Sometimes it is difficult to keep track of all of the various Guided by Voices songs on EPs, singles and one-offs. I listen to the band’s albums more than anything, so weeks or months can go by without my hearing certain songs.
That’s the reason why I was puzzled when I saw the song “Break Even” on the first couple of set lists from the band’s just-launched reunion tour. “What’s that?” I said to myself. I looked it up and found that it’s a later song on The Grand Hour EP. The band had announced it would play songs from four albums released during 1992-96, but obviously decided to be a bit more broad.
It’s a nice move to pull from a more obscure EP (they also play “Johnny Appleseed” from The Clown Prince of the Menthol Trailer EP), but I’m surprised this is what they chose. It’s a strange tune that has little of the melodicism and hooks of the songs that surround it (“Buzzards and Dreadful Crows” and “Hot Freaks” or “My Valuable Hunting Knife” in the first two sets). In a way, the more abrasive tone has more in common with Pollard’s latter-day work, particularly his Circus Devils music with Todd Tobias.
If nothing else, the choice is a nod to the most rabid of fans who know every song from the first note, and might bring attention to a forgotten chapter in the band’s back catalog. Plus, it’s a slab of psychedelia that obviously appeals to the band. No reason on this tour to play anything they don’t like.
It will be interesting to see if it remains in the set as the tour progresses.
With a martial drum beat driving it, one can imagine Guided by Voices marching down the street — be it a gang, an army or a band of zombies afoot — performing the song as part of a relentless journey.
Then the chorus comes in, and it sounds like a jaunty Beatlesque interlude as Robert Pollard sings “This is what we’re tired of” over a bouncing piano chord.
Things flip back and forth, with Pollard singing strange verses about, well, the complaints of a mannequin, one assumes: “Kleptos parading on market floors today/ insider raiding like boys who drink/ and bring down everything/ on top of us.”
That’s when things get truly interesting, for after the second verse, Pollard is joined by a chorus that sounds like a group of soccer fans chanting at the tail end of a match, echoing his complaint in a chant that replaces well-mannered statement with something that blends ennui and menace. Drums and guitars kick in, replacing the whimsy of his solo take with something akin to the fury of the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
The song could fade out here and accomplish all it needs to, but instead, it all drops out to be replaced by the tinkling of a music box. That can’t hold off the rest of the song for long, however, as the guitars and drums (and the declarations of the crowd) swell to overwhelm it.
It’s one of the least-known, most-inventive songs in GBV’s catalog. It was the third B-side of the “Bulldog Skin” single, an outtake from the Mag Earwhig sessions that was at one time considered for an early version of that album when it was to be called Do the Collapse (not to be confused with the later album under that title), according to the Guided by Voices Database. Perhaps its eventual LP home on the Hardcore UFOs boxed set is fitting, for it’s probably too strange for a GBV album but too wonderful to sit unreleased.
“Subspace Biographies” is one of my favorite Robert Pollard songs. It has everything going for it: It rocks, has a great hook (a handful, actually) illuminating and amusing lyrics and is the perfect length for a pop song (at 2:57, it’s variation from the 3-minute ideal is statistically insignificant).
The hooks are what grab me every time, but the lyric is what ultimately keeps me coming back. From the opening reference to “stoned comedian Ringo” (Surely every Guided by Voices message board has someone using that as a handle) to couplets like “I am quail and quasar, I picked you up on radar,” this has a lot going for it.
But two lines toward the end are among the best Pollard has written. The first is like self-actualization in haiku: “I do my job each day/empties crushed and fired away.” That sounds like endless nights at Pollard’ Monument Club, a stack of empty cans of Bud at his side, summarily crushed (against the forehead, one hopes) and tossed into the recycling bin.
The second is like a motivational chant: “There is nothing worse than/an undetermined person.”
By the time he gets around to singing the title, you forget that it doesn’t connect with the rest of the song (though neither does the reference to “quail and quasar”).
As Pollard’s song-ending guitar solo fades out (further evidence that Uncle Bob ought not let Mssrs. Tobias and Slusarenko handle all of the axe chores in his solo work), the only thing left to do is to cue it up again.
A lot of Robert Pollard’s snippet-based songs feel like rock opera segments to me. They’re all hook, they have some strange internal narrative and they seem to offer a bridge between other pieces. In the case of Pollard’s, however, they’re often just stand-alone songs that happen to be less than a minute long.
“Cigarette Tricks” is an anomaly even in Pollard’s back catalog. For a guy who has written and recorded dozens of sub-minute songs, this 18-second blast is unique. Just before it, Tobin Sprout’s “A Good Flying Bird” fades quickly, and then the drums crash in and Pollard immediately begins to sing: “Shoot up on the fast lane/she falls like a concrete robot/she’s a boy…” It’s all drum fills and noodling, as if someone recorded a few seconds of the band members all warming up for something, and then had Pollard find a melody and drop a lyric over top.
It’s the perfect intro to “Pimple Zoo;” in fact, it may well be the warm-up to the band recording that song. Makes sonic sense, if nothing else.
