A LONG-TIME MUSICAL OBSESSION
(photo taken 11/04 by Mr. Bezoar)
I am obsessive-compulsive, and music plays a major role in my life and my outlook. Therefore it seems only natural I would become obsessed with other obsessive people playing and recording music. Over the past 14 years I have been this way when it comes to recording- and performing-artist Robert Pollard and his first major band, Guided By Voices.
The music of GBV and Robert Pollard is not for everybody. Sometimes one must listen a few times for it to sink in, but once it gets ingrained, once the hooks are in you, it's awfully hard to get away. And as a very good friend of mine (that's you, J.!) who has gradually gained an appreciation for the genius and music of Pollard agreed with me, one might think "this isn't really all that great", or "huh?" or "I don't care much for this" but then there comes a point where something rather sudden kicks in and you find yourself experiencing a moment of pop nirvana! Most Pollard songs have such a moment. As many of his songs are less than two minutes in length and appear more as snippets than songs, so are his glory moments inconsistent... but they are worth searching for and waiting for, because once you know Bob's music, there is one thing you can expect: these moments will happen, and when they do... you're "there"!
Pollard had already been around on the rock scene for a while when I first discovered his music in 1995. I bought the Guided By Voices' CD "Alien Lanes" that fall, on a whim, for a long drive home. I ended up listening to it five times in a row on the trip, and I replayed certain tracks more often than that. I found that the music contained some of the best use of melody I had ever heard, and while the quality of the recording was very "low-fi", painfully so at times, the music itself was a reflection of good times and spontaneous creative thought, thus raising the songs well above the lower production values. Much of the music was in fact recorded at Pollard's house (aka The Monument Club) on 4-track recording equipment. And much of it was recorded during times of partying and inebriation (the song "Ex-Supermodel" actually prominently featured the snoring of a passed-out friend!)
Pollard, or "Bob" as most of his fans refer to him, has been making music for years. Born on Halloween in 1957, Bob was an elementary school teacher but left that trade for a stab at becoming a rock legend. Guided By Voices started in Dayton, Ohio in 1983. In the beginning, they were a bar band which went toward home-recordings and self-produced albums in the late Eighties. These recordings achieved limited exposure. 1992's "Propeller" and it's follow-up "Vampire On Titus" (1993) helped start a following in the college/indie/alternative scene. Luckily, Bob didn't give up and become a schoolteacher forever after "Propeller" like he had supposedly considered doing; in 1994 the band's "Bee Thousand", now considered an all-time rock classic by some, was released to much acclaim. GBV had a distribution deal in place with the independent Matador Records label for that album, and by the time I caught up with what was going on, "Alien Lanes" was Guided By Voices' first official Matador release.
GBV played a large part in propelling Matador Records.
The long list of other bands who have recorded on Matador include Yo La Tengo, Interpol, Liz Phair, Boards of Canada, Neko Case, The New Pornographers, Pavement, Teenage Fanclub, Mission of Burma, Superchunk, Pretty Girls Make Graves, Belle and Sebastian, Matmos, Mogwai, Shearwater, Sonic Youth and Cat Power. GBV's last Matador CD in their first go-round with the label was "Mag Earwhig!" in 1997, after which they went to independent-label TVT Records.
The closest GBV ever came to entering rock and roll's mainstream was when Ric Ocasek (frontman for The Cars) produced GbV's "Do The Collapse" CD in 1999. This was followed by the equally-high-quality but slightly-less-engaging "Isolation Drills" in 2001. These TVT releases marked the full-on advent of high production values for the band, and this level of sound quality remained from then until their last album in 2004.
Some fans were alarmed by GBV's evolution from 4-track garage recordings to high-tech studios, but I think such a progression was natural and necessary. The band moved through various personnel changes and line-ups, but the one constant factor was always Bob. As his ideas matured and grew in scope, a much wider sonic pallette was required for his art. Firing and hiring the band members of GBV worked to create newer sounds and served to widen the musical vista at times, but ultimately it became apparent that without higher production values much of the musical intent was getting lost in fuzzy vocals, tape hiss, and unnecessary distortion. It was time for more clarity, for the dreams to morph into the "stuff of dreams".
