A New Album From That Guided By Voices Man?
The album comes, oddly, to me – your humble arts reporter – and not one of the music-department savants. Fuck if I know near enough about Pollard, his solo work, his Guided By Voices material, to give the thing a decent review. So I'll just walk over to music editor Raoul Hernandez's desk, and – no, hold on, wait a minute.
I happen to know a fierce and diehard Pollard fan. That man, besides being a longtime GBV aficionado, also happens to make his scratch as a professional sound engineer when he's not improving the boards of Austin theaters with his actorly presence. Further, he's part of The Able Sea, the band whose most recent release, yr 4 pt 5, is lately giving my turntable a spin for the better. What more appropriate thing to do than have him – a man who knows – review this latest output of Pollard's sonic career? A true fan, checking out the goods for the other true fans or interested passersby who care enough to read this. So I asked him. And he said, sure, he could see his way to committing several hundred words of context-enriched reaction to the new album. Hell of a decent man, as ever.
Good reader, here's Mr. Robert Fisher with his critical appreciation of Robert Pollard's Blazing Gentlemen:
Robert Pollard is one of those rare talents who appear to have tapped a mainline into that mystical ether that feeds artists and their craft. And with it, “Bobby Pop” makes his own music in insane abundance – from ether, to medium, to boombox, to studio. Such a large percentage of it is staggeringly good in so many different forms and ways that it truly boggles the mind. Robert Pollard is also a music snob’s wet dream of a subject. The Pollard catalog has 12” vinyl, 7” vinyl, CDs, double records, official bootlegs, bootleg bootlegs, pseudonyms, boxed sets (five of them!) DVDs, solo records, simultaneous releases, subscription series, side projects, best-ofs, soundtracks, “comedy” records, spoken word, independent labels, studios, 4-tracks, boomboxes, documentaries, books, personality, and lengthy history mostly homemade by a small group Pollard’s cohorts and himself living and drinking in the small town of Dayton, Ohio.
Robert Pollard has done every single thing you ever wanted to do in rock & roll and done so almost entirely at his own behest. Professional jealousy and iconic admiration mark all those who worship at Pollard’s altar in the pantheon of rock. The man commands respect. His talent enraptures because it has its history (and the sheer volume of it) to support its claim of worth and mettle.
Three of Pollard’s boxed sets are 100-song volumes called SUITCASE. The story (to oversimplify) is that Bob and his friends would gather in the basement and jam while recording it either on a boombox in the room or to a four-track cassette recorder. From those tapes kept in a suitcase (or some sort of case, anyway), several of the most popular albums and EPs were crafted – by either iterating on a demo or just lifting the track off the tape directly. Remnants of those tapes echo all throughout his catalog. His is a music history that is continually unfolding itself in front of you, a history that has deep, deep roots. But what happens when all that came before in that history is exhausted? When all the bits have been released and all that comes is new?
Everyone thought Pollard would slow down a little after calling an end to Guided By Voices in 2004, but he didn’t. From a Compound Eye and Normal Happiness were great albums. Zoom and Music from Bubble" were fantastic EPs. However, since 2006’s release of Coast to Coast Carpet of Love and Standard Gargoyle Decisions, Pollard records have been a consistent smattering of Bob’s genius with one theoretical problem: There doesn’t seem to be any more suitcase. Some of these songs aren’t filed away as nuggets of gold yet to mine – they’re all put out there. Of the 20-plus records he’s put out since then, I could say the same thing of each of them: Some genius song and some gold nuggets of raw material. He could have culled 10 or so amazing albums out of it. Blazing Gentlemen is no exception. A strong opener, “Magic Man Hype” is a classic Pollard number that recalls the band and energy he had on GBV’s “Underground Initiations” or “Avalanche Aminos.” That vibe continues into the title track as well. “Piccadilly Man”, “Triple Sec Venus”, and “This Place Has Everything” (which is a stand-out featuring classic Pollard lyrics where the absurd is infused with a feeling melody that transports it to poetic imagery) are all super A-game Pollard tracks. He also crafts a rewarding success in “Tonight’s The Rodeo” by fusing classic Pollard drinking-song whimsy with some of the flavor from his quirkier side of recent years. Todd Tobias is a solid and at times surprising musician. But when it’s just him and Bob, there’s something missing here and there. “Red Flag Down” is a great song in need of a strong Gillard-esque lead guitar. “Storm Level Seven” is a thrilling compact ball of musical energy that would be amazing – if the lyrics and melody didn’t seem a revision away from having all the kinks worked out of it. There are a few bits and moments where Pollard seems content to lyrically parody himself with songs like “Professional Goose Trainer” or “Faking The Boy Scouts.”
This is perhaps my biggest complaint about Nu-Pollard. The silliness evoked in these lyrics is something that has always been present in his work, but rarely at the expense of emotional evocation or imagery. “Professional Goose Trainer” only makes me think that it's a strained hook to build a song around and not much else. These tracks should have been put in the suitcase. They’re not bad songs – far from it, as the ratio of just-plain-bad songs in this man’s catalogue is almost fantastically close to nil – but they do feel incomplete or in need of revision.
It seems that there are two ways to frame Pollard’s output over the past seven years up to and including Blazing Gentlemen. One is that it's a mix of great material from the indie master, interspersed with material that's almost spectacular and left feeling one iteration away from perfect, creating an uneven record despite the wealth of material and magic. The other is that, at this point, Pollard is essentially releasing the continuing stream of what built the suitcase to begin with – just a large treasure chest of musical expressions all laid out and released. Some of these tracks could be lifted whole, some re-done, and a few bits that could appear in later, better songs are all there. Records function as more of a filing system for your personal catalogue of his work. The Robert Pollard fan has become a sort of archivist collecting and maintaining his vast library of output. Bob will continue to knock me out with great material, and Blazing Gentlemen has plenty. My Pollard/GBV playlist 2007-2013 is absolutely fucking wicked and will soon contain about half of this record as well. And that is awesome. But I do miss having another one of his amazingly flawless records to blow me away when I first put it on the stereo.
If you’re any kind of Pollard fan, buy this new one – you don’t need my over-analytical ass to tell you that. Support this man and all he does. Our world would be darker without talents like his. But at some point, I would like to see him sit back a little, fill up his suitcase again, and then bring out an album that has me flip the record and play it over and over again.