One of the reasons that Robert Pollard and Tobin Sprout seem so simpatico is that each seems to know how best to complement the other. When Pollard is going off the rails, Sprout offers tasteful harmonies or a well-placed solo, then gets out of the way. When Sprout is carrying the bulk of the melodic/harmonic weight, Pollard usually dials it down.
On “We’re in the Business,” they seem out of step. Sprout offers a songbed that is low-key; it cries out for some Pollard histrionics. Instead, Pollard matches Sprout mope for mope, and the song never really takes off.
The song is interesting lyrically, feeling like some sort of Lovecraftian horror story premise: “We’re bargaining for pardon/ Out of the straits/ Of the madhouse garden.” The “business” at hand seems to be that of aiding people to the other side, whether they want it or not: “And if you fall asleep/
None of us shall weep.”
When I first read the title, I thought of the business of, well, business. Pollard is an entrepreneur under any definition, having worked for others and decided that he would rather be his own boss. Some may scoff at the flurry of releases, high prices, auctions and other endeavors under his name, but the result is probably a comfortable living borne of considerable effort. But that isn’t the business of which Pollard speaks. That was covered on Robert Pollard is Off to Business, a later album that signaled the cleanest break to that point between his past working for others and his present and future as the CEO of GBV Inc.
If that future is to be as bright and lucrative as his past, fewer songs like “We’re in the Business” will help to keep him in business.
It stands to reason that when you have written well over 1,000 songs, you’ll eventually get around to writing about darn near everything. For Robert Pollard that means that a circus populated entirely by germs is an entirely reasonable topic for a song.
In fact, it’s the perfect topic for Pollard: it’s strange, a tad creepy and sounds like something that should have been covered by someone else before but hasn’t. Add the fact that this is a Circus Devils song, which means that Pollard’s lyric will accompany a suitably oddball, menacing songbed created by the brothers Tobias, and the only real question is, “what took you so long?”
Pollard’s lyric reads like the beginning of some commercial jingle:
The germ circus is coming to your town
the germ circus is always around
the germ circus has no tents, no barkers
no cotton candy or clowns
You can imagine a herd of animated “germs” made up like circus denizens approaching the camera in a herd, shedding the circus trappings as they draw near. Why, these aren’t clowns and lions and tigers and strongmen, these are… germs! Then comes the cleaning product, wielded by a determined mom, to sweep them away just in time for her to take the kids to… the real circus!
Nice try. This is Circus Devils. So, instead of the above, we get Pollard taking things in an even creepier tack:
The germ circus is eating up the kids
and the kids are eating it up
Are you coming down?
The noises that back all of this are plodding and ominous (read: Circus Devil-like). Toward the end, it feels like the crescendo in a horror movie soundtrack, the swell before Jason/Freddy/creep of the week lunges out of whatever hidey-hole he was using at the moment to attack.
Thanks to the release of a new 2-disc Tommy Keene retrospective (the unfortunately titled (but a title that Robert Pollard would surely appreciate) Tommy Keene You Hear Me), I have been listening to a lot of Keene lately. I’ve been a fan for two decades, but still, hearing a bunch of his music from across his career, I’m still struck by his consistency. Hearing a new Keene song, I’m often forced to grab the CD case to determine which album and era the song is from.
That’s the beauty of his collaboration with Pollard. Keene provides song backings for Uncle Bob and then things are taken out of his hands. The usual vocal lines and hooks that Keene would typically deploy are left behind as Pollard finds his own way through the songs. At the same time, Keene’s songs are much more intricately structured and conventionally arranged than Pollard’s, which presents a challenge for the singer as he looks for ways to apply his particular aesthetic to each track.
“Island of Lost Lucys” is one of the sweetest-sounding songs in Pollard’s catalog. He chooses to embrace the delicate nature of Keene’s acoustic guitar-driven backing, nestling his vocal in among the plucked notes rather than trying to force something that might have given the song a feel closer to Pollard than Keene.
Keene chimes in with some harmonies on the chorus, adding some sweetness to the mix. This all makes the song sound more vulnerable than it might have been in Keene’s hands alone, and certainly more than one might expect from Pollard.
Over the course of half a dozen Circus Devils albums, Todd Tobias has proven that he can master just about any genre. He hasn’t tackled jazz yet, but damn near every other sound has graced a CD album. With “Pattern Girl,” he offers some radio-friendly post-grunge. From the opening riff, this sounds like a tamer version of something Pearl Jam might tackle.
But Robert Pollard doesn’t take the bait. Instead of a howl or a growl (or even a grunt), he instead offers a spacey vocal that plays to the subdued nature of Tobias’ backing track. While the riff is the thing here, he doesn’t lean on it, but rather plays it with just enough nuance to leave Pollard room. It’s a strangely soothing tune that feels as if it might take off at some point, but it never does. Tobias keeps things reined in, and Pollard keeps his cool in response.
The result is one of the more conventional Circus Devil songs on record. That doesn’t stop him from dropping some delightfully oddball lines, like “I’m giving the sky kaleidoscope eye” and “I’m going to bingo dressed like a gringo.” Later, he declares, “We’ll call it a day/ when the levy breaks and the pen runs out of ink. That shouldn’t occur too soon/ what do you think?”