Robert Pollard in (self) exile: 16 great songs from a lost decade
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The early line on the Guided By Voices reunion album Let’s Go Eat At The Factory is that while it’s nowhere near as good as the GBV classics Alien Lanes or Bee Thousand, it’s leagues better than the dozens of solo albums and side projects that frontman Robert Pollard has released in the seven years since the last proper Guided By Voices album. This, I say with all due respect to all concerned, is horseshit. Let’s Go Eat At The Factory does have the same familiar “live from the basement” quality as the vintage Guided By Voices records, I’ll admit—but if I were to make a list of the best albums that Pollard has been made since 2004, I’m not sure Let’s Go Eat At The Factory would crack the top five.
This isn’t meant to slag the new record, which I like overall; nor am I trying to argue that Pollard has been pumping out neglected masterpieces from 2005 on. I’m only suggesting that Let’s Go Eat The Factory is really just business as usual for Pollard: It’s a spotty album with a few great tracks, a lot of filler, and plenty of songs that sound like they could’ve been something if he’d subjected them to another draft or two. About all that distinguishes Factory from the five albums Pollard released last year is that the songs are a little more fragmented and sloppy, and Tobin Sprout contributes. Other than that, I’m doing with it what I do with all my Robert Pollard albums: using it as fodder for the ever-burgeoning “Best of Pollard” playlist I’ve been making ever since Guided By Voices split the first time. I expect to do the same with the follow-up GBV album reportedly due later this year, and with whatever else Pollard chooses to put out in 2012, and beyond.
I also don’t mean to knock my fellow critics for seemingly only caring about Pollard’s music when he releases it under the Guided By Voices name. With hundreds of new albums competing for attention each year, Pollard has all but demanded that we ignore him, simply by releasing something new every few months, under a variety of names, and with different collaborators. And it doesn’t help that, as noted, most of Pollard’s albums are loaded up with undistinguished guitar-rock slop, built around a half-decent riff and maybe one good line, all hammered into listenable shape by Pollard’s longtime musical partner Todd Tobias. Our own Steve Hyden got so fed up Pollard’s prolific-but-uneven work habits back in 2007 that he wrote an anguished article about how disappointed and burned he felt, as a longtime fan. And believe me, I can sympathize.
But maybe it’s because I’m not all that devoted to Pollard or Guided By Voices that I haven’t minded the recent arc of his career so much. From my perspective—and from the perspective of most critics at the time, as I recall—Pollard’s work was just as hit-or-miss toward the end of his first Guided By Voices run as it is now. By the early ’00s, Pollard was trotting out new GBV lineups with just about each new record, though the music remained fundamentally the same: bruised power-pop with Dadaist lyrics, contained within songs that more often and not came off as improvised and unfinished. If I’m being completely honest, post-Under The Bushes Under The Stars, I can’t think of any Guided By Voices album from which I need to hear more than four or five songs. Nothing much has changed during Pollard’s time in the pop wilderness, except that with more albums coming out every year, his unwavering winning percentage is producing a greater overall number of keepers.
This is a problem mainly for those who remain stubbornly devoted to “the album” as the one true expression of a musician’s art. I am not in the camp. I think some musicians are album artists, some are singles artists, and some are rare birds—like Pollard—who use the recording studio as a journal, in which they dash off their fleeting thoughts, rarely going back to revise or refine. Trying to gauge the quality of that kind of output in terms of its totality is the wrong approach. It may not be conventional—or desirable—but Pollard is asking us to do the culling that most recording artists handle themselves.
And so I’ve done just that. Below, I’ve listed 16 fantastic songs that Pollard has recorded and released between 2005 and 2011, between the last Guided By Voices album and the new one. (I’ve also assembled these songs into a Spotify playlist.) This isn’t a comprehensive anthology. I’ve missed one or two Pollard albums over the years, and there are some that I’ve heard but just don’t care for—or that lack one good, representative song. I also confess that I have a bias toward Pollard’s cleaner-sounding power-pop and pretty ballads, where other fans prefer him on the boozy and careening side. Still, if you treat these 16 songs as one LP—and even better, as two eight-song sides—then I think this makeshift Pollard compilation makes a fair case that he hasn’t just been dicking around and wasting his talent all through the late ’00s.
For those who absolutely must hear an entire album from Pollard’s non-Guided By Voices years, I can point you 2006’s From A Compound Eye (his first proper “solo album”), or last year’s surprisingly tight Mars Classroom album New Theory Of Everything. Or, if you’d rather hear Pollard curate his own work, you can head over to his website, where you can buy anthologies of what Pollard sees as the best of his recent work.
