Perfect Sound Forever

Robert Pollard

Photo by Terri Nelles

Solo Years, Part 1
by Dan Coffey
(February 2010)

Everything and nothing has changed for Robert Pollard since he retired the Guided by Voices name on January 1, 2005. He still makes music that is enjoyed, and inasmuch as the music is a commercial product, consumed by legions of fans. He still makes a living from doing what he loves. But the legions have thinned. Not all GbV fans have wanted to take the leap with Pollard into an unfamiliar musical frontier that offers no guides for listeners.

While they may no longer be acting as guides, Pollard's voices are far from silent. In fact, many of them seem to have lit out on their own, throwing lassos out on Acid Ranches or taking off in Boston Spaceships, for other, stranger and more beautiful vistas. While these artistic voices, or facets, of Pollard's are trying on different outfits and costumes, there is a basic question that has been superficially addressed in the media, but not really thought through: what does it mean that Guided by Voices is no longer a working unit?

Since GbV "broke out" in 1994 with the album Bee Thousand, it's been pretty clear that it was Bob Pollard's band the other members were came from a stable of loyal friends and were interchangeable, at least in the studio. It was made crystal clear in 1996, when he ditched the band members in favor of a tighter outfit; the band Cobra Verde became, with Pollard, the new Guided by Voices. But then, around the same time, an album (Tonics and Twisted Chasers) was released, which featured only two musicians, Pollard and longtime GbV stalwart Tobin Sprout. Also in 1996, Pollard released his first solo album, which didn't sound all that different from a GbV record, and GbV concerts would feature almost as many songs from Pollard's first two solo albums, Not in My Airforce, and Waved Out, respectively, as from the band's albums.

Another solo album released around the turn of the millennium (Kid Marine), an EP (Motel of Fools) and a long-playing follow-up in 2004 (Fiction Man) gave the name Robert Pollard more freedom from the Guided by Voices brand. But nobody was ready to think of Pollard outside of the context of GbV. For many reasons, some that have been stated in interviews and some that will probably never come to light, Pollard needed to change the context in which his music was heard. So, how, and in what way, does a Robert Pollard album without the GbV label differ from a GbV album with songs penned by Robert Pollard?

The answer seems to be a maddening conundrum: "It's not Guided by Voices!" Other than that statement, exclaimed so often by so many indie rock stalwarts, there is nothing different. If the music Pollard has released since 2005 seems different from GbV, it's only because he hasn't stood still.

The other bone of contention with Pollard's work is the sheer amount of it that there is to digest. Since 2005, he has released, under his name as well as other band names, roughly 40 albums, plus a series of twelve 7 singles throughout 2007-2008. It's become something of a joke among fans that every review of a Pollard album must contain a sentence or two bemoaning the volume of his output. What I'd like to do here is discuss Pollard's post-2005 non-GbV output (there have been some posthumous compilations). This is not intended as a primer, or a "how-to-buy" (although I suppose it can serve that purpose).

Rather, it's a critical look at the various and varied facets of Robert Pollard's music. The "solo" material It's certainly arguable that Robert Pollard's best work has been released under his own name, although logic would point one in that direction. But, according to the apparently democratic status given to all his side projects and aliases, some of the second-stringiest of his albums have also come out with his name on the cover.

2005 saw Pollard in transition, and working on what many fans consider to be his post-GbV magnum opus, From a Compound Eye, released in early 2006. A Bob Pollard solo album meant something different in a GbV-less world, and the stakes seemed to be high. While the wait continued throughout the year, fans were given some tidbits to tide them over, including the two EP's, Music for "Bubble" and Zoom. The former consisted of music, including several instrumentals, commissioned by Stephen Soderbergh for his eponymous film. All of the music made the final cut for the film though the record doesn't contain many memorable tracks.

The same can't be said of Zoom. This short recording captures the whimsy, beauty, and desire to experiment that represent the best of his songwriting through the years. Pollard showed his sense of humor and unwillingness to take himself too seriously with the 2005 vinyl-only Relaxation of the Asshole, a "comedy" record consisting entirely of pre-song stage banter from past GbV shows a nod and a stocking-stuffer to the fans who populated GbV shows and hung on Uncle Bob's every word before the inevitable "1, 2, 3, 4!" (Relaxation of the Asshole 2: Meet the King was released on vinyl only in 2007).

