into a more generic, uncharacteristic and commercially viable rock outfit. The production fits the material, and proves that production and GbV albums aren't wholly incompatible.
On the whole this is an excellent album, and a fitting resolution to the group's golden trilogy. Needless to say no fan should fail to investigate either their previous or subsequent offerings, but this trilogy is certainly a good place to start, as it presents all of the group's strengths in full force.
The album is a bit too restrained and normal sounding compared with Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, where an endless supply of creative and experimental ideas were exploding across every second of the albums' play time, to rank it quite in their league, but on a song for song basis it's nearly as strong, and there's certainly no decline in the songwriting department.
Big changes were ahead for this group, and some, for good reason, would say that they'll never be the same group again. The new direction would come abruptly and quite decisively, and whether it was for the best or not is quite difficult to say. Though Pollard was able to convey the impression that he could make an endless number of brilliant albums in this mold, logically one would have to doubt the precision of that assessment, and at the very least that band would inevitably become susceptible to stagnation; the change may very well have rejuvenated the group and saved them from becoming a self-parody.
At any rate this isn't just the end of the trilogy, but in many respects the end of the whole first half of the band's lifecycle. It would be a different group that recorded the remainder of their albums, and one with a radically different style. For some casual fans who prize accessibility above else the band only begins for real here; while this is consummately absurd, it would be equally misguided to say that the band ends here. This is a brilliant swansong, but only for a chapter of the group's history, not the group itself.
Pollard's first solo effort does little to differentiate itself from a GbV release, sounding nearly identical in sound and style to his group's previous outings. While this is to be expected given Pollard's inherent dictatorial tendencies as frontman of the group, it makes one wonder why the album wasn't released under the GbV moniker.
None of this really matters, however, as Not In My Airforce doesn't simply sound like a GbV album: it sounds like a very good one. Pollard had been on a terrific streak in the songwriting department, and while the album isn't on the same level as the previous trio, it's still a high quality affair that would be worthy of the GbV name.
While the band was about to undergo a radical revision in sound, Not In My Airforce remains firmly entrenched in the group's older stylistics. Once more Pollard pens an album with myriad tracks (in this case 22), most of them quite short; while the album can be erratic at times, especially when it comes to the tracks that basically amount to song fragments, most of the tracks are quite strong, and even those that aren't tend to be at least interesting.
Given that Pollard basically was GbV, and that he makes no effort to shift styles on this outing, the album can ultimately be assessed as a GbV CD, and in this regard it comes off as quite strong. Pollard's prolific nature has almost no analogues in the world of rock, and it's a testament to his genius that nearly every project he embarks upon turns out strong.
No matter what name Pollard goes under the brilliance of his songwriting will shine through, and Not In My Airforce is no exception. The album can easily be recommended to any GbV fan, as long as one's ready to accept that this is in essence the same type of album he's released for many years, with no tangible signs that this is a solo endeavor.
A transitional album, and the next step in establishing the band's new sound. The production is clearer and more streamlined, lacking the jagged indie quality that Kim Deal infused into it. But this isn't sufficient; Pollard was yet unable to fully realize his new vision for the band due to one inherent liability; the irredeemable deficient musical prowess of the band, which rendered any real progression impossible.
No matter what level of aural clarity the sound could attain with proper production the flaws of the band's instrumentation would continue to plague them, if anything exacerbated by the new production which would expose their every flaw in their eldritch glory.
Pollard wanted to take the band in new directions, forsaking their trusty garage roots, and his old lineup was simply incapable of fulfilling his ambitions. Frustrated, he took the most drastic and irrevocable approach; exiling all his erstwhile bandmates from the group, indiscriminately terminating their years of loyal service.
Amongst those banished was Tobin Sprout, the only other full fledged songwriter in the group and the only other real creative voice GbV had. While his songwriting contributions were few, they were nearly always worthwhile, and his departure signified the beginning of Pollard's absolute, uncontested monopoly on the band's songwriting. While the two would later reconcile, Sprout would never return to the band as a consistent member, and Pollard's installation as the band's absolute dictator was a permanent one.
Replacing the departing members was indie rock outfit Cobra Verde, certainly a group with superior professional chops to the defiantly amateurish GbV lineup. While they add to the precision of the group, they sadly detract from its spirit, making the band sound more generic and diluting their distinctive identity.
This problem culminates in the song I Am A Tree. Penned by Cobra Verde's Gillard, it's certainly a good song, albeit with rather pedestrian and nearly embarrassing lyrics, but it simply doesn't feel like a GbV song; it could be the product of nearly any above average indie rock group. GbV have always been at the top of the indie heap, and should never be reduced to the role of a generic solid band in the genre.
But in the end these grievances are superficial; as long as Pollard's brilliant songwriting is intact then no amount of perversion or distortion of the band's essence can fatally mar the proceedings.
Sadly, however, after a streak of brilliant albums Pollard could no longer sustain this level of quality, and accordingly the songwriting severely suffers. The tracks aren't bad, but they're rather uninspired and lackluster compared to his recent work, and this problem is compounded by the Cobra Verde treatment, which ensures that the old GbV magic isn't there to salvage the material.
Mediocre GbV material coupled with typical routine indie production and instrumentation transfigures this album into a mere generic indie rock album, unworthy of the GbV name. It's certainly above average for the genre, but GbV were so much more than a generic indie rock group that any triumphs here are invariably tainted.
I won't say that Pollard sold out; what he was trying for was commendable, a reinterpretation of GbV which would inherently necessitate a superior instrumental backing. But what made GbV unique wasn't the raw production or the sloppy playing, it was the brilliant and idiosyncratic songwriting, and Pollard simply couldn't deliver on this occasion; that fact would have been just as fatal whether or not the new production was implemented.
This is still by no means a bad album; as always with Pollard there're sporadic flashes of brilliance, and no truly offensive moments, while most of the filler is at least relatively enjoyable as long as it's on (though it will inevitably be forgotten shortly thereafter). Some tracks are quite strong, and in a welcome if incongruous development the fragments are back, and often work better than the majority of the lengthier tracks, offering a single clever idea compared to many songs' creative bankruptcy.
Even though the album is enjoyable, however, it lacks most of what makes the group one of the absolute best indie rock groups of their era. Pollard hadn't yet figured out how to adapt the group to his new ambitions; in that regard this album is a necessary learning experience, one that would lead to much greater triumphs in the future. The band had to change, and Pollard needed to experiment in order to ascertain the ideal balance between the group's identity and a more mainstream sound.
In the end, though, the group can simply never work without strong songwriting, no matter how immaculate the production is or how skilled the musicians are. Tracks that are either hookless or only offer banal, bland and predictable hooks make for a rather poor outing by any standards, and when the circumstances of the album conspire to magnify these defects one is in serious trouble. Fortunately a new sound would be found, one that both preserves the GbV spirit and successfully brings the group into a more commercial context; more importantly, this creative slump would prove temporary, and Pollard's songwriting faculties would recover.
Pollard's second solo outing remains indistinguishable from the GbV sound, but once more this is hardly a liability. Like its predecessor, Waved Out is a strong album by any standards, filled with catchy melodies and memorable hooks. Given its high level of quality, whether it's a solo or GbV album becomes irrelevant, simply a matter of semantics.
How Pollard managed to maintain this standard of quality given his hyper prolific nature remains a mystery, but once more he's penned a consistent album of terrific songs.
Ironically enough, Waved Out sounds more like a GbV album than Mag Earwhig!, as if Pollard was compartmentalizing his styles and relegating his changing direction to his GbV releases. Thus, sandwiched between the glossier production values of Mag Earwhig! and Do The Collapse it comes as a breath of fresh air for those pining for the sound of the glory days of the group and for whom a pop modality is anathema.
With a smaller number of tracks than usual by Pollard's prolific standards (a scant 15), Waved Out focuses more on fully fleshed out songs than the usual plethora of fragments. Whether this is a merit or a flaw is up for debate (personally I've always been very fond of the fragments as long as there was a good balance between them and the full fledged songs on the album), but it enables most of the songs to emerge as fully developed entities rather than half-formed experimental ideas.
Ultimately, whether it's credited to the group or not, Waved Out is yet another very good GbV album, with the solo attribution failing to manifest itself in any particular areas. Pollard's songwriting never falters, and the timing of the release was perfect, proving to fans that he was still more than capable of generating an album according to the old GbV mold for those disappointed with the new incarnation of the group and disillusioned by the highly flawed nature of ME!
For GbV fans who had sagaciously accepted that the group would never produce another BT, Do The Collapse is exactly what they should have been hoping for, an album that marries the group's strengths to the slick production that could no longer be averted.
ME! had already attempted this endeavor but with only a modicum of luck. This dearth of success wasn't attributable to the cleaner production that was imposed over it, but rather the fact that the content of the album simply wasn't appropriate for this slicker treatment.
This unsuitability manifested itself both in the form of qualitative inadequacy, as Pollard was understandably creatively exhausted after penning an endless stream of excellent songs for the band's entire life cycle, and through the fact these weren't songs that were stylistically conducive to these productive embellishments, deriving little benefit from the studio treatment.
Pollard obviously understood precisely what went awry in his first major studio foray, and that becomes evident from the very first moments of DtC with Teenage FBI, a brilliant pop song that marries Pollard's brilliant songwriting skills with shimmery pop production that manages to fully complement and augment the song, turning it into an undisputable classic. The vocal melodies are unbeatable and the truth is that the song simply wouldn't have worked with the rough BT-style production treatment. Pollard had learned that the key to success in this new paradigm was to write songs specially crafted to work with the new production, rather than simply writing old style GbV songs and hastily slapping a cleaner coating onto them.
This realization is evident throughout the album, which acts as a brilliant showcase for the band's limitless potential in this new incarnation. Pollard's songwriting has fully regenerated after a temporary lapse, and the songs are uniformly strong, featuring catchy and memorable melodies, generally in a pop vein, with a production treatment that manages to give the tracks a clean sound without diluting the melodies or leaving the songs sterile.
Initially scheduled to be the band's big label debut, that plan was terminated after the record executives heard the album, a decision that's a potent testament to their consummate idiocy. DtC is pop music of the highest order; accessible, yet never generic, complex and creative yet always catchy, entertaining yet substantial. DtC had all the necessary tools to become the band's breakthrough album, yet sadly Pollard's dreams were sabotaged by the indomitable ignorance of record labels.
GbV fans should not view this album as a betrayal, but rather a reinterpretation of the band that still features much of what always made them an excellent group. Granted these changes were made to make their sound more commercial, but Pollard would never allow his vision to be seriously compromised and his continued exceptional songwriting and guidance ensures that the band never lapses into genericism or tastelessness.
DtC can't measure up to the legendary trilogy, but it seems that Pollard had taken that direction as far as it could go, and this change seems to have rejuvenated his skills. Untrivial pop had always been a specialty of his, and on here it provides an apt forum for his considerable talents. On this album he proves that the band can make the transition to full production unscathed, and that his songwriting skills can be translated intact into any context. Regardless of whatever else it may be, DtC offers 16 more quality songs from GbV, and that should be enough to make any fan, no matter how dubious, take notice.
Yet another GbV album masquerading as a Robert Pollard solo release, Kid Marine is another quality outing for the most prolific man in rock.
Once again providing a mere 15 tracks, the emphasis is once more on fully developed songs rather than another onslaught of an armada of song fragments.
Of these 15 tracks nearly all have something to offer, with only a modicum of filler to speak of, and none of this filler is of an egregious nature; there's nothing on the album that could be termed offensive, with a very high level of quality sustained throughout.
The album's sound remains rooted in the group's past, with none of the glossy pop of the variety prominently featured on Do The Collapse, and this bifurcation of Pollard's agenda enables fans to experience the best of both worlds, with neither side obstructing or impeding the other.
Pollard's songwriting remains exceptionally strong, easily matching the quality of his first two solo efforts. With a seemingly inexhaustible well of creativity, Pollard once again crafted a work of sonic brilliance, studded with irresistible hooks and catchy melodies.
At this point in his career Pollard could seemingly do no wrong, and this album is a testament to this assertion. By preserving the group's classic sound Pollard has created an oasis for hardcore fans embittered by the paradigm shift in the group's direction.
This isn't to say that the sound is a static rendering of the group's past; this album is in no respect a rehash. Kid Marine simply sounds like a natural successor to GbV's early output, what the band would still be composing had they opted not to pursue a more accessible, commercial sound. Thus no side of the group is lost, and Pollard is free to take his compositions in whichever direction he pleases with total artistic freedom, not having to worry about compromising or sabotaging his group's more mainstream aspirations.
From the guitar onslaught that begins the opener Time Machines, Ask Them offers an adrenaline rush of rock and roll that never really lets go through the near twenty minutes of this EP.
More reminiscent of garage rock than Pollard fans are accustomed to, Ask Them was the product of a collaboration between the GbV frontman and the band The Tasties, a six song EP of furious guitar rock quite dissimilar to anything that had come before from Pollard's storied history.
Each track is quite strong, with the kind of charming, organic sloppiness endemic to garage rock. Pollard even sufficiently liked one track, Fair Touching, that he included it on his subsequent GbV release, Isolation Drills.
While the album is immensely enjoyable while it's on, the brevity of its run time prevents it from assuming its place as a true classic amongst Pollard's disparate catalogue; this shortness also works in its favor, however, as its focus and compactness enable it to pack quite a punch, a high concentration of potent rock and roll that bombards the listener throughout its diminutive length.
While it fails to stand out that much amongst Pollard's myriad enterprises, Ask Them remains a very strong listen, a superficial yet highly entertaining experience. While it's the only product of the Lexo And The Leapers experiment, it alone completely justifies the existence of the band, showcasing yet another branch of rock that Pollard's genius can be translated into.
A collaboration with current fellow GbV bandmate Doug Gillard, Speak Kindly Of Your Volunteer Fire Department is the first solo Pollard project (solo as Gillard exclusively functions as a musician rather than a creative force on the album) to adhere to the new sonically cleaner, glossier, direction of the group proper.
While it's sad to lose a side of the group responsible for so many brilliant albums, any disappointment is swiftly dispelled as SKoYVFD is the best solo Pollard outing to date.
Far poppier than its predecessors (as is natural given that it's sandwiched between DtC and ID, GbV's pop masterpieces), the album features some of Pollard's best songwriting to date, filled with infectious melodies and irresistible hooks.
Wholly devoid of filler, SKoYVFD is a perfect showcase for Pollard's somewhat eccentric version of pop, filled with catchy tunes that don't compromise his surreal tendencies, either lyrically or musically.
Creativity abounds, as Pollard effortlessly generates a procession of pop songs filled with clever hooks that are no less memorable for their strangeness. Each track is fully infused with the Pollard's idiosyncratic personality, ensuring that none of his identity is sacrificed in an effort to commercialize his sound.
Despite his lack of creative input into the proceedings, Gillard is a strong presence on the album, as his instrumental prowess makes itself felt on many occasions, augmenting the tracks with his multi-instrumental skills. Gillard ensures that Pollard's musical backup never goes awry, always finding the perfect sounds to complement Pollard's unorthodox style.
While invariably overshadowed by the pop behemoths surrounding it, SKoYVFD is a pop album nearly on the same level as its more well known counterparts. While an arbitrary trick of nomenclature dictates that the album won't receive the kind of attention that the full band efforts will, SKoYVFD is every bit as deserving attention as DtC and ID, a pop album of the highest order.
One fact that continually amazes me is that despite his unparalleled prolific tendencies Robert Pollard appears to always devote considerable efforts to each of his myriad undertakings. Furthermore, even on autopilot Pollard generates more strong melodies than most indie rock groups produce in their entire lifespan, ensuring that whenever he applies even a modicum of effort to his enterprises they'll invariably turn out well.
Such is not the case, however, with In Shop We Build Electric Chairs, a compilation of the works of a fabricated indie rock group that Pollard seems to have devoted virtually no amount of creative energy toward. The album is nearly bereft of any form of melodies, an interminable ordeal of instrumental dissonance and horrendous production.
Admittedly these liabilities are intentional; this faux rock group is largely a joke, a parody of a certain breed of lo-fi indie rock outfits. Nevertheless rather than laughing at Pollard's coruscations of wit one is more apt to be suffering from alternating headaches and boredom, as postmodernism has rarely been a viable incentive toward enjoying rock music.
Parodies of this nature can work; XTC's Dukes Of Stratusfear succeeds in its send-up of sixties psychedelia thanks to its array of authentic-sounding and well written melodies, and while I'm not terribly fond of it at least The Residents' Third Reich 'N' Roll satire/indictment of the genre at least boasts some measure of cleverness amidst its smug deconstructionist tendencies.
Unfortunately, In Shop We Build Electric Chairs features neither compelling melodies nor much in the way of cleverness, devoid of any insight or incisiveness in its portrayal of a fictional indie rock band and wholly bankrupt in the entertainment department. Pollard apparently expended a bare minimum of effort when crafting this album, and the resultant product fails to succeed on any level.
There's no excuse for tracks like Those Little Bastards Will Bite which constitutes little more than eleven minutes of chthonic tedium. Each number invariably feels like one idea mercilessly elongated to fill an entire track, and whenever a glimmer of inspiration appears it's sabotaged by the intentionally atrocious production and inept instrumentation.
A product of this nature is simply beneath Robert Pollard, who elected to take a day off as a melodic guru extraordinaire and instead dedicate himself to self-indulgent musical pranks wherein the only joke is the concept of the album itself rather than the actual execution. While the idea of a send-up of indie rock helmed by Pollard sounds appealing, the joke never extends beyond the album's very existence, rendering it worthless for all but diehard Pollard completists.
Suitcase is the ultimate litmus test for Guided By Voices listeners, bifurcating their audience into tribes of fans and fanatics. For diehard Pollard fans Suitcase is a veritable treasure trove, containing 100 previously unreleased recordings, while for more casual fans it's an exercise in excess, with listening to it in its entirety being a daunting task they'd just as soon abstain from.
By virtue of its status as a rarities collection and its preposterously huge number of tracks, Suitcase is, naturally enough, a rather erratic collection, with its fair share of misfires and 'failed experiments' (as the title warns). What's amazing, however, is that the vast majority of the tracks range from solid to excellent, providing Guided By Voices fans with a plethora of forgotten gems.
This is a true testament to Pollard's songwriting genius, as very few individuals are so adept at composing that even the songs they discard in their wake are quality offerings. Pollard was simply so consummately prolific that even after filling his albums with an array of classics his vault still wasn't depleted of strong selections, with more than enough quality material left over to sustain a massive rarities collection.
There are certainly a few hurdles that need to be overcome to enjoy this album, however. Aside from the aforementioned filler quotient the tracks are universally poorly produced, with a sound that's more cacophonous than energetically raw and more than a few cases where Pollard's voice is overly low in the mix.
If the listener perseveres, however, he'll find himself capable of adapting to this aural ordeal and able to appreciate the strong craftsmanship that went into composing these tracks.
In the long run it goes without saying that Suitcase is as essential for hardcore GbV aficionados as it's wholly unnecessary for casual fans of the group. There's certainly much of worth to be found here, with myriad strong tracks culled from many stages of the band's history, and even the misfires can be intriguing for GbV connoisseurs, but this is still insufficient for this expensive box-set to merit a purchase from a more casual audience.
There is certainly an abundance of filler present, along with atrocious production that obstructs some of the melodies, and most of the tracks, however strong, don't qualify as true GbV classics; ergo a more casual fan would only derive a modicum of enjoyment from the box-set.
For diehard fans, however, Suitcase remains an essential part of any GbV collection, providing hours of entertainment, with any obstacles for this enjoyment being far from insurmountable.
One of Pollard's more artistically ambitious efforts, the Circus Devils provide a sonic experience unlike anything else.
A collaboration with Todd Tobias, brother of GbV bassist Tim Tobias (who plays guitar on this album), Ringworm Interiors is a series of dark, short rock sound collages, 28 in all, yet the entire album feels like one tenebrous suite.
RI cultivates a highly immersive, caliginous atmosphere, a dystopic vision of dark riffs and ominous orchestration. Each track is simultaneously unsettling and catchy, a queer paradox that makes the album a unique entry in Pollard's canon.
Even when the sound of the album grows intentionally ugly it remains melodic, never compromising its catchiness in order to project its dark atmosphere.
Most tracks are on the somewhat simplistic side, but that never becomes a problem, as the moment any song is in danger of growing tedious it's replaced with another (most songs hover around the one minute mark).
Each track contains something, be it an infectious riff or a clever vocal hook, to make it worth while, all without ever sacrificing its dark feel.
The music is almost hellish (in a good way), creating some sort of aural chthonic circus of surreal and disturbing melodies, leaving the listener entranced for the duration of its run time.
