It sounds hyperbolic, but stack the best 20 or so efforts of Bob Pollard up against anyone else’s and you might be surprised how much ground Dayton, Ohio’s, human song factory holds. Has he ever invented anything new? No. Nor has he changed the way the pop music canon evaluates itself. But by throwing himself at the feet of his heroes (Wire, early REM, XTC, and the Beatles) and shamelessly trying to write songs that both compel and rock, Pollard, who records under the moniker Guided by Voices, can stand tall next to his idols.
Seriously, who else could sing “Predator skin an orangutan alive/I have two eyes/Sprinkle the pearls over the ham/Grand Peter, Might it be the pipes of Pan,” without sounding like a chump? Well, Pollard does to great effect on “Dragons Awake!” an understated acoustic effort on Do the Collapse, his new record.
Running his band like Boris Yeltsin (it’s doubtful that he could name every ex-bandmate; there are dozens), Pollard demands complete creative control. He is guided by voices that seem to tell him to sack his cabinet every so often. After toiling without success for 10 or so years, Pollard got discovered by hipsters in the early ’90s, right around the time he got good at writing songs. He perfected the one-minute home-recorded song at the exact moment lo-fi recording became cool to those in the know. Vampire on Titus (1993), Bee Thousand (1994), and Alien Lanes (1995) contain nearly 100 songs in which Pollard rips an abstract verse or two, builds to a lovely chorus, and then gets bored, stops, and moves on to track No. 27.
But, despite those who chose to embrace his music for its prog-rocker-drunk-on-Budweiser ethos, Pollard reveals on subsequent releases that for each moment that the hiss and fuzz of the recording medium gave his songs a unique charm, he longed to break free of the lo-fi gutter for a fuller, clearer world. Although they may have been shocked by the big sound and mostly realized songs (to mostly positive effect) of Under the Bushes Under the Stars (1996), fans who saw the band live should have predicted the change. On stage, GBV is huge-sounding. Les Paul guitars powered by Marshall stack amplifiers roar, drum beats move to the foreground, and Pollard roams the stage, twirling his microphone and jump-kicking like the antithesis of all the reserved nerds in Malcolm X glasses who worship him like a musical god. Even the not-rare sloppy moments seem appropriate, as if a band so intent on rocking shouldn’t be bothered to play songs neatly.
Do the Collapse chases these arena-rock dreams with an even bigger sound than Bushes, in part because producer Ric Ocasek knows how to record guitars for maximum crunch and fullness. Even on the reserved songs, like “Hold On Hope,” Ocasek makes the tones on Pollard’s guitars throb warmly. On the next track, “In Stitches,” the riffs alternate between scorching and shimmering, with a not-a-solo guitar scratch over the top of the riff. Pollard understands that crude is not the enemy of good and keeps it simple. Throughout his career, and certainly on this record, Pollard has shown that if it takes only a two-chord progression to get the job done, he’s not going to muck it up with another chord just for show.
“Surgical Focus” is classic GBV, a mid-tempo anthem that sounds perfectly Pollard, as is “Optical Hopscotch,” which builds on a Wire-like groove to a cathartic chorus complete with a seven-note solo that stops right when it gets perfect. He has evolved to try and finish songs, but Pollard’s no fool. He’s still quite capable of quitting while he’s ahead, maybe for fear of ruining the song, or maybe because he’s already writing another song in his head before the last tones are wrung out of the tubes of his amp. Anybody who has released 400 or 500 songs and brags about having another 1,500 unreleased on tape at home moves pretty quickly when writing.
This tendency toward the abrupt is most clear on the record’s last track, “An Unmarketed Product,” which rollicks like a drunken Fugazi song railing against materialism. Pollard sings, “An unmarked product/Is shining clear for many years/The time it takes you to put up/Shut out the fears for many years/How do these things come into our lives so obtrusively?” Really, the man is so good he can make that mouthful flow in a punk-rock song and make it sound right.
Some seem to believe that the luster of Guided by Voices was lost when Pollard left his basement to enter a 16- or 24-track recording studio and tried to be a real band. Granted, the media story of a middle-aged elementary school teacher with a wife and teenage children who turns into the biggest underground songwriter in the nation seems less endearing when the pop-culture lottery winner quits his teaching job and goes on tour with Cheap Trick. But just because the story is not as good as it once was doesn’t mean the songs aren’t. Collapse sounds exactly the way a GBV record should, complete with the same sweaty idiot-savant charm that made the other records so great. Apart from the occasional New Wave keyboard sounds (supplied by Ocasek), GBV continues to stick to the formula that got Pollard away from screaming fourth-graders and into the pages of Rolling Stone.
Whether the fans who so wholeheartedly adored his songs in 1994 will continue to buy his records without the promise of new tricks remains to been seen, but they should at least admit this: He does his thing well. And he undoubtedly loves his songs the same way he did 10 years ago when no one cared but a few buddies hanging around his garage. Now that GBV is on a major record label (TVT), we’ll get to see if the people who made him a minor star will still care as well. CP