Voices of the Dead - The MusiCurmudgeon Looks at Music
of the Deadly Departed - Part Three - SOON TO BE DEAD?
To fight the demons that inhabit radio hell - and to celebrate the festive holiday of All Hallow's Eve - where the dead and living dead rise in all their gory to haunt the living - your MusiCurmudgeon has dusted off the Ouija Board and held a sèance in order to rob the grooves of the decomposing composers of yesterday AND today and bring their essences to bear on the NOW.
Perhaps the best songwriter in America is a middle-aged former school teacher - who first rose to fame through a number of critically acclaimed low-fi four-track recordings in the early 90s. Bob Pollard of Dayton Ohio's Guided by Voices has been writing and recording great songs since the 80s - and seems even now not to have lost his ability to pull glorious hooks seemingly out of his ass at will. Pollard is not an innovator - his melodies are derived from long hours of listening to Quadrophenia and Who's Next, the Beatles and the best of 60s and 70s rock on headphones by the light of the lava lamp. The thing is - whereas the artists he admired lost their creative edge - Pollard keeps on doing it - and doing it better.
Starting with their breakthrough album 1994's Bee Thousand - Guided by Voices became a darling of the indie critics and fans. Beatle-esque harmonies on "Echoes Myron," sardonic funk on "Hot Freaks" and surprising acoustic guitar takes - like the inexplicable "Kicker of Elves", combined with obscure and often banal lyrics (often about aircraft ubiquitous to their native Dayton), atrocious production, sloppy playing and out-of-tune guitars, and song lengths sometimes measuring only 20 seconds - to forge the GVB signature sound. With their follow-up - Alien Lanes - Pollard and his band cemented their reputation with a recording that amazes in its breadth (the primary songwriter stated he imagined it as tuning into a really good radio station - and it meets his criteria). Under the Bushes, Under the Stars followed in 1996 - again on the Matador label, but after that co-writer Toby Sprout bailed on the band - and since then Pollard has employed an ever-changing cast of musicians.
Mag Earwhig (1997) was a concept album supposedly about a "cockroach" (ala Kafka) that Pollard recorded - using the glam rock band Cobre Verde as his backing musicians. Although many derided it at the time - I loved the upgrade in production values - and there are some fantastically stellar songs. I especially treasure the songs that end the album in a flourish of ferocious punk aggression - while invoking the ending of Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" (perhaps the best American novel of the last century).
In a move that upset many of his fans even further Pollard moved Guided by Voices to a major label and attempted to make a commercial breakthrough with 2000's Do the Collapse (produced by Ric Ocasek) and 2001's Isolation Drills. Widely met with hostility by longtime fans for this sell-out - these recordings nonetheless contain some of the best power pop produced in our lifetime. From pop gems "Chasing Heather Crazy," "Twilight Campfighter," to countrified humor "How's My Drinkin'?" and even lesser pieces like "Liquid Indian" contain great and memorable melodies. And how " Hold on Hope" wasn't a hit is again a testament to the stupidity of radio today. Disheartened, Pollard pulled the plug on the experiment and returned to Matador - where he has released last year's Universal Truths and Cycles - somewhat of a return to the DIY recordings of yesteryear - although not a total recapitulation. Earthquake Glue has just been released - and although I have yet to hear it - I'm sure it will follow the pattern of all of Pollard's previous good work (the productive songwriter has also released tons of solo material and recordings with other collaborators over the years).
The saga of Robert Pollard mirrors the state of music criticism today - where in this 1984ish world of good/bad reversals - high production levels and intelligible lyrics are considered artifice, and muddled sound and out of tune guitars automatically represent the height of art. Writing a good pop song is mocked, while writing one with arcane words, and throwing it away by chopping it off after 30 seconds is considered brilliant. Wake up people and see that the emperor has no clothes: think for yourself - the song is all that matters, not the fascist insistence of a group of nihilists.
Oh yeah - and why did I include Bob Pollard as near dead? Well he annually tops the lists of the dead rock star polls due to his excessive drinking on and off stage. So if you see him in the bar - buy him a cup of black coffee instead. I want him to live long enough to write a "Qudrophenia" for the new millennium.
Past, present & future
misguided ramblings of the MusiCurmudgeon
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