Ultimately RI is an unforgettable experience, filled with haunting music performed with tight instrumentation. While Pollard's vocal melodies are strong as always, his presence on the album is generally overshadowed by the music, complementing it more than being the main attraction as he's accustomed to.
While the album isn't for the weak of heart, it's easy to be sucked into its bleak and morbid world, a world that, once experienced, the listener will want to return to on many occasions.
Having successfully found a formula that suited them on the previous record, GbV weren't apt to make any significant deviations from this template on their subsequent album, meaning that Isolation Drills is yet another slick, polished package of immaculately produced rock studded with irresistible pop hooks.
This conscious decision to abstain from any serious departures enabled Pollard to direct all his attention to honing his songwriting craft. On DtC Pollard discovered a strong balance between the GbV sound and the group's new, more commercial orientation. On ID, he refines that balance to perfection, generating songs with just as much personality, creativity and craftsmanship as the group's classic work while still adhering to the more mainstream direction.
There are certain inherent limitations to the new sound that prevent the album from reaching the heights scaled on the trilogy, but on the whole the songs are just as catchy, memorable and well-written as those featured in their classic works. There's less diversity and experimentation, and the slick sound makes for a slightly uniform feel, but as far as qualitative consistency goes ID is hard to beat.
While the formula of DtC is faithfully preserved, what differentiates ID from its predecessor is the sheer brilliance of the songwriting. While Pollard was in top form on DtC, he's obviously much more comfortable with the new style on ID, and resultantly the songs are more sophisticated, fleshed out, complex and innovative, without ever compromising their immediacy or catchiness.
Furthermore, there's a greater emphasis placed on the band's rocking side, compared to the poppier, more timid DtC. ID is still fundamentally a pop album, with a glossy sheen coating a parade of unforgettable hooks, but it's far more accomplished when it comes to integrating harder rocking sections into its core pop dynamics, using the contrast between light and heavy to brilliant effect.
ID represents the band's zenith in this chapter of their history, the most successful marriage of Pollard's songwriting, the band's sensibility and modern production techniques. The album is undeniably missing some of the magic that animated BT, but that's compensated for by an unsurpassed level of songwriting craftsmanship and production. The band couldn't duplicate the brilliance of old in the studio, but they could offer an eminently worthy substitute.
A reversion to the lo-fi sound of classic GbV, Choreographed Man Of War is yet another eminently worthy addition to the Robert Pollard canon.
This resurrection of the old GbV style couldn't have come at a better time, as it enables Pollard to produce several albums in one year that manage to sound nothing like one another, complete with only a negligible amount of overlap between them.
Marred only by an overlong album closer (Instrument Beetle, a tedious affair that does little to justify its seven minute plus length), CMoW is yet another winner for Pollard. While there are fewer tracks than ever before (a mere ten this go round, a thought inconceivable in the golden days of Alien Lanes), each song (barring Instrument Beetle) is sufficiently strong that one never longs for a greater number of short tracks in favor of a smaller number of long ones.
Pollard's songwriting remains as strong as ever, making one view him as a human songwriting machine; despite a plethora of simultaneous projects he never seems to over extend himself, never at a loss to conjure a catchy hook or an original melody.
Don't be misled by the title applied to Pollard's backing band, as they're certainly capable of rocking quite convincingly, something they often do throughout the album. The album leans more in favor of rock than pop, a fortunate fact as it enables the album to provide a healthy balance to that year's pop masterpiece Isolation Drills.
In the end Pollard has managed to fashion an equation wherein different chapters of GbV history coexist simultaneously, a seemingly anachronistic situation that's a testament to the versatility of the group's frontman. Rather than claiming that he's gone beyond the group's past, he's managed to keep the classic era of GbV both preserved and active.
Factoring in his myriad other projects Pollard has proven himself quite capable of moving in many different directions at once, a feat unthinkable for most narrowly defined rock artists. Thus albums like this are possible, emerging from a past that is still very much alive.
One of Pollard's myriad side projects, Airport 5 was a collaboration with erstwhile GbV member Tobin Sprout. While Pollard's innate dictatorial tendencies had exiled Sprout (the only other creative force in GbV) from the group, the two managed to maintain a friendship that culminated with the inception of Airport 5, wherein both members are equally represented.
Unfortunately, Tower In The Fountain Of Sparks doesn't present either man at his best, sounding like an inferior GbV album. While there are certainly a handful of creative ideas featured in the music, the melodies, by and large, simply aren't very impressive, neither catchy nor memorable.
While there are certainly exceptions to that rule, it seems as if both men wanted to save their best material for their own enterprises, be it Sprout's solo career of GbV. Pollard had likely exhausted most of his creativity earlier that year on the brilliant Isolation Drills, leaving only a series of half-formed ideas that don't necessarily translate into memorable hooks or melodies.
This isn't to say that the album is bad; it contains more than enough interesting ideas to sustain one's interest. It's merely very average according to the high standards set by both men, and a grave disappointment to those anticipating a work of genius from a renewed collaboration between them.
While the album definitely evokes the feel of early GbV albums, it simply can't compare to them in the melody department, as there's a marked dearth of the clever ideas that used to spring effortlessly from both men.
Were this a Pollard or Sprout solo outing then one would be less disappointed by its lackluster quality; however, due to its position as a reunion between the two dominant creative forces behind early GbV it can't help but frustrate the listener with its comparative mediocrity.
More a procession of ideas, both good and bad, than a cohesive album, TitFoS is certainly a decent effort, but a decent effort where one would expect a brilliant one. It may be unfair to judge the album by this criteria, but fans of both men will invariably do so.
Released a scant six months after their first outing, Life Starts Here is naturally highly reminiscent of its predecessor both stylistically and qualitatively. Fortunately, however, it manages to be a more compelling listen than TitFoS, with more hooks with which to grab listeners and catchier melodies with which to hold them.
Curiously enough many of the better tracks are likewise the most primitive, often relying on the repetition of a single phrase, mantra-like, throughout the duration of the song.
In this regard the surreal Yellow Wife No. 5 simply consists of the repetition of the line, 'save yourself, stay alive, with yellow wife no. 5' in between spoken word sections. One would assume that the track would barely constitute a song, let alone a good one; however, the track is actually highly enjoyable, and will leave its infectious refrain in the listener's head for some time to come.
Ultimately that shouldn't come as much of a surprise to GbV fans, as in the classic days of Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes many of the plethora of songs were very basic, often consisting of a single idea that managed to be brilliant in its simplicity.
In this regard tracks like Yellow Wife No. 5 and I Can't Freeze Anymore hearken back to GbV's classic era, wherein Pollard and Sprout would generate a plethora of short, simple tracks each revolving around a single clever idea that could be transfigured into a catchy, unforgettable song.
This isn't to say that these songs are in the same league as classic GbV material, merely that Airport 5, stylistically, is a throwback to the days of the peak of Pollard and Sprout's partnership, tossing off whatever bizarre idea comes into their heads and inevitably coming out with more good ones than bad ones.
Life Starts Here, while somewhat inconsistent, is certainly a more engaging experience than its predecessor, with a number of tracks that manage to be memorable in their primitivism. There's certainly some filler, and a dearth of true classics, but in the end the album better captures the feel of the classic GbV sound than its predecessor, reminding the listener of what made the group so excellent in their heyday, with a similar formula (albeit with less success than that formula yielded in the past) and a similar sound. It may come across as 'GbV lite,' but it's the closest approximation of their style than one is likely to encounter at this point.
On their second outing, Pollard and the Tobias brothers eschew the fragmentary structure of RI in favor of more conventional and developed songs. While many would consider this to be a natural and positive step in the band's development, it certainly has its share of repercussions for the album.
The medley of rock fragments that composed The Circus Devils' debut helped fashion a unique persona for the group, whereas The Harold Pig Memorial sounds more like a collection of songs rather than a cohesive whole.
Fortunately, though it can be a tad erratic at times, the majority of these full-fledged songs are quite strong, filled with clever riffs and an immersive funereal atmosphere (the album is supposed to be, as the title suggests, the memorial of Harold Pig; strangely enough RI, which wasn't a concept album, felt far more like a complete vision than this themed LP).
tHPM has largely imported the sound of its predecessor, though it's often more straightforward and predictable than its volatile, eminently mutable, constantly shifting debut.
The marriage of their signature sound and Pollard and the Tobias brothers' strong songwriting makes for a very strong album, albeit one less fresh and exciting as their debut. The unsettling atmosphere has returned intact, and while there are few surprises compared to their original the album remains a very engrossing listen.
Ultimately tHPM is precisely what it set out to be: a more accessible blend of the group's dark vision, adhering more closely this time around to conventional song structures. In this regard the album is a complete success, as the band has managed to translate their sound into longer, more developed songs. While it sacrifices some of the band's uniqueness and spontaneity, it also enables the album to forge its own identity rather than a mere carbon copy of their debut.
Yet another side-project, this one a collaboration with Mac McCaughan of Superchunk fame. A joint effort between two of the most prominent figures in the indies would naturally lead to inflated expectations for the quality of the album; thankfully, Calling Zero amply fulfills them.
Predictably enough, the album largely consists of the fuzz rockers inherent to most Superchunk releases, sometimes alternating with acoustic numbers to add some balance to the proceedings.
The fuzz rockers are uniformly excellent, as are the majority of the softer songs (save for a few missteps, such as the somewhat bland, desultory title track). Somehow these styles normally associated with Superchunk are remarkably conducive to the joint venture, providing perfect backdrops for Pollard's classic vocal melodies.
Amazingly neither artist is forced to adapt or compromise their signature style; imported intact from their already established work the styles simply mesh perfectly, requiring no modifications to gel together.
Calling Zero is an indie fanboy dream project that doesn't disappoint; the fuzz rockers are hyper catchy and the acoustic tracks are deeply memorable. Both artists are in good form, always complementing and never overshadowing each other. There seems to be little in the way of a competitive spirit between the two, as both are content simply to produce a quality album attributed to the two as a unit rather than searching for individual accolades or attempting to prove one group's superiority over the other.
It's obvious that the two respect each other's talents deeply, as throughout the album they're forced to trust in their partner's abilities, Pollard confident in his collaborator's instrumental prowess while McCaughan must have faith in the lyrics and vocal melodies superimposed over his music. While both the music and vocal melodies are impressive independent of each other, they only become alive through the interplay when they're paired together.
While the final product can't hope to measure up to the peaks attained by both men in their prime, Calling Zero remains an immensely enjoyable listen, an album that can easily be recommended to fans of either man. It's always heartening to witness a 'dream collaboration' unfettered by over-hype or egos, one that's simply devoted to making great music. Ultimately Calling Zero is simply a very good indie rock album from two of the greats in that genre, not attempting to revolutionize the indie scene they pioneered but being content to work well within it.
The group's first release since leaving the comparatively larger label of TVT to return to Matador, UTaC is a conscious departure from the slick commercial product of DtC and ID, an attempt to recapture some of the rough magic suffused with their earlier work. This attempt proves to be in vain, however, as, lacking the limitless creativity and imagination that sustained albums like BT, the only trait that UTaC inherits from that era is its highly erratic character.
The reason is quite simple. The group's specialty is no longer generating an endless supply of creative ideas, but rather selecting a few of the more substantial ideas and developing them into polished, fully fleshed out musical entities, rather than relying on sheer energy and imagination to animate a parade of raw fragments.
Pollard simply doesn't have the limitless reservoir of ideas he used to, and those he has are often less compelling. When he takes the time to flesh out a more inspired idea, like Everywhere With Helicopter, the results are brilliant, but far too much of the album feels like mildly pleasant filler, material with a good sound that lacks well defined hooks and doesn't really go anywhere.
The album is entertaining while it's on, successfully preserving the GbV spirit and featuring just enough clever ideas from Pollard to justify its existence, but it's a severe disappointment after the brilliance of the previous album. On ID, Pollard recognized his strengths and limitations, and thus produced an album that represented the pinnacle of his abilities at this stage of his career. Neglecting his strengths and endeavoring to recapture the past proves to be a mistake, as he simply no longer possesses the necessary tools to produce work of the magnitude or unique nature of BT. However, as BT was the peak of its era, ID is just as valid and impressive a peak for this one; it's the lesser album, certainly, but in many departments it's a far more accomplished and mature album than its seminal predecessor.
This album aptly demonstrates that there was far, far more to BT than rough production and Pollard hastily tossing a lot of half-baked ideas together. On BT each idea, as simple or fragmented it may have seemed, was infused with a measure of creativity and brilliance that shone through the dismal production and unprofessional instrumentation. On UTaC these ideas, more often than not, just don't work; Pollard can no longer effortlessly toss off a fragment and turn it into magic; he needs to, as on ID, devote his full attention and energy to it, applying his every resource and studio trickery to make it work.
In most cases, the release of an EP is little more than a cynical ploy to exploit the devotion of hardcore fans by educing some extra cash from them by forcing them to buy an item that's ostensibly just designed to hype the next real album, which invariably will have a lot of overlap with the product you just purchased.
Thus it's always a pleasure when a group releases an EP that's truly meant to be a standalone artistic statement, bereft of underhanded motives, simply created to offer good music (then again, Pollard seems to be one of the rare breed of rock artists who takes pride in each song he composes, which is made all the more remarkable by the fact that he's easily one of the most prolific songwriters in rock and roll history).
The Pipe Dreams Of Instant Prince Whippet is one such case, an EP that's filled to the brim with excellent content that can't be found elsewhere. Packing ten great songs into a twenty-three minute time frame, it's a meticulously crafted product that obviously had a lot of effort and care invested in it.
At this point in his career Pollard was practically overflowing with creativity, conjuring a plethora of strong melodies for any work he tackled, be it a GbV product, a solo venture or one of his myriad side projects. Thus it's unsurprising that he had some extra songs to spare for an EP, and they're sufficiently strong that they hardly feel like outtakes or the discarded dregs of another enterprise.
The songs are uniformly well written, bursting with memorable melodies and catchy hooks. From the irresistible opener Visit This Place to the anthemic title track there are no missteps on the EP, simply high quality music of a caliber that's generally reserved for full fledged album releases.
The EP is too short to receive a higher rating, but that shouldn't stop you from purchasing it. For a GbV fan it's a true gem, and by the standards of most EPs it's an excellent listen. It's most likely a release that only completists will hunt down, but that's a pity, as the EP stigma shouldn't ward off potential buyers of this very strong work of musical art.
A joint venture between Pollard, prominent music critic Meltzer and the indie rock bands Smegma Antler and Vom, The Completed Soundtrack For The Tropic Of Nipples was yet another side project for the hyper prolific Guided By Voices frontman, but it differed from his usual digressions from the group in that it really wasn't his vision from a creative standpoint; it's ambiguous to what extent he's involved with the album's development, but it certainly isn't his creation from an artistic perspective, as he's ancillary to its composition and performance.
Much of the album consists of pretentious spoken monologues superimposed over generic, often dissonant musical backgrounds. These fail to be engaging from either a musical or lyrical perspective, with little to offer in the way of entertainment or artistic substance.
The tracks that focus more on the music aren't much better, as the songwriting is far from stellar, with most tunes sounding overly familiar and derivative. There's little that's elevated above the level of standard indie rock fare, with few compelling hooks or melodies. There's simply a dearth of imagination behind these compositions, resulting in a monotonous procession of indie clichés and predictable song structures.
This album certainly isn't the brainchild of Pollard, thus one wouldn't expect the soundtrack to sound like one of his projects; nonetheless one would anticipate at least a modicum of Pollard's typical style to show through given his involvement in the affair, thus rendering it a bitter disappointment that virtually nothing on the album betrays Pollard's typical creativity and songwriting genius.
The soundtrack is simply weak on nearly all fronts, failing to provide the listener with a worthwhile sonic experience. There are no signs of Pollard's presence, merely an array of mediocre tunes culled from the bottom of the indie rock barrel that Guided By Voices were always perched squarely at the top of. Thus the album can't even be recommended for diehard Pollard fans, offering nothing in the way of his usual brilliant songwriting or captivating charm.
Another collaboration between Pollard and Doug Gillard, Mist King Urth is yet another high quality side-project for one of the most prolific figures in rock history. While not quite as strong as their previous joint venture (Speak Kindly Of Your Volunteer Fire Department), MKU is nonetheless a very good album, filled with memorable, catchy rock songs and wholly devoid of anything that could be denigrated as filler.
Gillard once again proves himself to be one of Pollard's most consistently strong partners, playing every instrument on the album and helping pen myriad well written melodies. His instrumental prowess is once again immaculate, gelling perfectly with Pollard's vocals and offering a plethora of musical hooks.
Stylistically the Lifeguards side-project contributes little new to Pollard's canon, but this proves irrelevant, as what matters in the long run is that it presents a brilliant array of top tier Pollard songs.
Gillard's collaboration seems to have spurred Pollard, who had been precariously close to stagnation at this stage of his career, on to greater heights, driving him to help compose some of his best melodies in quite some time.
MKU makes it clear that Pollard's chemistry with Gillard, with regards to both performance and composition, cannot be overstated, rivaling the former's legendary collaborations with Tobin Sprout during the heyday of GbV.
While the album is still fundamentally indistinguishable from a GbV or solo outing for Pollard, this isn't to say that Gillard didn't put his stamp upon the LP; it's merely that his chemistry with Pollard is so seamless that there are no obtrusive elements to the proceedings. Gillard was likewise emulating Pollard's style, concentrating more on complementing him than showcasing his own musical identity.
In the end MKU is yet another successful side-project for Pollard, offering everything that one would hope for from one of his releases. Both Pollard and Gillard are in top form on the album, yielding a strong outing for both of them.
During one of his more thrasonical episodes, Pollard declared that had he been a member of the 80's art-rock outfit Phantom Tollbooth the band would have 'ruled the world.' Catching wind of this proclamation, the band offered Pollard the chance to prove the veracity of this statement: they erased the vocals from their final album, Power Toy, and provided the GbV frontman with the opportunity to superimpose his own lyrics and vocal melodies over the preexisting tracks.
Never one to pass up an opportunity to produce yet another side-project, Pollard accepted the challenge, renaming the album and its songs and setting out to vindicate his boastful comments.
While I haven't heard the original and thus can't compare the two, Beard Of Lightning is certainly a very good album. While much of the credit goes to the band's original instrumental melodies, Pollard does much to make the album his own, composing myriad catchy vocal melodies and penning his typically cryptic lyrics.
Pollard's vocals never seem out of place or hastily and awkwardly superimposed over the preexisting melodies; on the contrary, they complement the music quite well, proving the Pollard understood the original work very well and could effortlessly adapt to its style.
The preexisting melodies are quite strong, rocking very hard with creative and unconventional melodic structures. Clever riffs and imaginative hooks abound, integrating art-rock elements into the mix without compromising the album's accessibility.
Ultimately, whether he justified his comments or not notwithstanding, the album is yet another immensely enjoyable side-project for Pollard, with the new vocals gelling so well with the preexisting music that nothing betrays the fact that this wasn't the original product. Pollard was quite right in seeing his style as a good fit for the music, and the result is an entertaining affair that doesn't sound all that different from Pollard's own work.
Perhaps inspired by some of his more avant-garde enterprises ala the Circus Devils, Pollard decided to pen this mini-LP, a project far more artsy and experimental than one would expect from his solo work.
These innate experimental tendencies manifest themselves in a number of ways, from the a cappella intro of the opener In The House Of Queen Charles Augustus to the bizarre (often spoken word) segues between tracks to the frequent dissonant passages littered throughout the album.
Perhaps the epitome of these artsy inclinations is the multi-part suite The Spanish Hammer, wherein the track shifts between different melodies, fraught with patches of aural discordance. It makes one recall the Back To Saturn X Radio Report from Propeller, only the nearly ubiquitous dissonance on the track lends The Spanish Hammer the feel of a more cohesive whole, with less range than the Back To Saturn X Radio Report featured; this isn't a compliment, as the cohesive whole it forms is far less interesting or engaging than its predecessor.
While Pollard's ambitions on this album are laudable they often interfere with the quality of the material. Many tracks sacrifice melody in favor of experimental touches while lacking the creativity or innovation to justify their presence.
Tracks are often marred by these experimental excesses, be they encoded vocals or dissonant instrumentation, and it frequently seems as if Pollard focused more on these artistic endeavors than on the quality of the actual songs.
Less care than usual seems to have been devoted to Pollard's songwriting; given that Pollard's songwriting has always been his chief merit this constitutes a huge liability, resulting in a few substandard tracks punctuated by superficial experimental nuances.
Fortunately this isn't always the case; there are still several strong tracks, and given the shortness (around 30 minutes) of the album they compose a good portion of the mini-LP. The experimental touches are generally not terribly offensive save for when they obstruct the actual melodies (which isn't too frequently), and can generally be overlooked by keeping one's focus on the songs themselves.
