Robert Pollard's Latest Side Projects: Two Out of Three Ain't Bad!

Depending up on your perspective, it is either exhausting or exhilarating to be a fan of Ohio indie-rock legends Guided By Voices (GBV) and its fearless leader Robert Pollard.

BlazingGentlemen.jpgExhausting... because they release so much material, often seemingly without any sort of filters with regards to particular recording quality standards.

Exhilarating... because they release so much material, often seemingly without any sort of filters with regards to particular recording quality standards.

Financially, it is hard to keep up with the barrage of releases coming out of the cottage industry that is GBV: CDs, downloads, LPs, 45s, T-shirts, collages and more!

So, I hope that a review like this might help some of you make some decisions.

On a recent trek to LA, I picked up three -- count 'em, 3! -- of Robert Pollard's recent and ever-illustrious side projects. All from 2013: Blazing Gentlemen (technically, a Pollard solo album, though Todd Tobias plays a great deal of the instruments on it), Force Fields at Home by Teenage Guitar (Pollard for the first time playing every instrument!) and Circus Devils' When Machines Attack (his ongoing side quazi-prog rock project with Todd and Tim Tobias).

Of the three, the later jumped out as the strongest statement, a genuine alt-prog rock work, tracks from which would not sound out of place alongside Mirror Man-era Captain Beefheart, the Monks of Doom (a Camper Van Beethoven spin-off) and maybe even Robert Wyatt's Matching Mole. This is dense, aggressive ("Johnny Dart") and sometimes beautiful stuff -- "We're Going Inside The Head (Of A Winner)" -- the latter track reminding me of no less than Jeff Buckley (particularly Jeff's slammin' so-called road version of "Eternal Life").

The sound on this album is uniformly quite good, with more of the feel of a prog record than the indie pop confections of Guided By Voices or even some of Pollard's other side projects (like the Lifeguards).

Is it even close to GBV? No way.

Then, what is it? Indie Prog Rock?

Perhaps.

I can say that it is kinda cool and is growing on me a bunch. With different lyrics, the riff on a tune like "Doberman Wasps" could be an early '70s metal tune from the likes of Mountain's Leslie West. "Centerverse" sounds like a frothy blend of T-Rex by way of Queens of the Stone Age.

Big guitar riffs here folks! But again, it ain't no Guided By Voices record so be forewarned.

CircusDevils.jpgGood stuff ultimately.

Blazing Gentleman, a proper Robert Pollard solo effort, starts out promising with a churning and dense hard rock sound courtesy of producer and multi-instrumentalist Todd Tobias. I'll admit: This album is a slow grower that may not knock you out on first listen. Don't get me wrong: it all rings fairly true and rocks rather righteously, but none of the songs jump out at me immediately with that sort of grab-you-by-the-heart sensibility that can happen with the best of Pollard's solo material (or with GBV).

That doesn't make this a bad Pollard album -- on the contrary, it makes me curious to give it a chance to see what cream rises to the top. "This Place Has Everything" may be one of those tunes, which sounds like a super-short lost Mott the Hoople track.

On the flip-side, at least all the tunes on this album are of a fairly high fidelity so there is none of the sonic roller coaster of inconsistency, an issue that some people have trouble dealing with when listening to many GBV related recordings. The LP is well centered, pretty thick (perhaps 150-gram), dark black vinyl in a plastic lined custom inner-sleeve bearing printed lyrics to all the songs. Clearly Uncle Bob has something to say here and he wants us to take heed and read, giving this record some deluxe treatment!

Conversely, if you want to hear a lo-fi Pollard extravaganza, then Force Fields At Home by Teenage Guitar may be your cuppa tea. This is an album in which Pollard plays pretty much every instrument and frankly I don't have too much trouble with that.... except for the fact that he is playing the drums.

Y'know... when a guitarist plays drums, it usually sounds it.

TeenageGuitar.jpgDave Grohl he isn't.

But I guess that is the point.

This is one of those albums that if I was stoned or drunk enough might be enjoyable but right now, even in the face of these other two challenging albums, this one is kinda the least appealing of the three. Honestly, a lot of this sounds like first-pass demo sketches of song ideas made at 3 a.m. (especially the piano-vocal verite of "Still Downstairs"). But how can you not love an acoustic guitar and vocal recording of "8 Bars of Meaningless Mathilda"?

OK, "love" may be a pretty strong word to apply to this album. This one doesn't have that grows-on-you-like-super-glue appeal of earlier GBV lo-fi masterpieces like Bee Thousand or Propeller.

Force Fields at Home is what it is and it sounds pretty much like the band's namesake: Teenage Guitar.

To that I have seen that there was a second Teenage Guitar album out in 2014 that I missed as well. One fan review on Amazon indicates that is a stronger listening experience so we'll see how this persona develops

But for now, I think that Force Fields at Home is one primarily for the hardest of hardcore GBV completists (of which I am borderline)...

Onward to the next wave of Pollard and GBV-related releases (or whichever others I have missed recently!)

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