[9 December 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Honey Locust Honky Tonk was far from the only record Robert Pollard put out this year, but it was the most notable. It was excellent top to bottom, which surprised coming from a man who will willfully go weird on the second (or first) half of a record. But it also condensed all Pollard’s oddball pop genius into one intricate yet potent dose. The layers were thick but sweet, the songs clever as always, but also deeply affecting. It felt like a moment where the endless stream of songs Pollard writes day in and day out found a path and travelled it, ambling and beautifully.
Now, he’s back with another solo record in 2013 (on top of Circus Devils’ records and Guided by Voices records and that Teenage Guitar project and whatever else I’m forgetting) and that record, Blazing Gentlemen, is not out to replicate Honey Locust Honky Tonk. In fact, one of the album’s true successes is, in comparison to its solo predecessor, Blazing Gentlemen lays plain a long-standing but overlooked fact: no matter that every record Pollard makes sounds like a Robert Pollard Record, no two really sound the same.
And so this record steps away from textured pop and instead applies the same focus to rumbling rock tunes. The songs here are short—16 songs in under 33 minutes—but unlike other recent Pollard records, nothing here feels like it gets short shrift. “Storm Center Level Seven” clocks in under two minutes but it still ebbs and flows like the tide, crashing through verses only to build on moody choruses, as Pollard sees something on the horizon, maybe “seven seconds to hell if I care,” but he feels at home in those gales of guitar, those thundering drums. The even shorter “Piccadilly Man” could sound like an interstitial piece, a slow palate cleanser before we get to the strange musical-number-cum-prog-rock shifts of “Professional Goose Trainer”. Instead, though, “Piccadilly Man” is a poignant moment of stillness, a moment of reflection in an album constantly charging forward, even if we’re not quite sure what it’s reflecting on.
So the album gives us enough variety that things never stagnate in sameness, though it is at its best when it rumbles through songs like an old, reliable car. The chassis rumbles but the engine never quits when guitars groan and ripple on opener “Magic Man Hype”, or when they break down and scrape at the turf with a low bass on the bittersweet snarl of the title track. We also get the shadowy chug of “Return of the Drums”, a song that might feel too heavy if it weren’t for those lacerating guitars and Pollard breaking his low-register at all the right, triumphant moments. “1000 Royalty Street” is speedy power-pop, a tune that ends up bolstering the second half of the record, acting as a lean, lively counterpoint to the also excellent but chunkier “My Museum Needs An Elevator”.
And if that museum is to cover his whole career, then yeah maybe it should have an elevator. Like other records of the past few years, Blazing Gentlemen, on that song and elsewhere seems aware of the passing of time. It’s not the wise older man looking back, necessarily, but where Guided By Voices always seems to deeply in the moment, Pollard’s solo records feel more and more like things that ripple backward, aware of the countless years of listening to and making and living music that created them. So a song like “This Place Has Everything” feels both like that moment where you don’t know what to think up next and a winking joke about Pollard’s career and discography. Intentionally or not, the songs nod toward these self-reflective double-meanings. But it never feels like taking stock, but rather more like putting them in a long line of songs that came before. It’s not a look back on a life, per se, but on the countless dots that make up the huge, pointillist, and shape-shifting image of Pollard’s sound.
The album does fall a bit short of Honey Locust Honky Tonk‘s cohesion, as songs like “Tea People” and “Faking the Boy Scouts” get stuck in mid-tempo chugs that never quite assert themselves. But overall Blazing Gentlemen is a dynamic and exciting record, one that is catchy while focusing more on curious chord progressions than clear-cut hooks, one that reminds us of Pollard’s gift for language by twisting our expectations in just the right moments, and one that powers though these songs but still leaves room for us to live in them a moment, unpeel the layers, and see what else is there. You’d think we’d run out of things to find in Pollard’s music by now, but Blazing Gentlemen assures us that not only is that hunt still on, but it’s also still satisfying.