Motel Of Fools is Pollard's weakest solo effort to date, with a comparative dearth of strong songwriting and artistic aspirations that never really go anywhere, seeming simply like experimental touches for the sake of experimental touches. Despite these handicaps, however, there are enough good songs to at least partially redeem the mini-LP, ultimately resulting in yet another fundamentally solid Pollard album.
On Earthquake Glue the band have abandoned any pretensions of duplicating their classic work, without altogether reverting to their glossy ID incarnation; rather, they merely offer a set of fifteen, fully developed top-tier indie rock songs, professionally performed and meticulously crafted by Pollard's genius and vision.
What the songs lack in imagination or studio polish they more than compensate for with the sheer level of craftsmanship that went into them. While the songs themselves could be referred to as generic Pollard products, the plentiful hooks and brilliant vocal melodies are completely original and creative; even when the album fails to break new ground it succeeds by virtue of being such a well crafted product.
The playing is tight throughout, with no flawed musicianship to impair Pollard's vision, and the production offer a fine balance between their classic roughness and ID era glossiness. In all respects the album is extremely well made, with an acute attention to detail permeating the whole record, remarkable given the extreme brevity of its production cycle.
As long as Pollard's fundamental songwriting talent remains intact this is likely the type of album that will be easy for him to produce, a set of high quality indie rock tracks suffused with the GbV spirit. It doesn't profess to scale the heights of old, and it lacks any real commercial aspirations, but it's still something that Pollard does better than just about anyone else, and when he reigns in his self-indulgent tendencies he can produce highly compact, consistent listens such as this.
By focusing so much on fleshing out each individual song rather than conjuring an armada of rough fragments he ensures that each track is an eminently worthwhile experience, tightly written and highly nuanced, making for a highly rewarding experience with few moments of wasted tape.
It can be jarring to listen to an album where the hyper-ambitious Pollard seems content to simply offer a modest collection of high quality rock songs, but once one accepts the relative lack of pretensions they'll find one of GbV's most consistently enjoyable and accessible albums, with some tracks (like the brilliant Useless Inventions and Beat Your Wings, both driven by incredible series of vocal melodies) ranking among their best work. The songs don't take you places the way the best material on BT or AL do, and they're not as polished or maddeningly catchy as on ID, but they're all undeniably strong material and very much worthy of introduction into the GbV catalogue.
This album may represent another turning point for the band, with Pollard's final acceptance of the band's dearth of commercial acclaim and indomitable obscurity leading to less ambitious projects. While this is depressing in a sense, and Pollard is certainly still capable of more adventurous enterprises, as long as the result is strong, consistent and well crafted albums such as these one can't really complain too much.
A brief note before the review begins: both Forever Since Breakfast (the band's debut EP) and the best-of compilation Human Amusements At Hourly Rates are included in this set, but my assessment of the box-set will be based solely on the music material that was previously unreleased (meaning I'll also abstain factoring in the quality of the documentary Watch Me Jumpstart that's bundled in with the set).
It goes without saying that box-sets are predominantly geared toward obsessive fanboys, and Hardcore UFOs is no exception. Boasting a hefty price tag and obscure content, the band makes no mystery of the audience that the set is intended for.
The box-set is compartmentalized into several independent discs, each sporting a different theme for the material.
The first (and easily the best) disc is a B-sides and rarities collection entitled Demons & Painkillers, and by rarities standards it's an excellent listen. Pollard was so prolific that even songs of high quality were sometimes omitted from Guided By Voices releases, and thus nearly every track on the disc is sufficiently strong so as to warrant its placement on a real album.
The outtakes and demos compilation, Delicious Pie & Thank You For Calling, is decent but thoroughly unspectacular. Nearly all the songs are under arranged and underdeveloped, with this defect being exacerbated by abysmal production that makes early albums like Sandbox seem polished. Only a modicum of enjoyment can be derived from listening to this disc, and in the long run it functions better as a historical curiosity than as an entertaining collection of music.
Live At The Wheelchair Races is enjoyable, but marred by the fact that these live renditions are inferior to their studio counterparts, failing to offer either improvements or interesting changes from the originals. Tracks that one would think would be more conducive toward a live treatment, like the terrific rocker Everywhere With Helicopter, invariably end up weaker than their studio incarnations, as the band exercised little restraint in the first place with regards to energy and ferocity when it came to recording them.
Overall Hardcore UFOs is an erratic experience. Demons & Painkillers is great and an essential listen for fans of the group, but Delicious Pie & Thank You For Calling is rather underwhelming, providing only a barebones framework for each track it contains, rendering it wholly extraneous for the average fan (and will likely wear on even diehard fans by the third or fourth listen). Live At The Wheelchair Races is fun and gives a good feel for what a live Guided By Voices concert is like, but once more all of its tracks can be better enjoyed in their original album versions.
Ergo Hardcore UFOs will likely appeal to its target audience of hardcore GbV fans, and fortunately it's sufficiently strong that it won't dupe fans of their money for little reward. The box-set is ultimately enjoyable, albeit with some sections providing considerably more entertainment than others. While the set receives its high grade largely on the basis of a single disc, the overall experience is a positive one, and one that will appease fans who hunger for more previously unheard material from the group.
For their third outing, the Circus Devils opted to compose a rock opera, Pollard's first since Same Place The Fly Got Smashed. Weaving a bleak tale of drug addiction and general misanthropy, Pinball Mars is a cryptic vision straight from Pollard's nihilistic psyche.
Throughout the album Pollard performs every part, an excellent showcase for his linguistic versatility and dexterity. While the plot remains somewhat incoherent, it's nonetheless highly engaging, assuming a new life when paired with the band's stellar soundtrack.
While for once the instrumentation is structured around the vocals as opposed to vice versa, the music remains very strong, boasting the infectious riffs one has come to expect from the group.
Mood wise, the dark rock stylings of the Circus Devils are a perfect backdrop for this grim tale. While the focus on the lyrics forces the Tobias brothers to compose more conventionally structured melodies, in this case it's not a liability; the band had simply adapted their style to fit the context at hand, careful not to overshadow or obstruct the flow of the story.
Where the simplification of the band's style marred tHPM to a degree, here it's a necessary step in the presentation of the rock opera, a new situation necessitating a new approach.
While the tenebrous saga of Pinball (with the name being a Tommy reference) and his drug induced afflictions may not be the height of intellectual, artistic storytelling, it makes for a very gripping and entertaining album. While it falls considerably short of the high water marks set by the likes of Tommy, Quadrophenia, SF Sorrow and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, it remains an excellent album, proving that the Circus Devils are capable of operating successfully in paradigms beyond their usual style, working brilliantly within the restrictions imposed upon them.
Sadly 2004 seemed to be a time of creative exhaustion for Pollard; Half Smiles Of The Decomposed constituted a disappointing swansong for GbV, and Fiction Man offered one of his weaker solo efforts.
Neither album was bad, and inevitably any Pollard LP will deliver at least a few worthwhile tracks, but on the whole these were two comparatively lackluster additions to Pollard's canon.
As if Pollard's seemingly limitless reservoir of catchy, original melodies had at last run dry, many of the tracks on Fiction Man featured little in the way of creativity or melody, afflicted with a contagion of blandness and familiarity. No tracks are outright offensive, but many are simply mediocre by Pollard's lofty standards.
Ultimately Fiction Man is still an enjoyable album, with enough strong tracks to sustain one's interest, and even the lesser songs have at least been infused with Pollard's signature sound; it's simply a disappointing LP, with no higher artistic ambitions to attribute the slump to as was the case with Motel Of Fools. Whereas that album tried something new and suffered for it, Fiction Man simply adheres to Pollard's accustomed style, sadly unable to pull it off with the success he had enjoyed in the past.
Most of Pollard's solo work had simply followed the same formula, but it was done so well that concerns of lack of diversity were irrelevant; Fiction Man is his first outing where stagnation becomes a legitimate concern. Motel Of Fools endeavored to combat this stagnation but failed; Fiction Man succumbs utterly to Pollard's usual paradigm, but without many of the merits that animated this formula in the past.
On the whole Fiction Man is still recommended for Pollard fans, but should be approached with suitably lowered expectations; Pollard is still incapable of making a genuinely bad album, but sadly this is still far from a great one, largely a case of simply going through the motions.
According to Pollard, the early retirement of the GbV moniker was to ensure that the group would end on a high note and never devolve into stagnation or self parody. This is surely an admirable sentiment, but unfortunately one that came one album too late.
That's not to say that the group's final work is bad, it merely suffers from an enervated blandness that never afflicted their previous efforts, leaving this as the band's poorest effort and in no way the glorious swansong fans were expecting.
The album is a somewhat monotonous and sometimes outright tedious affair, generally lacking compelling melodies or memorable hooks. While the album might fare better as the product of one of Pollard's endless supply of side-projects, as the final offering of one of the greatest indy acts its already prominent defects are further exacerbated, leaving a bad taste in the mouths of fans caught in the thrall of unrealistic anticipation.
The album is by all accounts competent enough, but it fails to scale the heights attained on even its close predecessor, with nary a highlight on the level of Useless Inventions or Beat Your Wings. It's a pleasant enough listen while its on, but there are no suitable candidates to become assimilated in the listener's mental jukebox.
HSotD is a poor final note for a great group to go out on, an already flawed product whose faults are destined to be compounded by the album's unfortunate status in the group's history. Pollard may redeem himself on one of his subsequent projects, but sadly the group is condemned to retain this disc as the culmination of decades of stellar indie rock.
While Pollard had largely exhausted his supply of quality rarities on the first Suitcase, he certainly hadn't exhausted his quantity of rarities, hence the existence of Suitcase 2, yet another hundred previously unreleased Guided By Voices tracks.
Pollard had always subscribed to the philosophy that every track he pens, no matter how flawed or minor, must be immediately accessible for the record buying public, a fact that becomes eminently clear over the course of this box-set. While there are certainly a handful of strong songs and few of the tracks are overtly bad, the balance is sadly skewed in favor of the weaker material, often rendering the album a chore to listen to.
With regards to the tracks that qualify as interesting historical relics, after a couple of listens their intrigue is inevitably dispelled. This shows through in cases such as Rocket Head; while it's certainly intriguing to witness the origins of Teenage FBI, once one has experienced this primitive rockers a few times it becomes painfully clear that it's far beneath the level of Do The Collapse's classic opener, giving the listener no reason to subject himself to the lesser of the two again.
All the same, the album is far from bad. It contains enough strong content between the filler that it seldom becomes actively tedious, constituting a somewhat enjoyable listen for its target audience of hardcore GbV fans.
Nonetheless, one has to question whether or not this box-set truly needs to exist. With the band's vaults largely depleted of quality offerings from the first Suitcase, it's debatable whether the bulk of the material contained here merited its inclusion in a commercial release.
Even the vastly superior first Suitcase seemed more than a tad excessive, rendering Suitcase 2 a complete exercise in self-indulgence. The question emerges as to whether or not GbV fans need to hear every last Pollard composition, and how many hundreds of rarities they're willing to sit through to get their GbV fix.
In the end, however, there is enough quality material on the album to warrant attention from GbV fanboys. Even if this wasn't the case, the prospect of a hundred previously unreleased GbV tracks would be enough to entice hardcore fans of the group to purchase the box-set irrespective of its level of merit. While there's a large amount of filler to wade through to find them the album certainly contains rewards for diligent listeners, more than enough to appease the types of diehard fans who are apt to succumb to the allure of the buzzword 'rarities' in spite of the hefty price tag.
After the dissolution of GbV Pollard took a brief sabbatical from his usual hyper-prolific songwriting schedule; the EP entitled Zoom contained the first new material to emerge from Pollard's camp post-GbV.
Unfortunately, rather than reaffirming his reputation as one of the greatest entities in indie rock, Zoom bespeaks a serious dearth of inspiration, an EP so underwhelming it's practically nonexistent.
With a run time of less than nine minutes, Zoom features a set of borderline mediocre, consummately forgettable acoustic tracks, with some spoken word passages acting as segues to burn up even more of the already diminutive length with nonmusical material.
While the tracks are ultimately inoffensive, none of them are of a sufficient caliber to justify this EP's existence, with even the best of the material still pleasant at best.
It's understandable that Pollard would want to release some new material to avoid slipping off the indie rock radar, but he certainly should have waited until he had better and more plentiful material than this. As it stands it's difficult to recommend even to hardcore Pollard fans, and in the end it's only diehard completists who'll feel compelled to make this purchase.
After a series of somewhat lackluster albums, Lightninghead To Coffeepot can be seen as a return to form for Pollard, as well as his first group endeavor since he had disbanded GbV.
Despite its short length (less than half an hour), LtC contains a solid set of rockers, from the GbV-like opener Beaten By The Target to the tenebrous, experimental epic title track (which admittedly may drag on a bit too long, as its eight minute length can render the song, with little in the way of progression, a tad tedious; then again, however, its repetition is conducive to its hypnotic feel).
The Moping Swans prove to be a good match for Pollard, providing strong instrumental backing for him, but in the end the group is just another sobriquet for the erstwhile GbV frontman, with him retaining absolute creative control over the proceedings.
While the album breaks little in the way of new ground, generally sounding reminiscent of GbV and Pollard's plethora of other side-projects, it remains highly entertaining, featuring Pollard's best songwriting in quite some time. Of the six tracks on the album, all are rockers, but they're sufficiently different to dispel any risk of monotony. Each track boasts a unique, strong melody, with myriad hooks and clever construction.
Ultimately the album proves that even in this post-GbV context Pollard is still more than capable and willing to compose great new songs in the same vein as his old band. While GbV were retired, Pollard certainly hasn't, and his prolific tendencies haven't been impeded by the loss of his most famous group. While LtC may not rank up there with his best work, it came at a time when Pollard desperately needed to prove that he hadn't been diminished by his retiring of the GbV moniker; the situation didn't necessitate a great album, simply a good one, proving himself to still be one of the top men in the indies. While a great album would have accomplished this task, a simply good one might work even better, demonstrating that Pollard could still effortlessly toss off a strong album, as it was this innate ability that was always Pollard's claim to fame. A great album would have required a tremendous time and effort, whereas his capacity to produce strong work without much in the way of effort has always been his defining trait as a rock artist.
On their fourth (despite the title) outing, the Circus Devils begin to exhibit signs of stagnation and lack of inspiration. Many of the album's flaws can be attributed to an over reliance on atmosphere at the expense of melody. While atmosphere had always been a paramount element to the group's formula, in the past it was always married to catchy riffs or vocal hooks, properties that Five suffers from a severe dearth of.
This lack of unique melodies results in a somewhat monotonous listen. Whereas on albums like RI each tracks fluidly segued into the next like an elaborate suite, on Five each song blends into the next not due to meticulous structuring but rather a simple uniformity of sound.
While the album does contain some strong tracks, it lacks the personality of its predecessors, suffering from frequent blandness and lack of character. Five's erratic nature can also make for a jarring experience, unlike the previous albums that sounded more like cohesive wholes and immersed the listener seamlessly from track to track.
While the instrumentation remains strong from a performance perspective, the album's inferior songwriting induces a lack of instrumental hooks. The musicianship certainly evokes the mood of the group's prior works, but it alone is insufficient to craft a great album, as the group hides behind the atmosphere without adequately building upon it. The atmosphere provides a solid foundation, but it alone can't be the be all and end all of the sound.
Ultimately, while far from a bad album, Five is certainly vastly inferior to its predecessors, capturing only one aspect of the band's charm and focusing on it to the exclusion of their other merits. While the atmosphere can be alluring, it lacks the substance to sustain the listener's attention once the initial attraction has worn off. The album contains enough strong songs that it can still be regarded as a pretty good LP, but it lacks the songwriting that made its predecessors such great albums, a deficiency that the band will hopefully notice and rectify for their next outing.
Pollard was recruited by legendary indie filmmaker Steven Soderbergh to provide a soundtrack to his film Bubble, resulting in this seven track, twelve minute EP. While a soundtrack will inevitably suffer divorced from its context in its film, Music For 'Bubble' manages to stand on its own rather well, and is certainly vastly superior to Pollard's previous EP Zoom.
Primarily consisting of rather conventional rock music, the EP, while somewhat generic, is still reasonably well written, particularly the needlessly repeated (especially on such a diminutive EP) fuzz rocker 747 Ego.
As could be anticipated given its status as a soundtrack, the EP features a number of instrumentals as well; while these are pleasant enough, the actual songs tend to fare much better, being more distinctive and better written. The instrumentals are even more generic than the songs and are thus rather difficult to retain.
Ultimately Music For 'Bubble' is a reasonably entertaining listen, as the tracks, while too familiar to be memorable, all sound good while the EP is on. This is hardly Pollard at his best, and the brevity of the EP makes it hard to recommend to anyone save Pollard completists, but in the end the EP has enough going for it that it can be enjoyed by any rock fan, albeit for a short time span.
With a relentless onslaught of his myriad side projects over-saturating the market, Pollard sagaciously chose to hold off releasing his first full solo album since the disbanding of Guided By Voices until such a time when it would stand out more, unobscured by legions of Pollard's other enterprises, thus creating an environment more conducive to commercial success.
And what better way to restart one's career than with an album that demonstrates that Pollard's talents haven't atrophied in the slightest since his retirement of the Guided By Voices moniker. On the contrary, in fact, as From A Compound Eye is one of Pollard's strongest outings not to fall under the Guided By Voices name, a brilliant collection of rock and pop songs that simultaneously possess the typical Pollard sound while remaining fresh and exciting.
From A Compound Eye is an ideal showcase for Pollard's seemingly limitless songwriting talent, as each of the album's 26 tracks boasts a strong melody and a plethora of creative hooks. Whereas most rock artists would have fully exhausted their songwriting reservoir after only a fraction of Pollard's releases, he's managed to remain one of the most prolific figures in the music world while continuing to unerringly pen a multitude of imaginative, highly entertaining songs since 1987.
From A Compound Eye plays to what's always been one of Pollard's strengths, namely composing an abundance of short but brilliant songs and simply assailing the listener with track after track of high quality melodies in a procession of Pollard's songwriting genius. Each of these 26 tracks is unique, with Pollard never repeating ideas or trying to pass off rehashes as new songs.
While the album certainly isn't on par with the legendary trilogy of Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes and Under The Bushes Under The Stars or some of the late period masterworks like Isolation Drills, it's still an incredible achievement for this stage in Pollard's career, hopefully launching a series of sonic classics in this post-Guided By Voices era.
If Pollard can sustain this level of quality in his solo outings then the premature death of Guided By Voices will hardly be such a tragedy to bear, as all of the band's strengths will live on in Pollard's subsequent work. From A Compound Eye is an immensely entertaining experience, a necessary purchase for all Guided By Voices fans and with any luck will be a sign of more good things to come.
For his latest side project Pollard entered into a partnership with indie legend Tommy Keene, christening themselves the Keene Brothers. Pollard always had a knack for finding collaborators who would complement him well, and on this outing the two prove to be eminently compatible, with their styles seamlessly weaving together as if they'd been working in tandem for years.
Pollard's always had an innate, Mael brothers like facility for concocting incredible vocal melodies, and this gift has not dulled with time, as he conjures a plethora of catchy, hook filled vocal spots throughout the album that perfectly match the excellent instrumental melodies courtesy of Keene.
As the two are both songwriting geniuses in their own right, nearly every note on the album is a hook, with nary a single dull or bland passage. The LP offers an endless onslaught of catchy melodies, as one would expect from indie stars with their pedigrees. The melodies are universally creative and memorable, constituting top tier indie fare from renowned masters of the genre.
The track sequencing is also to be lauded, as it opens with the swift adrenaline rush of Evil Vs. Evil, a hyper catchy track that, while less than a minute in duration, packs myriad hooks and clever musical ideas into its diminutive time frame. This potent jolt of forceful rock is the perfect start for the album, instantly gripping the listener and offering a glimpse of things to come.
The subsequent material does not let its opener down, as there's virtually no filler on the album; on the contrary, nearly all the tracks adhere to this high qualitative standard, as the possessors of two of the greatest pop sensibilities in rock and roll dedicate themselves to doing what they do best, each driving the other onwards to greater things.
Ultimately Blues And Boogie Shoes is an excellent product, filled to the brim with catchy hooks and irresistible melodies. The duo of Pollard and Keene prove that their union is eminently conducive to crafting first rate rock and pop, as their respective styles effortlessly blend together into an unstoppable indie juggernaut, a conglomerate of brilliant songwriting, tight performances and first rate vocals. Pollard's flair for stellar vocal melodies and Keene's acumen for generating superb musical hooks, when combined, translate into exceptional pop and rock songs, the unforgettable kind that are only the products of the very best the indie scene has to offer.
