Robert Pollard Still Rocks
Writing a review of a Robert Pollard album or side-project these days seems a lot like dancing about architecture. It’s, in many ways, an act of futility. Since the proper dissolution of his main band, Guided by Voices, in late 2004 (not counting the reunited classic line-up that is heading out on tour this fall), Pollard has gone on to record a gabillion albums, either solo or otherwise—some of which are good, some of which are less so. Basically, Pollard is clearly making music for himself these days on a boutique label, and the die-hard fans are more than eager to go along.
I used to be a member of Disarm the Settlers, a Guided by Voices fan message board, and there was some discussion amongst its members last fall of starting a review site of strictly Bob material, in which each release would earn a perfect 10 rating. If Pollard was to record an entire album’s worth of armpit noises, it seems evident that a few thousand people would go out and slavishly buy it. Hence the futility part: it doesn’t matter what a reviewer like myself has to say about a latter day Robert Pollard album, because the die-hard fans (which are pretty much those who are still buying Pollard’s records) are going to fund his trips out into whatever netherworld of songcraft he’s mining that particular month, even if some of the trips can be pretty far out.
As for the more casual Bob-ophile, I’m convinced that such a beast doesn’t really exist. It seems that many of the fair-weather fans of Guided by Voices probably stopped really paying attention about the time GbV’s swan-song, Half Smiles of the Decomposed, came out, or perhaps once Pollard stopped making solo music on a major indie label a couple of years later. Yet it is to this audience that I more or less address this review to: has the songwriter put out an album that the occasional buyer might be interested in, someone who wants to hear Bob at his most anthemic?
Well, with Our Cubehouse Still Rocks, the fourth proper release in the span of two years from Pollard’s side-project, Boston Spaceships, the answer is most unequivocally yes. In fact, a first listen to this release had this reviewer pretty much convinced that Our Cubehouse Still Rocks might just be the best thing Bob has done since breaking up his previous band.
The impression that Our Cubehouse Still Rocks is the best thing Bob has done in ages doesn’t exactly hold up once your ears revisit the record on repeated listening as the lyrics, which are often as cryptic as usual, have a tendency to repeat themselves in places, wearing out their welcome a little bit. It’s as though Pollard was trying to follow a standard rock formula with repeated choruses, which is either an asset or a liability depending upon your point of view. Plus, there’s the presence of what can be termed as a “joke song” along the lines of “How’s My Drinking?” with the inclusion of “In The Bathroom (Up ½ The Night)”. Still, this project is full of some very strong material, much of which has a passing resemblance to classic the Who. Our Cubehouse Still Rocks is a record of propulsion, something that can be defined not only in the fast-paced, fist-in-the-air anthems that Uncle Bob has penned for this album, but in the lyrical concerns as well.
The opening salvo, “Track Star”, has Pollard intoning over an acoustic guitar line that erupts into a lick Pete Townsend would be proud of, “He runs from the clowns and I bet he’s wearing them down ... I bet he runs”. Two tracks later, “I See You Coming” offers that “I see you running ... and now I’m running to you”. Then there’s “Fly Away (Terry Sez)”, which is a cut rescued from Pollard’s recent Suitcase III: Up We Go Now box set of cast-offs that offers the oblique, “When they want to fly away and cannot be seen, a face-lift dream so weightless in the sun-split sky”. With Our Cubehouse Still Rocks, Pollard is running a 100-meter dash with all of the pavement pounding and zooming. And given its conceit of racing, this LP keeps within the tradition of Pollard releases that are compact: at 16 tracks long, only one track approaches the four-minute mark, and just four songs eclipse the three minute pole.
Our Cubehouse Still Rocks is notable in that Pollard shakes things up a little bit by adding some instrumental flourishes to the proceedings in places. “Saints Don’t Lie” boasts an organ line in the background that recalls the work of Benmont Tench. “The British and the French” has a catchy squeezebox. “Dunkirk Is Frozen” also ends with an accordion and “Bombadine” even boasts a faux horn line. Though Pollard is following some formulas here in writing songs with conventional verse-chorus-verses, he’s also reaching beyond the standard conventions of rock and roll—probably owing to the fact that Boston Spaceships, which was once one of many side-projects, is starting to have the feel of a “real” band.
There are other pleasures to be found on this LP, as well. “Come On Baby Grace” is Pollard at his most Westerbergian as the song has the feel of a Replacements outtake, and might be the very best thing on Our Cubehouse Still Rocks. “Freedom Rings”, which follows and has the position of the record’s longest cut, has a crunchy guitar groove that will inspire much head nodding and fist pumping. Even the aforementioned “In The Bathroom (Up ½ The Night)” has a catchy, sing-along chorus—even though I’m not sure if it’s a gag about puking or urinating after an evening of binging on Milwaukee’s finest.
In short, there is much to appreciate on Our Cubehouse Still Rocks which more or less proves that fearless leader Robert Pollard is still capable of writing tunes that slither their way into your cranium. It’s an album that the former Guided by Voices fan will appreciate, and can be rest assured that, though there is the typical amount of filler as one can find on a Pollard release, there is a high ratio of good songs to throwaways. In any event, it won’t matter if long time or long-ago fans pick this up: word is that the next Boston Spaceships LP will be a double, proving once again that Robert Pollard follows his own muse. With that, you’ll have to now excuse me. I have a jig to compose, you see, because there’s a new condominium that’s going up just down the street from me.
- Multiple songs MySpace