The Over/Under: Robert Pollard


Our friend Roob (you’d know him if you saw him) convinced us that he’s the foremost authority on Guided By Voices and Bob Pollard. (He claims to possess 257 GBV bootlegs, which is probably 256 more than Pollard himself owns.) Somehow, that qualifies him to make the following list of the five most overrated and five most underrated non-GBV Pollard songs.

:: The Five Most Overrated Non-GBV Robert Pollard Songs
1. “Do Something Real” (1999)

One of the things that’s made Bob Pollard the greatest songwriter who ever lived is that he never quite comes out and says anything. His remarkable lyrics hint at a notion, suggest an idea, foretell a feeling. But they never just say it. With the musically jerky “Do Something Real,” from the otherwise awesome Speak Kindly Of Your Volunteer Fire Department (a collaboration with Doug Gillard), Pollard actually gets preachy, and it’s unbecoming of him. “Do something real with your life,” he used to say while introducing this at Guided By Voices shows. I’ll go to a Midnight Oil show and listen to Peter Garrett’s rambling morality lessons if I want to hear this kind of crap.

2. “The Killers” (2006 or 2007, depending on the version)
No song demonstrates Pollard’s dwindling quality control better than “The Killers,” which he liked enough to not only put it on a Psycho And The Birds record and (in a different version) a solo album but also make it the title track of a seven-inch single. “The Killers,” you know that one? It goes like this: “The killers/They’re coming to get you.” This is the guy who wrote “Blatant Doom Trip,” “Quality Of Armor” and “Smothered In Hugs”? This one should have been left forever inside the suitcase.

The Killers” (2006):

The Killers” (2007):

3. “Subspace Biographies” (1998)
No, I haven’t lost my mind. “Subspace Biographies” is the greatest live song in GBV history. Like so many Pollard tracks, it’s bizarrely structured, with the opening “bah-bah-bah” part followed by a single verse, then three increasingly explosive repeat choruses, then the closing “bah-bah-bah” bit. The problem is the studio version, with the synth doing the “bah-bah-bah” thing and making this sound like some outtake from ELP’s Love Beach. If the live version never existed, the studio version would be OK. But once you’ve stood toe to toe with Pollard, Gillard, Farley and Tobias, pumping your fist and screaming, “I am quail and quasar,” you just can’t go back to the Waved Out version.

4. Those Seven Acoustic Songs At The End Of Not In My Airforce (1996)
Come on, admit it, you never listen to “Punk Rock Gods” or “Good Luck Sailor” or any of the other faceless acoustic blippets that conclude Not In My Airforce. These are textbook examples of tracks that everybody says they love but always skip. NIMA is a classic. Think about it: “Maggie Turns To Flies,” “Quicksilver,” “Girl Named Captain,” “Get Under It,” “Release The Sunbird,” “Flat Beauty,” etc. It’s insane how fertile a time 1996 was for Pollard. If NIMA was a GBV record, it would be as hallowed as Bee Thousand. And if it ended after “Psychic Pilot Clocks Out,” it would deserve to be.

“Good Luck Sailor”:

5. Everything From Normal Happiness To The Crawling Distance (2006-2009)
OK, “Everything From Normal Happiness To The Crawling Distance” isn’t technically “a song.” It’s three-year stretch of releases that also includes Superman Was A Rocker, Coast To Coast Carpet Of Love, Standard Gargoyle Decisions, Boston Spaceships’ Brown Submarine, a few Circus Devils releases and piles of other stuff. Let’s be honest. Every one of these releases has two or three great songs. Tracks like “Folded Claws,” “Miles Under The Skin,” “Shadow Port,” “Father Is Good,” “Circle Saw Boys Club,” “Pattern Girl” and “The Blondes” are as good as anything Pollard has ever done. But every damn one of these records also inevitably has a big, fat pile of unlistenable stuff he belched out during last night’s Miller Lite session with his pals in the garage. (If Pollard were paid by the chord change, Normal Happiness would have made him a billionaire. Needmore Songs? No, need less chords.) People who didn’t really pay attention used to say Pollard needed an editor. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy. Gather up his best stuff from the last few years and you’ve got a couple brilliant releases. Spread ‘em out over 20 records, and you’ve got a frustrating body of work that’s impossible to navigate for all but the most patient diehard fans.

“Prince Alphabet” from 2008’s Superman Was A Rocker:

:: The Five Most Underrated Non-GBV Robert Pollard Songs
1. “Fresh Threats, Salad Shooters And Zip Guns” (2006)
From A Compound Eye is Pollard’s last masterpiece, a dense, dizzying, acid-injected amalgam of GBV at its most ambitious mixed with “Supper’s Ready.” Somewhere in the middle is “Fresh Threats, Salad Shooters And Zip Guns,” a brief, mystical trip that starts out so delicate that it barely exists, then somehow instantly turns into pure Anthony Phillips-era Genesis with that “Here’s to the wives club, the forks-and-knives club” line. It dissolves back into nothing, and it’s over, all in less than two minutes. Which is what Pollard does best.

2. “Starts At The River” (2003)
Mist King Urth, released under the Lifeguards banner, kind of got lost among a bunch of other releases. Even though it was a Pollard/Gillard project, it sounded nothing like the popular Speak Kindly, and that seemed to relegate it to the scrapheap. It’s full of odd little proggy tracks, with the best of all being the propulsive “Starts At The River,” built around a classic Gillard riff and churning along without regard to chorus or verse. A staple of the 2003 tour, this weird, wonderful full-blown rocker should have been a hit.

3. “Harrison Adams” (2003)
A crushingly sad track off Motel Of Fools that reels you in from the start (“There he sits, guardian the fish market”) and doesn’t let go through the fist-pumping sort-of chorus (“You … aren’t … happy … with me”) and quiet coda. Sometimes I think this is the best song Pollard has ever written. And only the most devoted GBV fans have even heard it.

4. “Trial Of Affliction And Light Sleeping” (2004)
This is Pollard collaborator/producer Todd Tobias at his sonic mad-scientist best, throwing in every imaginable shard of sound into a breathless, frenzied cacophony, like some sort of electric-chair nightmare chasing you a million miles an hour through an endless dark tunnel that exists only in Pollard’s mind. Dazzling.

5. “No Island” (2009)
Putting it in terms that a former Wright State University pitcher would understand, Pollard today is like some aging superstar baseball player who’s hitting .214, can’t field his position anymore and goes into lengthy slumps but once in a while can still jack a spectacular three-run homer 475 feet over the right-field wall. (Yes, Pollard has turned into Jim Edmonds.) The Crawling Distance, the latest Pollard solo record, has the usual share of crap (“Cave Zone”? Are you kidding me?). But it actually has more winners than anything since From A Compound Eye, which is encouraging. The best of the bunch is “No Island,” a vivid, wistful, mysterious journey that features some of Pollard’s most inventive vocals. With three words blurted out haltingly in the middle of the song (“House on stilts”), Pollard deposits you on this strange, lost, lonely island in the middle of some fantastic otherworldly ocean. So how can a song that’s only been out three weeks be underrated? Because nobody but the most fanatical hard-core Pollard acolytes will ever hear it, partly because of reviews like this. Which is a shame.

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