Or you could just dive in and make your own. A decade or so ago, it would’ve been prohibitively expensive—and annoying—to have to buy four or five albums a year by the same artist just to get the 10 very good songs he or she actually recorded. These days it’s fairly easy to kick the tires and test-drive a song before buying. Plus, Pollard’s songs are fairly easy to assess via a short sample, since he tends to be a classicist in terms of rock song structure. If a track isn’t going anywhere by the chorus, it’s most likely DOA.
The point here is that at this stage of Pollard’s career, it’d be foolish to expect some magic combination of sidemen, or a familiar name on the sleeve, to serve as a flag that one album is any more worthy of attention than another. That’s true of some musicians, but not Pollard. Each album he releases is part of the headlong, always-another-tune-in-the-chamber, creative rampage that he’s been on since the ’80s.
My Pollard Mix
1. “I’m A Strong Lion” (from From A Compound Eye, Robert Pollard) … 1:08
A classic of Pollard-ian brevity, with an anthemic chorus and catchy synths, all wrapped up in just over a minute.
2. “Dancing Girls And Dancing Men” (from From A Compound Eye, Robert Pollard) … 2:40
Surging and joyous, like power-pop with the polish removed.
3. “Light Show” (from From A Compound Eye, Robert Pollard) … 2:31
Pollard at his most overtly R.E.M.-ish, reinterpreting the moody heartland rock of Life’s Rich Pageant for his own lo-fi needs.
4. “Boxing About” (from Normal Happiness, Robert Pollard) … 2:20
A yearning ballad that starts modestly then intensifies, revealing unexpected depth of feeling.
5. “Tomorrow Will Not Be Another Day” (from Normal Happiness, Robert Pollard) … 1:51
Follows the form of ’70s AM rock, but bears lines of distress, not unlike the way some old album covers sport the faded outline of the record within.
6. “Current Desperation (Angels Speak Of Nothing)” (from Coast To Coast Carpet Of Love, Robert Pollard) … 2:14
Rigid riffs and tempos serving as straight lines for Pollard to fill with color.
7. “You Satisfy Me” (from Brown Submarine, Boston Spaceships) … 3:04
On his debut album with a new band, Pollard connects more dots and comes up with songs fleshed out from his usual sketchiness.
8. “Weatherman And Skin Goddess” (from Robert Pollard Is Off To Business, Robert Pollard) … 5:22
A song so rich with changes and melodic ideas that Pollard actually released it as a pre-LP single.
9. “Catherine From Mid October” (from The Planets Are Blasted, Boston Spaceships) … 1:44
An elegant slip of a song from Boston Spaceships’ second outing, conveying the autumnal chill of a relationship.
10. “It’s Easy” (from The Crawling Distance, Robert Pollard) … 4:10
A sample of Pollard’s psychedelic side, complete with LSD reference and slow-drip rhythm.
11. “Each Is Good In His Own House” (from Moses On A Snail, Robert Pollard) … 3:55
If Glen Campbell were to un-retire and go looking for another Pollard song to record—as he did with Guided By Voices’ “Hold On Hope” on his most recent album—he couldn’t do much better than this hummable and beautifully reassuring number.
12. “I’ll Take The Cure” (from We All Got Out Of The Army, Robert Pollard) … 2:17
Sputtering, stream-of-consciousness lyrics over straight-ahead pop music, creating the kind of off-handed tension that Pollard’s grip-it-and-rip-it approach produces at its best.
13. “Something Strawberry” (from Space City Kicks, Robert Pollard) … 1:23
The title reportedly came first, and though Pollard doesn’t do much more than match it with a catchy hook, he knows enough to keep it short, and to get out of his own way.
14. “Paradise Is Not So Bad” (from Waving At The Astronauts, Lifeguards) … 4:46
Prior to reforming Guided By Voices, Pollard spent 2011 clearing his decks, releasing more solo albums and more collaborations. The second album from Lifeguards, his band with ex-GBV-er Doug Gillard, is typically hit-or-miss, but this full-bodied rocker shows Pollard following thrillingly through on an idea.
15. “(It’s Good To Be) Bug Boy” (from The New Theory Of Everything, Mars Classroom) … 3:12
Even better—and better-developed—than Pollard’s 2011 Lifeguards album is the first release by Mars Classroom, recorded with former Big Dipper guitarist Gary Waleick.
16. “Wish You Were Young” (from The New Theory Of Everything, Mars Classroom) … 3:38
So we end with two songs from Pollard’s best record in a decade: a collection of songs that retain his in-the-moment charm while delivering a sound much closer to the classic power-pop of Pollard’s dreams.