Robert Pollard is a wonder. Whether with his main group, indie-rock heroes Guided By Voices, or on his own Fading Captain series of releases, he has become the Energizer Bunny of the music world. With no less than five separate projects being released in 2002, his torrent of output is ceaseless. Guided By Voices will have a new record out in June, but have already recorded and completed its follow-up. And with the almost countless releases in his Fading Captain series (Pollard’s way of numbering the other-than-official Voices-related releases, probably just as much for his own benefit of keeping track of them as it is for ours), he will continue to be the undisputed champ of output. So much so that he has for the first time broken out of his band’s extended camp to work with an outsider.
Working out of his hometown of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan wrote, performed and recorded an album’s worth of instrumental tracks, which Pollard then wrote and recorded lyrics for back in Dayton, Ohio. Calling Zero (#17 in the Fading Captain series) was born and released under the moniker Go Back Snowball. Pollard has worked this way before, most notably with ex-Guided By Voices member Tobin Sprout. Sprout would record bed tracks and mail them to Pollard to complete. The results have been mixed, with some songs being better than others.
Calling Zero starts out promisingly enough with “Radical Girl”, incorporating noisy organs with a hint of brass (echoed later on the record’s final track, “Dumbluck Systems Stormfront”). Here, and throughout the album, Robert Pollard seems to channel David Bowie’s more languid intonation. His voice, whether clean or drowned in reverb, is clear and strong. His lyrics, on the other hand, are clear as always—that is to say, clear as mud. Words like “The good earth rules / Like a Utopian spoof / Zip code hallelujah” from “Dumbluck Systems Stormfront” are indicative of Pollard’s style of writing for feeling over meaning.
There are some moments of beauty as well, such as the mid-tempo “It Is Divine”, where Pollard’s voice is as melodic as ever over McCaughan’s mix of acoustic and electric guitars. The words are evocative (“The colorful summer / I still remember / The smell of the chlorine / The diving hairline”), and “It is Divine” becomes one of the album’s most accomplished and complete songs. A song like this, though, only serves to point out what is missing on Calling Zero. Most of the songs have an unfinished, demo-like quality. Certainly, the lo-fi sound sometimes works for specific songs, but overall there is something missing. Musically, the low end is missing, particularly in the new-wavish “Again the Waterloo” and “Throat of Throats”. Pollard’s vocals generally match the feel for each song, but the sparseness of the lyrics leaves something wanting.
While Pollard’s prolific nature is admirable, there is a point of wondering when he has spread himself too thin. Calling Zero has some genuine moments displaying each of its creators’ brilliance, but more often than not the material seems incomplete. The process itself may be the key to some of the record’s lackluster feel. Both of these men have produced some very endearing and enduring music, and perhaps if they had taken more time and worked more closely together, it would have produced something a little more satisfying. The impression one gets is that Pollard gets unhappy and restless when he isn’t working, but perhaps he needs to focus on fewer projects at once. In “Climb”, when he sings, “I’ve been all over / I’ve been nowhere / I’ll go everywhere / Before it’s all over”, he seems determined to keep this promise.