Music

Lifeguards: Waving at the Astronauts

The riveting synergy between Robert Pollard and Doug Gillard on the first track is just a taste of what’s to come.


Lifeguards

Waving at the Astronauts

Label: Ernest Jenning/Serious Business
US Release Date: 2011-02-15
UK Release Date: 2011-02-21
Amazon
iTunes

Even while Guided by Voices’ ‘classic’ lineup, with Mitch Mitchell on lead guitar and Tobin Sprout on rhythm guitar, is basking in the glow of their reunion tour, it must be noted that the band’s best guitarist was Doug Gillard, GBV guitarist from 1997 to 2004. Already a veteran of cult Ohio bands like Death of Samantha, Cobra Verde, and his own Gem, Gillard had the sharpest technique and was the best technical player. More importantly, he is a songwriter with his own keen grasp on melody and harmony who incorporates that into his guitar-playing. His playing was important to the way Guided by Voices' music developed, to the route the band took in those years.

In 1999, Guided by Voices captain Robert Pollard and Gillard released a collaborative album, Speak Kindly of Your Local Volunteer Fire Department, that made great use of that talent in service of power-pop. Among Pollard’s seemingly infinite array of projects, it’s still considered highly by fans, as is Pollard and Gillard’s 2003 collaboration under the name Lifeguards, Mist King Urth. The album bears the credit “Doug Gillard -- All instruments; Robert Pollard -- all vocals”, a common way for Pollard to collaborate. Someone gives him musical tracks for him to write lyrics for and sing over. Often derided by critics as a sign of Pollard’s laziness, the approach actually fits squarely within the artistic outlook of a collage artist who has built so much of his art on taking inspiration from existing things around him: words, names, advertisements, historical references, road signs, friends’ jokes, and, of course, the history of rock music.

That collaborative process has lead to some of his most interesting and underrated departures, especially when the music is provided by someone with their own distinct songwriting sensibility, like Tobin Sprout (Airport 5) or Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan (Go Back Snowball). If those albums got too pop or too mood-focused for Pollard’s rabid but sometimes narrowly focused fans, the first Lifeguards album, also a departure of sorts, was pitched more directly to them. Pollard has spoken onstage of the 4 P’s of music -- pop, punk, psych, and prog. King Mist Urth, if you can’t tell from the title, was Pollard and Gillard’s version of a prog-rock album: just 11 songs, longer in length, with titles like “Sea of Dead” and “Gift of the Mountain”. ‘Prog’ here doesn’t mean elaborate song-suites, but more a rock sound built on layered guitars and occasionally diverse instruments, things that sound like one of Pan’s flutes for example, with lyrics that lean a little more 'mythological'.

The second Lifeguards album is a little less obvious in its art-rock ambitions, a little closer in sound to Pollard’s recent output in its mix of pop-rock anthems and weirder trifles. It’s a somewhat schizophrenic listen. You’ll think you’re listening to a straight-up pop song and it’ll get darker, weirder, more complicated. Of course, it’s Gillard doing this, with Pollard following his lead and adding to it. There’s real synchronicity there between the music and vocals/lyrics.

Gillard offers substantial hooks, thick chords, buzzing riffs, eerie piano. Pollard matches each. The more dense or circuitous the music gets, the more Pollard gets spacey and weird, or ominous, like on “Product Head”, with its Big Brother visions, or “You’re Gonna Need a Mountain", filled with people clinging in fear to something they think is solid. Creepily, he sings from the perspective of a lover or a creator even, a father figure -- singing quite emotionally partway through. At almost six minutes, it’s the longest on an LP of three-to-four-minute songs. Funny turns scary (“I love you enough / To hide your stuffed animals / The ones that could bite / Clean through your pillow”) and gets scarier; a little psychotic, too.

There’s darkness here just shy of the Circus Devils’ extreme morbidity. The album gets surrealist, but also offers a bleak view of our consumerist society, and what all these choices and freedoms will get you, on songs like “Sexless Auto”, “Math” (“I hope this letter finds you feeling well / Sick or Used / Only slightly abused / By your televisions / Big decisions”), and “Product Head”. The latter is a weird beat-poem of sorts, which keeps circling back to would-be ad slogans and inversions of them. There’s plenty of ambivalence, even apathy, about the world and where we’re going, as on “Nobody’s Milk”, which again gets awfully creepy in a way that feels rather appropriate to the darker days of our time. “Nobody’s gun / Hey we were just having fun”, he sings at one point. Later shouting, “Nobody cares!” This being Pollard, it’s not outrage or social protest as much as a certain kind of cynical glance. The closing song, “What Am I”, is the creepiest, with Pollard going into a kind of sick rant at one point.

As always, Pollard’s cynicism extends to the music industry and contemporary music, which he seems to view as plastic and soulless compared to his beloved music of yesteryear. He touches on that in the opening track, “Paradise Is Not That Bad”, though you may not notice while you’re enthralled with the song’s big melody. There’s a place in the song where he proclaims, “Here comes the hit”, before getting to the rousing chorus. The thing is, it’s the one song on the album that does sound like a hit. It introduces this album as a work of focus and drive. It’s a proper and complete introduction to the album. Its sarcastic shrug at the idea of a Lifeguards song being a hit, in 2011, plays well into the album’s overall doubt about consumerism and capitalism itself. At the same time, the riveting synergy between Pollard and Gillard on that first track is just a taste of what’s to come.

7

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7
Music

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Kehr was one of the best long-form essay writers people read for clear and sometimes brutally honest indictments of film.

It's perhaps too trite and rash to conclude that the age of good, cogent film criticism is over. They still exist out there, always at print publications such as The New Yorker and at major newspapers like The New York Times. An argument can be made that the late, legendary film critic Roger Ebert became a better writer when he departed from cinema and covered literature, book collecting, or even the simplest pleasures of life. If we look at the film criticism of James Agee from the '40s, or even the short but relevant stint of novelist and short story writer Graham Greene as a film critic, we come to understand that the greatest writing about film went beyond the spectrum of what they saw on the screen.
Keep reading... Show less
8

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image