A collaboration with erstwhile Guided By Voices bassist Chris Slusarenko, Turn To Red is yet another side project from the hyper prolific Pollard, another creative partnership for him to apply his seemingly limitless songwriting skills to. This reunion functions the way Pollard's joint projects tend to turn out, with Slusarenko penning music as a foundation for him to build his vocal melodies upon, a formula that always yields positive results in each of his myriad collaborations.
Slusarenko holds up his end of the bargain, producing a plethora of catchy tunes, but it's when his ambitions overtake him that things start to turn awry. The album has some very evident artistic pretensions, manifesting themselves in the forms of the occasional dissonant instrumentation and spoken interludes, both of which simply obstruct the strengths the LP has to offer.
Thus Turn To Red starts out on a highly inauspicious note, with the album's narrator (yet another component that they would have done well to excise from the proceedings) reciting a pretentious monologue. For rock artists so considerably gifted this is a poor way to welcome the listener, as a fast rocker or catchy pop tune would have been an infinitely preferable way to hook one into the album.
While these avant garde elements are hardly ubiquitous, they occur often enough to constitute a legitimate problem, one that detracts from what's overall a strong outing. The melodies are, for the most part, strong; they're not amongst the best Pollard's crafted, and don't measure up to his previous side project Blues And Boogie Shoes, but nonetheless they're generally well written and catchy, with plentiful hooks to keep the listener interested.
Ultimately Turn To Red is a very good album; it's not severely marred by its experimental tendencies, and while it doesn't present the best that Pollard has to offer from a melodic perspective it remains a very enjoyable listen. When one's as prolific as Pollard it's unreasonable to expect each new installment in his canon to be an instant classic, and the fact that an album of this high caliber is one of his lesser works is a true testament to his musical genius.
The premise behind All That Is Holy is simple: Pollard composes and records raw, lo-fi demos, then sends them over to long time collaborator Todd Tobias, who proceeds to, in his capacity as producer, polish them with greater clarity and the addition of extensive extra instrumentation.
As always, the chemistry between Pollard and Tobias is terrific, and the latter is more than equipped to help the former realize his artistic vision. Tobias possesses a keen awareness of Pollard's strengths and ambitions, and is thus able to mold the production in such a way so as to perfectly complement the ragged material that serves as a template for this studio wizardry.
The production isn't flawless; Pollard's vocals are often buried far too low in the mix, rendering attempts to decipher all his words a headache inducing, futile endeavor. Nonetheless, for the most part Tobias's production is ideal, bringing the inert material to life as George Martin had for the Beatles so long ago.
Pollard always provides solid melodies for the foundations of these tracks, and Tobias never fails to ameliorate them with creative instrumental arrangements and crystal clear production quality. Such elaborate studio polish may seem incompatible with the original raw, minimalist treatments Pollard had delivered, but such is not the case; the production always augments the original work, never neutering or diluting the content with overly lavish production values, but rather fleshing out the material that's already there in clever and organic ways.
Thus the album is filled with great melodies, combining Pollard's typically excellent songwriting with a studio sheen that animates the initially stripped down melodies and fulfills their latent potential. Tobias is forced to play myriad different instruments throughout the course of the album, always adding to the original demos rather than obstructing them with excessive instrumentation. He handles each instrument brilliantly, displaying his musical chops with a fantastic display of versatility and musicianship.
Overall All That Is Holy is yet another great outing for Pollard and a testament to how vital the production of an album can be. The level of trust and respect that Pollard has for Tobias is evident throughout, as he gives him carte blanche to handle the material as he sees fit, knowing it will lead to a superior final product. The result is an excellent album, filled with more classic content that's indispensable for any Pollard or Guided By Voices fan.
For someone with as heavily pronounced prolific tendencies as Robert Pollard, the Psycho And The Birds side-project is an ideal match, as all he has to do to craft an album is record a few minimalistic, rudimentary melodies then send them off to Todd Tobias to fashion them into a coherent listening experience. Thus when seen from this perspective it's unsurprising that Check Your Zoo, Pollard's second outing under this moniker, came out a mere two months after the debut.
Unfortunately, Pollard and Tobias failed to address some of the more prominent defects that afflicted their debut, with the most egregious example being the fact that Pollard's vocals are all too often buried in the mix, an extreme handicap given that his greatest asset has historically always been his exceptionally catchy, creative vocal melodies.
Furthermore, the track listing harbors some unwelcome surprises of its own, primarily manifesting itself in the form of an experimental instrumental entitled Nothing The Best that has very little to offer the listener. Elsewhere the track His Master's Reaction likewise fails to amount to much, a song that's sorely lacking in the hook department.
Under normal circumstances a couple of misfires are to be expected from a Pollard album, an inevitable byproduct of his prolific ways, and they're soon forgotten after a few dozen inide classics; such is not the case on this outing, however, as Check Your Zoo is a six track EP around eleven minutes in length, and thus even two instances of filler can prove rather deleterious to the overall product.
Fortunately, the remaining tracks are quite entertaining; they don't represent Pollard at his very best but they still feature most of the hallmarks of his usual fare, namely catchy melodies and memorable hooks.
On the back of the EP Pollard is billed with 'Easy Recording' while Tobias' contributions are filed under 'Difficult Recording,' and the truth behind these credits is made apparent throughout the EP, as Tobias does an amazing job transfiguring these raw, unfocused tracks into worthwhile musical endeavors. His many years of collaboration with Pollard have granted him a keen understanding of how to work with the erstwhile Guided By Voices frontman, and their exceptional chemistry is undeniable. Time and again he unerringly marries his instrumental arrangements to Pollard's basic guitar/vocal dynamics, complementing them brilliantly and never sounding the least bit out of place or jarringly incongruous.
Despite its merits, it's difficult to recommend the EP to anyone save diehard Pollard fans who will doubtless buy any product that can be even remotely construed as being connected to Guided By Voices. There are four genuinely solid Pollard tracks contained on the EP, but that isn't really sufficient to warrant a purchase for anyone motivated by anything other than obsessive completist tendencies. An entire third of Check Your Zoo is wholly expendable, leaving only less than ten minutes of quality music.
Thus the EP is decent at best, a mildly entertaining affair that will likely be forgotten after the next several dozen Pollard side-projects that are apt to be released over the next few months. If you absolutely need to own every good Pollard song then Check Your Zoo can be whole heartedly recommended, but for most it won't be a tragedy to miss a few hidden gems culled from a short, erratic EP.
In essence Normal Happiness can be seen as a minor version of Pollard's solo release from earlier in the year, the classic From A Compound Eye; Normal Happiness is shorter, less consistent and adds fewer genuinely great songs to Pollard's canon, but nonetheless contains enough of its predecessor's merits to ensure an immensely enjoyable listen, one that's ultimately strong enough to constitute yet another excellent album from the indie scene's most prolific figure.
With a diminutive length that barely passes the half hour mark, Normal Happiness is a return to Pollard's old specialty, namely generating a plethora of incredibly short (yet satisfying) numbers and cramming them into an extremely short runtime. Most of the tracks, despite their lengths, are fully developed songs, but in a welcome nod to his past there are even some fragments ala early Guided By Voices albums; for those not familiar with his fragments, Pollard used to feature extremely short tracks on his early work that, despite not being fully formed into cohesive wholes, still contained more creative musical ideas than most groups' entire albums, a testament to Pollard's unrivaled creativity and pop acumen.
While not every song is thoroughly captivating there are certainly no actively bad tracks, with each one having something worthwhile to offer, be it a catchy riff, a clever hook or a memorable vocal melody. Highlights abound, from poppy interludes like Supernatural Car Lover (which effortlessly blends its simple but effective riff with a terrific vocal melody) and Rhoda Rhoda (an infectious track that excels in its brevity with unbeatable vocal hooks that manage to be familiar and creative at the same time) to signature Pollard rockers like Give Up The Grape (a track greatly ameliorated by a darker edge that helps it stand out from the rest of the album).
Whereas most rock artists' capacities for generating well written songs would have atrophied long ago, Pollard manages to consistently pen brilliant rock and pop numbers at an alarming rate; furthermore these are genuinely creative and unique indie anthems, as he never resorts to emulating his contemporaries or even the usual pitfall of self-plagiarism.
Normal Happiness is simply an excellent album, devoid of anything that could be construed as filler and packed with memorable hooks and melodies. The tracks are also quite diverse; while ostensibly they can be compartmentalized into pop tunes and rockers, each track features subtle stylistic nuances to differentiate them from the rest of the songs.
Ultimately Normal Happiness can easily be recommended to any fan of Pollard's prior work, though it's also sufficiently axiomatically gratifying and accessible that it can be enjoyed by just about any casual pop or rock fan. While it may be eclipsed by the superior From A Compound Eye or lost in the shuffle thanks to his trio of immensely entertaining side-projects from earlier in the year, it would be an egregious mistake to overlook the album in favor of his other recent efforts. While all brilliant in their own right, the success of some shouldn't come at the expense of others, as they're all eminently worthy products of Pollard's songwriting genius.
Predictably enough, Pollard was incapable of restraining himself for more than a few months from issuing yet another album (or, more accurately in this case, a mini-album, as this outing clocks in at a mere 22 minutes), hence the release of Silverfish Trivia, his first commercial product of 2007.
All the same, while Pollard may very well be the most prolific figure in contemporary rock, his solo works tend not to deviate much from his customary formula, adhering to the blueprints he's been following for the better part of his career. When he elects to be more adventurous he generally gravitates more toward his side projects, compartmentalizing his style so as not to compromise the accessibility of his regular solo work. Thus while, for example, his Circus Devils output bears a rather pronounced experimental streak, his solos material, like Normal Happiness, is far more commercially viable; these releases are still hardly mainstream in the conventional sense, as the lyrics are Pollard's typical cryptic fare and the music can be somewhat eccentric, but nonetheless they tend to abstain from taking any real risks for fear of alienating his devoted cult following.
Ergo it's intriguing that on Silverfish Trivia Pollard actually dabbles in experimentation, incorporating elements into his usual formula that were conspicuously absent from his previous releases. This fluctuation from his norm primarily manifests itself on the trio of instrumentals on the mini-album, wherein Pollard employs an elegant string section, certainly a first for the erstwhile Guided By Voices frontman. These tracks are genuinely pretty, and despite their unique nature they never feel incongruous or forced. They help inject a measure of unpredictability and newness into Silverfish Trivia, demonstrating some artistic progression in the work of a man who had taken a somewhat creatively conservative approach for the bulk of his career.
These three instrumentals, Come Outside, Waves, Etc. and Speak In Many Colors, are all well constructed and highly enjoyable, with their impact compounded by their freshness in the realm of Pollard's oeuvre, but they're certainly not the only thing that Silverfish Trivia has going for it. Pollard's usual songwriting brilliance is in full effect, hence the presence of stellar tracks like Circle Saw Boys Club and Wickerman Smile.
The former is the lone rocker on the mini-album, as Pollard tends to neglect his harder side on this outing in favor of emphasizing his facility for conjuring amazing pop hooks. The song features an exceptional vocal melody, as is par for the course when it comes to Pollard. The latter is a somewhat less conventional yet thoroughly charming and enjoyable affair, albeit a rather brief one. Elsewhere Touched To Be Sure is a great pop song with more unforgettable vocal melodies and an array of striking hooks with a somewhat gentler than usual tone.
Silverfish Trivia's true highlight, however, arrives in the form of Cats Love A Parade, a multipart epic that constantly shifts from brilliant melody to brilliant melody; while most songs of that nature are apt to simply concoct some basic, rudimentary tunes that in theory will seem more impressive thanks to the sheer number of them, Pollard refuses to take this easy way out, instead fashioning a strong, well developed melody for each section, shifting to the next one before any part of it grows stale.
Thus Silverfish Trivia is a highly entertaining outing for Pollard, boasting incredible melodies and featuring some genuine artistic development from a man who never needed artistic development to produce fantastic material. There are no weak tracks, simply a procession of classic pop songs and fascinating instrumentals; the presence of a string section on this trilogy helps infuse a measure of spontaneity and creativity into the mini-album, further ameliorating an already highly impressive outing. While it would be nice if Silverfish Trivia was longer its conciseness can be seen as a virtue as well, rendering the mini-album a highly compact, focused affair that enthralls the listener for the entirety of its 22 minute length.
Silverfish Trivia would be a great outing even without any of its innovation or risk taking, but the presence of these factors simply further cements the brilliance of the mini-album, ensuring its status as a minor masterpiece in Pollard's canon. Both its conventional songs and instrumentals alike are extremely polished, fully fleshed out works, an indisputable sign that even after all of these years Pollard is far from exhausting his creative faculties.
Given how prolific Robert Pollard is, it's inevitable that many of his projects pass under the commercial and critical radar, especially when myriad albums are released in close proximity to one another. Such was the case in 2006 when Pollard elected to issue three side projects on a single day, a somewhat misguided maneuver that simply served to dilute the attention that any given one of them could receive.
While some would strongly disagree with this assessment, I would assert that of the three side projects The Takeovers' Turn To Red suffered the most from Pollard's counterintuitive release calendar; lacking the pop perfection of The Keene Brothers' Blues And Boogie Shoes and the homemade charm of Psycho & The Birds' All That Is Holy, Pollard's collaboration with fellow erstwhile Guided By Voices member Chris Slusarenko, while a very good album in its own right, lacked any real hook to differentiate itself from Pollard's myriad other prior side projects, if anything coming across as Guided By Voices lite.
This is certainly not a unanimous verdict; many hailed Turn To Red as Pollard's best side project to date. Nevertheless the album's lack of a unique identity and somewhat erratic songwriting made it come off, in my estimation, as decidedly lesser Pollard, overshadowed by his contemporaneous releases.
Such is not the case, however, with The Takeovers' brilliant follow up Bad Football, an album that corrects nearly every problem that arose on its predecessor. The album is still firmly entrenched in the Guided By Voices mythos, but this is easily forgivable given its stunningly high quality.
Some improvements are ultimately superficial yet welcome nonetheless, like Bad Football's lack of any recitations of pretentious, incongruous prose; most of the changes, however, take place on a far deeper level, dramatically elevating the CD above the flawed Turn To Red.
One such improvement arises in the diversity department; Turn To Red had been somewhat uniform from a tonal and stylistic perspective, a flaw that's rectified on its superior successor. Bad Football features everything from slight, whimsical interludes like Little Green Onion Man to warm, winning sentimentalism on tracks like I Can See My Dog to fuzz rockers like My Will to heavier fare like Pretty Not Bad. The range of styles embraced ensures that the album remains gripping throughout, as any time Bad Football seems in danger of falling into a lull there'll be a unique moment like the diminutive The Jester Of Helpmeat with its profane eccentricity to snap the listener back to attention.
More important, however, is the fact that Bad Football is a substantial improvement over its predecessor in the songwriting department. The album is bereft of filler, as each song packs a plethora of catchy hooks and memorable melodies, making for an immensely entertaining experience for the full duration of the CD.
With regards to highlights, You're At It is a stellar opener, Little Green Onion Man is charming and inviting with a captivating idiosyncratic melody, My Will is a great driving pop rocker with hooks aplenty and Pretty Not Bad is an irresistible hard rock tune.
These are but a few of the album's best tracks, however; every song on Bad Football has something to offer, resulting in a CD that finally gives The Takeovers' their chance to shine with no risk of being upstaged by related contemporaneous releases. The album is simply an enormously entertaining listen, marked by exceptional songwriting and adroit performances. Pollard and Slusarenko have a terrific chemistry that hasn't wavered or eroded in the time since the dissolution of Guided By Voices, resulting in a product that's a worthy legacy to that legendary indie rock band.
Whereas most Pollard side-projects have simply felt like mild reinterpretations of the fundamental Guided By Voices sound, insignificant permutations of the basic dynamics of the legendary indie rock band, Circus Devils were able to establish their own unique identity independent of their frontman's erstwhile group; they were the rock outfit who weren't eclipsed by the towering shadow of the Guided By Voices mythos, evading the fates of the likes of Airport 5 and the Keene Brothers wherein, regardless of who Pollard was collaborating with, the core sound invariably would turn out to be the Guided By Voices style adapted to a mildly different context. Many of these works were brilliant, and they were hardly interchangeable with standard Guided By Voices fare, but they always sounded as if Pollard was playing it safe, adhering to the blueprints that had served him so well in the past.
The lack of this conservative approach is what makes Circus Devils' output such a refreshing change of pace, a forum for experimentation by a man who had been reluctant to leave his usual comfort zone. Thus Circus Devils managed to differentiate themselves from the myriad other side-projects Pollard embarked upon on a frequent basis, coming across as a true rock group as opposed to yet another meaningless moniker for the hyper prolific Pollard to hide behind.
What truly enables Circus Devils to stand apart from other entries in Pollard's seemingly endless discography is the compartmentalization of his role in the band; on Sgt. Disco he's largely confined to vocal duties at the expense of his involvement with other aspects of the production of the album, and at times Pollard's presence almost seems ancillary to the creative process. This isn't entirely fair; while Todd Tobias can indeed take much of the credit for the development of the album Pollard still plays a crucial role in both performing and composing the CD on an instrumental level. Yet even when Pollard does pen and perform the music (a department in which he's forced to be tremendously versatile given that he and Tobias play every instrument themselves), it's clear that he's been influenced by his partner to an extent never before encountered in his prior fare, truly forcing him to produce work that could never be mistaken for a part of Guided By Voices' canon.
While Circus Devils have indeed exhibited signs of progression over the years, their fundamental approach revolves around dark, sometimes even disturbing sound collages coupled with strong melodies and idiosyncratic lyrics. While they sometimes lapse into dissonance they're usually able to ward it off thanks to the high caliber of their hooks, no matter how unorthodox, ugly or frightening they are.
Over the years the band applied this formula to disparate projects. Their debut, Ringworm Interiors, thrived thanks to the sheer number of musical ideas it featured, a vast array of short tracks each imbued with a unique charm and boasting a creative if highly unusual melody. The band followed this carnival of aural oddities with Harold Pig Memorial, a sophomore effort that attempted to effect a higher level of maturity by fleshing out these curious fragments and twisted sonic experiences, thus yielding comparably strange tracks that were longer, more structured and fewer in number, for better or for worse.
Their subsequent outing, Pinball Mars, transplanted the group's signature style into the context of a rock opera, a risky gambit that paid off in spades. The music was somewhat less defiantly challenging, unusual and inaccessible, as it had to be modified to fit the story, but this didn't detract from the overall brilliance of the album.
Finally their fourth outing, Five, was a more traditional Circus Devils album, and it perfectly captured the nightmarish atmosphere that typifies Circus Devils' work; unfortunately they failed to marry these unsettling soundscapes to strong melodies, thus removing the foundation upon which all of their music was dependent upon. When not grounded in catchy music the group can become somewhat self-indulgent, ergo its atmospherics couldn't compensate for a severe paucity of hooks.
Sgt. Disco bears the most resemblance to the band's stellar debut, a wise course of action that helped reinvigorate the group's style. Containing 32 tracks the album is brimming with creative and deceptively rewarding musical ideas, capturing the band's atmosphere without sacrificing anything in the melody department. The CD is somewhat erratic, as is inevitable for an album with such a high volume of compositions, but thanks to their brevity whenever a track begins to wear on the listener it's replaced with a superior offering.
The caliber of the songs isn't quite as high as on Circus Devils' peak material, and there's a greater quotient of misfires, but nevertheless Sgt. Disco is quite a return to form, drawing from the same inspiration that animated their classic work. Returning to the structure of their debut helped Circus Devils rediscover themselves, and the product is a highly entertaining, if exhausting, listen.
Given Robert Pollard's inherent penchant for producing myriad projects over the course of a single calendar year, releasing two albums on the same day was an inevitable manifestation of these peerless prolific tendencies.
Much like Tom Waits releasing Alice and Blood Money simultaneously, Pollard succumbed to his innate excesses, and the result was Coast To Coast Carpet Of Love and Standard Gargoyle Decisions arriving on precisely the same date. The parallels with Tom Waits' date-sharing pair don't end with their unorthodox simultaneous releases, however; whereas the material on Waits dual products were bifurcated between soft, cathartic balladry and rougher, edgier fare (as represented by Alice and Blood Money, respectively), Pollard's duo are compartmentalized into a hyper catchy pop album (Coast To Coast Carpet Of Love) and a more rock oriented, distortion emphasizing product (Standard Gargoyle Decisions). Thus both artists' wares reflect a similar dichotomy, simply adapted to each of their established musical personas.
The hype for the albums touted the pairing as something akin to a Beatles and a Stones LP, but that comparison is rather inapt, equating to some ridiculous assertion that any pop outing is reminiscent of the Fab Four and any rock album constitutes a tribute to Jagger and company. Pollard had already crafted an identity for himself that adroitly encompassed both musical modalities, and thus the albums are not dissimilar to his past endeavors in these genres.
