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From a Compound Eye
US release: 24 January 2006
UK release: 6 February 2006
Robert Pollard long has threatened to make a classic album. Longtime Guided by Voices fans likely feel he already has, but the honest among them surely must admit that discs like Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes and Do the Collapse, while great and chock full of fantastic songs, did not offer the complete package required for classic status. In fact, Bee Thousand, the band’s acknowledged high point is, charitably, two-thirds of a classic album—skeptics should try listening only to the second side for a bit and then re-evaluate.
It took the break-up of his band, four album sides, 26 songs and 70 minutes to do it, but with his first post-Guided by Voices solo record, Pollard finally has made his classic album. From a Compound Eye achieves this status for the same reasons Pollard gives when explaining why he finally is capable of making a double album. While several Guided by Voices projects started life as double albums, Pollard says his songs lacked the stylistic variation to make such a move practical. That is no problem here. He promises pop, punk, prog and psych, and while fans of his catchiest songs will be happy to know that the emphasis is on that first “P”, he delivers the most consistent yet varied disc of his career.
It seemed silly a year ago when he broke up Guided by Voices. Pollard was Guided by Voices, right? Yes, but he also was Robert Pollard, a distinct artist who could create music beyond the constraints of what had become a drunken, road-weary combo that took few chances on record. Pollard shed more than a name that has followed him and his music around for 21 years when he dismantled the band. He busted lose from shackles that seemed to limit his ambition. He allows the resulting freedom to flower here. The disc has two fewer songs than Guided by Voices’ most packed-to-the-gills disc, Alien Lanes, yet it runs for 30 more minutes. This is a true double album, with four distinct sides and a wide rage of sounds and styles.
But stylistic variation doesn’t always equal good, particularly for a prolific artist like Pollard with a back catalog filled with numerous spotty side projects. One could credit Todd Tobias, who produced and provided much of the backing music here. But Tobias also produced Guided by Voices’ last three, uneven discs. Perhaps it’s the fact that the players in Guided by Voices had morphed into a monolithic riff-rock band, whereas Tobias reins in that tendency and ramps up the strange factor a bit. While Tobias plays a large part in the success of this project, it comes down to the feeling that Pollard tries harder on From a Compound Eye than he has in many years.
The first sign that things are different here is on the fifth track, “The Right Thing”. After a bit more than a minute of typical lo-fi guitar strum and vocal from Pollard, a hi-fi electric guitar riff kicks in and Pollard’s vocals re-enter pushed way up in the mix. After another minute, bass and drums join the fray, kicking the song into a nice rocking groove that allows the first minute’s seemingly pleasant but unremarkable vocal hook to flower into something nearly anthemic and powerful, even though the end result is a song that is better in theory than outcome. It would have been par for the course for Pollard to stick that opening snippet on a disc and move on. But he and Tobias instead used it as the catalyst to create something better.
They do so again and again over the course of the disc. Of the 26 songs here, eight are certified classics that stand with anything Pollard has written. But they feel more a part of the whole here than, say, “hits” like “Teenage FBI” and “Things I Will Keep” did on Do the Collapse, because the songs surrounding them are as compelling, albeit in less-direct ways. One of the first is “U.S. Mustard Company”, a song that blends arpeggiated guitars, tender vocals and light keyboards to create one of the prettiest songs Pollard has written. Where previous attempts at such subtle beauty—think the heavy-handed “Hold on Hope,” for instance—failed because the presentation was ill-fitting, this one feels right because it allows Pollard to sound comfortable and like himself throughout. Credit Tobias for that. He added the touches that flesh out all of the songs here, and he clearly knows what it takes to move Pollard’s songs in the right direction.
The best song here sits right in the middle. “Love Is Stronger Than Witchcraft” closes the second side, and it offers perhaps the strongest vocals of Pollard’s career and the most solid hook on the album. It’s the kind of song that would have been dressed up with new wave keyboards on Do the Collapse and made to sound like something not quite Pollard’s own. Tobias adds his own keyboards here, but like his use of the instrument throughout the disc, it is organic to the song, coloring, not dominating. Pollard is probably beyond having hits at this point, but this stands as good a shot as any song he’s recorded.
Despite that, the album’s strongest side follows. There isn’t a weak song among the six on side three, and three of the songs are among the best on the disc. “I Surround You Naked” has a great hook and impassioned vocals from Pollard that are the equal of those of any great rock front man. The most ambitious song on the disc, “Conqueror of the Moon”, is the side’s highlight. In the space of five short minutes he offers a track with the kind of variation shown in the mini-suites of his heroes, the Who. It’s as close as he’s come to penning his own “Happy Jack”. It has as many great ideas as any Guided by Voices Bee Thousand-era EPs, and offers them all in one longer song instead of five short ones. The side ends with a spacey psych-pop song with a chorus tailor made for arena sing-alongs: “Find a moment in your time, I say, live the moment when you find.”
Stranger moments abound as well. Pollard, in describing the way GBV releases evolved, said fans who expect reprisal of Bee Thousand-like albums must realize that he spreads his various guises out among several different side projects these days. Experimental work is pushed off onto his self-released Fading Captain Series discs like those from the Howling Wolf Orchestra, Soft Rock Renegades and, with Tobias, the Circus Devils. Yet with From a Compound Eye, he has found a way to add the flavor of those side projects without letting it overwhelm the melodic thrust of the album. “The Numbered Head” offers a cleaned-up version of the kind of thick prog he might drop on a Moping Swans disc, while “Kensington Cradle”, with its fuzzy, lo-fi shouts, sounds like something left off a Circus Devils disc because it actually has a hook. His humor has returned as well. What better example than to cite the one-line chorus from the song “I’m a Widow”: “I’m a widow and I’m hot to do you,” he sings again and again while Tobias’ backing chugs along like ZZ Top in hyperdrive.
The disc’s only drawback is in the way it fizzles out a bit as the fourth side spins. The songs aren’t bad, they just lack the variety that makes the other three sides such a visceral rush. It offers another song that starts with a lo-fi Pollard solo take fleshed out to create a full rocker and a couple of pleasant songs that lack the big hook that would elevate them to essential listening. Still, it offers a nice ballad in “Payment for Babies” that would have felt cloying earlier in Pollard’s career, and “I Am Strong Lion”, a short poppy jingle of the type he once relegated to EPs and B-sides. It’s also among the handful of hopeful songs here that show a sunnier outlook from a Pollard who emerged from marital discord and divorce in the past couple of years to find new love. After the darker music of the last few Guided by Voices discs, it’s a welcome parting of the clouds. Pollard finally seems like he’s having fun with his music again, and that’s good news. “I’m a Strong Lion, been tryin,’ the Lord likes me that way,” he sings. So do we.
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// Notes from the Road
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