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Full time Medical Anthropologist, part time music critic.

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Monday, August 01, 2011

Boston Spaceships - Let It Beard (2011)

OK, let's get up to speed on Boston Spaceships, shall we?  Robert Pollard took his collaboration with Chris Slusarenko (The Takeovers) to a new level with the release of Brown Submarine in 2008, and re-affirmed my fanatical faith in Pollard's ability to meld the 4 P's (Prog, Psych, Pop, and Punk) into brilliantly crafted rock gems.  Why did this project, of all of Pollard's get my unwavering attention?  Why did this project have me demanding my long time GBV co-fans listen to all of the Spaceships' output immediately?  Pollard has a new band, man!  And I think this is key to understanding this project - it's a real collaboration between Slusarenko (bass, guitar) and John Moen (drums) that actually sounds like a band in a recording room.  And I think that's they key.  Chris Slusarenko has tapped into what made all those old Guided by Voices sound so good - analog warmth seemingly recorded in a basement.  Pollard's vocals are equally handled well.  Rather than him sounding like he's in an aluminum cage next to you, his recorded vocals sound like the basement days in Dayton.  Kudos to Slusarenko for capturing this gritty, analog feel to the Boston Spaceships' recorded output.  I haven't been this excited about a Pollard band/project since "Under Bushes, Under Stars".

Now, here we are, a few albums in, and we get "Let It Beard".  As the title suggests, Mr Pollard is in playful mode here, another element of his style that is at times lacking in his solo output.   As a play on the Beatles swan song, as well as the hirsute nature of his collaborators home environs (Portland, OR), "Let It Beard" is coy, playful, fun, and rocking.  Just as it should be.  The titles alone give you a sense of the impish ethos in these grooves, "Juggernaut vs. Monolith", "Chevy Marigold", "I Took on the London Guys", et al.  Very nice to have Pollard seemingly grinning his way through these titles, rather than the seriousness of say, "From A Compound Eye".  Certainly a welcome return to some of the whimsy of his best 90's work.

"Let It Beard"  is a double record, so obviously there is a lot to digest here.  After listening to it for a while, I will not attempt to establish I know this record like I know "Bee Thousand".  But I can say several things at once about the depth and quality of this work.  First, to hear Pollard songs with horns ("Christmas Girl", for one) is an absolute thrill, and again I must thank his collaborator, Chris Slusarenko, who took a bold move for a Pollard recording. It absolutely works.  This, and the female back up vocals on "Chevy Marigold" place Pollard's writing and singing in a context never heard before.  Indie rock?  This is just great rock, period.  Second, there are several songs that are quite traditional in their structure and length, which again demonstrates that Pollard can focus, edit, and craft a perfect 3 1/2 minute song ("The Vicelords") just as well as any other indie rock hero, be it Malkmus, Mascis, White, Casablancas, or whoever you might think is in Pollard's league.  J. Mascis even shows up for the album, lending some sweet guitar lines to "Tourist UFO".  Yeah, if you wanted to hear some jamming it's there.  Of course you get all the pop nuggets you can ask for, too.  Pollard effortlessly references (but never imitates or apes) British Invasion acts (The Who, The Kinks, The Beatles), garage rock Nuggets -inspired rockers, druggy, proggy weirdness, and 70's a.m. pop gold.  Distilling the best of modern music through the lenses of an old school artsy rocker, Pollard gives a history lesson on what is important in popular music: melody, lyrics, punchy drums, great hooks, and choruses that stick in your mind.

With "Let It Beard", Pollard has made his best recording in many, many years.  The earlier Boston Spaceships records, however fantastic and brilliant they were, were a warm up for this superb album.  I would even venture to say that this equals his classic 90's Guided by Voices records.  If this was a new band of unknown 20 somethings, this would make the top 5 list for 2011.  As it is, Mr. Pollard has been with us for many years, and with no Spaceships tour in sight, plenty of press for GBV's victory lap reunion tour, and perhaps even fan fatigue at his numerous releases, this may not be in music lover's consciousnesses this year.  But it deserves to be in every record geek's collection (especially a vinyl version).  If you measure a truly "classic" recording by its ability to stand the test of time, then "Let It Beard", in my estimation will truly be a classic rock recording.  There appears to be a lot of durability and depth to this new venture by Boston Spaceships, and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to sift through its may layers and pleasures over the coming years.  Strongly recommended.

Here is a fan video for Christmas Girl that superbly captures the lo-fi analog feel for "Let It Beard".