By no means is this a bad thing; Pollard's current offerings may resemble some of his past works, but the erstwhile Guided By Voices frontman has already distinguished himself as one of the top modern songwriters in these departments, and the product of this pop and rock acumen is a pair of brilliant albums that were cleverly designed to differentiate themselves from one another from a stylistic perspective.
There's still a modicum of stylistic overlap between the two releases, as some tracks culled from Coast To Coast Carpet Of Love could fit comfortably on Standard Gargoyle Decisions (particularly the haunting, moody Penumbra) and vice versa, but if anything that's a blessing in disguise, as it helps keep each album fresh.
While releasing two albums at once may seem like the product of excessive, ill advised ambition and egotism, likely leading to two erratic entries in Pollard's discography as opposed to a single more accomplished release, this is far from the case; once again Pollard's songwriting genius has paved the way to artistic brilliance, as his prolific nature never dilutes the quality of either album.
Thus Coast To Coast Carpet Of Love embodies every merit of Pollard's pop sensibility, filled with a plethora of unforgettable hooks and immensely catchy melodies. The album's restriction to pop dynamics never results in monotony for the listener, as Pollard experiments with a multitude of pop related styles, never confining the music to a more limited range of sounds. This renders the album something akin to a pop encyclopedia, a comprehensive exploration of the genre filtered through Pollard's own musical identity.
The album is bereft of filler, as even the lesser material boasts enough inventive hooks to elevate it far above the level of anything that could be even remotely construed as padding. Highlights abound, from the stellar opener Our Gaze, complete with a great vocal melody and a catchy (if somewhat rudimentary) riff, to the unsettling atmospherics of Penumbra to the riff driven glory of Count Us In to the simply majestic Miles Under The Skin with its rousing chorus to the hyper catchy Dumb Lady to the bouncy Look Is What You Have to the future single Rud Fins to Current Desperation (Angels Speak Of Nothing), which is classic Pollard but still remarkably fresh and compelling.
While Pollard proved himself to be a pop guru long ago through tracks like Teenage FBI and I'm A Scientist, Coast To Coast Carpet Of Love is his first product that self-consciously labels itself a pure pop album, limiting itself to the (admittedly quite broad) spectrum of pop elements. If one interprets this artistic decision as a test of Pollard's aptitude at the genre then it could only be regarded as a monumental success, depicting a level of pop genius that far transcends nearly all of his contemporaries. Each song is a fully fleshed out pop anthem, and while the album may not resemble the work of the Beatles (contradictory to the description on Pollard's website) it does capture a kind of pop magic that would be associated with the past giants of the genre.
Any longtime fan of Pollard should hardly be shocked that he was able to produce two fully developed albums on a single day, nor should they be surprised that they rank amongst his finest offerings. While there's far more to the man than the identity of 'Pollard the pop guru,' that alone is quite sufficient to make a single great album, as even a solitary facet of Robert Pollard could animate a lesser group's entire canon.
Of the two Pollard albums issued on the same day, Standard Gargoyle Decisions is likely to be the one of the two that's affected more adversely by the proximity of their respective releases. Standard Gargoyle Decisions is certainly less accessible than its glossy, easily digested counterpart, and worse it's also decidedly less consistent thanks to misfires like Lay Me Down and Come Here Beautiful which never really amount to much, along with The Island Lobby which drags interminably thanks to its enervated pace and paucity of well defined hooks. Nevertheless Pollard fans should persevere in spite of these defects, as Standard Gargoyle Decisions, warts and all, is a highly rewarding listen, on par with the less erratic and more immediate Coast To Coast Carpet Of Love.
Standard Gargoyle Decisions is the designated rocker of the two same-day releases, and given the vagueness of that description it's afforded plenty of room to maneuver in. This allows it to be more experimental than its pop foil, leading to intriguing oddities like Butcher Man (which depicts Pollard adopting Tom Waits-like vocals) and I In The World (which actually sounds like an homage to, or potentially a full impersonation of, The Fall). These tracks may seem like anomalies in Pollard's catalogue, but they're still worthwhile and entertaining opuses that bespeak Robert Pollard's versatility and willingness to take risks.
While some qualitative lapses, like Lay Me Down, have been acknowledged, there are more than enough highlights to compensate for these misfires. The opener The Killers is imported from All That Is Holy in a far more polished form (which is to be expected given that Psycho And The Birds' mission is to be as raw and unpolished as humanly possible), and despite its newfound cleaner production values it retains all of its potency and edginess, elevating it to a position on the album comparable to the highlight status that it enjoyed in its original form.
Elsewhere Psycho-Inertia is a driving, stomping rocker offering axiomatic thrills and the kind of energy that typifies Pollard's heavier exploits, while Motion Sickness Ghosts and, especially, Shadow Port are tenebrous rockers of the highest order, featuring brilliant melodies and abundant hooks.
Feel Not Crushed sports an incredibly generic riff, but the song rocks convincingly and is thus salvaged from the doldrums of blandness, while Spider Eyes is a furious rocker that for some incomprehensible reason features a robotic (and somewhat dissonant) version of the riff of the old blues standard (and staple of Cream performances) Spoonful.
In all Standard Gargoyle Decisions is a highly enjoyable outing and a worthy counterpart to the similarly excellent Coast To Coast Carpet Of Love. Its pronouncedly less welcoming nature than its pop equivalent may cause it to be overlooked in favor of that less challenging outing, but this would be a grievous mistake, as both albums have much to offer Pollard devotees and even a more casual audience. While absorbing Standard Gargoyle Decisions may require persistence and diligence from the uninitiated (anyone the least bit familiar with Pollard will feel right at home), it's an eminently worthwhile undertaking, and will reveal in time that both albums are essential listening for anyone searching for catchy, creative songwriting amidst the sea of effluvia that constitutes the contemporary music scene.
It's a long established fact that every single note that Robert Pollard plays must be immortalized on disc; any musical idea that pops into his head must be committed to tape for posterity, never permitting a single riff, hook or even noxious burst of dissonance to fade into irrevocable obscurity, relinquished to the vicissitudes of the realm of forgotten music.
Ergo the premise of Superman Was A Rocker should hardly come as a surprise for anyone who's been following the erstwhile Guided By Voices frontman's storied career; in fact, the concept behind the CD is in many respects a natural extension of the dynamics of Psycho & The Birds, if something of a reversal.
Whereas with Psycho & The Birds Pollard would cut a demo, complete with his own vocals already intact, and subsequently have Tobias add more elaborate, well-produced instrumentation, on Superman Was A Rocker Pollard discovered some old demos from throughout his career and adds his own, considerably more polished (and audible) vocals.
While the Psycho & The Birds equation actually worked, the Superman Was A Rocker formula is far less successful. When Pollard found these old demos in his vaults it was clear that he was looking for any conceivable rationale to enable him to release them, and in this regard it seems like the new vocals, while certainly necessary, were also a flimsy excuse to justify unleashing these raw, dissonant and headache-inducing soundscapes upon an unsuspecting public.
Many of these demos simply couldn't be salvaged, even with the addition of terrific vocal melodies (and on this outing terrific vocal melodies are few and far between); for instance, Surveillance is solely composed of an armada of backwards guitars wholly bereft of any reason or inspiration, and Pollard's atonal vocals do little to redeem the situation.
This isn't to say that none of the tracks work; for example You Drove The Snake Crazy has a decent vocal melody, a fact that particularly becomes apparent during the accapella section, a testament to the quality (or lack thereof) of the demos.
The true highlight, however, is the stellar number Love Your Spaceman, which not only has a solid foundation in the form of a pretty acoustic demo but also has vocals that actually fit the music well, a rarity on an album where it generally feels as if new vocals have been hastily superimposed over incongruent aural backdrops.
Perhaps to divert the listener from the sub par quality of the demos, Superman Was A Rocker doubles as a mock concept album detailing the exploits of a rock star called Superman on the final day of his life. The idea is largely a put-on, and the album never soars to the heights of his real story driven work like Pinball Mars and Same Place The Fly Got Smashed.
Due to the fact that the demos that compose the album have been culled from a plethora of recording sessions throughout Pollard's career, myriad former collaborators from his musical history are credited in the liner notes, from Tobin Sprout to Doug Gillard; I have to question, however, if they wouldn't have preferred having their names omitted, as most of these marriages of the raw demos and Pollard's new vocals have, in their current form, little to nothing whatsoever to do with his past or present creative partners.
Superman Was A Rocker is truly the culmination of all of Pollard's worst excesses and most egregious levels of self-indulgence; most of these demos were simply unworthy of being released in any form, as they add little to his already bloated canon, and offer little of note to the listener. It's a bad sign when the opening few minutes of Back To The Farm, which consist of a hick excoriating Guided By Voices' work on a call-in radio show, are more compelling than the bulk of the musical material (plus from there the track segues into an instrumental version of Love Your Spaceman, rendering it one of the more interesting numbers on every level).
Given that Pollard seemingly releases a brilliant new album every few weeks, it's a pity that he feels a need to issue pointless CDs like this that simply serve to distract one from his better work; I wouldn't say that Superman Was A Rocker tarnishes his reputation, but it certainly doesn't help much. There are a few decent numbers, and most of the material is interesting on some, albeit quite possibly perverse, level, but the album simply adds nothing to Pollard's legacy, and can only be recommended to diehard Pollard fans, which I suppose is fine given that that select group are precisely the ones the CD's being marketed to.
Psycho And The Birds is doubtless the Robert Pollard side-project that will have the greatest longevity, as all that it demands from the erstwhile Guided By Voices frontman is the production of a raw, minimalist demo, a feat that the consummately prolific songwriter could doubtless achieve in his sleep.
Thus Psycho And The Birds has already lasted longer than most of Pollard's non-Guided By Voices enterprises, as We've Moved is their third release (though admittedly Check Your Zoo is only a short EP), and at this rate they're bound to surpass The Circus Devils in a few years' time.
The premise of the band remains static; Pollard records a rough, barebones demo and sends it to Todd Tobias, who proceeds to add more elaborate instrumentation along with some extra studio gloss.
On We've Moved, however, it seems that Tobias' role has expanded even further since the last Psycho And The Birds product, as his instrumental omnipresence has, more often than not, virtually eliminated all traces of the original lo-fi demo save for Pollard's vocals on this go-round.
Surprisingly, the album is at its best when this phenomenon is in effect, as when the album places a greater emphasis on the rough demos the result is debacles like the aural ordeal that is Tomorrow Man, an experimental exercise in dissonance that likely couldn't even have been salvaged had Tobias taken a greater part in it.
Praising the slick studio polish's dominance on the album over Pollard's raw originals may seem like a betrayal of everything that Guided By Voices stood for, but such is far from the case. These demos are not fully fleshed out lo-fi songs, or even full-fledged songs at all; rather, they're merely the sparsest framework of songs, functioning more as pointers for Tobias than actual sonic blueprints. If one were to excise Tobias' ubiquity from the tracks one wouldn't be left with Bee Thousand or Propeller, but instead a hollow, empty listening experience bereft of the songwriting genius that categorizes the majority of Pollard's work.
Thankfully one of the chief flaws of Psycho And The Birds' prior fare has been addressed, namely the place of Pollard's vocals in the mix. On We've Moved Pollard's singing is far more audible, enabling a better synthesis of the music and vocals that's far more conducive to catchiness and memorability.
Furthermore, the album as a whole is considerably more entertaining than the band's previous outings. I don't know whether to credit Pollard with superior demos or Tobias with better instrumentation, but at any rate the songs are catchier than ever, and it's clear that the chemistry between the two creative forces has never been stronger, resulting in a more seamless blend of the album's disparate elements.
The bulk of the album consists of catchy riff rockers, like the stellar opener People Who Live In A Thundercloud and I'm Never Gonna Leave, You're Never Gonna Win, but there is at least a modicum of diversity, manifesting itself in the form of numbers like the almost beautiful title track, which is clearly the most emotional moment on the entire album.
Thus Psycho And The Birds continues to be a rewarding and compelling side-project, with enough uniqueness and personality to differentiate itself from the plethora of other Pollard-led rock outfits. While there are certainly some low points, like the previously mentioned Tomorrow Man, for the most part We've Moved is a highly entertaining listening experience, a fruitful marriage between the creative energies of two of the greatest visionaries on the indie pop scene.
There's no inherent merit in being an extremely prolific rock artist. There is, however, copious merit in being an extremely prolific rock artist whose albums are almost uniformly excellent, a dazzling feat that Robert Pollard has proven himself capable of time and again over the course of a career that spans an endless parade of group efforts, side-projects and solo releases.
Robert Pollard Is Off To Business continues this trend of prolific genius; it may be rather short by contemporary rock album standards, but each of its ten tracks has something worthwhile and different to offer. Each track boasts a strong melody and a plethora of irresistible hooks; this means ten brand new, unique melodies introduced to the pantheon of rock music by a man who's committed countless original tunes to musical immortality in an era where one's lucky if a new album contains even a single unique or memorable melody.
Robert Pollard Is Off To Business is simply a stellar product, pop rock at its catchiest and most idiosyncratic. Whether on lengthier, more developed tracks (like the incredible Weatherman And Skin Goddess) or shorter sprints (like the absolutely infectious 1 Years Old) Pollard proves his songwriting genius, while the former of the two songs contains one of the greatest vocal hooks in recent memory with the erstwhile Guided By Voices frontman's delivery of the line 'Says the king would like to greet you in his 1950's hat.'
Few contemporary rock artists can pen a song as catchy, direct and immediately enjoyable as Gratification To Concrete, and those that can would likely have difficulty composing songs of the complexity of Confessions Of A Teenage Jerk-Off or as moving as No One But I. Pollard is truly a unique figure in the world of modern rock music thanks to his extreme versatility and ability to translate his strengths into any style he elects to tackle, along with his capacity to be profoundly ambitious without coming across as bloated or pretentious.
The brevity of the album does prevent it from being a true masterpiece, but it's not as if every Pollard CD needs to be a sprawling epic like From A Compound Eye. As it stands Robert Pollard Is Off To Business is all the more potent for its compact nature, ensuring that the album is bereft of filler and a more densely concentrated experience. Whereas on longer albums some subtle gems will invariably get lost in the shuffle, on Robert Pollard Is Off To Business each track gets the opportunity to shine, revealed as the masterful pop rock classics that they are.
Thus Robert Pollard Is Off To Business is another excellent outing from one of the most prolific individuals in the history of the genre. Staying on top of all of Pollard's releases may seem like an insurmountable task, but nevertheless it always proves to be well worth the challenge. Pollard's albums constitute some of the best releases in recent rock history, and their massive volume doesn't dilute their stunning quality or over-saturate the CD market to the point of unforgivable excess.
Admittedly the album was clearly designed for those already well acquainted with Pollard's work, and there are myriad superior CDs in his backlog for those unfamiliar with his oeuvre. For longtime fans of the former English teacher, however, the album is extremely rewarding, and an indication of why diehard Pollard fans feel a need to hunt down each one of his releases the moment they hit the stores.
It seems as if each review of a Robert Pollard album begins with a comment about the erstwhile Guided By Voices' frontman's unparalleled prolific tendencies, as if this remark is necessary to explicate the existence of his newest venture. While referring to Pollard's prolific nature does account for the sheer volume of his output, when taken by itself it may lead many to assume that he simply tosses off his products, investing only a modicum of energy in each of his myriad endeavors.
This is far from the case, however, as virtually all of Pollard's releases betray an unmistakable level of inspiration and craftsmanship that never seems to dwindle even as he embraces a degree of productivity that, for any other band or rock artist, would constitute spreading themselves far too thin, invariably breeding stagnation and mediocrity.
Hence Brown Submarine, Pollard's first release under the Boston Spaceships moniker, boasts a plethora of catchy melodies animated by stellar performances and a decidedly eccentric personality.
Despite these well-deserved accolades the inevitable problem arises that there's little to differentiate this particular Pollard side-project from any of his previous ventures. This is an inherent flaw that manifests itself throughout Pollard's post-Guided By Voices catalogue, as invariably Robert Pollard, regardless of whatever sobriquet he assumes, sounds like Robert Pollard, and this fact has seldom changed throughout his entire career, an irrefutable reality that can be encountered time and again in his work.
Naturally there are exceptions to this rule. The Circus Devils have made great strides toward establishing their own identity, and one can certainly attribute that particular side-project's longevity to this phenomenon. Few other Pollard side-project's have lasted beyond a single CD, however, a repercussion of the uniformity that I'd previously alluded to.
Nearly all of Pollard's side-projects are solid, accomplished works of rock and roll art, but this level of quality can't mask their tendency to gravitate toward precisely the same overarching sensibility, that of their lone writer and craftsman. Regardless of what musicians Pollard surrounds himself with it's he himself who's ultimately responsible for the identity and personality of his work, ergo it's natural that, in the long run, they're each indelibly marked by the stamp of their creator, sounding as if they're all products of the same band.
What this means is that Brown Submarine is a high quality affair that sounds just like a typical Robert Pollard album. While each individual song is unique and well-written, when taken as a whole it's difficult to explain what distinguishes the album from Robert Pollard Is Off To Business, Pollard's previous release in the same calendar year. Both albums are stellar off-kilter pop rock products with an emphasis on brilliant vocal melodies and memorable riffs, they both feature Pollard's usual inspired vocals and they both showcase his mastery at generating short tracks that pack more into their diminutive runtimes than many entire albums.
For his latest venture Pollard's recruited frequent collaborator and ex-Guided By Voices member Chris Slusarenko and the Decemberists' drummer John Moen. The former's presence reinforces the impression that Brown Submarine sounds just like a multitude of other Pollard enterprises, while the latter has little impact on the overall sound of the band.
What this ultimately means is that if one enjoys Pollard's work they'll love Brown Submarine, but if one's grown weary of his output they'll find little to rekindle their affection for the man. On this release Pollard abstains from much in the way of experimentation, while the diversity of the album seldom strays from areas that he has already thoroughly explored in his past work.
As an unapologetic Pollard fan I have no reservations when it comes to enjoying this album; as long as Pollard's melodies are new I won't object to their stylistic similarity or his conservative approach to artistic progression. Songs like the irresistible pop rocker Winston's Atomic Bird, the moody if all too brief title track and the fantastic Go For The Exit, complete with an array of brilliant vocal melodies, all qualify in this department, as do the majority of the other tracks. Thus I find Brown Submarine to be yet another great album from the most prolific songwriter in the history of rock music, undeterred by any resemblance to Pollard's prior efforts, and whole-heartedly recommend the CD to anyone who's remained a Pollard devotee throughout his endless parade of Guided By Voices albums, solo ventures and interchangeable side-projects. Pollard's style simply works, and it appears that it will continue to do so even decades into the man's life as an artist.
Of Robert Pollard's myriad side-projects, Circus Devils has always been the most intriguing, as it's one of the few that truly differentiates itself from Guided By Voices in any meaningful respects. Featuring a darker pallet and an experimental edge, Circus Devils are an anomaly in Pollard's discography, providing a forum in which he's willing to take risks that he customarily avoided in his erstwhile band's oeuvre.
This isn't to say that Guided By Voices were never adventurous; on the contrary, much of the band's canon eschewed the conservative approach adopted by most contemporaneous artists. The difference is that while Guided By Voices took risks, it was invariably in the process of creating what was still fundamentally straightforward music, whereas Circus Devils have a decidedly avant garde slant. Guided By Voices took risks to better facilitate Robert Pollard's creative vision; for Circus Devils, experimentation is part of the agenda itself, as opposed to a byproduct of more traditionally minded music-making.
Thus Circus Devils offer a far less accessible product than Pollard's legendary indie outfit, and this is precisely the intention of the group, a defiantly experimental cadre of aural alchemists committed to pushing the limits of the genre. Darker, more challenging and less orthodox than Guided By Voices, Circus Devils have carved their own unique niche in the arena of indie rock, one that can never be overshadowed by Pollard's former ensemble.
Nevertheless, Circus Devils' reputation for being inaccessible shouldn't ward off all casual listeners; as challenging as the band can be, at their best they always offer a plethora of catchy melodies; these melodies may be uglier or less conventional than the rock and roll norm, but that doesn't dilute the potency of their hooks.
Ataxia is one of Circus Devils' less challenging endeavors; there are certainly a multitude of dissonant passages, as the album begins with the profoundly discordant Under Review, but at the same time the CD is filled with memorable riffs that can always be latched on to should the listener become lost in a haze of unsettling atmospherics and abrasive sound collages.
Unfortunately, Ataxia is also rather erratic; after the first ten tenebrous anthems the album goes badly awry, and while tracks like Get Me Extra! and Rat Face Ballerina are decent enough rockers the remainder of the latter part of the CD, while not offensive, could certainly be construed as filler.
