It’s no secret that Robert Pollard is one of the most prolific songwriters ever. I first became aware of Pollard sometime in late 1993, after the release of Bee Thousand. There were many albums and countless songs before that landmark album and there are even more in the years since Guided By Voices turned the world on its ear. A few weeks ago I was listening to Elephant Jokes, one of Pollard’s 2009 releases and one of his absolute best solo albums. As I flipped the record I wondered, if I had never heard Guided By Voices or any of the other bands Pollard fronted over the years, where would I start? For that matter, where would I recommend someone else start. It’s a tough question to answer. I think if you put 30 Bob fans in a room and asked the question you could very well come away with 30 different answers and a compelling argument for each. The longer I considered the question, the more difficult it became. I started slogging through record after record, taking mental inventory of the pros and cons of each. After an hour I decided to undertake an epic project. Starting today I plan to revisit and review as much of Robert Pollard’s catalog as I possibly can. Without further ado, here’s a look at Guided By Voices’s 2001 release, Isolation Drills.
Isolation Drills is an interesting Guided By Voices release on many levels. This is the band’s second and final album for TVT records, and the third album after the dissolution of the popular GBV line-up found on the earlier “classic” albums, Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, and Under the Bushes, Under the Stars. In some ways Guided By Voices was still in the process of reinventing aspects of its personality. Isolation Drills’ predecessor, Do the Collapse, saw the band working with its first big-time producer in Rick Ocasek. Do the Collapse saw the beginning of Pollard writing songs that broke the 3 and 4 minute marks. For me, this one on the most notable qualities of Isolation Drills. The bulk of the 16 tracks clock in around the 3 to 4 minute area, and, most importantly, they sound like they were meant to be that length. The bands past attempts at longer tracks sometimes seemed forced, but not here. Finally, Isolation Drills saw the line-up of Pollard, Doug Gillard, Nate Farley, Jim McPherson, and Tim Tobias hit its stride. The band sounds comfortable and unstoppable on this record and Rob Schnapf’s production work only enhances the band’s chemistry.
Isolation Drills is packed with some of Guided By Voices most accessible, catchy, well-crafted songs. At the time of its release the indie-rock climate was such that the record went almost unnoticed. The fans were still paying attention, but the world at large, who ostensibly would love a slicker, better produced, more conventional GBV album, had moved on. Tracks like “Chasing Heather Crazy”, “Glad Girls”, “The Enemy”, and “Skills Like This” are incredible rockers. These are the Guided By Voices songs you would want to hear belted out as the band played a large arena. These songs are almost too big for the club; this is the soundtrack to a bigger party. “Frostman”, “Run Wild”, “How’s My Drinking?” and “Sister I Need Wine” harken back to the songwriting of the classic era. They are intimate while still sporting a full, produced sound. Lyrically Isolation Drills remains true to the Pollard and Guided By Voices tradition, but there is something slightly different here. I’ve never put my finger on exactly what it is, but I can only describe it as a kind of maturity. Maybe it was some kind of life-event for Pollard when the songs were written, I’m nor sure, but it does seems a bit more sober and introspective than other GBV records.
Isolation Drills remains one of my favorite Guided By Voices albums. Is this the starting point for the uninitiated? That’s still a tough one to answer, but it would definitely be one of the first five Pollard albums I’d recommend.