When Robert Pollard rang the death knell for Guided By Voices with a marathon four-hour gig in Chicago a few years ago, it signaled the end of a band who seemed to have smart, catchy rock hooks coming out of every conceivable orifice. Since then Pollard has continued to churn out material under his own name, as well as a horde of other bands, but those who helped him along the way are also doing quite well themselves. The Tobias brothers are a good example of this. Tim and Todd were integral parts of GBV during some of the best years leading up to the end. Since then they have released one previous album as Clouds Forming Crowns, and this is number two. As they note in the press release, the format is simple: “Tim writes the outlines of the songs, and Todd fills in the blanks”. And with that, Clouds Forming Crowns have crafted more than a few jewels.
The dozen-track album has a seedy, garage-y feeling, especially to judge from the opening notes of the leadoff “Phantom Dog Black Water”. This track is definitely screaming to be played in some small club where the quarters are cramped and the beer is spilling on the floor. If you could imagine Jack White beating Mr. Cobain in an arm-wrestling match, with the winner fronting Nirvana, you would have the gist of this truly buzzsaw-filled track. Careful though, if you don’t look now you’ll realize that you’re just kicking seamlessly into the second number entitled “Animal Drunk”. The Tobias brothers slow things down for this one, but they still have all the moxie and swagger for which old-school rock and roll should be celebrated. While it doesn’t quite work as a studio tune, I’m sure it would raise the roof live with its thick slab of bass and short, choppy riffs. And when the aptly titled “Ghost Looms” comes to the fore, you don’t know if it’s the Tobias brothers who influenced Pollard or if the ghost of Pollard is floating throughout this fine, solid effort. The song also has a certain throwback feeling to the Kinks in their heyday.
Clouds Forming Crowns can make a song shimmer on the turn of a dime, and if you needed proof of that, just take a listen to “Waiting For A Drain”. While the opening sounds as if the life is draining out of the song, the band pull up their bootstraps and fuel the song’s switch into a finely-tuned rock romp. However, not everything they touch automatically turns to gold. “Floating” has a road-tested roots-pop feeling to it in the vein of a rowdy, barroom version of Barenaked Ladies. It builds as it goes along but lacks that kick in the pants that previous tunes contain. It’s the exception to the rule, however, as “Matter Of Choice” sets the album back on course with a thick, meaty, classic rock feeling that winds itself around some distant lyrics and large slabs of guitar. Perhaps the first truly great tune here is the mid-tempo but self-assured pop rock nugget dubbed “Have A Dream”, which saunters along without any hurry to wrap up.
Another pretty little ditty is “Satellite Ingestion”, which sounds like a cross between GBV, in terms of baring its soul, and something Paul Westerberg would jot down during a songwriting spree. And you can’t help but think of the Replacements’ frontman during “Electric Fools”, especially during his Grandpaboy incarnation. But Clouds Forming Crowns revert back to the big classic rock sounds during the punishing and at times brooding title track, which cultivates a certain lurking darkness before softening its stance two minutes in. As quickly as it starts, Clouds Forming Crowns shut things down with a mid-tempo and slightly punchy rocker “Sea Witch #10 (North Station)”, which they flesh out quite nicely. Unless Pollard has some revelation and gets GBV together again, I guess we’ll just have to settle for some well-crafted rock and roll from his proverbial rock flock.