The biggest debacle is Fuzz In The Street, which, predictably enough, is by far the album's longest number. Amelodic and self-indulgent, the song is a melting pot for all of Circus Devils' worst excesses, bereft of the strong songwriting that transfigures the band's sonic grotesquery into entertaining music.
Nevertheless the earlier parts of the album are filled with terrific music, songs that are on par with the best work the band has done. Boasting inventive riffs and off-kilter vocal melodies, the tracks are somehow defiantly non-mainstream while remaining immediate and enjoyable.
A particular highlight is Nets At Every Angle, a track that, despite its brevity, manages to fit in a menacing shuffle (complete with eerie whistling from Pollard and a darkly quirky vocal melody) and a gorgeous coda that amazingly doesn't feel at odds with that which precedes it.
With the exception of That's The Spirit, a brief segue that's far too short to amount to anything of value, and the aforementioned overly discordant opener Under Review, each one of the first ten tracks is an unmitigated Circus Devils classic. The group may not scale the heights of Guided By Voices in their prime, but they've managed to refine their uniquely caliginous style to perfection, nearly reaching the zenith of their artistic potential.
Were the later portions of the album better then Ataxia could even equal the brilliancy of Ringworm Interiors and Pinball Mars. As it stands, the album is an excellent offering with a regrettably bipolar character.
Some of the otherworldly mystique of the Circus Devils' debut has been lost in the transition to fuller songs, a trend started with their stellar sophomore effort Harold Pig Memorial, and Ataxia also lacks a unifying concept ala Pinball Mars, but as a collection of dark songs it matches the likes of Sgt. Disco as a testament to the eccentric genius of Pollard and Tobias. The Circus Devils are more than a refreshing change of pace for diehard Pollard fans; they're a terrific rock group in their own right, with their own identity and their own creative voice.
There's no denying that, with a body of work that quantitatively dwarfs even The Rolling Stone's massive discography, Robert Pollard has an acute knowledge of his own strengths and limitations as a rock artist. Thus it's unsurprising that the erstwhile Guided By Voices frontman has a certain formula that he tends to adhere to at this stage of his career, a refinement and streamlining of his musical approach developed after years of intensive work as a songwriter and performer.
This isn't always the case; some of Pollard's side-projects, particularly his work as a member of the experimental cadre Circus Devils, greatly deviate from his standard modus operandi. Nonetheless for the most part his recent efforts have strictly followed the tenets that he's firmly established over the course of his maddeningly prolific career, thus breeding a certain familiarity and sense of déjà vu for his longtime listeners whenever they purchase his latest album (a transaction that, at this point, is enacted over five times a year).
This isn't to say that Pollard's work is one-note or lacks diversity, as he will frequently vary his style and shifts gears over the course of any given album. It's merely that he has such a distinctive sound that at this point all of his output is instantly identifiable as a Pollard product, sporting music that is unmistakably his own with few surprises and scarcely a modicum of unpredictability. Pollard in any style is still Pollard, and those who have dutifully acquired all of his work throughout his epic career know precisely what to expect from him regardless of what style he elects to operate in. No tonal shift or genre exercise will throw a Pollard fan for a loop, as their knowledge and familiarity with his musical palette borders on intimacy.
This makes assessing Pollard's output a tricky proposition, as the question of establishing a criteria for ascertaining the quality of his recent fare is particularly fraught with difficulty and complexity. If one's rubric takes musical progression from album to album into account then Pollard's oeuvre would be critically savaged, as his position as an artist has remained static for quite some time now. If, however, one eschews that question altogether they'll invariably discover yet another treasure trove of unique, creative and catchy melodies, a reality that's hard to discount in favor of obsessing over perceptible artistic evolution.
All of Pollard's musical progression transpired long ago, and what one's been left with is something akin to a factory-like system for producing album after album that, while each unique in the melody department, seldom if ever break any new ground. The truth, however, is that there's no need for Pollard to expand his sound or explore new territory at this point in his career; he's perfected his own idiosyncratic style, and there's little to be gained from attempting to progress beyond perfection.
Thus the appropriate standard for evaluating new Pollard output is simplicity itself, merely judging the caliber of his latest melodies and contrasting them against the quality of his other recent work. In this department his latest outing, The Crawling Distance, truly excels, as it boasts some of Pollard's finest compositions to date. The material doesn't quite match peak Guided By Voices fare, nor has Pollard managed to reach the heights he attained on the zenith of his solo career, From A Compound Eye, but nevertheless The Crawling Distance is a fabulous product, surpassing already stellar late period ventures like Robert Pollard Is Off To Business and Brown Submarine.
Pollard has somehow managed to produce ten terrific new entries to his epic canon, with nothing that could be construed as filler in sight. Needless to say the material never strays too far from Pollard's comfort zone, but this doesn't change the fact that The Crawling Distance features some of the finest pop rock tracks in recent memory.
From the sinister rocker By Silence Be Destroyed to the haunting emotional resonance of On Shortwave to the catchy opener Faking My Harlequin the album remains entertaining throughout, and while one could argue that it's easy to sustain momentum on a work that's only 35 minutes long, these are still amongst the best 35 minutes that one will encounter on any commercial release this year.
Thus The Crawling Distance is precisely what one would expect from a Pollard album, but in the long run it's also precisely what one would want from a Pollard album. Excellent vocal melodies and inventive riffs abound, there's plenty of variety within the context of a Pollard CD and the production is charming, a far cry from the glorious lo-fi days of old while still retaining some of the indie flavor that's so closely associated with a man who could be said to be one of the genre's pioneers. Pollard's supply of terrific hooks is seemingly inexhaustible, and I would never object to a gift of ten more high quality songs to add to his arsenal.
Sometimes it seems somewhat arbitrary which Pollard side-projects last beyond a single album and which are permitted to enjoy at least a measure of longevity; for example, what differentiates The Lifeguards from The Takeovers or Lexo And The Leapers from Airport 5? There's no great qualitative gulf between these Pollard-helmed ventures, yet some are aborted after only a single outing while others amass a sizable body of work, and this phenomenon is seldom a reflection of a given group's artistic or commercial worth.
The latest Pollard product to make the big step past a single album is Boston Spaceships, and while it, much like its predecessor, is a terrific showcase for the band's prodigious talents, it's somewhat mystifying that the group was able to evade the fates of the likes of The Moping Swans and Keene Brothers.
The fact of the matter is that the Boston Spaceships' output is virtually indistinguishable from a plethora of other Pollard-led enterprises, and thus the reason for its staying power is truly baffling. There doesn't appear to be any creative ground that Pollard could only cover with this particular rock outfit, no new artistic avenues opened by either this band's ethos or lineup.
This, however, doesn't detract from the merit of The Planets Are Blasted, it merely illustrates the fact that there's no strong case to be made for why the album has to fall under the Boston Spaceships moniker. Pollard has collaborated with and continues to collaborate with erstwhile Guided By Voices bassist Chris Slusarenko on a regular basis (like with The Takeovers), and while an accomplished drummer, The Decemberists' John Moen has little artistic impact on the affair, reinforcing the notion that there's nothing truly unique about this particular band.
Fortunately, the mystery of the band's nomenclature is irrelevant, as The Planets Are Blasted is yet another stellar outing from the uber-prolific Pollard. Boasting consistently strong songwriting courtesy of an artist gifted with a keen awareness of what constitutes a good pop hook, the album is filler-free and thoroughly entertaining from start to finish.
The opener, Canned Food Demon, adds yet another brilliant vocal melody to Pollard's vast repertoire of unforgettable hooks, while the miniature suite Sight On Sight cycles through myriad strong tunes despite its extreme brevity. Other highlights include the dark rocker UFO Love Letters, the pretty Dorothy's A Planet and the heavy-yet-poppy Tattoo Mission.
The album is not without its faults, however. When one compiles a body of work as large as Pollard's it's inevitable that certain musical ideas will start to recur, hence the album closer Heavy Crown, a rocker with a vocal melody that's conspicuously reminiscent of the Guided By Voices staple Everywhere With Helicopter. It's a rarity for Pollard to, intentionally or not, recycle one of his own melodies, particularly in such a flagrant fashion.
This self-plagiaristic transgression can easily be forgiven, however; Heavy Crown is, in the long run, sufficiently removed from Everywhere With Helicopter that it can be enjoyed on its own terms, and the vast majority of the songs on The Planets Are Blasted are wholly unique in the melody department.
Thus the album further secures Pollard's place at the apex of the indie rock scene, a position that was ultimately never even threatened, challenged or compromised by the dissolution of Guided By Voices. While that band may be gone its legacy remains as potent as ever, enjoying its afterlife through the medium of Robert Pollard's continued artistic vigilance.
Of all of Robert Pollard's myriad other side-projects, none has enjoyed the longevity of Circus Devils, the erstwhile Guided By Voices frontman's ongoing collaboration with Todd and Tim, the Tobias brothers.
It's hardly a daunting task to ascertain why Circus Devils possess a staying power that dwarfs their side-project brethren; simply put, they deserve to exist far more than any of their counterparts, as they and they alone constitute more than a simple nomenclature-shift for Robert Pollard to hide his artistic voice behind.
By now Circus Devils have amassed a healthy little discography, one that can stand apart from the rest of Pollard's oeuvre. Gringo is the band's seventh full-length offering, and doubtlessly for some it was the most anticipated Pollard-related release of the year, as amidst the never-ending onslaught of solo and Boston Spaceships and whatever-the-latest-eccentric-sobriquet-Pollard-has-devised-for-himself-is products Gringo alone was guaranteed to provide a listening experience that wasn't simply Pollard by numbers.
Unfortunately, Gringo isn't quite as far removed from typical Pollard fare as one would imagine. Gringo contains many of Circus Devils' most 'normal' songs; they're hardly normal in the conventional sense, as Pollard's material has always been defiantly offbeat, quirky and idiosyncratic, but they do less to differentiate themselves from the rest of his canon than previous entries in Circus Devils' musical history.
This isn't inherently a bad thing, as Pollard's wares are nearly always impressive, but nevertheless it's disappointing that the one creative outlet he has that consistently offered something new and exciting is beginning to degenerate into just another thinly veiled Pollard product, another meaningless moniker for what's fundamentally the same artist as always.
This is, admittedly, a hyperbolic assertion, as there are enough departments in which Gringo differs from Pollard's other enterprises that the Circus Devils' creative independence remains intact for the time being. The group take some chances that Pollard might have shied away from in his solo work, ensuring that Circus Devils remain 'the experimental band' in his menagerie of rock outfits.
Despite this, however, Gringo feels a bit 'tame' when compared to its predecessors. The band's abrasive tendencies have been compartmentalized, with the bulk of the obligatory Circus Devils-dissonance concentrated in a single track. The unfortunate discord-container is the headache-inducing Arizona Blacktop Company, a parade of amelodic gimmickry that would transport a masochist to fits of unmitigated ecstasy.
There are certainly traces of dissonance elsewhere, hence tracks like Ants, but capturing Circs Devils' worst excesses isn't the same as capturing the true spirit of the band. Thus Ants is little more than a primitive, aurally eldritch creation that lacks the inspired insanity and unbridled creativity that characterizes the band's best output. As it stands it comes off as something akin to a third-rate Birthday Party knockoff, bearing a mild resemblance to Nick The Stripper without matching that song's tenebrous charm or perverse entertainment value.
Thus many of Gringo's best moments are the ones that blur the line between Circus Devils and Pollard's other creations. Standout tracks include the opener Witness Hill and the stellar Letters From A Witch, two songs that manage to rock convincingly using only acoustic guitars a la much of The Who's Tommy. Both songs boast terrific riffs, with Witness Hill featuring some of the superb vocal melodies Pollard is known for and Letters From A Witch evoking memories of the Guided By Voices classic Cut-Out Witch for reasons that transcend the common thread in their titles.
There are certainly some songs that strike a better balance between the Circus Devils-style and the Pollard-solo-style, but this also leads to tracks like Monkey Head that vacillate between being tremendously catchy at some moments and bland and chaotic at others.
The album's greatest liability, however, is its erratic nature. Regardless of what artistic style reigns supreme on a track what ultimately matters is the caliber of the songwriting, and while Gringo boasts a handful of Pollard classics it also contains a plethora of decidedly lesser works.
Nothing barring the aforementioned Arizona Blacktop Company is outright offensive, but there's certainly an unsettling proliferation of filler through the album. Tracks like Ships From Prison To Prison aspire to beauty but flirt with blandness, while others are simply too nondescript to register.
Fortunately for every misfire like Easy Baby there'll be a delightful pop tune like Every Moment Flame On to get the album back on track. Gringo also has its share of ugly but enjoyable numbers like the riff-rocker The Gasoline Drinkers and the primitive yet primal Bad Baby Blue that uses its simplicity to its advantage.
Thus Gringo is a flawed but solid outing for Circus Devils. It can certainly be perceived as a betrayal of the band's long established values thanks to its relative normality, but it's difficult to regard a product this bizarre and inaccessible as anything approaching a sellout.
I strongly doubt that the lack of some of the group's key elements is a conscious decision to deliver a more mainstream product; rather, I simply believe that on this go-round the band lost sight of some of their strengths, much as they had on Five, their weakest hour. They'll doubtlessly rebound in the near future and, given that Gringo is already a solid outing, the band won't have that far to go.
There was a time when the prospect of Robert Pollard collaborating with another indie icon would be cause for excitement, eliciting at least a modicum of genuine interest and enthusiasm from loyal Guided By Voices fans, but with time this palpable sense of eager anticipation has clearly eroded, largely replaced by apathy, ennui and jaded cynicism.
This phenomenon isn't wholly justified; nearly all of these joint projects have yielded high quality material, be it the musical merger of Guided By Voices and Superchunk that was Calling Snowball or the irresistible pop of The Keene Brothers. There is, however, one irrefutable fact that has dimmed one's potential for fanboyish glee, one inevitable, inescapable reality that taints what should be the catalyst for indie bliss: regardless of who Robert Pollard collaborates with, the final product will invariably sound much the same as a normal Robert Pollard album.
Thus it's with bitter skepticism and wary trepidation that one approaches an album like Cosmos' Jar Of Jam Ton Of Bricks, a creative partnership between Pollard and Richard Davies of Cardinal and The Moles fame, and while the result is yet another solid foray into the realm of indie pop, in the end the CD will doubtless reaffirm one's conception of what constitutes a Pollard collaboration, regardless of any permutations of an all-star indie lineup.
On a superficial level, however, there is one major disparity between Cosmos' first outing and typical Pollard guest-spots, namely that Davies actually provides lead vocals on four tracks. Unsurprisingly, though, these rank amongst the worst songs on the album, and one's instinctive reaction is to attribute this qualitative slump to deficiencies in Davies' influence. This response may or may not be merited, as both Pollard and Davies share songwriting credits for every song, but one's natural assumption would be that the tracks that Davies sings on are the ones that he's the most responsible for composing.
I confess my ignorance of Richard Davies' prior work which, coupled with my adoration of Pollard, likely disposes me in favor of the erstwhile Guided By Voices frontman over the unknown element, but even beyond suspicions about the caliber of Davies' songwriting I'm not altogether happy with the quality of his vocals. It could simply take time to grow acclimated to his style, but nonetheless I vastly prefer Pollard as the lead singer, a fact that further exacerbates middling tracks like the Davies-helmed You Had To Be There in my estimation.
Despite Davies assuming lead vocals on a few occasions, Jar Of Jam Ton Of Bricks still fundamentally sounds, more often than not, like a regular Pollard album, which at least means that the listener is graced with yet another solid set from the most prolific yet consistent man operating on the indie rock scene today. The album is most certainly not top tier Pollard, but even his lesser material remains vastly superior to virtually any other offering on the contemporary music scene, guaranteeing an enjoyable listening experience.
There are some elements that distinguish Jar Of Jam Ton Of Bricks from other Pollard projects, at least to a certain extent; there's a greater focus on acoustic material than Pollard had exhibited in quite some time, and this tends to work in the album's favor, forging at least something of an independent identity for itself. It may lead to debacles like the enervated blandness and tedium of the aforementioned You Had To Be There, but it also results in quality content like Don't Be A Shy Nurse.
As expected, there are also an array of superb pop rockers like For The Whiz Kid and Westward Ho, all indelibly stamped with Pollard's signature indie rock genius; as always, Pollard excels at conjuring incredibly catchy and idiosyncratic vocal melodies, invariably married to clever riffs and classic rock and roll energy.
Admittedly few tracks rank amongst Pollard finest work, but there's nary a number that feels tossed-off or half-hearted, as no matter what, Pollard's unparalleled work ethic and commitment to quality songwriting shine through. Nearly any other rock artist would have long since expended the last of their musical energy, transfiguring their career into an exercise of rehashes and self-plagiarism, but somehow even now no two Pollard tracks sound exactly alike, with no sense of familiarity or déjà vu.
It's difficult to determine precisely what Richard Davies brings to the table; his presence is felt to a certain extent, but as remarked before, Jar Of Jam Ton Of Bricks still ultimately feels like a Pollard album. It's not as if Pollard sounds reinvigorated by the appearance of another indie darling; while the material is strong, at this stage of Pollard's career very little feels radically new or particularly fresh. Davies doesn't provide the added inspiration to rejuvenate Pollard's approach to songwriting, as the final product is much the same as most recent Pollard products, namely a collection of catchy, well-written songs that, while each unique, invariably feel like they could have been written at virtually any juncture in Pollard's storied career.
Thus Jar Of Jam Ton Of Bricks is largely more of the same from Pollard, who's clearly a reached a point where no matter how different his tracks feel they'll still come across as more of the same, barring some unforeseen artistic metamorphosis. A metamorphosis of this nature has clearly not been brought about by the presence of Richard Davies, but nevertheless Pollard's newest guest star is to be commended for co-writing a plethora of solid indie rock tunes. I'd hesitate before attributing any stellar chemistry to the duo, but at least there aren't any egregious instances of style-clashes between the two artists.
Nevertheless the album is quite strong, and can be whole-heartedly recommended to any fan of Pollard's oeuvre. For those who have grown tired of Pollard, however, this particular outing will do little to rekindle your affections for the Guided By Voices alum, and can be freely avoided without any great losses.
Given how prolific Robert Pollard is at this late stage of his career, it's natural that during his early years his work was exploding with creativity. Thus Pollard thrived on conjuring a plethora of short fragments, imbuing each with imagination and personality. These fragments were never mere toss-offs or throwaways, but rather compact nuggets of musical brilliance, the products of a seemingly limitless reservoir of rock and roll ideas.
While Pollard would return to this format on several occasions, after a certain point he elected to eschew this approach in favor of concentrating on more focused, fully realized compositions. There was nothing wrong with this decision, and the caliber of the albums that ensued in the wake of this shift in his songwriting philosophy stands as a testament to this fact. Nevertheless, Pollard's reversion to his old style on Elephant Jokes is a welcome change of pace from an artist who can never grow stale but can sometimes grow predictable.
There's no inherent merit in quantity, and it certainly should seldom take precedence over quality, but in the unorthodox world of Robert Pollard standard expectations often cease to apply. Elephant Jokes contains 22 songs, only two of which pass the three minute mark, with the majority sporting runtimes of less than two minutes. The fragments that were synonymous with early Guided By Voices output are back in full force, and in many respects this phenomenon seems to have rejuvenated Pollard, as well as providing a refreshing change of pace from the standard late-period Pollard formula.
This doesn't mean that Elephant Jokes represents Pollard's songwriting at its finest, as even recent releases like The Crawling Distance boast superior musical craftsmanship. Nevertheless sometimes an assortment of musical fragments, each of which may feel half-finished or underdeveloped, can prove more exciting than a superior, fully fleshed out song occupying about the same amount of space.
This is by no means a rule that holds true throughout Pollard's, or anyone's, oeuvre, but on Elephant Jokes one's conception of the laws of rock music can be subverted by the sheer exuberance of an album erupting with an array of profoundly creative, if somewhat jumbled, diminutive works of art.
While I've stated that these fragments aren't an accurate depiction of Pollard's songwriting at its strongest, this is not meant to disparage these imaginative nuggets. Each fragment features at least several clever musical ideas, and while they may not always cohere the way that a typical recent Pollard song would they're still worthy offerings that more than justify their place on the album.
Admittedly there are some tracks that focus more on establishing an attractive sound or atmosphere than creating memorable hooks, like the alluring if shallow Spectrum Factory, but by and large the fragments on Elephant Jokes aren't cases of style over substance.
As one expects from a Pollard release there are certainly a healthy number of true highlights, from the infectious opener Things Have Changed (Down In Mexico City) to the stellar rocker Stiff Me to the thoroughly charming Jimmy, with only Stiff Me passing the two minute mark. Length is rarely an indication of quality on the album; of the two three-minute-plus 'behemoths' only (All You Need) To Know is a true high point, as Tattered Lily is a strong track but by no means outstanding.