Bob Pollard has never achieved a mainstream following but through the years has accrued a large number of fanatical devotees to his style of avant-garde faux-British glam rock and other stylistic sidetrips, all of which contain a plethora of lyrical references to drinking, islands, airplanes and women... all sprinkled with his trademark absurdist non sequitirs. But that's at first glance; a closer look will reveal that much of the lyrics equal good poetry. And the guy is a good artist too. He does a good deal of his own CD cover art, much of which is collage work of a decidedly odd but charming nature.
Was stardom ever really in Bob's stars? It's hard to say, but the mercurial Pollard seems to have proven too wildly creative and hyperactive to stick with the pursuit of stardom or to stay focused on such things. Instead, he has chosen to follow his muse, come what may. Having established a faithful fan base and a somewhat legendary status in the world of "alternative" and "indie" rock and roll, Bob has become a star in his own right and pretty much does as he pleases when he makes records. To his devoted fans he is an outright legend, even if not many people know who he is.
Bob is forever off to business doing what he has always done best: writing hundreds of songs and recording as many of them as he can. He has been listed by Paste magazine as the 78th greatest living songwriter, and he has over 1,000 songs registered to his name with BMI... so he is nothing if not prolific!
Since the release of his first solo CD "Not In My Airforce" on 9/10/96, Bob has released 34 more albums and four EPs. The obsession appeared to kick into full gear in January of 2006 with the release of his "double album"-length CD "From a Compound Eye". Since then, he has released 23 full-length albums and four EPs, under his own name and also as Circus Devils, Takeovers, Boston Spaceships, Psycho and the Birds, and Keene Brothers. That is a nearly-alarming rate of one release about every 48 days! I guess that's good, because if you are a fan, you never have to wait long for more new music from Bob.
Reports have it that the way Pollard writes songs is he thinks of the (often hilariously absurd) title first, then writes poetry/lyrics to go with that title before finishing it off with the addition of a melody. I suspect he dinks around on an acoustic guitar to find chords and melodic ideas. For better or worse, it seems that some of these moments end up getting recorded! Over the years I have come to enjoy Bob's style of acoustic guitar playing, though some may find it sonically painful at times due to its tendency toward a kind of clunky, clanky sound. But the thing about it is, for Bob's songs, there aren't many other players who can get it right, or whose styles fit the songs. Nowadays, Bob's solo CDs tend to feature Todd Tobias on all instrumentation with Bob doing the singing and songwriting (with an occasional burst of "Bob guitar").
And what of his voice? Bob has a wide range, going from a low baritone to a high tenor. His vocals exude confidence and skill. Sometimes he wobbles a bit, but nearly always hits the right notes for his songs.
Some of Pollard's best CDs are "side project" albums with multi-instrumentalists such as a string of recordings with his recent musical maven Todd Tobias, who plays all rock instruments extremely well and has a fantastic ear for overall sound and production. It seems Bob and Todd have been joined at the musical hip for the last four or five years, although Bob occasionally makes a sidetrip as he did with Tommy Keene for the Keene Brothers CD "Blues and Boogie Shoes", or with Portlander and ex-GBV bassist/guitarist Chris Slusarenko for two CDs by Takeovers, and then with Slusarenko and Decemberists drummer Jim Moen (also from Portland) for the Boston Spaceships CDs.
Some good earlier collaborations include two with late-period GBV guitarist Doug Gillard for "Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department" (1999) and 2003's "Mist King Urth" (as Lifeguards), with Superchunk's Mac McCaughan as Go Back Snowball ("Calling Zero", 2002), and with early GBV guitarist and stalwart Tobin Sprout for two CDs as Airport 5 ("Tower in the Fountain of Sparks" in 2001, followed by "Life Starts Here" in 2002).
Stylistically, a Robert Pollard solo CD tends toward straight-ahead rock and roll, but there are usually some moments of avante-garde, dadaist and non-radio-friendly sounds that push his material beyond the boundaries of the non-mainstream and into "cult favorite only" status. His side projects each have a character of their own, and some are more "accessible" than others.
