Bob Pollard’s discography is an obsessive-compulsive’s nightmare. During his 20-some years with Guided by Voices, he released approximately 20-some albums—“approximately” being as specific as you can get with GBV. Then Pollard released numerous solo albums, albums under different names, albums with other artists, and albums with other bands that may or may not have been bands that were actually meant to last beyond an album. Taken together, his output dwarfs that of most artists, and Pollard is just now officially beginning his solo career. And if this sounds impressive, consider that somehow Pollard also found time to consume legendary amounts of beer and perfect his David Lee Roth concert kick—and he can do both simultaneously. Impressive, indeed.
But this is why Pollard is adored by a following whose devotion is normally not seen outside of established religion. He likes his beer and his rock ‘n’ roll, and his fans can relate. And since he actually made good on his promise of quitting his day job and becoming a rock star, they’d follow him through the gates of hell. More than anything, though, Pollard is admired because his love for music spills out of his albums. Listening to a Guided by Voices/Pollard LP is like being a kid and digging through an overflowing toy box, stopping for a minute to play with a cool toy, only to toss it aside for something cooler. With GBV, Pollard loaded up the toybox with each release, and even if the toys were broken or missing pieces, they were captivating nonetheless.
So now Pollard is releasing his first post-GBV solo effort, From a Compound Eye, and his legions are, quite understandably, anxious to see if ol’ Uncle Bob will still bring the treats. The answer, unequivocally, is yes. Guided by Voices was always the Robert Pollard Show anyways, and his bandmates served to nail down his ambitious visions. They were, in essence, the Steven Drozd to the Wayne Coyne, the Jay Bennett to the Jeff Tweedy (before Tweedy canned Bennett and became his own Bennett). Hence, the revolving membership of GBV only enhanced Pollard’s visions; while the departure of a crucial band member might unravel other artists, such moments simply provided Pollard a chance to encompass even more sounds.
This, perhaps, is why From a Compound Eye sounds very similar to classic Guided by Voices. While with GBV, Pollard bravely and thoroughly explored what he calls the four Ps: punk, psych, prog, and pop. So if the new album feels like familiar territory—and it does—it’s because the territory is so damn vast, and certainly more than most sonic adventurers tread in a career. The main difference, however, is that From a Compound Eye sounds more complete—not only because it’s a double album, but also because Pollard has checked his notorious tendency to commit every random musical idea to tape, no matter how unfinished. Here, even the musical snippets possess shape and development. Songs like “A Boy in Motion” and “I’m a Strong Lion,” which both clock in under two minutes, sound complete. In essence, From a Compound Eye is a GBV album, but better. Excuse me while I slip out of third person and dance around the living room.
Indeed, From a Compound Eye is both a synopsis and reaffirmation of Pollard’s influences. His music has always been catchy because, underneath all the lo-fi hiss and glam-rock bombast, are solid pop songs grounded in melody and rhythm. This time out, Pollard seems determined to craft pop tunes in the classic mold: sturdy, hook-laden, and infectious as hell. Dancing Girls and Dancing Men, for instance, is a snappy ditty marked by a jaunty backbeat and upbeat lyrics: “And if you please, I may / Escort you all the way / To sit you down and say / Be thankful everyday / For everything and pray / For dancing girls and dancing men…” Exuding both charm and innocence, it’s both an homage to early rock and a fine tune. Other songs find Pollard in a similar mood, such as “Payment for the Babies,” a delicate folk song that ruminates on love, space, and other bewildering topics.
But while Pollard loves pretty pop, he hasn’t gone cutesy. To the contrary, From a Compound Eye features plenty of songs marching with bravado. “The Numbered Head” begins with a menacing drum beat and bass line, builds to an imposing climax, then topples into an orgy of guitars and distortion. “Love Is Stronger Than Witchcraft” alternates between proggy picking (think wizards, man) and glam-rock chords reminiscent of T-Rex. Then there’s “Field Jacket Blues,” which features a riff so geometric, it’s sure to inspire a few listeners to spontaneously break out into the robot dance. What is notably missing from From a Compound Eye, however, are the lo-fi experiments that made GBV cult gods. Aside from “50 Year Old Baby” and the opening vocals on “The Right Thing,” the songs are carefully and thoroughly produced, lending the album a decidedly professional sound. And professional is an apt adjective to describe the album; never has Pollard sounded so consistent and confident.
Pollard has stated that he dissolved Guided by Voices because, nearing 50, he felt odd leading a gang. His career, however, has never been the kind that would age embarrassingly. No, Pollard is not becoming a parody of himself; if anything, From a Compound Eye is proof that rock artists can age gracefully when they focus on the craft rather than the image. And Pollard is smart enough to know that if the songs are solid, the image will follow. So stop fretting—Uncle Bob can still bring the noise, and with 26 tracks here, you’d better buy a 12-pack rather than a sixer before sitting down to listen.
// Notes from the Road
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