Thus Elephant Jokes is a truly remarkable case, an album that from an objective perspective may not be first tier but is nonetheless one of Pollard's most enjoyable works in quite some time. The album is a veritable nonstop onslaught of creativity and enthusiasm, and while not everything works the overall effect is so overwhelmingly positive that any shortcomings can easily be overlooked.
With acts like Cosmos and The Keene Brothers constituting little more than ephemeral novelty partnerships and groups like Circus Devils representing a decidedly niche product, Boston Spaceships have become the de facto primary band for Robert Pollard, the long-awaited successors to the legendary indie outfit Guided By Voices.
As I've remarked in the past, Boston Spaceships have never really done much to differentiate themselves from the rest of Pollard's canon, but from a qualitative perspective they've proven themselves eminently worthy of becoming the flagship band for the most prolific man in rock music today, and Zero To 99 does a lot to reaffirm one's faith in this conviction.
It's difficult to determine whether Zero To 99 should be considered the follow-up to Boston's Spaceships' The Planets Are Blasted or Pollard's solo outing Elephant Jokes, but either way the album is yet another quality product from a man who by all rights should have thoroughly exhausted his creative faculties over a decade ago.
Zero To 99 depicts Pollard as anything but depleted, however, as it may very well be the most consistently entertaining release falling under the Boston Spaceships banner to date. Out of sixteen tracks there's nary a misfire, as each song has something worthwhile to offer, be it a catchy riff or a memorable vocal melody.
One would assume that Pollard would have to have taken songwriting shortcuts in order to amass such a vast store of material, be it only including one hook per song or repeating the same melody ad nauseum for the duration of a track, but this is rarely the case. On Zero To 99 Pollard's songs tend to be fully fleshed out and dynamic, demonstrating tangible progress over the course of their runtimes. What this means is that most of the songs on the album fluidly shift between different musical ideas, as a given track can contain an array of clever riffs and vocal melodies, not to mention the frequent presence of brilliant codas, be it the infectious repetition of the title on Radical Amazement or the falsetto chorus on How Wrong You Are.
Zero To 99 features myriad future-classics that are bound to become staples of Pollard's live shows, from the beautiful acoustic ballad Question Girl All Right to the compact rocker Exploding Anthills to the eccentric but charming Psycho Is A Bad Boy. Nearly every song would qualify as a highlight, however, save a few like Go Inside that, even if they fall short of brilliance, remain compelling offerings.
Pollard seemingly effortlessly tosses off masterpieces like Meddle and Mr. Ghost Town, and it's difficult not to be in awe of his nearly unrivaled songwriting prowess. In any given year it seems as if he produces enough new songs to fill the entire discography of another group, and he accomplishes this feat without ever compromising his high qualitative standards.
Thus Zero To 99 is yet another classic for Pollard, as well as a step in the right direction for his newest musical enterprise. Boston Spaceships have only three credits to their name, but each of their albums has represented the pinnacle of the indie rock genre. The group may not be Guided By Voices in name, but they're certainly carrying on the high standards that characterized one of the absolute greatest bands in the history of the indie music scene, and it's good to know that even in retirement the legacy of Pollard's greatest creation lives on.
It's been well-documented that for some perverse reason Robert Pollard feels a need for every sequence of notes that's he's ever strung together to be readily available to the record-buying public. Apparently enough hardcore fans have purchased his endless supply of rarities compilations to vindicate him in his excesses, as nothing else could account for the release of yet another hundred songs from the dwindling vaults of unreleased Guided By Voices material.
By now it's abundantly clear that Pollard's mostly exhausted his supply of quality un-issued content. As is inevitably the case there are a few lost gems on Suitcase 3, but the overall collection is still grotesquely erratic, with solid tunes, utter misfires and total embarrassments intermingling throughout the track-listing.
This paucity of strong unreleased material was already evident on Suitcase 2, but with the release of the third installment in this series the problem is further exacerbated. At least the flawed material on Suitcase 2 was predominantly interesting, which is more than can be said for some of the bland filler that congests Pollard's latest self-indulgent behemoth.
The first three discs of Suitcase 3 simply aren't very impressive. At times Pollard's middling efforts are less compelling than his absolute abominations, as bland acoustic strumming is more apt to put one to sleep than an ear-destructive debacle. Sometimes when Pollard scrapes the proverbial bottom of the barrel of his remaining Guided By Voices content the results are at least intriguing, but then again this line of thinking leads to the horrors of tracks like Hi, I'm Kelsey complete with a small child expounding upon the merits of his/her latest bout of odoriferous flatulence.
It's not as if discs one through three are devoid of quality material, as tracks like The Annex certainly betray signs of Pollard's usual craftsmanship. Additionally, by no means are all of the lesser tracks monotonous affairs bereft of redeeming properties. Overall, however, these songs simply didn't demand to be released, nor does their existence in any way enrich the legacies of either Robert Pollard or Guided By Voices as a whole.
Fortunately, disc four does, to a certain extent, at least make something of a case for the collection's existence. The tracks on this disc are culled from a period that arguably finds Guided By Voices at the peak of their creativity, as they're all derived from acoustic sessions that transpired between the release of Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes.
Needless to say, the caliber of these songs pales in comparison to the material that comprised those two masterworks, but they're still a good deal more interesting than the content from the previous discs.
The sessions also offer some insight into Pollard's creative process. On some of the tracks it's clear that Pollard has fully worked out a song's vocal melody but has yet to pen lyrics to match it, so he delivers a stream of unintelligible, slurred gibberish in place of actual words. Also, given that the bulk of the material on disc four consists of works in progress, it's intriguing to listen to the band working out the kinks of songs even as they perform them. Sadly, however, most of these rough cuts can't be compared to final versions, as they were simply discarded as misfires unworthy of inclusion on an album proper.
Even with the relative merit of disc four, Suitcase 3 is spectacularly unnecessary, a wholly superfluous product that can only be of interest to a very select few who'll buy and treasure any chord sequence that Pollard ever played. I ultimately enjoyed each disc on at least some level, and for the most part Suitcase 3 is definitely an interesting listening experience, but there are enough drab stretches and repetitive sequences to ward off most listeners, not to mention the expected horrendous sound quality on nearly every track. Even as someone who doubtless enjoyed the album more than most, I have to confess that it will be a very, very long time before I listen to Suitcase 3 again, and even then I'm not anticipating a particularly rewarding or eye-opening experience.
When an artist is as maddeningly prolific as Robert Pollard, it's inevitable that a certain formulaic quality will set in, a predilection for stylistic retreads and even borderline self-plagiarism. With a discography as massive as Pollard's it would be surprising if he didn't adhere to an established template, guided by a set blueprints for his work.
This may seem like an unpardonable offense, but Pollard's innate gifts for songwriting tend to salvage his output despite his propensity for recycling ideas. A track may seem like Pollard-by-numbers, but often a musical hook, a riff or a high quality vocal melody will emerge to redeem the song, compensating for any signs of repetition or hints of deja-vu.
Therefore, given that at this stage of his career Pollard wholly eschews dramatic stylistic shifts (barring a few more adventurous side-projects, most notably the Circus Devils), it's these scattered moments of brilliance that the quality of his albums hinge upon. At his best Pollard can still conjure a plethora of catchy tunes to breathe new life into an increasingly stale formula, but at other times a chronic sameness will set in, with nary a clever idea to make the experience worthwhile.
We All Got Out Of The Army is one of Pollard's more erratic offerings. While the album features some exceptional vocal melodies, as demonstrated by the superb duo of I Can See and Post Hydrate Update, there are more than a few lesser moments, from the ill-advised flirtation with dissonance Rice Train to the pure filler of Your Rate Will Never Go Up.
For every classic, like the compact His Knighthood Photograph and the multipart title track, there'll be a blemish like Wild Girl, a song that conclusively proves that minimalism isn't inherently a good thing. The latter track feels like a Psycho & The Birds song pre-Tobias' arrangements, a rough demo that lacks the elegance and moodiness that accompanies true minimalistic classics.
Nevertheless the good certainly outweighs the bad on We All Got Out Of The Army, and even the worst tracks aren't truly offensive. The songwriting may be inconsistent, and far too many tracks simply feel like generic-Pollard, but the album still has its fair share of classic Pollard moments, and in the end that's enough to constitute a solid listening experience.
Beyond the cynical exploitation of completists and fanboys who'll invariably buy anything associated with their group of choice, there are myriad logical reasons for a band to release an EP. The problem is that none of them apply to Camera Found The Ray Gun, the latest (and briefest) effort from Pollard's new flagship band.
There's no new album for Camera Found The Ray Gun to hype; admittedly, Pollard is so prolific that in a sense there's always a new album to hype, but that doesn't appear to be the purpose with which the EP was created. There's no need to keep the band at the forefront of popular consciousness (or more aptly niche indie consciousness), as if one begins to forget about the erstwhile Guided By Voices frontman they need only wait a few days for his next release. It's even doubtful that Pollard loyalists will necessarily buy a product that's less than nine minutes long and released with only a modicum of fanfare.
This begs the question: why was Camera Found The Ray Gun created? What could have inspired Pollard to release an EP that at five dollars is still barely a decent value? Was issuing these particular tracks so urgent that he couldn't have waited the single week it would doubtless have taken him to produce a full-length album?
Gratuitous as it may be, Camera Found The Ray Gun is still a Pollard creation. More over, it's the product of Boston Spaceships, the side-project that Pollard seems to invest the most effort in. Keeping this in mind, the EP is naturally not without merit, even if these four tracks would be better suited to composing a chunk of a full-fledged album than constituting a standalone release.
If a case could be made for justifying the EP's existence, its focal point would doubtless be the opener, the terrific riff-rocker and bona fide Pollard classic The Way Out. Seamlessly shifting between a variety of musical ideas, the song is complex without compromising its axiomatic accessibility. While the track has countless analogues in Pollard's canon it's still far from a rehash, and a measure of familiarity is both inevitable and acceptable at this point in his career.
Pluto Polluted is another worthwhile number, but that can scarcely be said for the two remaining tracks. Aquarian Hovercraft is decent enough, but where it flirts with dissonance Rival GT fully embraces it. Despite encompassing multiple distinct sections, Rival GT's disparate ideas simply never cohere into something meaningful, with no catchy melodies to guide or inform it.
Despite these liabilities I would never call any of these tracks overtly bad. Rather than simply tossing these songs off, it's clear that Pollard took an ambitious approach toward composing them, and this is reflected in the very structures of the tracks themselves. Each song is multipart, which is particularly impressive given the brevity of each number. For this reason, even the weaker cuts on the EP are of interest, and can still arrest one's attention even when the melodies falter.
One of the traits that defines Pollard as an artist is his ability to generate an array of creative ideas and concepts. Therefore lesser songs like Rival GT aren't marred by a paucity of ideas, but rather suffer from an excess of them. While this can lead to dire repercussions, it also ensures that filler from Pollard will invariably be more compelling than filler from just about anyone else.
Nevertheless half of Camera Found The Ray Gun's tracks are a good deal less than stellar, a sad fact that makes a strong case for the EP's extraneousness. An erratic yet interesting sub-nine minute listen isn't really worth all that much in the overall scheme of things, and as good as Pluto Is Polluted and, especially, The Way Out are, I could have easily waited for them to be released on a proper album. Even Rival GT would likely be more palatable in the context of a longer work, additional ammunition against Camera Found The Ray Gun's EP status.
Throughout Pollard's entire career I've spoken of his 'song fragments,' under-developed and short yet intriguing ideas animated by their composer's intelligence and creativity. Furthermore I've praised Pollard for these fragments, as in many instances a single fragment would hold more ideas than most groups' full-length tunes. Camera Found The Ray Gun, however, is like an 'album fragment,' and unfortunately I find that this concept, interesting as it may sound, simply doesn't work as well as one might have hoped.
For those who religiously purchase every Pollard-related product, new Circus Devils albums used to be particularly refreshing, as they represented the artist in a decidedly different mode from his usual Guided By Voices-lite approach to music-making. Now that Pollard and the brothers Tobias have made releasing a new Circus Devils album an annual event, however, Guided By Voices' darker and more inaccessible offshoot is in danger of becoming nearly as oversaturated on the contemporary indie rock scene as conventional Pollard solo fare, thus losing some of the freshness and spontaneity that had constituted much of the quirky, experimental rock group's charm.
This situation is exacerbated by the fact that Mother Skinny is the band's worst album since Five, an apt comparison given that it shares many of the defects of that partial misfire. Much like Five, Mother Skinny is by no means a bad album, but it lacks the verve and inspiration that typifies most Circus Devils albums, and perhaps this can be directly attributed to the band's newfound over-prolific tendencies.
Mother Skinny's main flaw is a reliance on mood and atmosphere, which invariably comes at the expense of consistently strong melodies. Much like its predecessors the album is delightfully twisted and macabre, but past Circus Devils releases married this infectious morbidity to catchy melodies and plentiful hooks. Eschewing memorable tunes for the sake of crafting haunting soundscapes is a mistake first perpetrated on Five, a lapse of judgment that's inexcusable for a group that has already proven time and again that a rich, caliginous atmosphere and immediate pop hooks are by no means mutually exclusive.
Even taking these qualities into account, Mother Skinny is by no means an easy listen. Like past Circus Devils projects the album flirts with dissonance while seldom becoming overtly atonal, but there are still moments on Mother Skinny that will repel those with a low tolerance for the discordant. The title track, for example, is a profoundly unnerving, viscerally unsettling experience, and while the band should be credited for evoking such a strong reaction in a listener, there's still something to be said for songs that don't make one's skin crawl.
There are certainly a plethora of aurally ugly moments on the album, and without catchy melodies to animate these passages they're far more difficult to take than they were on earlier Circus Devils releases.
Nevertheless Mother Skinny remains a very striking listening experience, more so than the somewhat bland Five. While many tracks may not leave the listener with a memorable tune to hum, they still will doubtless leave a lasting impression on one's psyche. Many of the songs are cleverly structured and idiosyncratically arranged, with a catchy melody being the one missing piece from the puzzle that could have made the album a masterpiece.
The album is by no means wholly devoid of melodies, as tracks like Bam Bam Bam feature at least a modicum of hooks, but by and large it's the atmospherics that make Mother Skinny an engaging listen. Lurking is so dark and moody that one could fail to notice its lack of musical substance, while 8 Legs To Love You boasts a handful of hooks, albeit dissonant hooks.
There are, however, some utterly irredeemable misfires, from the grating Germ Circus to the abrasive and unfocused Wolf Man Chords. All The Good Ones Are Gone tries to add some diversity to the proceedings with a relatively normal sound, but there's simply no room for normality on Mother Skinny and thus the track feels incongruous and, ultimately, extraneous. Elsewhere, as far as songs that verbally abuse you go, the closer Shut Up lacks the flair and panache of Ween's You Fucked Up and Accept's Son Of A Bitch, simply coming across as inane and childish.
Ultimately Mother Skinny is a disappointment, but by no means an uninteresting one. Enough effort was put into the tracks that even without much going on on a melodic level the album can still be a compelling experience, if on a perverse level. It's telling, however, that Mother Skinny can almost exclusively be enjoyed on a perverse level, whereas Circus Devils' best work can generally be enjoyed on a more conventional level as well.
There's only one way to justify a maddeningly packed release schedule the likes of Robert Pollard's, and that's to exclusively produce good material. For years the erstwhile Guided By Voices frontman has managed this feat, knowing that if a single poor album were to slip through the cracks then his prolific tendencies would be exposed as pure, undiluted and unwarranted ego. As long as the caliber of Pollard's output remains high then it can be said that his seemingly limitless releases are for the sake of his fans, but if his content drops below his usual standards then these countless albums are clearly for himself, the masturbatory excesses of one in love with the sound of his own voice.
On Moses On A Snail, Pollard once again demonstrates that, perhaps with the exception of a few ill-advised side-projects and errant EPs, he only produces albums that are worth listening to. This is to be expected, as Pollard's works have remained consistent for many years now, and thus a sudden drop in the qualitative department would be a jarring, even shocking occurrence. Nevertheless, after all this time, signs of deterioration are starting to emerge, and Pollard's seemingly inexhaustible supply of musical ideas is beginning to, if not dwindle, then at least show its age.
The issue that I'm addressing isn't creative or artistic stagnation, as if I were to be perfectly honest I'd say that, when it comes to Robert Pollard, stagnation set in a long time ago. Pollard has, with the exception of some of his extracurricular work with more experimental outfits like Circus Devils, religiously adhered to the same formula for many years now, a clear case of stagnation that I've been willing to overlook due to the high quality of his songwriting. Stagnation, while inherently detrimental to an artist's work, can be pardoned under certain circumstances, and thus if said artist still brings a lot to the table then I can turn a blind eye to his other failings.
What worries me is that, in the year 2010, Pollard's very songwriting is starting to suffer. Songwriting is the one department in which Pollard has always excelled, the area in which he has achieved such mastery that he can commit any artistic transgression and still deliver a phenomenal product.
By no means am I saying that Pollard's lost his facility for strong songwriting. He has yet to release an album that lacks his signature irresistible vocal melodies and catchy riffs. Nevertheless there are signs that his abilities are beginning to wane, and while these signs are mild at most it's still cause for concern. This may be a case of being an alarmist, but for someone of Pollard's stature to display even minor signs of weakening as a composer still merits immediate critical attention.
It's still early in the year 2010, but predictably enough Pollard has already released three full albums. Furthermore, all three have been, also predictably, strong overall products. Each one has, however, been below the standards set by Pollard's recent work. This isn't a dramatic decline, but it's a perceptible decline nevertheless, and one made more important by the fact that the albums' liabilities are primarily in the songwriting department, an area in which Pollard has always remained beyond reproach.
We All Got Out Of The Army, while a solid album, was considerably more erratic than those which had preceded it, with a paucity of arresting melodies. Furthermore, the Circus Devils' latest outing, Mother Skinny, was particularly egregious on the songwriting front, relying on atmosphere to mask its rather pronounced failings on the musical front.
Moses On A Snail continues this tradition of underwhelming songwriting efforts. It's easy to overlook this melodic handicap, as much like We All Got Out Of The Army and Mother Skinny, Moses On A Snail is a very good album. Sagacious track sequencing certainly contributes to this, as the album's two best cuts bookmark the CD, ensuring that it both begins and ends on a high note.
To a Pollard novice, or one giving the album a more casual listen, there may not be any problems at all. Moses On A Snail sounds much like any other Pollard album, and thus for many may prove to be interchangeable with his other recent efforts. If one digs below the surface, however, he'll find a small but demonstrable blemish on the songwriting front, a slight dearth of strong hooks and creative musical ideas that makes for a somewhat weaker final product.
For virtually any other artist, Moses On A Snail contains more than enough hooks, but Pollard has set very high standards for himself that he simply fails to meet on his latest venture. This isn't so much a sheer drop in quality as a gradual decline, but it is noticeable and it is cause for at least a modicum of concern.
Pollard is indeed a master when it comes to vocal melodies, with few matching his ability to seemingly effortlessly wrap a few lines together and come out with an unforgettable hook. Thus by no means are the vocal melodies on Moses On A Snail pedestrian, derivative, or worse, altogether absent. Unfortunately, on this go-round many of the vocal melodies, while structurally interesting and doubtless worthy of praise, can only really be appreciated on a more technical level, lacking the axiomatic punch, the innate catchiness and the lastingly memorable charm that characterize Pollard's better work.
This is by no means the case on every song. The opener, The Weekly Crow, is an instant classic, with brilliant vocal melodies, inspired cello passages and an unforgettable duet between Pollard and his overdubbed self.
The title track is another highlight, a menacing rocker complete with some of the album's few cases of jamming. These solos are, as usual, adroitly handled by the ever reliable Todd Tobias, who returns to once again apply his multi-instrumental abilities to Pollard's brilliant creative visions.
Lie Like A Dog depicts Pollard in an unusually angry mode, a tone that he's eminently well suited for. Angry rockers are a scarce commodity for Pollard, and it's always a pleasure to hear him demonstrate his underrated vocal versatility.
Nearly every song on Moses On A Snail is at least somewhat enjoyable, and I wouldn't dispute that it's a very strong album. Unfortunately, it simply doesn't stand up to closer scrutiny the way most of Pollard's projects do, with far too many tracks that lack the necessary melodic heft to become classics. While many of the songs excel from a stylistic perspective, they falter when it comes to substance, and the result is something that I truly hope isn't a sign of worse things to come.
An artist has reached a dangerous point in his career when he's more notable for the quantity of his work than the quality of it. Truth be told, by now it feels as if Robert Pollard is simply padding his canon with good song after good song, knowing full well that no new contribution, however strong, will have any kind of effect on his overall legacy. Volume is the operative word, as even though Pollard is still producing impressive material it scarcely seems to matter anymore.
