Category Archives: Reviews

Robert Pollard Revisited: Robert Pollard with Doug Gillard – Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department

1999. It was a new era for Guided By Voices. New band, new label, new elements to a classic sound…. you know the story. This was also the time when Robert Pollard’s fledgling solo career started to get some lift under its wings. The vehicle for all things Pollard, outside of GBV, was the Fading Captain Series. This label was home to a host of Pollard projects, some good, some not so much.

The first really amazing Fading Captain release and Pollard solo effort was his collaboration with Doug Gillard, Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department.  In many ways, this is one of the most satisfying releases in Pollard’s catalog. These songs bring together the intimate, homemade feel of the best moments of Alien Lanes and Bee Thousand and weaves them into the mesh of Gillard’s instrumentation. Gillard’s music is polished and loaded with hooks, which proves the perfect vehicle for Pollard’s inspired songs. The album’s opener, “Frequent Weaver Who Burns”, is typical of the finer things on this record. Clean guitar lines and an easy vocal melody lift this song from the start. Really, the album just cruises from their. Other stand outs are the Pollard favorites “Pop Zeus” and “Tight Globes”. “Fo Something Real” hints at the Pollard-Gillard stadium rockers that surfaced on later GBV efforts. The song has the same big rock power but it’s delivered with small club intimacy and finesse. For my money, Pollard hits a home run with the last cut on the record, “And My Unit Moves”. The lyrics are cryptic but their delivery points to something darker, possibly ominous, possibly sad or nostalgic. It’s tough to determine the particular intent, but the song, as a whole, creates a perfect mood that speaks louder than the lyrics or any individual element.

Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department is a real high point in the ongoing career of Robert Pollard, as well as collaborator Doug Gillard. This one is not to be missed, so do yourself a favor and cruise over to Pollard’s site and pick up the CD for the meager sum of $5. Or you can surf ebay and pay something extortionate for the vinyl. Either way, don’t miss this one.

Robert Pollard Revisited: Guided By Voices – Isolation Drills

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.

Rachel Grimes – Book of Leaves

It’s true that often you don’t realize how much you miss something until it’s gone. I was acutely reminded of this when I heard Rachel Grimes new LP, Book of Leaves. Grimes ensemble, Rachel’s, is responsible for some of my favorite albums of the last 20 years. I was always thrilled when their new recordings showed up on the store shelves, but then it all stopped. Many times over the years I’ve wondered if they would ever record anything else, or if they were finished for good. Hearing Book of Leaves made me remember just how much I miss Rachel’s, but it gives me hope for future Grimes solo records.

I find the songs on Book of Leaves are more cohesive than some of the later Rachel’s records. These songs seem to belong together, interacting with each other closely, but in different ways on each listen. Most tend to be quiet and contemplative, but once in a while Grimes picks up the tempo adding a nice variety. “My Dear Companion” is a near perfect track, combining the upbeat with tender passages that are really unforgettable.  I would also recommend the two tracks that start the second side, “Mossgrove” and “Bloodroot”. The mood of this record is well served by its beautiful gatefold cover. Adorned with photos of trees, moss, and wood, the cover is a stunning and appropriate representation of the music is houses. These songs grow slowly, they seem quiet, yet are full of life, and like many aspects of nature, their beauty is in their subtlety.

While I do miss the full ensemble sound of Rachel’s, Rachel Grimes has cut a new path for herself with Book of Leaves. These songs retain the essence of Rachel’s beauty, but successfully leave the past in the past and forge a new way for a very talented artist. Please buy this record here. Act fast as these seem to be disappearing quickly.

Spoon – Transference

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a shameless creature of habit in certain circumstances. Take me to lunch often enough and you’ll find I have very consistent ordering habits. Each restaurant comes with its own go-to menu item and in cases of seat yourself establishments, a precise location where I aim to sit. I will eat the same breakfast nearly every day for months on end. It just seems like the right thing to do. Part of me still thrives on the routine. When it comes to music, all bets are off. I’ve never stuck to one genre or time period of music. I need something new on a regular basis and I’m one of those people who prefers a band who can sound different on every record and maintain excellence. These two distinct sides of myself are ultimately satisfied by Spoon’s latest record, Transference.

For the past decade this Austin powerhouse has delivered consistently great records. Album to album you got solid indie-rock with some of the best hooks and grooves around. Stand-out tracks like “You’ve Got Yr Cherry Bomb”, “Sister Jack”, “The Way We Get By”, and “Everything Hits at Once” come from four different album, but played back to back sound like they could all have come from the same session. Spoon’s consistent quality is unparralelled, but some would say formulaic. If you’re feeling this way about Spoon you might want to give Transference a spin before you give up on these guys. Transference is stocked with the infectious sounds of previous albums, but there is also a glimmer of experimentation here. Behind each song is a layer of subdued chaos. The opening track “Before Destruction” is a nice example as it sets what sounds like an acoustic demo of the song over a bed of sound. The background doesn’t obscure the song, but it does push it to the foreground. Sometimes these underlying sounds are barely noticeable, as in some of the quieter tracks like “Out Go the Lights”, and “Goodnight Laura”, but they are still there, like a shadow you can’t pin down. Even the songs that get the dance floor jumping are full of background activity. There’s not doubt that the album’s current single, “Written in Reverse” is a Spoon classic…. it fits their “formula” perfectly; “The Mystery Zone” also fits in here.

Transference is really a great addition to the Spoon catalog. This is a record that sees these veterans doing what they do best, but trying to find a way to do it just a bit differently.

Take a trip over to your neighborhood record store (this is not Target, Wal-Mart, Best Buy etc) or the Merge Records site and grab a copy.

The Hype: The XX

The hype enveloping The XX is growing like the Blob. What began as a steady hum has quickly inflated to the roar being heard today. Their self titled record is disappearing from store shelves daily and for good reason. The XX have delivered a debut that puts me in mind of Interpol‘s debut, Turn on the Bright Lights. Interpol resurrected the spirit of Joy Division and served it up for a new generation. The XX provides a similar service. The catch here is you can’t identify exactly where the sound is coming from. This is the kind of band where you can hear elements of so many bands, but really, they don’t sound like any of them. You can talk about Depeche Mode, or New Order, you could pull out Joy Division again, but then you could start making arguments for later Talk Talk records. You can make a case for a  lot bands they could be ripping off, but ultimately The XX are one of the finest examples of a band that actually pulled off the stunning feat of taking elements of all of their influences and weaving them into something that’s genuine and fresh. It’s fresh not because it breaks new ground, but because it is familiar, because it make the old new again. Believe the hype on this record. Track down a copy now before they disappear. In the meantime check out these two tracks.