As Circus Devils, Bob and Todd Tobias head further in that "avant" direction, creating works that sound as if Bob washed down a few tabs of acid with a bucket or two of beer before he wrote and sang the material; this is very druggy, psychedelic music, and when you first listen to a Circus Devils album you realize there is very little there with which you can sit down and get comfortable until you have heard it all a few times. It is what I call "unexpected" music. And once you learn to expect the unexpected and love it, Circus Devils are very good.
As Boston Spaceships, Pollard and cohorts play some good straight-up rock, smartly adding cello one track and infusing trumpets into another. As Psycho and the Birds, Bob records himself singing and playing on a boombox, and Todd fleshes out the recordings with drums, guitars and keyboards to create a sometimes frenetic "psycho" sound, almost like a street-crazy with a backing band. As Lifeguards, Bob and Doug Gillard play around with different rock sounds and include some great vocal melodies and guitar riffs. As Keene Brothers, Bob is a purveyor of some beautiful power pop. Airport 5's music has a bit more jangle to it, and sounds a bit folkier at times. But whichever incarnation Bob chooses, it's all good.
I haven't heard his "Suitcase" CD, and I guess it is getting hard to find. That one is a multi-disc set that includes something like over a hundred tracks, and for "Suitcase" and its successor "Suitcase 2" Bob takes on different persona, calling himself and/or his band names like Hazzard Hotrods, Homosexual Flypaper, 1st Joint, Bravery Umpire, and Too Proud to Practice!
For the uninitiated, I suggest listening to these Guided By Voices albums/CDs first: "Do The Collapse" is the place to start because it has some of the best production, some of the best melodies, and some of the best marriage of older and newer GBV sensibilities. It is probably one of their more accessible albums. Once there, try "Bee Thousand" for the "classic" GBV lineup including guitarist Tobin Sprout, who like The Beatles' George Harrison managed to get a song or two of his onto each GBV album (he has released a number of good solo CDs of his own, by the way). "Bee Thousand" is an all-time low-fi masterwork. From there, follow the band's maturation through "Alien Lanes" (1995) and "Under the Bushes Under the Stars" (1996).
Bob then basically hired the band Cobra Verde to back him on 1997's "Mag Earwhig", so that one has a different sound altogether; it was at this point where Bob began collaborating with guitarist Doug Gillard. Any of the three GBV albums from the modern era ("Universal Truths and Cycles", "Earthquake Glue" and "Half-Smiles of the Decomposed") are enjoyable albums. Once you have gotten through all those, go back in time to discover the band's origins in "Box", a collection of their first four CDs plus a bonus disc of non-album tracks, and then "Propeller" and "Vampire on Titus", the precursors to "Bee Thousand". And all their other stuff is good too!
I believe Pollard's best solo material is found on his two most recent releases, "Robert Pollard is Off to Business" (2008) and "The Crawling Distance (2009). I think these albums feature Todd Tobias' best playing and some of the best-sounding song arrangements. In fact, anything from 2004 onward is going to be fairly good and particularly lately, borders on ear candy. The first few in his catalog are rougher in quality but still retain a lot of charm. Of his earlier solo discs, I recommend his first one "Not In My Airforce" from 1996.
If you get a chance to see Pollard do a show, be prepared for bacchanalia. He drinks beers on stage throughout the show, occasionally taking a slug from a bottle of liquor if it is offered. This doesn't seem to affect his singing very much until late in the show, and then he perseveres to the end regardless of his condition. Bob has all the moves. He was an athlete in college, and the story has it that he threw a no-hitter for Wright State. The athleticism shows through in leaping, high leg kicks, microphone cord spins and mic tosses. Here are some pictures from a show I saw in November of 2004: http://variousmiseries.blogspot.com/2004_11_01_archive.html Scroll down a bit to the 11/17/04 blog entry.
Get a place up front near the stage if you can! And don't feel bad if everyone else in the room knows all the words to the songs and you don't... you still have plenty of time to go home after the show and start learning!
Happy listening, and I hope if you do give this guy's music a try, you'll find those moments of pop nirvana here and there! If you allow them to happen, they will happen.