[23 May 2004]
It’s rare to find someone in the rock world who is essentially a human jukebox of songs. What else can one say about the front man of Guided by Voices? Fiction Man is Robert Pollard’s 30th album on his “Fading Captain Series” label, and it’s a few more songs to tack onto his output of some 800 songs on record (a combination of his own solo catalog as well as various side projects and GBV releases.) That’s more songs than most musical movements even possess. Upon reviewing this record, I tried to get Pollard on the phone for an interview, but he declined due to his hectic schedule between shows. I then found out a few days later at the Guided by Voices’ show at the Bowery Ballroom that he had announced that his band would part ways this year, and their upcoming release Half Smiles of the Decomposed in August on Matador Records would be the band’s last. After a 20-year run with what is easily his “best current” lineup, he probably felt now’s a good time. Turned out he had more on his mind then a pending interview. (Excuse me while I wipe the sweat from my brow).
Now, as great as Guided by Voices are, it’s upsetting to see 75% of the album reviews and interviews involving Pollard I’ve read over the years concentrate on his legendary drinking reputation. Sure, the man likes to drink, but they ultimately miss the sonic messages behind the man’s amazing song craft. This guy’s achieved more on record from a musical dynamics and literary songwriting standpoint, than say, any other band on Matador’s roster, and that’s in his Fading Captain’s Series alone. His record Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Dept which he did w/GBV guitarist maestro Doug Gillard (back in 2001), was a better record, then say, anything R.E.M.‘s done in the past 10 years, or anything Pavement recorded in their entire career, yet people can’t seem to grasp the guy. These are the probably the same people that think bands like Pavement and the Pixies “had a good run of material.” As great as those bands are, Pollard’s covered more musical ground then both those bands combined. It’s time to line up folks, the king of rock and roll lives in (to use his words) “Dayton, Fucking Ohio”. Sure, write him off as “indie” because you can’t categorize him, and he’s not on the cover of Rolling Stone, but he’s still rock and roll in the end.
With that said, I had enjoyed Pollard’s last album Motel of Fools with the hysterical a cappella opening “In the House of Queen Charles Augustus”, into the great “Captain Black”. The rest of the record I wasn’t willing to die for, but that wasn’t really the point—it’s about entertainment. He puts the songs out, then moves on. Some of them are gems, some of them are tossed off, but ultimately you have to admire someone with such a bottomless valve from which he can release them to begin with, and he has yet to mimic himself! The man’s average of three records a year is an accomplishment not just for the listener, but for any musician. Anyone that says otherwise is probably a nervous record company executive, or the same boring people who think the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or Interpol’s supporting of a single 11 or 12 song record for some two years is a great idea. (It isn’t.) Why? Well the answer is simple. If you (the musical artist) died tomorrow, wouldn’t you rather die with multiple albums under your belt, that people can listen to and analyze for an eternity? Or would you rather go out with an over-hyped record or two? (Not to mention, these are records that people are probably already grown tired of while you’re alive!!!) Hmm. Tough decision isn’t it? Now, back to the human jukebox.
Fiction Man was collaboration between Pollard and GBV “in-house” producer Todd Tobias, who supplies the instrumentation. It’s great to hear different people tackle this multi-instrumental task on their own. Tobias, as this album proves, is another musical wizard altogether. The opening song is “Run Son Run”, and it’s a noisy affair, but holds together with some great sonic breaks and drum fills. It has the chaotic feel of early Floyd, like “Piper of the Gates of Dawn” with strange sounds swirling about. From here we enter the “I Expect to Kill” which has some insane industrial keyboard refrain doing sixteenth notes all over the place, and Pollard singing on top of it. Another added bonus to Pollard’s solo records, I should mention, is that it’s all about experimentation here. If you like Guided by Voices, but they aren’t quite “out there” enough, pick up Pollard’s solo records and get ready to have your brain sonically toyed with.
The song “The Louis Armstrong of Rock and Roll”, as its title indicates, is a great rolling rock song, while the tune “Losing Usage” proves to be “The Murder Mystery” of this record. It sounds like two acoustic songs recorded at different times, playing together. Now, you’ve got to admire someone who can write great rock classics, and still maintain a sense of humor, and do it back to back. The song “Paradise Style” brings the Who to mind, and it’s more evidence of Tobias’s drum/guitar capabilities—the only difference really being that the Who’s songs tend to be a little longer than 1 minute, 6 seconds.
The standout tracks on this record for me, believe it or not, are the ballady acoustic ones. “Sea of Dead” and “Conspiracy of Owls” are both great songs, and the fact they’re both here on the same record is an added treat for the listener. I’d say the latter is my favorite song on the record, and Tobias’s keyboard/string sound is a really nice touch. These songs represent a different side to Pollard. They manage to be soft, but they also stay afloat and “positive” at the same time, without making the listener want to get sick. The strength of these songs is only more evidence of Pollard’s songwriting capability and range. Sure, Guided by Voices will soon be a memory, but this captain is far from fading—he’s only beginning to hit his stride.