[20 October 2009]
Whether recording with Guided by Voices, under his own name, or with his new band Boston Spaceships, the prolific Robert Pollard’s basic aesthetic remains relatively unchanged. His fanbase is no doubt geared to his insane release schedule, poring over every slightly varying gradient of his sprawling psychedelic garage rock for moments of genius amidst what the unconverted might call “filler”. But no matter how you look at it, Pollard has a remarkably dependable, well-honed sound that rarely fails to reveal at least a couple gems on every outing.
Zero to 99, the third and best Boston Spaceship album in about a year, is no exception in that it contains only a handful of exceptional songs, but this time the tracks that they stand out against feel especially focused and cohesive. There’s not a whole lot of concrete difference in sound between this record and the last several—just a tightening of hooks, and a particularly winning balance of raggedy bare-bones rockers and driving acoustic numbers presided over by Pollard’s ever-unwinding lyrical absurdism. A number of other musicians show up to join the usual lineup too, including Quasi’s Sam Coomes and R.E.M.‘s ever-guest-starring Peter Buck, whose contributions are noticeable and welcome on tracks like the minute-long “Godless” and “Go Inside”. Perhaps the presence of these additional musicians is part of the injection Boston Spaceships needed here to turn out some truly vital additions to Pollard’s vast cannon.
Having made a dip into more polished, mainstream-sounding records towards the end of the Guided By Voices era, culminating with 2004’s Half Smiles of the Decomposed, Pollard’s split with that band name has since entailed a return to the raw approach of the early ‘90s records GBV first made their name on—Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes especially. It’s a good thing, too, because his ability to create little pop masterpieces out of a squalling, diamond-in-the-rough sensibility is more rewarding when it maintains an off-the-cuff sense of abandon. There’s usually not too much instrumental density on the best Robert Pollard compositions, either, which generally place the emphasis on simple-but-effective structures and center-stage vocal melodies.
That being said, there’s a lot to like about Zero to 99. After the lo-fi white noise of opener “Pluto the Skate”, the band comes on strong with one of the finest moments here, “How Wrong You Are”, whose quick-paced transformation from murky psychedelia to insanely catchy chorus is vintage Pollard. It’s a testament to his visionary ability to seamlessly guide his band through several disjointed parts of a song, deftly uniting the puzzle pieces into stellar coherence. “Question Girl All Right”, another track that feels both familiar and original, takes its time building on the back of several propulsive guitar figures as Pollard sings a stately melody, weaving his way over a taut undercurrent.
Inventive and direct instrumental arrangements are all over Zero to 99, playing to a variety of different moods that willfully run headlong into one another. For one, the playful guitar riff found on the lilting “Mr. Ghost Town” makes for a tumbling latter-half album highlight, especially when a high-pitched organ line reminiscent of early Elvis Costello emerges from out of nowhere to make the track even more vibrant.
As ever, most of these tracks exhibit a fragmented sort of brevity, as Pollard only stays with something long enough to get the job done before moving on to his next target. The album cascades from start to finish with joyful recklessness, winding up on “A Good Circuitry Soldier”, a remake of an outtake from his Guided By Voices days. It’s hard to tell if the closing lyric is “I will be endlessly leading you” or “leaving you”, but either way it’s an apt description of his relationship with his hardcore fans: the former speaks to their devotion, while the latter speaks to how frequently he reemerges with new material, only to tirelessly head back to the studio once again.
Even for casual fans, and especially for those who haven’t been keeping up with Pollard recently, Zero to 99 is a rewarding experience that will remind many of what they enjoyed about the iconoclastic Robert Pollard in the first place. As Boston Spaceships continue to unveil new song cycles, there’s basically one thing you can count on: the band’s ability to keep things continually, if not consistently, engaging.