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I’ve barely listened to any other band in the last year. Rare is the afternoon that doesn’t find me alone in my living room chirping along with GBV’s lilting Merseybeat fare or pogoing to the band’s postpunk thrash or air-guitaring power chords at all the right moments in its art-rock bombast.
My mania manifests itself in ways far more serious than listening and dancing binges, however. I collect bootlegs and seek out Robert Pollard minutiae (he attended, I now know, the infamous and deadly Who concert in Cincinnati in 1979). The critical point of my fixation came a few weekends ago, when some co-dependents and I flew to Dayton, Ohio, for a GBV fawnfest. I lied to myself and others that the trip was planned as a goof. The truth is that whatever irony I left town with was gone long before I crossed the Ohio River. It took all my energy to not give Pollard a “We’re not worthy!” salute when we met. I’m far too old to have rock idols, but I can’t get enough GBV. My obsession with the band bores my friends—those who aren’t co-dependents, that is—and scares my family. Even Pollard seemed shocked by our devotion: When he heard of the great distance we’d traveled, he chuckled and dubbed us “hardcore UFOs.”
At the time, I took his words as great praise, so imagine my horror and shame upon hearing the opening bars of “The Official Ironmen Rally Song,” the first single off the band’s new Matador release, Under the Bushes Under the Stars. That’s where the newly accessible former schoolteacher lectures his minions in a tone he probably used with ill-behaving fourth-graders: “Crawling people, on your knees/Don’t take this so seriously.” Has Pollard soured on cult-hero worship?
I’m hardly the first guy to deify Pollard since Scat Records’ 1994 release of Bee Thousand; people generally have as little ambivalence about GBV as they do about liver and onions. There’s just so much to root for with this band! As the legend goes, for a decade before Bee Thousand, Pollard had been making increasingly brilliant basement tapes both by himself and with any Dayton-area musicians that would hang out with him. But with that album, the first GBV record given national distribution, people outside his hometown noticed that Pollard could pack a tackle box’s worth of hooks into a 90-second tune, and that his melodies were brawny enough to break through the tape-hiss-fortified wall of white noise their author, consciously or not, built into so many of the recordings.
If his upbringing and adolescence had been less acceptable—hell, if he’d been other than the starting quarterback for Northridge High School’s football team—Pollard might have moved away from his hometown, exploited his hook-crafting gift at an earlier age, and maybe even gotten rich and famous. (Cool and pertinent GBV minutiae: The squad’s second-team quarterback, Frankie Myers, whom Pollard’s buds remember as “a real pussy,” ran off to Nashville and made millions writing gilded pap, including the multiple-Grammy-winning “I Swear.”)
But Pollard, who was already 37 years old and had a back catalog of thousands of songs before anybody told him he had talent, has apparently always been content with his lot. He lives just a mile away from his boyhood home and still hangs out with his high-school chums, who’ll love their buddy just as much whether the outside world thinks him a genius or a joke. This social circle (which has dubbed itself “The Monument Club” to connote its members’ geographic inertia) holds power-drinking reunions twice a week in Pollard’s garage. It sounds silly, but beer really is every bit as important to Pollard’s existence—and his art—as ganja was to Bob Marley’s.
Paradoxically, GBV has heretofore been taken seriously precisely because it’s such a loose outfit. The albums, at least those recorded before GBV’s Matador debut, Alien Lanes, ignored pop conventions concerning recording technique and song format. And as a live act—well, there hasn’t been a band with GBV’s amalgam of raw talent and full-blown unreliability since Bob Stinson drank his way out of the Replacements. Much like the ’Mats, transcendent GBV shows eventually degenerate into a drunken circus. (Check out the authorized bootleg, Crying Your Knife Away.) But whereas Paul Westerberg wanted to be known as the abominable frontman, Pollard’s all about fun. Onstage, he’s a visual and aural encyclopedia of rock, more than willing to tipsily mimic Townshend’s leg kicks and Plant’s lip pursings and Daltrey’s mic twirls, and to introduce each tune in slurred McCartneyese.
Having proved he can frolic better than the rest, Under the Bushes finds Pollard playing things (relatively) straight. Which makes sense, given that rock became his livelihood when he signed with Matador—the guy’s got a family to feed. For all the critical acclaim and hard-core fanaticism, GBV thus far hasn’t been moving more than 25,000 units per record.
On Under the Bushes, GBV’s looseness isn’t so obvious. None of the cuts clocks in under 90 seconds, meaning that the lighthearted song snippets that made previous efforts, notably Bee Thousand and Propeller, such great albums are nowhere to be found. A marquee producer, Pixie/Breeder/Amp and fellow Daytonian Kim Deal, was brought in. (For unexplained reasons, there’s no evidence of GBV’s much-publicized alliance with Steve Albini on Under the Bushes, though bootlegs of his sessions with the band—some waaay cool—have been floating around for months.) Most symbolically, the four-track recorder that brought them to lo-fi heights was left off.
GBV is going for airplay.
Which isn’t by itself much of a departure. As strong as their hooks were, a few dozen cuts on Alien Lanes and Bee Thousand were a bridge and a chorus reprise away from being radio-friendly. Those once-missing ingredients are supplied in spades on the new collection. Perhaps I’m biased, but even small-balled programmers could glom onto most of Under the Bushes’ 24 tracks without risking unemployment.
At least one of the songs will be familiar to GBV fans: “Don’t Stop Now” is also available on the Scat box set, Box, and on the EP King Shit and the Golden Boys, though as an acoustic number.
The rest of the material, like the best GBV, just sounds like you’ve heard it before: The poppy, pappy “Underwater Explosions” is the best Bram Tchaikovsky impersonation to come out in a decade; “Burning Flag Birthday Suit,” one of many art-rock excursions on Under the Bushes, is a such a blatant, er, “tribute” to Gabriel-era Genesis that “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” would make a fitting B-side; and when he sings “I can’t tell you anything you don’t already know” over and over on the mostly acoustic “Acorns and Orioles,” GBV is suddenly Emerson, Lake, and Pollard.
Tobin Sprout, the humble guitarist and part-time singer whose contributions to GBV generally get overshadowed by the charismatic leader’s personality, leads two of the catchiest power-poppers, “Atom Eyes” and “It’s Like Soul Man.” Musically, there’s more than enough here to keep me bouncing in my living room for the foreseeable future, or until more GBV comes out.
Unlike GBV’s most recent albums, Under the Bushes doesn’t come with a lyric sheet. Maybe that’s part of the punishment Pollard’s meting out to fans he thinks are taking the worship thing “so seriously.” I’ll try to cool it a bit—in deference to my hero—but I think I’m a lost cause.
That realization came when I happened upon the new Beatles Anthology. As I listened to the lower-fi versions of Lennon and McCartney chestnuts, all I could think was, damn if those guys don’t sound a lot like GBV….CP