Bob Pollard. The man's a veritable fountain of song, and most artists should consider themselves lucky to record and release as many albums in their career as Pollard releases in a year's time. From his own band of rock and roll fun-loving hooligans Guided by Voices to one of his various and uniquely-named solo releases, Pollard's not one to rest on his laurels when it comes to his muses. Apparently, his muses have one hell of a contractual deal, as one look at an abbreviated Pollard discography will clearly show.
Of course, one of the main complaints about Pollard's gift is that he seemingly lacks the ability (or the desire) to submit his ideas to any form of quality control. Since Guided by Voices has become a rather slick, very straightforward rock band, many of the little bits and pieces of songs that used to occupy the spaces between fully-developed tracks have gravitated from the GBV moniker to all the other solo Pollard projects. Although three or four experimental pieces in the scope of a basic, fully developed album may provide for an interesting, eclectic record, an album consisting of these little sonic scraps of ideas could easily prove frustrating, excruciating, and terribly self-indulgent.
Go Back Snowball is Pollard's collaboration with Superchunk's Mac McCaughan, and is Pollard's first high-profile, non-GBV related collaboration. Like his collaboration with Tobin Sprout in Airport 5, this "collaboration" involved Mac recording the musical backing in Chapel Hill, with Bob adding his vocals in Dayton. Pollard has recorded in this manner before; Airport Five's Tower in the Fountain of Sparks was recorded in this manner, although the fact that the music and the lyrics were recorded separately proved to be quite obvious.
The biggest highlight of Calling Zero is clearly Mac's musical accompaniment. From the low, rolling drone of the opener "Radical Girl," you realize that McCaughan's going to create a different, more experimental kind of backdrop for Pollard's often straightforwardly-oblique lyrics. While Pollard's other solo work often felt rather rough and unpolished, McCaughan has done a most excellent job of creating soundscapes that are mellow yet rocking, minimalist yet very lush. Mainly, it's the fact that Mac's adding an electronica element to Pollard's backing that makes Go Back Snowball quite a pleasure. I highly doubt Guided by Voices will be doing any piano-and-loop based tracks, such as on "Climb," yet, if you want to hear Pollard with a jazz backdrop, skip over to "Dumbluck Systems Storefront" for Bob-as-lounge singer. What you don't hear, however, from Mac's backing, is anything remotely Guided by Voices--and, aside from maybe "Throat of Throats" or "Lifetime For the Mavericks," you don't hear Superchunk, either.
Pollard's in fine form, too. The songs aren't balls-out cock-rock; in fact, they're a bit sad, and rather tender in spots. There's a certain sense of sadness to these songs as well, with lyrics that seem to be most melancholy, with just a hint of regret and a slight touch of disappointment. While I've never been one to analyze the meanings of Pollard's lyrics (we save that for the postal blowfish), one can't help but think that the trials and tribulations of the past year are fodder for this project. With Bob, you get a no-bullshit approach to songwriting; if you love the way he writes, you won't be disappointed.
Calling Zero is a refreshing little surprise. It's good to hear two highly talented musicians finally getting together after years of friendship, and the results are most pleasant. It's also good to hear Pollard backed by someone that doesn't make music with--or that sounds like--Guided by Voices, and it's certainly good to hear Mac expanding on his already vast and interesting musical ideas with a highly-talented collaborator. Since both men are two of the hardest working men in indie-rock, it may be a bit of a wait for the next Go Back Snowball, if it ever happens again. Luckily for us, Calling Zero whets the appetite and keeps the listener happy. For those who wonder if Pollard's starting to lose it, it will take all but half a spin of this record to realize that such worries are unjustified.