Teenage Guitar: Force Fields at Home

[18 September 2013]

By Dave Heaton

PopMatters Associate Music Editor

Six theses on Robert Pollard:

  • While your average diehard fan of Guided by Voices holds the band’s live show and the related Who/Beatles-esque rock anthems in their head as their ultimate image of GBV, when the band first starting getting national attention, circa 1993, it was because of their oddball home-recorded experimental music.
  • What was most impressive about Pollard’s songwriting in those days wasn’t the idea that he could write great rock-pop anthems in the classic style of the greats, it was that he could write songs that half-resembled classic rock-pop anthems while also resembling bizarre transmissions from another planet; that a song could be weird and foggy and confusing, but a melody would shine through as brilliant as you’ve heard, and then disappear.
  • That Guided by Voices is even thought of as a band versus the home-recorded project of one man and his coterie of friends is mostly because of the live shows in the mid-to-late ‘90s, and the way the success of them impacted the recording of later albums.
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  • The mystique around various lineups and GBV members (Tobin Sprout and Doug Gillard somewhat excepted) is more about the live show than anything you hear on the albums.
  • Robert Pollard is mainly described as lead vocalist or singer/songwriter behind GBV (or more often, “captain” or “head”), but he’s also played lead guitar on more of their material than anyone else, despite not playing it on stage. He’s played drums, bass and who knows what all else on GBV albums.
  • The albums under the name “Robert Pollard” have mainly been collaborations with others – especially but not limited to musician/producer Todd Tobias. Of the 20-plus albums, EPs, etc. credited to Pollard alone, on only a few (or less?) did he play all of the instruments.

Teenage Guitar, then, is more a Robert Pollard album than “Robert Pollard” albums. It is an experimental recording project reminiscent of the good old days – of Vampire on Titus, Get Out of My Stations, Static Airplane Jive, the ghostly hums and edits that are an essential part of Bee Thousand. Though the press releases and reviews have all mentioned that Greg Demos and Joe Patterson play on it (making the ‘band’ three-fourths of the other recent mysterious Pollard group, the Sunflower Logic), their contributions are minimal, just an instrument or two on a song or two.  Instead, this is Pollard making strange music in his home studio, using an 8-track analog recorder from the ‘90s. To fans like me who remember the first time they put on a GBV 7” and were bewildered by it, the Teenage Guitar album is exhilarating – not for nostalgic reasons, or merely because it’s a potent reminder of why we first fell in love with Pollard’s music, but because it’s a visceral continuation of the same.

The album is imperfect, incomplete and superfluous, but it exists in a world where those traits are what we want in an album – where pursuit of delightful imperfection and beautiful randomness is the goal – which makes it, in its own way, perfect, complete and essential. In other words, if you’re looking for music that fulfills your ideals of perfection and completion, you’re not on the same wavelength as Teenage Guitar. 

If your ears are tuned in a certain direction, this is one of Pollard’s most ‘pop’ albums in years. If you like your pop music to be fuzzy and to confounding, your catchy melodies to disappear as soon as they arrived or warp themselves before your very ears. You also have to be ready for the album to switch from quick and attractive to slow and spooky, as it does between the first two tracks. The second, “Come See the Supermoon” is a creepy crawl which might prove a litmus test for listeners, though at the same time it’s not all that representative of the overall album. Slower and more “horror film”-like it is (not unlike a less showy/”freaky” version of Pollard’s experimental group Circus Devils). Like the best of Pollard’s writing, it manages to be fantastical while also evoking in us ideas and theories about the world around us. “Come see the toxic rainbow / come see the supermoon”, he bellows, while noises of oncoming monster stomps echo through the dungeon.

As riveting as that molasses-horror track is, there are some moments that crystallize what the album is about – the way an isolated drum sound in “Current Pressings, Colors and Styles” makes it apparent that he’s alone banging on a drum; or the way his piano meanderings in “Still Downstairs” make it equally apparent he’s fumbling his way through the inner reaches of his creative brain, especially when he hits the line “I’d fight that in the valley…of muffins”, the last word seemingly decided upon on the spot. The 33-second song “8 Bars of Meaningless Mathilda” fits into one of my favorite Pollard sub-genres, the shorter-than-shorter-than-short pop song. Its title also hints at the nonsensical nature of this all. A song like “Peter Pan Can” continues Pollard’s habit of tapping into that freeflowing inner human well of imagination that most adults, even seemingly more artistic-minded adult musicians, suppress but small children embrace. “Suburban Cycle Saccharin” takes the fright inside of “Come See the Supermoon” (and Circus Devils) and plays it as more of a manic paranoia.

The album is also a study in Pollard’s approach to guitar, both the classic-rock power chords he loves to throw at times both opportune and inopportune, or the spooky-strange noises he coaxes from it. His piano playing is purposefully primitive in a way that resembles a kid banging around after his first handful of lessons, or a grown-up who hasn’t played since childhood playing around after a drunken night out. Somehow that “bad” playing can be strikingly beautiful and odd, in its simplicity and bluntness. See “Alice and Eddie (Fabulous Child Actors)”, a narrative ballad somewhere in the earliest stages of its own making, or “Postcard to Pinky”.

As an album, Force Fields at Home feels ever short and like an infinite loop of gorgeous home-crafted weirdness. He’s following his most surrealist, instinctive path, but that’s not to suggest this isn’t a purposeful work. It all feels very intentional, a careful mess of creative synapses firing off in quiet and loud, frantic and pretty ways. It’s a sci-fi saga, a scary movie, a love poem, a mystery novel, a puzzle, a game and a joke – smashed together in all of the best ways. At album’s end, Pollard begs us to let him do something or other, and then an ear-piercing squeal of electric guitar washes everything away.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/teenage-guitar-force-fields-at-home/