Sunday, May 28, 2006

Robert Pollard

From a Compound Eye
When last I wrote about Robert Pollard for the print version of this fine periodical, I was reviewing Guided by Voices’ 1999 major-label debut Do the Collapse. Essentially, I said that GbV had kind of lost the plot, or at least had followed it through to its unelectrifying conclusion (bloated major-label arena rock band with mildly catching pop songs). In the final 5 years of its existence, GbV tried to alter that narrative somewhat by “going back to their roots”, but this appeared to translate mostly into doing lots of shitty 45-second tracks hearkening back to the brilliant 45-second tracks of their earlier career, or recording boring songs in a relatively lo-fi manner. The songs they actually put effort into were sometimes catchy enough (“Best of Jill Hives”), and Doug Gillard was an incredibly proficient guitarist (“I Am a Tree”), but the good songs on albums like Earthquake Glue and Universal Truths & Cycles were definitely fewer and farther between than the early 90s heyday of Propeller, Bee Thousand, and Alien Lanes. The final album, Half-Smiles of the Decomposed, only half-returned to the glory days.

The decline in Robert Pollard’s songwriting ability could have been attributed to many things, not the least of which would be the frightening rate at which an army of Bud Lights were repeatedly thrown against the reticent brain cells that hadn’t yet succumbed to natural attrition. The video of GbV’s last-ever performance (“The Electrifying Conclusion”) requires a separate review, but suffice it to say that watching a good band with great songs reduced by a 4-hour alcoholic onslaught to a shambling, stumbling, bumbling, mumbling, piss-yer-pants stupor was a clue that Mr. Pollard was killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

In approaching From a Compound Eye, therefore, I wasn’t expecting much. I hadn’t really listened to his previous solo output (“Waved Out,” “Kid Marine,” etc.), but I assumed that without his bandmates he would be slightly less inspired and definitely less capable of translating any fleeting inspiration into an aural record.

I wasn’t quite right. Yes, the Fading Captain is no longer in his songwriting prime, and the stream-of-consciousness lyrics often seem to be drawing from a cracked streambed of borderline unconsciousness (“heavenly hash, babies in a basket, and hang on to our list, and I never ever met a day I didn’t like, but there I get squat, try to take that wagon train around it, found it,” etc.). But in this 70-minute disc, having put GbV out to pasture, Pollard seems free to try his hand at a range of sounds and styles that didn’t fit even within GbV’s sprawling repertoire. And some of them even work!

At least 8 of the 26 songs on the four “sides” of this one-sided CD are really good. “Dancing Girls and Dancing Men” and “U.S. Mustard Company” on Side 1 are pop pleasantries. “I’m a Widow” and “Love is Stronger than Witchcraft” on Side 2 are grunty rockers, sometimes reminiscent of Cheap Trick or T Rex. Side 3’s “50-Year-Old Baby” is a fuzzed-out spazz-out like Bee Thousand’s “Hot Freaks,” and the same side’s closing “Blessed in an Open Head” offers a glimpse into the epic soaring beauty that characterized GbV tunes like “Huffman Prairie Flying Field” (the final song from their final album). Side 4’s “Strong Lion” is another catchy sing-along pop tune that revisits the same territory of Do the Collapse’s “Teenage FBI,” and “Kingdom Without” on the same side ends up in a very fine place indeed.

Unfortunately (but not wholly unpredictably), duds-aplenty abound, including the unstrategically-placed first two songs on the album. Involuntary visualization of Side 3’s “I Surround You Naked” and “Cock of the Rainbow” implodes the implied romantic imagery and ruins these otherwise decent tunes. “Kensington Cradle” sounds like a slow-motion 30-car pileup in grandma’s small intestine. And there are far too many limp ballads like Side 4’s “Lightshow,” which sound like late 70s Yes outtakes. Maybe, though, it’s these clunkers that make the decent songs sound so good in comparison.

From a Compound Eye isn’t the first fly reference in Pollard’s album titles; the excellent 1990 GbV album bore the title Same Place the Fly Got Smashed. In this album’s “The Right Thing,” he even sings like a fly (listen to it; you’ll see).

The album’s title might refer to the extent to which Pollard’s vision is blurred exponentially beyond a lesser drunk’s mere double-vision, but I think it also refers to his multi-faceted influences, interests, and abilities. Watching Pollard on the 1998 documentary “Watch Me Jumpstart,” I got the sense that he had attention-deficit-disorder, and maybe that beer was the tonic that killed the action enough to bring things into focus. This album is like a glimpse out of 26 small window panes at views that Pollard has taken the time to paint for us. Some views are bleak, some are pretty; some are frightening, some are calming; some are boring, some are inspiring. It’s a mixed-up, crazy world within the House of the Fading Captain, but I’m happy that he’s still inviting us in. (Merge) (Jim Ebenhoh)