Robert Pollard shreds any previous conceptions of the prolific. It’s possible to argue that his output has been prolific to the point of excessive. I tried once to compile a list of all of the albums (to say nothing of the odd seven-inches, eps, etc.) that Pollard has produced, either as solo artist or as a member of Guided By Voices, Boston Spaceships, the Lifeguards and a number of other ensembles. I gave up. It’s mind-blowing, nonpareil – with the possible exception of John Zorn.
Perhaps his output might have been more brilliant had he been more focused and self-editing. While indie-philes, protectors of their lo-fi underground legacy might object, Guided by Voices were possibly at their best when they signed to the quasi-major label TVT and worked with producers who did more than roll tape and nod their heads (Ric Ocasek for Do the Collapse, Rob Schnapf for Isolation Drills). Sure, Bee Thousand was awesome. And the several records that GBV cut for Matador, before and after their TVT stint, were often terrific and contained some of their best songs and performances. But I would suggest that Isolation Drills, in particular, was not just a great indie rock record, but a world class rock ‘n’ roll set. And there’s a difference - the former can reach an audience primed to respond; the latter can seduce the casual fan. Of course their fan base expanded only incrementally during their TVT period. And Pollard, the kind of guy who likes to keep working, clearly began to envision a future, not unlike the very early days of GBV, in which he could work as much as he wanted and release whatever struck his fancy. He’s done so on his own Guided By Voices label and on a variety of one-off and short term deals with labels. He’s worked fast and furious, almost compulsively.
Sometimes the results have been brilliant. Blues and Boogies Shoes with Tommy Keene (as the Keene Brothers) was a wonderful blend of the artists’ talents, worth the price of admission for one song alone – “Island of Lost Lucys,” a clock stopper, just a gorgeous tune. Pollard’s albums with Chris Slusarenko and John Moen (the Decemberists) as the Boston Spaceships have ranged from good to very good - the band having become his basic and most dynamic vehicle in the past five years.
Pollard’s solo stuff, never without merit, has been a little dulled by process. For a decade or so he and accomplice Todd Tobias have banged our basic tracks (Tobias plays everything except for a bit of guitar from Pollard), while Pollard has dubbed vocals on the backside of tracking. For Lord of the Birdcage, the newest from Pollard and Tobias, the approach shifted. This time Pollard put his lyrics first, melodies second, while the instrumental tracks built on this foundation. The results are not wildly different from Pollard’s other recordings, but there are subtle differences that have freshened the sound.
Impressionistic as ever, Pollard’s language here is committed, informed in its own vague way, by his outrage over American despair and decline. “Smashed Middle Finger” sounds like a Pete Townshend Scoop out-take in which Pollard recalls a his youth (“I had a wide mind in the known world”) and the beating it took in the adolescent gauntlet, now declaring he has a middle finger to “give to the world.” In this one song Pollard’s genius is manifest. The man has an uncanny capacity for condensing all 4.3 decent ideas from the progressive-rock mess into succinct, pop song kernels. “Aspersion” touches on themes of bigotry. Pollard’s vague, but his bite is sharp. Committed to getting his message across, it’s clear that despite his inherent economy he’s no longer inclined toward the super-brevity of early Guided by Voices; the lessons of albums like Isolation Drills still being manifest - give each song what the song needs.
“Dunce Codex” has this inspirational verse: “How do the cows keep coming just to run through the grinder; Please excuse me, I’ve lost my girl and I need to find her,” as if to say the world’s indeed a mess, but I’m looking for a kiss (thanks X, thanks Dolls). “In a Circle” presents a dissection of everyday injuries and real world hurts to a tune and arrangement that recall Townshend’s All the Best Cowboys record. Pollard’s work has always leaned on classic rock moves, especially the Who. He has the knack for capturing their power and glory (mic swinging and all), but skirting their capacity for bombast.
“You Sold Me Quickly” echoes early Yes (when they still played songs), while its rhythms bounce off vintage Gang of Four. “Ribbon of Fat” is a kiss-off to Pollard’s brief flirtation with rock’s star-making machinery (“We had laminates backstage, yeah all access to the slick arena of rats”) - it has a glam-rock bounce that sounds like T. Rex with a ladle of good American rock gravy.
“Holy Fire” treads on the synth-dirge tales of Springsteen and Suicide, as Pollard lays some apocalyptic attitude on the power structure with lines like “There will be holy fire that your cartel will know.” Lord of the Birdcage finds Bob Pollard in the role of quiet avenger.
The album winds to a close with “Ash Ript Telecopter.” This tracks’ grindingly effective repetition evokes the group Love (references to “Orange Skies” in the lyric and in the Forever Changes tone of the arrangement). Pollard hangs “on the dark side of the time zone.” Evoking Talking Heads’ “The Overload” and the dark edge of Pink Floyd’s good side.
His melodic resources are still remarkable, rarely repetitive. Robert Pollard is the tossed-off master of Pop melody – a veritable J. S. Bach of the three –minute song. When an artist literally has a new album of some sort available every three months (there’s a Boston Spaceships release slated for early August), any sense of event is lost with each new release. In other words, it’s easy to lapse into a ‘ho-hum, more Pollard’ mentality confronted with the sheer bulk of his catalog. But to do so could lead to taking a pass on a lot of really fine music. Lord of the Birdcage is really fine music from an underground pop master.