[15 July 2007]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
It seems like Bob Pollard can’t be held totally accountable for his absurd amount of output over the years. If you’re a musician, if you’ve quit your job and managed to figure out how to do it full-time, it seems like you should work on your craft as much as you can. Nothing wrong with writing a song or two a day. Of course, most musicians take a more discerning approach to release than Bob does, preferring to select the best of their work for public consumption. Pollard, as we all know, is notorious for putting it all out there. But let’s not forget he is filling a demand, and that blame for his prolific and uneven catalog must fall upon that sect of Pollardheads—if you ever caught Guided By Voices live, you know they exist—who will buy anything Pollard releases. There probably isn’t a Circus Devils fan to be found in the Western hemisphere, but those records sell, if modestly, to Bob’s most devoted fans who like the look of a stack of Pollard records, destined for future Ebay listings, piled in the corner of their studio apartment.
Many of these records came via the Fading Captain Series, which Pollard has decided to finally end after 43 releases. The 44th and final record in the series is the double-disc Crickets which helms the “best” fifty songs of the series, along with a few new bonus tracks. It is a bit of a misnomer, however, to call this Best of the Fading Captain Series: 1999-2007, since it really isn’t. It is more of a cross-section, a well-shaped microcosm of a series as full of great releases as it is maligned by nonsensical ones.
If Pollard and his most devoted fans were honest with themselves, they’d realize that Bob’s non-GBV side projects (Airport 5, Circus Devils, the Moping Swans, Psycho and the Birds, the Takeovers, Keene Brothers, Lifeguards, et al) may yield the occasional decent track, but are largely without merit. Truly the best stuff that came out of FCS came from Pollard’s solo albums, and that material is well-represented here. Live GBV classics like “Tight Globes” and “Pop Zeus” still shine as bright as anything Pollard ever wrote. Less celebrated but still fantastic tracks like “Do Something Real”, “White Gloves Come Off”, and “7th Level Shutdown” hearken back to a day when Pollard could do little wrong, and may even give hope for Pollard’s upcoming solo releases.
Still, these great songs, along with a few others, get buried in the psych-kook meanderings of the Circus Devils, the bland soft-rock proficiency of the Keene Brothers, and the fanboy prog rock of the Lifeguards. Pollard’s work with Tobin Sprout in Airport 5 is solid, but with the exception of the wonderful “Total Exposure”, the songs don’t hold the listener’s attention the way his best stuff does. Same goes for the Takeovers’ tracks here. Also on display here is the often problematic production that mars Pollard’s solo work. While the strength of the songs often overcome this trouble, the albums seem to rest on GBV’s lo-fi cred, and use it as an excuse to make sloppy, lazily produced records that sound more amateurish than charmingly D.I.Y. Later albums like Fiction Man don’t have songs good enough to ignore the bad production, and his side projects have the production down, but most of that music is too plodding for their fidelity to matter.
It’s not all obvious hits and freakshow filler on Crickets, though. There are some hidden gems to be found. Two selections from the brilliant Lexo and the Leapers’ Ask Them—the live favorite “Alone, Stinking, and Unafraid” and the lesser known “Time Machines”—show Pollard at his rocking best. “Harrison Adams”, perhaps Pollard’s best straight-up pop song in the last seven or so years, was buried late in the cumbersome Motel of Fools mini-LP, but will surely get more attention here. Most notable is the inclusion of three songs from Go Back Snowball, Pollard’s brilliant but oft-overlooked electro-fuzz-pop collaboration with Portastatic Superchunker Mac McCaughan. Their album, Calling Zero, is far and away the best of Bob’s side projects and deserves its three slots on Crickets.
This album has a built-in audience, and it’s hard to imagine recommending it to anyone who isn’t a die-hard GBVer. Still, there are a dozen fantastic songs here, and ten or so other solid tracks. Those aren’t bad numbers, even if you do have to sift through a bunch of throwaway tracks and some new bonus material that isn’t even worth mentioning. Crickets may be typically overstuffed, but whether you find it irritating or endearing, it’s what we’ve come to expect from Bob, and he ain’t changing anytime soon.