From a Compound Eye was the album many Pollard fans were hoping for. A sprawling, 70-plus minute album, it was packed with songs that were themselves dense and meaty, peppered with elements of pop, prog, psych, and punk (Pollard's often-quoted "4 Ps of Rock and Roll"). A touring band called the Ascended Masters was put together in support of the album, but 2006 was far from over.

Several of the songs that Pollard and the Ascended Masters played during their 2006 tour surfaced on his second full-length album of that year, Normal Happiness. A much looser, straightforward set of songs, it seemed to find Pollard a little more comfortable with himself. From a Compound Eye was brilliant but awkward; it rewarded repeated listening, but the flipside was that many of the songs were jewels that could really only be appreciated after multiple plays. Normal Happiness had instant hooks. Eddie Vedder invited Pollard to open several shows on Pearl Jam's 2006 tour, and the Moon EP was a live document of what was one of the few times that Pollard played to a arena-sized crowd.

The first 2007 release under the name Robert Pollard was the Silverfish Trivia EP, a pretty and somber collection of songs (save for the proggish multi-sectioned "Cats Love a Parade"). In October of that year, Pollard released two powerhouse albums on the same day. Both under 40 minutes, the two albums begged to be seen as complementary; "the two sides of..." as it were. Coast to Coast Carpet of Love caught Pollard in pretty much the same somber mood as Silverfish Trivia, but with more muscle to the music, and some of his most incisive and poignant lyrics to date. The last section of the song "Count Us In," in fact, boasts lyrics that could stand head and shoulders with any piece of contemporary "flash fiction." The other album, Standard Gargoyle Decisions, is raucous, unnerving, and rocks with an abandon that makes no apologies.

The next album to be released under Pollard's name came in early 2008 the somewhat mystifying Superman Was a Rocker. A collection of older songs recorded during (and even before) the Guided by Voices years, this almost seems like something that an unscrupulous record label might release without asking permission; something for die-hard fans, like the GbV "suitcase" collections that vary wildly in quality. As for new material, the album Robert Pollard Is off to Business was released in June 2008. Cleaner sounding and more pop-oriented than anything he had released to date, it seemed to shy away from both the more intimate and delicate lyricism of Coast to Coast Carpet of Love and the extremes of Standard Gargoyle Decisions in favor of what might pass for middle-of-the-road in Pollard-land.

2009 just barely got underway when Pollard's next album was released. The Crawling Distance seemed to be an attempt to reconcile the pop-oriented sound of the previous album with the more radical leanings explored on "Standard" and "Coast to Coast." Most recently, in August 2009, Pollard released the album Elephant Jokes. Almost as sprawling in terms of the sheer amount of songs and stylistic variety as From a Compound Eye, Elephant Jokes seems more like Normal Happiness; there is a glorious feeling of abandon in the way the songs are performed that reminds one more than ever of the spirit of Guided by Voices, particularly on tracks like "Hippsville" and "Johnny Optimist," while there is the sense that Pollard is striking out for yet more new territory in the songs "Things Have Changed (Down in Mexico City)" and "(All You Need) to Know" (Pollard has a new album due out in early 2010, regrettably not yet heard by this writer, titled We All Got Out of the Army).

Though this overview may seem rather daunting for a five-year body of work, it's really only scratching the surface of what Pollard has been up to. So far, only the material released under the name "Robert Pollard" has been discussed. There remains to be discussed... the various collaborations, the work ex-GbV bassist Tim Tobias and his studio-whiz brother Todd have done under the name Circus Devils, the Acid Ranch albums done with another ex-GbV musician Mitch Mitchell (not the former Hendrix drummer) and other configurations based around Pollard (The Moping Swans, The Takeovers, Psycho and the Birds, Carbon Whales, and perhaps most importantly, Pollard's current band, Boston Spaceships). All of these configurations have been responsible for at least one release since 2005, and they will be covered in part 2 of this article.

See Part II of the Robert Pollard's solo years article

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