Robert Pollard is the drunkest man I've ever seen on PBS. Granted, I don't watch a lot of PBS. And, when I told a friend that I didn't like the new Robert Pollard album, he prevailed upon me to take a suitcase of acid, drive out to the desert and listen to the album on an eight-track player. Lacking the resources to put any of this together, I shotgunned a twelve- pack of the new Anheuser-Busch B-to-the-E concoction and listened to Pollard's From a Compound Eye while lying on my floor. Midway through the third listen, I found myself tuned to the proper wavelength and I have since been incapable of listening to anything else.
ILLUSTRATION BY JESSICA HARTRICK
To understand From a Compound Eye, you have to look at Pollard's past (and I promise to pull this back around to PBS, so stay tuned). When he was a fourth-grade teacher, he started Guided by Voices, a band with an ever-changing roster that was based out of various Midwestern basements. They recorded quick-and-easy pop songs into a four-track, mixing equal portions of the Beatles and the indie sound of the eighties and nineties. On Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes, GBV tapped into what I call the Universal Song-the one tune that rock geeks search their whole lives to find. Being older and from a decidedly uncool neck of the woods, GBV members wore their influences well and avoided the cynicism prevalent amongst the indie-rock scene of the time.
During the band's last few years, the lineup became more static and GBV spent extended periods of time in the studio. And, to be quite honest, the band phoned it in more than once. The critical community has given Pollard a stack of hall passes to coast on since Do the Collapse. Sure, there have been negative reviews here and there, but the overwhelming response to GBV and to Pollard's myriad side-projects has been stunned obsequiousness. Yes, Pollard came out of nowhere as a late-twenty-something-year-old schoolteacher from Dayton. And, yes, as he once said in an interview on KCRW, Pollard can write five songs on the pot and "three of 'em are good!" But he's lived up to the legend by proving himself to be a hard-working dude with a unique ear for music.
Pollard is now retired from Guided by Voices and working on his own. Things are much scarier when you're in this second phase of your career (jerks on the Internet come at you with chips on their shoulders and such), but Pollard's definition of flying solo is different from your average rocker's. Robert Pollard releases roughly three full-length albums each year with one side-project or another, to say nothing of his numerous 7" singles, EPs and bootleg comedy albums. By the time GBV released their final album, Half Smiles of the Decomposed, Pollard had a new solo album ready to hit the stores.
So what makes From a Compound Eye different? Well, not much really, except that it's Bob performing without a net. He's managed to get around that inherent risk with a little cleverness. See, FACE will not be officially released until the fall. Pollard just allowed it to leak to a few fans in order to stir up interest. It didn't take much; the musician has a devoted online fan community with two listservs, two official sites, fan sites, message boards and mp3 blogs devoted to him. He's not merely in tune with his fans-he is giving them time to mobilize, while he prepares for the next stage in his artistic career. Put in plainer terms, there's little fear of Pollard not making some cash when the album is officially released, because the dudes on the Internet who already have it are also the dudes who own all three GBV box sets in their possession. So will they buy FACE even though it's already on their iPods? Most likely, my friend.
But FACE is the perfect place to start for anyone who has never heard a Robert Pollard composition before, and it's the perfect place for all of us old fans to get a much needed fix. What strikes me most about the album is how Pollard has rocketed back in time, in search of the spirit that informed earlier albums like Vampire on Titus (a GBV album that was virtually a solo album and featured such luminaries as Jim Pollard, Mitch Mitchell, Tobin Sprout and Bob under the spotlight with guitar and drum duties) and Not in My Air Force (Pollard's first solo album that featured virtually anyone who had ever been in GBV). It's this exploration into his compulsion to write music-I mean, what else is a solo career for, right?-that has begat one helluva gem from the mess that GBV became. And GBV got quite messy toward the end.
That kind of bacchanalia doesn't have an unlimited shelf life, and GBV, sad as it is for me to say this, called it quits long after their expiry date. Each new album had a few gems, but it felt like Pollard was cranking out albums out of habit. This fresh start that he's given himself is full of promise.
If you want documented proof, check out the band's appearance on Austin City Limits-on PBS, natch-that featured Modest Mouse putting the indie rockers to sleep and GBV getting progressively maudlin. Part of GBV's onstage shtick always included a tub full of beers and slurry covers of David Bowie in the third hour of the show. That kind of bacchanalia doesn't have an unlimited shelf life, and GBV, sad as it is for me to say this, called it quits long after their expiry date. Each new album had a few gems, but it felt like Pollard was cranking out albums out of habit. This fresh start that he's given himself is full of promise.
To understand the greatness of that potential, just take a listen to the fifth track on FACE, "The Right Thing." On the Mohs scale, I give it an eight because it rocks that hard. Beginning as an uncertain acoustic experiment recorded straight into a four-track, the song ends abruptly and begins anew, electrified and confident, swiftly evolving from a sketch into a finished portrait. By the time a now-familiar chorus is backed up with drums, Pollard has brought the listener in close to him.
The feeling lasts throughout the duration of the album. On "Strong Lion," Pollard sings: "I'm a strong lion. Been tryin'. The lord likes me that way." This kind of sentiment would never have found itself onto a GBV album. I don't know why. Perhaps because it's so earnest. Perhaps because the song is framed with the rollicking chimes of a keyboard and tucked away toward the end of the album. For a guy who has made a career out of singing about tractor rape chains and self-inflicted aerial nostalgia, "Strong Lion" succeeds because it captures a moment when Pollard has intentionally let down his guard. It's a rallying cry and mantra for anyone who has found themselves at a point in time when they're on their own and in need of a boost of confidence. It sells the album for me and pulls together the threads that hold From a Compound Eye together.
Writing about Pollard reminds me of a recent conversation between Lawrence Lessig, the founder of Creative Commons and an exponent of free software and open spectrum, and Jeff Tweedy from Wilco, which took place at the New York Public Library, on the topic of Who Owns Culture? Tweedy put it best when he said, "Music is finished in the audience." Meaning, a song is only 50 percent complete until someone hears it-it's at this point that a song becomes a part of the shared ideaspace. Pollard has always been a prolific songwriter, tossing song after song into that ideaspace-and doing so with little fear of what tomorrow will bring. So here you've got a guy taking a big risk, putting himself on the line and who's not afraid to give it away for free just in case, which is a beautiful way to approach music and the community created around it. Pollard's a strong lion.
Frank Smith has written about music since sometime in the mid-nineties, when he fired off an angry letter to his local independent weekly. Since then, he's written record reviews and essays for the likes of Newsweek, The Dayton Voice (now defunct), the L Magazine, the Black Table, Tiny Mix Tapes and UGO.com, where he contributed to their Bands on Demand database. Robert Pollard from Guided by Voices once bounced an unopened can of beer off his head.