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.

28 replies on “The Over/Under: Robert Pollard”

I could definitely agree with some things on here and I can also disagree with many.

Agree: Fresh Threats, End of Not in My Airforce, Standard Gargoyle Decisions, and Superman was a Rocker.

Everything else I disagree with.

No Island is the worst song on TCD.

But I will say that as far as what you say about the new albums I could see the argument. I honestly think that it’s the continuous same production quality of every album. Not that Todd is a bad producer. Not by any means. He’s great. It’s really cool when he makes rougher sounding recordings (Earthquake Glue, Pinball Mars). I dunno, I think Not in my Airforce had the production quality that was perfect for Bob, and it’s hard to find that again.

I wish I could just send Guided By Voices Inc. $75 a year to get everything Pollard produces. It’s gems like “No Island” that keep me holding the torch.

The last six songs on Not in My Airforce end the album on a deliciously uneasy note, and help to make it feel like an epic concept album that tells a story (what that story is I can’t say) that carries over to the similarly melancholy Waved Out. The obscure Nightwalker track “Firehouse Mountain” would’ve made a great unlisted bonus track, thus adding to the inspired cacophony. But what altered state are you in that most of Normal Happiness isn’t classic GbV-styled songs? “Get a Faceful,” “Supernatural Car Lover,” “Boxing About,” “Tomorrow Will Not Be Another Day,” etc. are flawless songs with memorable hooks and shining examples of why we keep listening.

I dont get that arguement about Pollard needing an editor. How hard is it not to listen to something? In other arts (painting, writing, but especially painting) much ofwhat one does is probably not worth thats what makes the great stuff great. Let’em create and you decide what you wanna hear.

i fucking LOVE the song Prom Is Coming…words diminish it’s greatness…Party is cute, but the rest is rach…yr right. I do agree that the newer releases are way too spotty

Can’t say I’m much of a Circus Devils fan or of that Superman Was A Rocker thing, but you’re missing out on some timeless songs when you dismiss “everything” by Robert Pollard from 2006 on (though if that’s the case, why did you put a 2009 song on the Underrated list and also say that the album has other “winners”?) . Who’s out there currently that can say that they’ve written as many good songs as RP in the last four years?

Wow, this “Roob” guy is wildly off base. Maybe a band like the Capstan Shafts would be more his cup of tea? Kind of like Mike Bordick batting .415 for 4 months? Yes, Dean Wells is Mike Bordick.

Your point would be better served if Mike Bordick had ever hit. 400 in any month of his career (he didn’t), let alone four four months in one season.

Except for the Boston Spaceships album which was great. And what made that album so good was different players besides Tobias. Todd Tobias is a good producer, but his arrangements are just soooooooo bland. The songs too often sound lifeless. The Boston Spaceships album had some real spunk, which is why it works so well. Pollard’s music is at it’s best when it’s coated with a certain amount of sloppiness. I’m looking forward to the next couple of Spaceships releases. Wish they were coming out on a label that actually had some decent distribution though. It’s too bad this band is just kinda being lumped in with the more obscure solo stuff.

Great article! I’m sure there are alot of people out there who agree with you about the recent solo albums.

The thing is, who is going to tell Bob Pollard what to do? The man is a genius. He’ll do what he wants.

“No Island” is a super tite jam.
“Imaginary Queen Anne” is the best track on the album though…just sayin’.

One must be careful when rating, ranking, or reviewing all things Bob. A song that gets a thumbs down the first few listens, will sneak out of your subconscience one day and will be on repeat play in your noggin’.. And there lies the beauty of Bob’s songs. A lot of them take a few listens before they hit, and that complexity gaurantees that it will be a song that you never get tired of hearing. The new releases? BRIILLIANT!
Semper Bob

Lets be frank, Bob has always taken a bit of work. The biggest obstacle any fan faces with each new release is the massive body of work preceding it. How hard is it not to compare with the sheer brilliance of what he has done in the past? Personally I’ll continue to plow through ANYTHING by Bob I can get my hands on, knowing that with persistance I’ll find the hidden gems that’ll change my world. For me, he IS the greatest songwriter ever. Of course it’s not a competition though….

I’d add “Lifetime for the Mavericks” off of the Go Back Snowball album with Mac from Superchunk as one of the all-time greats.

I wonder how many times he’s listened to Normal Happiness or Off To Business? He’s WAY off about those if he’s listened to them less than a few times. Those two crept their way to greatness in my rotation–especially Normal Happiness.

I’m a GbV/Pollard fan since ’95. I think Robert Pollard is the best songwriter that ever lived. I agree with his ’96 output, it’s f**king amazing. However, even the most dedicated fan knows that Bob dilutes his output. The guy can’t help it. Maybe one of the reasons Pollard is not mentioned up there with Lennon/McCartney but life is not fair. GbV were considered to weird to rise above underground and when they did corporate label assholes decided to boost “Hold on Hope” to single status (not a bad song, but come on: “Finks”, “Flat Beauty” ! etc.).
I don’t like Todd Tobias his contribution at all. I’ll never forget how he f**ked up “I’ll Replace You With Machines”.. And ‘Fiction Man’ is the worst album in the GbV/Pollard canon.. I quit buying Pollard stuff after Normal Happiness (that one was ok). I don’t feel the urge anymore to spend money on his new records where you have to fish out the gems. I’d rather play B1000, Alien Lanes, UTBUTS which were jam-packed with fantastic songs. This is not blasphemy, this is just my opinion.

this list is not so hot – Starts At The River is horrible as far as Bob output goes – there are sooo many better songs that go under-rated! Like like – Frostman, The Main Street Wizards, Fair Touching – his catalog is simply too large – I have to say one of my favs of all time and under-rated as well is Dig Through My WIndow – that kicks ass on the bridge – damn – lovely!!

No one will read this since it is almost three years after the initial post, but I came across it and had to say… What about Robert Pollard is Off on Business? That album is packed with incredible tunes. I have put every Robert Pollard song I own on my I-pod in a “Pollard World” playlist (only 994 tracks at the moment) and I have noticed something pretty cool when I shuffle the songs. I frequently hear a song that becomes my new “favorite song” when I previously didn’t care for it. This happened with “killers” when I was driving home pissed off at some co-works. It had the perfect tone for that moment.
I also find it amazing that I can usually name what album a song is from because each album seems to be its own universe and has a distinct sound/tone/intent/production/purpose.
I see Robert as a poet. I have an E.E. Cummings book that has about 2 thousand poems in it, many of which I don’t get. Many of them are not meant to be “epic” but just act as a record of a cummings’ life.
I like to hear what Robert has to say next and if I don’t care for it right away there is always next month when it pops out to me in a shuffle.

Wow! How lame are you? So lame that your skinny jeans made you both impotent and cut off the blood flow to your brain. Subspace Biographies is perfection, anything otherwise shows your abject ignorance on the subject of Robert Pollard.

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