[10 November 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
It’s hard to believe Robert Pollard has stuck with the Circus Devils as long as he has. Always quick to move on to the next thing—and the thing after that, and the thing after that—Pollard has held onto this side project for a long while, releasing six albums, including their latest, Ataxia. As always, the album was written and recorded with Tim and Todd Tobias, and features the band’s goofball take on psych and prog rock.
Circus Devils are perhaps the most earnest experimentation in Pollard’s large stable of side projects. Most are slight twists on his basic talent for pop songs. But the Devils are dirtier and odder than any of his other bands, and genuinely twist his hooks into something spacey and strange. And over six albums, they’ve made some small strides forward. Their early attempts at bizarro rock were nearly unlistenable. But with last year’s Sgt. Disco and now with Ataxia, they’ve moved away from sounds that are annoying broken to ones that are, at least sometimes, charmingly oddball.
The thunder roll of “Freedom’s Monster”, the heavy rock riffs of “I-Razors”, the spacey power pop of “Bushwack Television”. These songs all act as solid, if slanted, foundations for Pollard’s restless voice. He uses his normally honeyed faux-Brit vocals as a springboard to jump off into silly low-voiced barks, snarling speak-singing, sleepy-eyed complaints, and effect-heavy crooning. Along with “The Girls Are Gonna Make It Happen”, where Pollard glides his voice across the dicey terrain of the Tobiases’ chunky rock-pop, these songs bolster a first-half of Ataxia that doesn’t always find the band hitting the mark true, but each shot they take is interesting in its own way.
Unfortunately, those moments get dragged down by the second half of the record. This part of Ataxia is comprised almost entirely of spacey sound experiments that trudge along at a snail’s pace. Pollard’s vocals get more histrionic at moments, like on “I Found the Black Mind”, and the songs reveal irreparable holes the more they stretch out. Even the up-tempo “Get Me Extra!” sounds flat between those other tracks, and Pollard’s salesman shout is bright without being enthusiastic, sounding more fatigued than energized.
The pleasant crunch of guitars on the closer, “Rat Face Ballerina”, isn’t enough to hold up the back end of the record. Even that song, which comes closest to equaling the energy of the early tracks, can’t hold itself together without a rhythm section. It might start soundly, but ends up coming across like an unfinished demo. It’s an appropriate end to a new Circus Devils record. It sheds a little light on the progress they’ve made—a few of these songs do come close to his solid solo output—but it is also mired in the trouble with the band’s sound. They might sound a little weirder, and more palatable in their weirdness, if they didn’t insist on being weird. The few highlights aside, most of Ataxia forces its strangeness on you, and ends up sounding pretty bland for it.