This may seem unfair, or even irrational. After all, it's hard to think of a good song as a bad thing. Nevertheless, by now Pollard has said everything that he needs to say. He's never going to make any bold artistic statements or launch any new musical revolutions. Even the Circus Devils, his personal forum for experimentation, has become somewhat tired and stale. Yet despite all this Pollard persists with his endless songwriting, creating work that's irreproachable from one perspective and consummately unnecessary from another.
This doesn't change the fact that I derive immense pleasure from listening to Our Cubehouse Still Rocks, the latest offering from Pollard's new flagship band Boston Spaceships. I'm not about to condemn an album that features such impeccable songwriting and energetic performances just because it's virtually the hundredth such project from the same individual. Familiar as it may sound, the album never reaches the point of self-plagiarism, as through some miracle Pollard has still not exhausted his seemingly endless supply of creative new melodies. Even so, it's hard to get excited when you know that in about a month another such album will be released under any one of Pollard's countless banners.
There are some signs that Pollard is finally stretching himself a bit thin, as the album seems to lose momentum about two thirds of the way through. Furthermore, I See You Coming is simply too primitive a number no matter how spirited its execution is. Likewise, The British And The French feels like filler, and moderately grating filler at that.
As usual, however, the rest of the album is terrific. Trick Of The Telekinetic Newlyweds is a charmingly idiosyncratic pop song, the kind that demonstrates that no matter what, when it comes to songwriting, Pollard will never go on autopilot or take the easy way out. Freedom Rings is a fabulous riff rocker with yet another superb vocal melody, and the song makes great use of the by now signature distorted instrumentation of Boston Spaceships.
By all counts Our Cubehouse Still Rocks is an excellent album. Even so, that same praise has been lavished upon around a dozen Pollard albums that have already come out this year, and will likewise be applied to even more in the near future. It's truly a trying experience to be a Robert Pollard fan, but if it means getting to enjoy high quality indie rock like Our Cubehouse Still Rocks then it may very well be worth the frustration.
If Robert Pollard albums have become redundant, then Robert Pollard reviews have become even more so. There's little new that one can say about the uber-prolific songwriter, so a typical Pollard review will consist of little more than such banalities as 'this is an above average Pollard album' or 'this is a weaker than usual effort.' As long as Pollard won't change, neither will Pollard reviews, and thus penning a critique of his work is an exercise in frustration.
There's precious little hope for a Pollard reviewer, as the erstwhile Guided By Voices frontman has made it abundantly clear that he has no intention of changing. Even the once defiantly experimental Circus Devils have become formulaic, and Pollard's revolving-door side-project collaborators seldom seem to have much bearing on the albums they appear on.
Thus, with such limited tools at my disposal, I'll simply say that Space City Kicks, while a fundamentally solid album, is well below average by Pollard's usual standards. There are a number of superb songs on the album, but there's also a disconcerting amount of filler that prevents the LP from reaching its full potential.
As far as highlights are concerned, the opener, Mr. Fantastic Must Die!, certainly qualifies. While the song may initially come across as little more than a dissonant jumble, further exposure reveals a well-put-together and entertaining pop-rocker. The title track is a catchy riff-rocker, albeit a riff-rocker with one of the most generic and primitive riffs imaginable.
I Wanna Be Your Man In The Moon is an endearing pop song, a disarmingly charming number that might even be able to pass as 'normal' mainstream fare were it not for Pollard's typically eccentric lyrics.
Elsewhere, Sex She Said is easily one of the best tracks on the album, a song that can instantly be recognized as Pollard's work while still sounding fresh and new. It's the sort of song that would never be played on the radio under any circumstances (and not just because of the lyrics and title) despite being catchy and memorable, a delicate balance that only top-tier indie songwriters like Pollard can manage.
Something Strawberry is an irresistible pop-rocker filled with the kind of instantly-memorable vocal hooks that one has come to expect from Pollard. Follow A Loser is another definite high point, an idiosyncratic yet accessible tune eminently worthy of being added to Pollard's canon. Getting Going is a familiar but catchy rocker, nothing extraordinary but still quite enjoyable.
Sadly, most of the remaining numbers are rather forgettable. None of the tracks are outright offensive, but few are worth retaining. Some, like Blowing Like A Sunspot and Stay Away, are simply too short and undeveloped to amount to much. Others, like One More Touch, are bland and nondescript.
Ultimately, most of the album just doesn't represent Pollard at his best. Furthermore, the high quality of some of the tracks makes the lesser numbers suffer in comparison. Attentive listens amply demonstrate that just because Pollard displays a mastery over a certain form on parts of the album doesn't mean that he'll be able to extend this to every track. Thus while he deftly handles dissonance on Mr. Fantastic Must Die!, elsewhere his discordant passages irreparably mar his arrangements and melodies.
For every brilliant pop song like Something Strawberry there'll be a lackluster one like Touch Me In The Right Place At The Right Time, and while this may seem par for the course the last thing that Pollard needs right now is more filler to pad his massive oeuvre. It's almost as if he's become so prolific that he doesn't have the right to make any more middling songs. One could say that when songwriters' discographies reach a certain point they should only release tracks that are truly worthy of being heard, and that anything else is simply excess.
Thus Space City Kicks adds a handful of quality tracks to Pollard's canon, accompanied by some filler. I'd normally be more tolerant of this, but as I've explained I've lost patience with Pollard's filler, and thus look upon it in a less than charitable light. Space City Kicks is a good album, but this could be said of dozens of other Pollard albums as well, and this time he quite frankly hasn't done enough to differentiate it from the rest of them.
There's no question that Robert Pollard can continue to makes rock albums well into the foreseeable future. The question is if he should.
While detractors have been condemning Pollard for his prolific ways for well over a decade, I have fervently defended him and his relentless onslaught of solo albums, side-projects and collaborations. This wasn't out of blind loyalty to one of my indie-rock heroes, but rather out of respect for Pollard's ability to produce catchy melody after catchy melody, with no signs of staleness, stagnation or self-plagiarism setting in.
Lately, however, I've begun to waver in my support for Pollard's excessive release-rate. Albums like Space City Kicks, while solid, add little to Pollard's musical legacy. This isn't a huge problem in and of itself, but the CD also betrays a certain inconsistency that's been slowly but surely developing over the course of his last several solo outings. Fortunately, whenever my concerns over Pollard's continuing role in rock music begin to mount, an album like Waving at the Astronauts will come to assuage my fears.
What must be clarified, however, is that it's my faith in Pollard's abilities that are renewed, not my faith in his solo albums. What Waving at the Astronauts makes abundantly clear is that at this stage in his career, Robert Pollard is in dire need of assistance when it comes to making high-quality albums.
I'm not implying that someone needs to hold Pollard's hand and guide him through the creative process. Pollard's songwriting skills have not atrophied, and he has no need to hide behind a superior artist. Instead, what Pollard seems to need is inspiration, a creative spark to set him in motion or an original idea to build upon.
Thus it's not surprising that Pollard's best work has, as of late, been made in conjunction with other artists. From bands like the Guided By Voices surrogate Boston Spaceships to partnerships like The Keene Brothers, Pollard has thrived when he's had another artist to play off of. Waving at the Astronauts is no exception.
Waving at the Astronauts is the sophomore effort of the long dormant side-project Lifeguards. After eight years, erstwhile Guided By Voices member Doug Gillard has finally returned to Pollard's side, welcome news for anyone who recalls the creative chemistry they've demonstrated in the past.
The duo's first non-Guided By Voices project was the sublime Speak Kindly Of Your Volunteer Fire Department, soon followed by the superb Mist King Urth. It was on the latter album that Pollard and Gillard introduced the "Lifeguards" name, and after such an extended hiatus few expected to hear it again.
On Waving at the Astronauts, the two artists have made their arrangement clear. Gillard writes and performs an instrumental, single-handedly playing every instrument himself. From there Pollard receives the music, adding his signature eccentric lyrics and brilliant vocal melodies into the mix.
While it may seem counterintuitive, the vocal melodies on Waving at the Astronauts surpass nearly anything featured on Space City Kicks. One's natural assumption would be that Pollard would have an easier time creating vocal melodies to accompany his own music rather than someone else's, yet such is not the case. It seems that, for the time being, Pollard simply needs that creative spark to do his best work.
The nature of Lifeguards' collaboration, however, doubtlessly raises many other concerns. The prospect of listening to one man's vocals superimposed over another man's music doesn't sound all that appealing. Rather, this dynamic will surely breed fears of style-clashes, dissonance and any other aural malady that can stem from the haphazard merging of two men's visions.
Luckily, Waving at the Astronauts is as seamless a fusion as one could imagine. Pollard and Gillard have proven their compatibility in the past, and this time around they continue to complement one another at every turn.
Somehow, despite being the product of a one-man band and an overdubbed singer, Waving at the Astronauts truly sounds like a rock group in a studio. As a matter of fact, thanks to the added rawness of Gillard's guitarwork, Pollard sounds more like a member of a rock group than he has in a very long time.
Recent Pollard solo albums have a certain slick, glossy sheen, and while this works for his material, it prevents him from "rocking out" in the conventional sense. Such is not the case on Waving at the Astronauts, with its aggressive instrumentation and rougher production. While it's not exactly the lo-fi heir to Bee Thousand, the album eschews the studio polish of Pollard's latest solo efforts. The result is not only a bonus for head-bangers, but also a great way to differentiate Waving at the Astronauts from the rest of Pollard's catalogue.
There are three basic factors that make Waving at the Astronauts a great album, namely that Pollard is in top form, that Gillard is in top form and that, as I've repeated, the duo have an amazing chemistry together. These elements combine to make a truly special album, one of Pollard's best since he proved his post-Guided By Voices relevance with the indie-pop masterpiece From A Compound Eye.
Waving at the Astronauts is devoid of filler, with the solid but unspectacular They Called Him So Much coming the closest to earning this unenviable distinction. At the other extreme, the opener, Paradise Is Not So Bad, adroitly marries Gillard's raw, heavy arrangements to Pollard's irresistible vocal hooks. The refrain is as catchy as anything that Pollard's come up with in years, and any one of the many vocal melodies included would have been enough for an entire song.
Another major highlight is the dark, apocalyptic rocker Keep it in Orbit, a menacing number that somewhat resembles what The Numbered Head would sound like without such a pronounced Joy Division influence.
While it doesn't necessarily have the catchiest melody on the album, my favorite track may be the aching, angst-ridden closer What Am I? Few Pollard songs provoke an emotional reaction in me, but somehow there's something about the depressive minimalism of the track that's truly disarming. The abrupt ending is extremely effective, as is Pollard's low-keyed vocal performance.
Thus Waving at the Astronauts is an excellent album, a testament to what Pollard can still do when given the right context and opportunity. While it may seem like a given to say that artists are at their best when they're inspired, there's something that one must keep in mind in this case. Pollard, thanks to his uber-prolific tendencies, has basically been immersed in his own oeuvre for well over a decade. By stepping outside himself, however briefly, Pollard can be at least somewhat rejuvenated, and this is what his collaborations truly have to offer.
Releasing new material at the pace and volume of a Robert Pollard demands a certain confidence, a faith that any song that happens to pop into your head will merit widespread exposure (and at a price, no less). Some may call this hubris, but there was a time when Pollard had earned this confidence, generating classic song after classic song. Now, however, it seems that this faith may be misplaced.
After a series of solid but unexceptional solo releases, with Space City Kicks being the most recent of the lot, Pollard can no longer be seen as the infallible song-making-machine who propelled Guided By Voices to the zenith of the indie-rock pantheon.
Fortunately, the Pollard of old has not been altogether lost. While he has shown chinks in his armor, this doesn't mean that he can no longer reach the dizzying heights of old. It simply means that he needs some help.
The brilliant Waving at the Astronauts offers ample proof that, with the right partner, Pollard is still capable of achieving great things. The New Theory of Everything, the debut of Pollard's latest side-project Mars Classroom, reaffirms this notion.
Mars Classroom is a collaboration between Pollard and indie-sensation Big Dipper's Gary Waleik. This is a partnership that seemed inevitable, as Pollard has been very vocal in his praise of Waleik's work. As one would hope, this admiration has translated into a terrific chemistry between the two artists. The duo are so compatible that it's often difficult to see where one begins and the other ends, even with 'music' being credited to Waleik and 'lyrics and melodies' being attributed to Pollard.
The New Theory of Everything is a stunningly consistent album. Its highs may not equal those of Waving at the Astronauts, but this shouldn't detract from the considerable quality of the material.
Catchy melodies abound on the album. New Theory is a terrific pop rocker that starts the CD on an auspicious note. As far as ballads are concerned, There Never was a Sea of Love is actually quite beautiful, featuring some of Pollard's more emotive vocals. While it may not break new ground for Pollard, Pre-Med's a Trip boasts an infectious refrain with customarily eccentric lyrics. A successor to What Am I? in its reliance on a dark, brooding atmosphere, Paint the Rocks is a moody rocker with a tinge of desperation that makes it all the more haunting.
Waving at the Astronauts does have one major advantage over The New Theory of Everything, however. The Lifeguards' joint effort had a more raw sound courtesy of Doug Gillard, and this helped differentiate the album from the rest of Pollard's oeuvre. Gillard's brand of rock and roll may not be revolutionary, but it brought a certain freshness to Pollard's somewhat stale musical approach.
While it may be a collaboration, The New Theory of Everything sounds much the same as a solo Pollard release. Having Waleik to play off does make the album sound like a high quality standard Pollard album, but a standard Pollard album nevertheless. This may not seem like a problem, but there is no shortage of high quality Pollard albums, whereas CDs that inject some freshness into his formula, like Waving at the Astronauts, are few and far between.
Nevertheless, Waleik has spurred Pollard on to greatness, even if it's a greatness that we're already accustomed to receiving. As long as Pollard finds artistic soul-mates like Waleik he'll continue to do good work, though I'm far less optimistic when it comes to his solo fare.
Perhaps recognizing that his entire solo career has become a study in redundancy, Pollard has added a gimmick to his latest effort in an attempt to differentiate it from its predecessors. Each song on Lord Of The Birdcage originated as a poem, bereft of any melodies or musical accompaniment. While I wouldn't call the album's music an afterthought, the poems certainly weren't penned with melodies in mind, only achieving 'songhood' long after their initial composition.
This idea is hardly unprecedented. The Doors pulled a similar stunt with the total debacle that was An American Prayer. Furthermore, many groups write their lyrics prior to their music, in essence creating a similar scenario. This tactic inherently limits a song's musical potential, forcing the artist to abide by certain structural constraints. Nevertheless, bands like Procol Harum adhered to this model and thrived, ample proof that even when lyrics precede music stunning melodies can still be crafted.
While Lord Of The Birdcage is a far cry from the brilliance of Procol Harum, it's still a good deal better than An American Prayer. Remarkably, Pollard's use of poems as the foundations for his songs never undermines or inhibits his music. Moreover, it's nearly impossible to tell that Pollard is using this method at all. The songs sound like typical Pollard songs, seldom if ever betraying their unique origins.
This may sound like an asset, but in reality it's the album's biggest liability. Even when Pollard employs a gimmick it fails to make a discernable impression upon the listener. Lord Of The Birdcage is simply another Pollard album, nothing more and nothing less.
A perpetual sense of déjà vu permeates the entire album. Pollard's lyrics have never been the focal point of his material, and even utilizing poems as a starting point doesn't change this fact. Should one choose to focus on the poetry, one will find little to distinguish these verses from any other Pollard lyrics.
Musically, the album fails to break any new ground. The songs feel like Pollard's just going through the motions, resulting in material that's seldom offensive but also seldom inspired. You Can't Challenge Forward Progress and Silence Before Violence are amongst the more ambitious tracks, but they also represent the nadir of the album, a fact that doesn't bode well as far as artistic aspirations are concerned.
Many songs feature multipart structures, but upon further inspection one will discover that nearly every section feels like it was lifted from an earlier Pollard album. Furthermore, while Ash Ript Telecopter impresses at first, it's so generic that it borders on self-plagiarism.
Barring a few exceptions, nearly every track has a decent melody. With melodies this self-derivative, however, catchiness scarcely even matters. Unimaginative and colossally primitive riffs abound, paired with recycled vocal melodies that betray nary a hint of creativity.
Garden Smarm is one of the better rockers. It may not be idiosyncratic or experimental, but it feels fresher and better constructed than most of the other tunes. Elsewhere, In A Circle is easily the most emotional moment on the album, a solid ballad that never feels forced or manufactured. It's Pollard's singing that truly makes the song, a vocal performance that's easily his best on the entire CD.
Lord Of The Birdcage is entertaining enough, as it liberally 'borrows' from one of the most impressive discographies in indie-rock history. Anyone already acquainted with Pollard's oeuvre, however, will surely lose patience with an album that simply refuses to come up with new or original ideas. The album's gimmick is ultimately completely inconsequential, having little or no bearing on the overall listening experience. Thus what one is left with is, quite simply, Pollard-by-numbers. Pollard-by-numbers is still better than most CDs out there, but around a hundred albums in it's easy to lose sight of that fact, or simply not to care.
From A Compound Eye was the right album at the right time. Pollard had officially retired the Guided By Voices moniker, and needed to prove that he could still produce worthwhile material in the wake of the band's dissolution. From A Compound Eye offered ample proof, a modern masterpiece poised to usher in an era of post-Guided By Voices excellence.
This 'era of excellence' was not a false promise. In the years following From A Compound Eye's release, Pollard produced a plethora of classics, both solo and under the banners of his numerous side-projects. Even an artist as gifted as Pollard is apt to have trouble sustaining such momentum, however, and after a period of unparalleled productivity it finally seemed as if his songwriting skills were waning.
What he needed was another From A Compound Eye, another epochal masterwork to prove his relevancy in a world where the last thing anyone would want is yet another Robert Pollard album. Let It Beard is that album.
Aside from their extreme length and historical significance, Let It Beard and From A Compound Eye have little in common. The latter is clearly the successor to albums like Do The Collapse and Isolation Drills, slick, polished products blessed with a glossy studio sheen.
Let It Beard, however, takes its cues from lo-fi marvels like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes. This is rather difficult to reconcile with much of Pollard recent solo output, and it also puts the album at odds with Boston Spaceships' other ventures. It seems as if after years of Pollard adopting different titles for his myriad musical enterprises the name-game is finally catching up with him and exposing its meaninglessness. Boston Spaceships have never sounded even remotely like this before, leading one to wonder if Pollard assigned Let It Beard to their line-up at random.
Perhaps Pollard thought that the release of Let It Beard would make more of a statement if he attributed it to what is, in theory, his new flagship band. Furthermore, Pollard's only group currently operating in a lo-fi context is Circus Devils, and handing Let It Beard to them would be rather inadvisable for obvious reasons.
The name, however, is irrelevant. Let It Beard is indeed a throwback to the Guided By Voices Bee Thousand era, an album filled with lo-fi rock and pop tunes of a kind that had seemingly disappeared from Pollard repertoire.
Let It Beard doesn't simply sound like a competent facsimile of Bee Thousand-style lo-fi rock; it sounds like the genuine article. Few would have looked askance had it been the follow-up to Under The Bushes Under The Stars. Pollard has not only duplicated the quality of his songwriting from that period; he's somehow managed to recapture the magic that animated those lo-fi classics.
It's not as if Let It Beard is a carbon copy of Bee Thousand. One major change is that, save a few exceptions like the throwaway (I'll Make It) Strong For You, there are no fragments on Let It Beard. Every track is a fully fleshed-out song, a rather difficult feat for an album with 26 numbers.
Not every song is an unmitigated classic, but the album is still amazingly consistent. Furthermore, despite its lo-fi sonic-handicaps Let It Beard is still impressively diverse. Thus the album contains brilliant rockers like You Just Can't Tell and The Vicelords, irresistible pop tunes like Speed Bumps and Make A Record For Lo-Life and moving ballads like Let More Light Into The House.
Most importantly, Pollard is at the top of his game as far as songwriting is concerned. The title track may boast an unforgettable riff, but Pollard doesn't use that as an excuse to not pen a compelling song to accompany it. Elsewhere Tabby And Lucy features one of the catchiest and most uplifting refrains in recent memory, recalling the tender elegance of Best Of Jill Hives.
Let It Beard is, quite simply, an absolute masterpiece. The album is Pollard's best since From A Compound Eye and, by all rights, better than any new Pollard release has the right to be in 2011. Despite being a huge Pollard fan, I've grown jaded when it comes to his new material and maddeningly prolific tendencies. Let It Beard reaffirms my faith in his genius, and while his subsequent works will doubtlessly be inferior I'll gladly listen to another several dozen more as long as hope remains for another album of this caliber.