Robert Pollard: Motel of Fools

Dave Heaton

The more time you spend with Motel of Fools, the more all of these feelings of incompleteness begin to make sense.

Robert Pollard

Motel of Fools

Label: Fading Captain Series
US Release Date: 2003-01-14
UK Release Date: Available as import

What's the deal with Bob Pollard these days? While for much of the last decade he's been known for marrying '60s rock and power-pop to surrealism, when he records as Guided by Voices and Robert Pollard, and for dipping here and there into experimentation and noise-rock under names like Nightwalker and Howling Wolf Orchestra, lately he seems to be jumbling everything up more. It's like every album he's involved with, except perhaps Guided By Voices' major releases, is designed to knock you off balance, to make you say "Huh?" That isn't to say that his recent, non-GBV recordings aren't good, just that they're all over the map.

The most recent two examples are the Circus Devils' Harold Pig Memorial, an exercise in both horror rock and introspective arena rock (which isn't the contradiction in terms that it might appear to be) which I liked a lot, and his solo mini-album Motel of Fools, which I'm initially feeling quite dumbfounded by. It isn't that Motel is an exercise in pushing your ears into some sort of bizarre new land, it's just that the CD's doesn't settle on one style or mood. Considering how many Pollard/GBV releases, from Bee Thousand to Isolation Drills, gain much of their strength from maintaining a consistent, enticing mood, it's hard at first to get used to the decentralized aura of Motel of Fools.

"In the House of Queen Charles Augustus", the first track of seven, opens with Pollard singing in what sounds like a closet before leading into a mid-tempo ballad that sets up an introspective mood and runs with it, as Pollard sings obliquely about the title character and throws psychedelic guitar solos into the air. The second track, "Captain Black", has a similar mood -- with Pollard similarly if more beautifully singing about an odd character in a mysterious way -- though the style is softer, more acoustic. From there comes the five-minute-plus "Red Ink Superman", which goes from a bizarre sound collage into an even bizarre slow-as-molasses march, with Pollard's vocals slowed down and warped. This is one of those mystifying moments where you think "Maybe if a had this on vinyl I could switch it to 45 and I might detect a melody", and then "where's the fast-forward button?", but before you find it the song has switched again, into a intense power ballad with a haunting mood. From there the song quickly becomes one of the CD's show-stoppers, a scary and brilliant exercise in intensity which ends with guitar feedback and force surrounding Pollard singing, "We'll even the score in World War Four".

The fact that the most rock moment of the CD is also one of its scariest should give you an idea of what the overall atmosphere is like. There's something slightly off-kilter at every moment; there's no smooth pop moments, no big hooks. The lyrics, while hard to pin down, often hint towards fear, despair and power struggles, with even hints of hope being countered with the feeling of being trapped. For example, "Captain Black" ends with the line "And I am free (for now)".

"Red Ink Superman" is followed by "The Vault of Moons", an intriguing pop song that's hard to figure out, as guitars are overlapped, Pollard's voice sounds increasingly further away and there's a near-song end clip of him introducing the song itself in concert. "Saga of the Elk" is a more typical-sounding GBV ballad -- though again a ballad, and less a "Hold on Hope" radio-friendly ballad than an album track one like "Burning Flag Birthday Suit". The album closing "Harrison Adams" is also a pretty, very Pollard-like ballad, which leans toward rock with a sweeping, emotional lift near the end. It is a superb song similar to the best tracks on GBV's last two albums, even if it is bookended by silly clips of Pollard's weirdo friends, Gibby and Geo, talking nonsense.

But before "Harrison Adams" is perhaps the most puzzling track, a seven-minute suite of songs that's titled "The Spanish Hammer" and subdivided into 4 songs, though it's hard to tell where one song ends and another begins. This is simply schizophrenic, moving rather abruptly between Pollard hazily singing about Camaros and "wildlife energy" over a swirl of uneven psych-rock and little bits of him singing over piano. The song also mutates into a heavy-metal jam that seems from the liner notes to be a snippet of Pollard playing with his pre-GBV metal band Anacrusis (here referred to as the Original Anacrusis). It's hard to tell if that's really what it is or if Pollard's just putting you on; that quandary is a crystallization of the puzzle that is Motel of Fools itself. While part of the joy of Pollard's song has always come from their mysteriousness, Motel of Fools at times seems like a constant stream of references and jokes that only Pollard and his friends understand. There's lots of self-referential allusions to past Pollard recordings, from the opening song quoting lines from Pollard's song "Subspace Variations" to the way the guitar part on "The Vault of Moons" sounds uncannily like that of GBV's Alien Lanes track "King & Caroline", to the presence of a batch of former GBV members, including Greg Demos, Don Thrasher, Jim Macpherson, and Tobin Sprout.

What these references add up to is hard to say. Similarly, the stories of Captain Black, Harrison Adams and the other character are always half-told, more wisps of tales than anything complete. But the more time you spend with Motel of Fools, the more all of these feelings of incompleteness begin to make sense. This is, after all, a motel of fools, a place where disparate people stay momentarily, without revealing their true selves. The songs on Motel of Fools are as transitory as the characters; they come, they tell you something intriguing, and then they disappear before you have them figured out. Robert Pollard's musical personality on Motel of Fools is like that too. He's picking up ideas and soon dropping them for another. He's getting in one frame of mind and then replacing it for another. Motel of Fools might not be the most comfortable recording he's made, but it does constantly spark your interest. It's a motel where ideas, thoughts and sounds come and go. Some of them might mean more to you than others, but all of them will get you thinking or feeling something.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

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

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