December 6, 2008

Keeping Up With Robert Pollard (End of Year Edition)

Boston Spaceships: Brown Submarine (GBV, Inc. 3) (LP/CD) After disbanding Guided by Voices in 2004 and pretty much retiring from the road, Robert Pollard has convened another working band, dubbed Boston Spaceships, consisting of former GBV bassist (and Takeovers co-conspirator) Chris Slusarenko and Decembrist drummer John Moen. With the addition of Tommy Keene and Jason Narducy, Boston Spaceships hit the road this fall performing sets larded with super-obscure titles from Pollard’s immense catalog. I would have loved to have seen them here in Nashville, but I was of town on at the time. Fortunately for me, a crispy soundboard circulates of the Champaign, IL show from 10/9. Just prior to this tour, Brown Submarine was released on GBV, Inc. and it showcases a bunch of new Pollard songs (and an update of an old, super-obscure one) that indicate that Uncle Bob is on a roll, composing his best songs and delivering his most committed vocal performances since the demise of GBV. As opposed to the sometimes monolithic productions of current collaborator Todd Tobias, Boston Spaceships sounds like a band rocking out in a room and Pollard sings with a high-kicking exuberance that is maybe otherwise lacking. Don’t get me wrong, I love Tobias’s production and consider him a genius equal to Pollard’s own profligacy (see below); but there is just something electrifying by an actual band (or at least rhythm section) playing in real time that animates this record in a way that has to be acknowledged. Good stuff.

Circus Devils: Ataxia (HJRR 19) (LP/CD)
Of all the various releases Pollard inevitably puts out in any given year (all of which I eagerly devour), I have truly come to look forward to the annual Circus Devils record. That is because the Circus Devils allows Bob to indulge his love for intense, psych-damaged prog rock and thereby giving free reign to producer/multi-instrumentalist Todd Tobias’s own fervid imagination. Tobias (and sometimes with brother and former-GBV guitarist, Tim) piles layers upon layers of shifting keyboard textures, guitar riffing and raging, and sheer random noise to create little sonic symphonies over which Pollard’s (usually) electronically processed voice intones cryptic haikus. Somehow, the result always coheres into remarkably compelling albums, each with its own distinct aroma. Last year’s Sgt. Disco was a sprawling masterpiece – perhaps one of the best records Pollard’s ever made – so, when Ataxia arrived in my mailbox on Halloween, I was expecting to be a little let-down. But, while obviously less ambitious than Sgt. Disco, Ataxia is yet another classic Circus Devils LP. Definitely a bit sludgier, and maybe a bit murkier and more diffuse than the rock-ribbed Sgt., but there are still some strong songs here amidst all the captivating weirdness. “Freedom’s Monster” pulses with an ominous industrial-techno drive and a plaintive vocal while “The Girls Will Make It Happen” pogos up and down with punky energy. Later, on side two, “He Had All Day” turns contemplative with a mournful vocal over chiming acoustic guitars. As with many of Pollard’s more, um, interesting records, this one gets better with each repeated listen. Recommended to fans of Pollard’s darker side.

The Carbon Whales: South (HJRR 17) (7”/CD-EP)
Ostensibly “an obscure band from the late 70s that actor Paddy Considine turned Bob onto,” I suspect this is really another pseudonymous side-project by Pollard & Co a la Nightwalker. It sure sounds like Bob doing his best Mark E. Smith impression on “Welcome to Miami” while the bass-playing and horn arrangement on “Work Into Me” sounds suspiciously like Chris Slusarenko. Meanwhile on side two, “False Teeth” is a lugubrious dirge that lurches immediately into “The Jeep,” another Fall-ish number with hectoring vocals from “Bob Evans.” This is a curious and novel item for the discography, but probably inessential to anyone but the most rabid completists (like me).

Robert Pollard: “The Butler Stands for All of Us” (HJRR 20) (7”) The A-Side previews a track from Pollard’s forthcoming Tobias-produced solo album, The Crawling Distance and packs four non-LP tracks on the 33 RPM B-side. “The Butler Stands for All of Us” continues with the kind of sophisticated power-pop that made this year’s Off To Business such an unqualified success. Seems to me that The Crawling Distance (due January 20) will be a welcome bit of sunshine in the middle of what’s looking to be a cold and dreary winter. As for the B-sides, “First Wave” and “I Would Be a Fish Tank” are classic Bob with guitar, drunkenly wailing at the boombox while “Elevator to Far Worse” sounds like an old basement-derived GBV fragment that wouldn’t have felt out of place on the Plantations of Pale Pink EP. “The Throat Is Young” returns to Bob and guitar, this time accompanied by windchimes banging around in the background. A quirky seven-inch gem.

Robert Pollard: Town of Mirrors (Fantagraphics Books) Published in conjunction with Pollard’s first New York gallery show, Town of Mirrors gathers 175 of Pollard’s favorite collages, hand-picked by the artist, as well as over a dozen new collages created exclusively for the book. Any long-time fan of GBV is well aware of the affective power of Pollard’s visual art, his carefully constructed images gracing albums, posters, inner sleeves and other ephemera over the past decades. Pollard’s collages evoke the mastery and mystery of Joseph Cornell while establishing a vocabulary and style that is as unique and compelling as his own songwriting. This lavishly produced hardcover catalog contains gorgeous reproductions, a selection of lyrics, and an introductory essay by Rick Moody. My only quibble would be that dates and dimensions are lacking, making this something less than a properly scholarly monograph. Even so, this is a welcome document of Pollard’s cross-disciplinary output and a must for every fan.

All this stuff can be obtained via Rockathon.


2009 is looking to be another great year for Pollard fanatics with The Crawling Distance due on January 20, 2009 (Inauguration Day!) and a new Boston Spaceships LP entitled The Planets Are Blasted expected February 17, 2009. In addition, not one but two Circus Devils are already in the can: Gringo, also to be released in February and as yet untitled disc due, as usual, around Halloween. Also on the horizon is the long-delayed release of the Some Drinking Implied DVD and no doubt there will be singles, EPs, and other stuff on the way as well. Personally, I’m still waiting for the promised box to house this past year’s HJRR singles series and a CD of those tasty B-sides, but we’ll see… Perhaps another tour is in the works? God bless Uncle Bob!

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