May 16, 2009

Keeping Up With Robert Pollard (Spring 2009 edition)

Boston Spaceships: The Planets Are Blasted (GBV, Inc. 5) (LP/CD) The ever-prolific Robert Pollard started 2009 off with a sprint with January’s very fine The Crawling Distance and, in March, this quickly-assembled sophomore LP from his new band, Boston Spaceships. I have to admit, The Planets Are Blasted took a little while to grow on me. I excitedly cleaned and played the LP when it arrived in the mail and I enjoyed it well enough but from then on I only listened to the CD or on the iPod in the car. And it just wasn’t registering – until recently, that is, when I pulled out the LP again and gave it a close listen. This is a common phenomenon with Pollard because his records always have a carefully sequenced Side One and Side Two, with their own essential cohesiveness. That enforced pause when you have to get up and flip the record over allows one to contemplate and come to grasp the intra-song coherence of Pollard’s vision. Here, Side 1 flows with creamy pop (“Dorothy’s a Planet,” “Catherine From Mid-October”) and anthemic rock (“Canned Food Demon,” “Headache Revolution”) while Side 2 bristles with proggy, post-punk edginess (“UFO Love Letters,” “Sight On Sight,” “Heavy Crown”). Listened to all at once, the effect is diffused and disorienting; but as discrete sides, the songs gain tangible context that is inevitably lost in the relentless flow of the CD. The production is notably less polished overall than last fall’s Brown Submarine, but somehow that adds to the charm. While maybe not top-tier stuff, The Planets Are Blasted is yet another example of Pollard’s limitless capacity for tossed-off brilliance. Check out a free mp3 of the mini-epic, “Big O Gets an Earful” here.


Boston Spaceships: “Headache Revolution” (HJRR 21) (7”) Continuing Pollard’s recent (and welcome, in my opinion) decision to revisit his vast catalog of rough demos and give them the full-blown rock band treatment, “Headache Revolution” is the obvious choice for the (imaginary) “hit single” from The Planets Are Blasted. Pollard’s wispy original demo can be heard on Suitcase 2 and the Spaceship’s treatment is an improvement in every respect. The 33rpm B-side presents three quirky LP outtakes. “Dementia Is Rising” starts out with bouncy, up-and-down acoustic guitar and an accusatory vocal that erupts into some Chrome-like deconstructionist noise at the chorus. “Take That Off (And Put This On)” romps around with just the kind of cock-rock swagger you would expect from such a title. Pollard knows what he likes -- and what he doesn’t! Finally, “7 Is the Hot Noose” twitches with a 1980s New Wave yelp complete with cheesy Syndrum fills. It ends before it ever begins. Inessential, but fun.


Circus Devils: Gringo (HJRR 22) (LP/CD)
is billed as “an acoustic song cycle with a 1970’s Morricone-esque Southwestern flavor.” Well, OK. Despite the Circus Devils’ reputation for electrified, twisted and distorted weirdness, the acoustic guitar is not exactly unheard of. Still, there is a definite mood to this record that is unique and I guess “Morricone-esque” is as good a word as any to describe it. Rather than indulging in the usual psycho-sci-fi art-rock the Circus Devils are known for, Gringo feels almost wistfully sentimental and decidedly earth-bound. In fact, some of these songs would not sound out of place on Pollard’s recent solo records – but then something strange will occur: especially eccentric wordplay, a sudden lurching dissonance in the bridge, or a tense swell of atmospheric effects will signal that, yes, this really is the Circus Devils. The term “song cycle” is appropriate as well, with vague themes running throughout the album that culminate in the penultimate song, “Gasoline Drinkers.” That’s not to say it makes any real narrative sense – Pollard’s lyrics are as elliptical and obtuse as ever, something about prisons, ants, witches and some vile concoction called “hot water wine.” But as a whole, Gringo works perfectly and exudes a warmth and emotional directness that is frankly unusual for a Circus Devils album. Certainly, Gringo is by far the most accessible Circus Devils record yet and a fine place to stick your toe if you’re curious. And, again, the LP is where it’s at with its “euphonic distortion” and enforced entr’acte; but the CD is cool too. Check out a free mp3 of “Before It Walks” here.


All are available at better record stores or directly from Rockathon. Or purchase mp3 files at Fina, if that’s your thing.

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