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Robert Pollard - Lord of the Birdcage (2011)

Robert Pollard, still in the midst of a Guided By Voices reunion has graced the kids with another solo record, "Lord of the Birdcage".  Although Mr Pollard continues to release solo records at an incredible pace, "Lord of the Birdcage" very much has its own feel, as did "Moses On A Snail" and "Space City Kicks".  Starting off with "Smashed Little Finger" an autobiographical sketch of getting a, er, smashed middle finger, this Who-styled multi part mini epic is yet another stellar opening track in a long cannon of stellar opening tracks.  The rich production of Todd Tobias continues into this release, with each acoustic guitar, drum beat, and light keyboards being more developed and interesting to the listener's ears than in some of his earlier collaborations with Mr. Pollard.  This album at face value feels mellower, and slightly more proggish, making it feel similar to "Moses On A Snail" in its contours, and in its twisting melodies.  But dig that crazy post punk style of "You Sold Me Quickly" - fascinating, for sure.  I think this release will be one that will take time to grow in my ears,  as the melodies are rambling, and the even the shorter songs have multiple parts that focus the keen listener's interests.  Not as immediate at "New Theory of Everything", nor as wide ranging as "Space City Kicks", "Lord of the Birdcage" places itself more among Mr. Pollard's more proggish releases in this reviewer's opinion, and that makes 2011 a year of multiple, yet unique releases from this far ranging songwriter.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Mars Classroom - The New Theory of Everything (2011)

Mars Classroom is a collaboration between Robert Pollard and Gary Waleik, Big Dipper guitarist.  In the same vein as his albums with Tommy Keene (Blues and Boogie Shoes), Doug Gillard (Waving at the Astronauts), Gary Waleik crafted all the music, with Mr Pollard dropping some wonderful melodic gems throughout the proceedings.  I admit I have never listened to Big Dipper, so being introduced to his instrumental world is a treat.  The music is somewhat simple, as compared to the production and wide variety of song structures on “Space City Kicks” and “Waving at the Astronauts”.  But this works beautifully to push Mr Pollard’s lyrics and melodies to the forefront.  Another way this works is that without a cluttered production, additional instruments, or excessive overdubbing, the music is brilliantly and succinctly played and produced.  “The New Theory of Everything”, to this listener’s ears, is like finding an early 80’s alternative college rock album you’ve never heard before and just flooring you with how melodic and varied a singer, guitarist, drummer, and bassist can be.  Rather than “being retro”, these two veterans are just old enough to actually play and sing music that taps into that edgy energy of that magical time before MP3’s, downloading, Youtube, and blogs.  You just heard it in someone’s dorm room, or caught them opening for a main act in a local club, and it was so catchy and felt so right you never forgot.   Just check out the amazing “Dr New Pile (You Can Guess Him)” to get a feel for what is happening on this record.  Pollard and Waliek are clearly made for each other in terms of their musical roots and styles.  As soon as the last song played out, I wanted to know when the next Mars Classroom album would hit the streets. It’s just that fun, melodic, and straightforward.  It’s good to be bug boy, indeed.

"The New Theory of Everything" is available from GBVDigital for download prior to it hitting your local record store.Click to enter GBVDigital.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Lifeguards - Waving At The Astronauts (2011)

Lifeguards is the collaboration between Robert Pollard and Doug Gillard, with Doug providing all the music and Pollard delivering his wondrous melodies and lyrical magic.  Doug Gillard and Robert Pollard formerly crafted the epic "Mist King Urth", and now they are back with this new release, which so far, falls into a late 70's/early 80's post-punk new wave feel.  Right click and save the link below to download the first track off this new release to get a blast of this new album.  Release date is 2/15/2011

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Robert Pollard - Space City Kicks (2011)

In the midst and hype of a full on Guided by Voices reunion (actually it's wound down, I believe), Pollard slips this one in during the first few weeks of 2011. With the majority of songs under 2 1/2 minutes, this is quite similar to his "Elephant Jokes" in terms of brief tunes. No mini prog epics or longer, slower songs that have cropped up on recent releases. The first track, "Mr Fantastic Must Die" sets the tone quite well...This album is going to have its share of psych weirdness, which Mr. Pollard has normally been reserving for his Circus Devils project. In fact, songs such as "Picture a Star", "Children Ships", "Gone Hoping", appear to be part of the larger Circus Devils catalog in tone and feel. Even among these strange and brief songs, Pollard has managed to infuse tunefulness into the odd structures and lyrics, so that is why the opener, "Mr Fantastic Must Die" works, actually. These psych nuggets are woven into the tapestry of Space City Kick's pop gems - "I Wanna Be Your Man on the Moon", "Blowing Like a Sunspot", "One More Touch", "Something Strawberry", "Stay Away", and "Touch Me in the Right Place At the Right Time" - these are classic Pollard pop songs, and bring us back to an era where his songs didn't linger for long before you were thrown into another minute of pop bliss, or something more darker and foreboding. "Space City Kicks" is a thick crunchy rocker with some sweet power chord heroisms at the tail end, so kudos to Pollard's collaborator, Todd Tobias for adding some truly interesting details to the album. At first listen, this album goes by quite quickly, and in a somewhat confused state. But Mr Pollard is known for being quite particular about sequencing. And if you sit with this record and listen from end to end, it reveals its own strange and sweet logic. This is not a place to begin with Robert Pollard solo career, but if you are an ardent follower of his songwriting, this will satisfy your desire for some new songs until his next release.

Robert Pollard - Moses on a Snail (2010)

Boston Spaceships - Our Cubehouse Still Rocks (2010)