January 31, 2006

Robert Pollard "From A Compound Eye"

I made a New Year’s resolution to write more succinct record reviews, so I won’t begin this one with a rant about what Guided by Voices meant to me. Look my reviews of their last two albums up in this site’s archives and you’ll get the point. I spent a lot of 2005 getting used to life without GBV. I didn’t even pay much attention to the steady stream of records that Pollard released on his low-profile Fading Captain Series imprint (a box set of unreleased GBV material, an album under one pseudonym, an EP under another pseudonym AND two EPs under his own name). All of them were merely appetizers for the main course: From a Compound Eye, the first post-GBV full-length to bear his own name. This 26-track behemoth has been gathering buzz since it was finished in the fall of 2004, and Merge is giving it the kind of distribution and promotion that would’ve normally been given to a GBV record.

I can’t help but speculate that Pollard felt a bit uneasy with the prospect of issuing such a major statement without a band to buffer him. Some of Compound Eye’s lyrics read like attempts to psych himself up. Consider the bridge of “U.S. Mustard Company,” during which he sings: “Contain yourself/Make yourself feel like it used to be/Throw away your charts of progress/Even though you might need them/Though they’ll not be there/You’ll think you need them.” I’m sure he’s asked himself the same questions that his fans have asked themselves. How will Pollard’s solo stuff stack up when compared to his work with GBV? How will he forge a life outside of the grinding album-after-tour-after-album-after-tour regime that GBV got stuck in? In the song’s coda, the phrase “contain yourself” is repeatedly sung by a soothing chorus of multi-tracked Pollards. Those voices are meant to reassure both Pollard and his fans, as if to say, “Calm down, everyone. From a Compound Eye is here, and everything’s going to be alright.”

In the grand scheme of things, this album won’t shock anyone who’s given GBV even a cursory listen. Pollard still does what he does best: write concise, catchy songs with surreal lyrics and good melodies, sing them in a husky faux-Brit accent and frame them within the context of four decades of freewheeling rock and roll. However, From a Compound Eye remains a pivotal entry in his discography in that it formally introduces the third major foil to enter his career after the elfin-voiced Tobin Sprout and the guitar-shredding Doug Gillard: producer and multi-instrumentalist Todd Tobias. Pollard’s worked with Tobias many times before - they’ve released four albums together under the name Circus Devils, Tobias played all the instruments on Pollard’s previous solo album Fiction Man, and he has also produced the last few GBV records. Compound Eye, though, is where the two finally achieve true synergy. Both Tobias’ playing and Pollard’s singing are stronger than they were on Fiction Man, and even the weirdest songs on Compound Eye are easier to listen to than their Circus Devils work. Tobias’ arrangements free Pollard’s songs from the occasionally overwhelming guitar crunch that permeated GBV’s last few records. There’s plenty of guitar to be found on these songs, but there’s also enough space in the mix for Todd to fill with keyboards (he’s especially fond of synthesized strings), odd percussion (dig the jew’s harp on “The Right Thing”) and untraceable sound effects.

From a Compound Eye is the rare double-album in which more than half of its songs are essential. I didn’t realize this until about a third of the way through, when the better songs started hitting me in groups, rather than one at a time. Throughout the album, Pollard’s command of what he calls “the four Ps” - pop, punk, prog and psych - remains firm. There are pop songs that out-Stroke the Strokes (“Dancing Girls and Dancing Men”), out-Car the Cars (“I’m a Widow”) and even out-GBV GBV (“I Surround You Naked,” “Blessed in an Open Head,” “I’m a Strong Lion”)! There are prog songs that make abrupt key and tempo changes sound totally natural (“Kick Me and Cancel,” “Hammer in Your Eyes,” “Conqueror of the Moon”). There are nightmarish acid trips disguised as songs (“Kensington Cradle,” “50 Year Old Baby,” “Denied”). Then, there’s “The Right Thing,” which manages to sum up Pollard’s creative process and artistic trajectory in four-and-a-half minutes. It starts out with a lo-fi sketch, in which Pollard clumsily strums his guitar and strains to make his voice heard above the cloud of tape hiss. It then mutates into a hi-fi twin of itself, with meaty guitars, flashy drumming and more confident singing. Pollard demonstrates his knack for enlivening even the simplest chord progressions with winding, snake-charmer vocal melodies. This song is bound to be a hit at live shows.

From a Compound Eye is appropriately named in that it prismatically surveys Pollard’s muse from all angles. No matter which side of his music you like the most, you’ll find a heaping helping of it here. Of course, the album could’ve been edited down to 15 or 16 songs, but deciding on which ones to purge would be difficult. Pollard has begun 2006 by soundly reasserting his dominance as my favorite rock songwriter...and, true to form, he has already finished his NEXT solo album! The more things change, the more they remain the same...including the length of my record reviews.

--Sean Padilla

Artist Website: http://www.robertpollard.net
Label Website: http://www.mergerecords.com

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