Music

Robert Pollard: Normal Happiness

Far from giving up the grape, Dayton, Ohio's greatest rockstar opts for consistency on sixth effort of the year.


Robert Pollard

Normal Happiness

Label: Merge
US Release Date: 2006-10-10
UK Release Date: 2006-10-09
Amazon
iTunes

Over the past decade, Robert Pollard has streamlined his act; whereas his former group Guided by Voices grabbed the indie spotlight in the mid-'90s by interspersing sporadic moments of blissful transcendence with recurring bouts of drunken doggerel -- and to such frequently stunning effect that the doggerel somehow seemed part of a grand organic whole rather than something Pollard tossed off between rounds of beer -- for some time now Pollard has been opting instead for a smooth consistency in his albums, polishing off the rough edges by outsourcing them to his Fading Captain series of side projects, experiments, and assorted other ephemera, and thus giving his "proper" work a more finished quality.

Normal Happiness, his latest effort, represents the culmination of this trend. It's his sixth release of the year, after one self-identified "major" album (From a Compound Eye, his 26-song January debut on Merge) and four additions to the Fading Captain roster (albums by ad hoc groups the Keene Brothers, the Takeovers, and Psycho and the Birds, with an additional EP by the last one). Surprisingly -- or perhaps not, for anyone familiar with Pollard's ultra-prolific tendencies -- Normal Happiness does not reek of exhaustion. Instead, it's framed as a bright, spiffy set of sharp'n'short pop ditties, 16 of them in 35 minutes, grounded in punchy melodies and a general sense of all-around exuberance.

If Pollard's polishing process spares us the agony of such bloated dreck as the bleary-eyed experimentation of "Red Ink Superman" (off 2003 solo album Motel of Fools) or the dozens of aimless acoustic diversions sprinkled across the imposing GbV discography, it also introduces a certain homogeneity into the game, as Normal Happiness occasionally meanders into contemporary Sub Pop territory, sounding at times like another anonymous emulation of the Shins/Rogue Wave brand of indie-pop. Longtime Pollard producer Todd Tobias' curiously workmanlike job facilitates that association; with neither the warm static buzz of Pollard's lo-fi past (and Fading Captain present) nor the sparkling shimmer of the Shins' Chutes Too Narrow, Normal Happiness sometimes comports itself with a sonic blandness that belies its peppy intentions.

Even so, the songs crystallize into moments of piercing clarity often enough to justify the album's existence several times over. "Accidental Texas Who" commences things with jaunty, staccato new-wave chords and a strange vocal melody that sees Pollard abruptly dipping into his lower register after coming out, guns blazing, with a declaration of, "I want to get away/ I want to leave today." "Whispering Whip" begins with an ominous guitar squiggle straight out of one of those five-minute gloom epics that periodically cropped up on late '90s GbV albums, but it opens up into a heady pop gem wrapped in synthesizer lacing -- all in 75 seconds.

Indeed, brevity defines many of the tracks, and the temporal compression serves to bestow a certain formal elegance on some. "I Feel Gone Again", as short as "Whispering Whip," feigns acoustic-throwaway status before erupting into a would-be chorus, both elegiac and anthemic (in the way portions of pre-fame GbV album Propeller were), that gets only one go-through before the song is, true to its title, gone again. Before one can mourn its passing, Pollard tosses out "Gasoline Ragtime," with a playfully shifting musical foundation that briefly invokes House of the Holy-era Jimmy Page before tensing into a Devoesque guitar line and finally releasing with some sax bleats. Amazingly, this all occurs in a minute and a half; even more amazingly, it holds together as a tight, coherent song.

Cresting mid-album with "Rhoda Rhoda", Pollard dishes out yet another of his unstoppable pop melodies; if Tobias' unenergetic production fails to lift the song into the blissful narcotic glee of, say, GbV's "Glad Girls", it nonetheless enters the Pollard canon floating on heavenly wings of tunefulness. "Supernatural Car Lover", too, contends for instant-classic status, with its bubbly bass and the easy roll of its vocals; only a guitar that too overtly recalls "I'm a Widow" from Pollard's last proper solo album hinders it.

The only overtly weak moments arise on "Give Up the Grape", a seeming sequel to Isolation Drills' "How's My Drinking" on which Pollard's throaty singing suggests he's just stumbled home from some ill-advised Iron John men's campfire session, and the bland closing track "Full Sun (Dig the Slowness)", with a full band vamping over what sounds like a theme song from a forgotten late '80s sitcom. As mentioned, the real flaw of the album is more discreetly embedded in its simple consistency, which flattens Pollard's valleys at the cost of putting a ceiling on his peaks. Still, if Normal Happiness isn't prime Pollard, neither does it fall into his voluminous discard pile. If the title is any hint of intent, he's achieved his goal here, with a solid and respectable effort that's as close to both normalcy and happiness as Dayton, Ohio's unstoppable rock hero is likely to get.

6


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Film

Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.

Music

The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.

Music

Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.

Music

Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.

Music

Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.

Film

The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.

Music

Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.

Music

Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.

Music

Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Music

Songwriter Shelly Peiken Revisits "Bitch" for '2.0' Album (premiere)

A monster hit for Meredith Brooks in the late 1990s, "Bitch" gets a new lease on life from its co-creator, Shelly Peiken. "It's a bit moodier than the original but it touts the same universal message," she says.

Music

Leila Sunier Delivers Stunning Preface to New EP via "Sober/Without" (premiere)

With influences ranging from Angel Olsen to Joni Mitchell and Perfume Genius, Leila Sunier demonstrates her compositional prowess on the new single, "Sober/Without".

Music

Speed the Plough Members Team with Mayssa Jallad for "Rush Hour" (premiere)

Caught in a pandemic, Speed the Plough's Baumgartners turned to a faraway musical friend for a collaboration on "Rush Hour" that speaks to the strife and circumstance of our time.

Music

Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."

Music

The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.

Film

Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

Books

The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.

Music

Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.

Music

King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.