As expected, 2006 saw its share of activity -- be it in the format of recorded output, touring, and other projects -- from that venerably prolific drunk uncle of indie rock, Robert Pollard. Captain Bob's advancing age (he turned 49 on Halloween) dictates that the tours are shorter, and that consequently much of the US winds up getting passed over in favor of focusing on the Midwest and the East Coast. Which is fine for me, as my "real" job didn't start until September, meaning that I was able to catch 3 shows over the course of his tour supporting From a Compound Eye prior to finding said new job. Yippee!
I feel that it's important for me to use full disclosure here: I'm a dyed-in-the wool Pollard devotee, and I own pretty much everything which is available on CD by Guided by Voices, Pollard, or any of his idiosyncratically named side projects. I will continue to eagerly pre-order any and all musical project the man's involved with until something drastic happens, let's say an act as great as Bob threatening physical harm to one of my family members, declaring his alignment with the values of the Tea Party, or, say, a collaboration with Devendra Banhart. That being said, my position as a Pollard fanatic is somewhat unique, in that I don't blindly worship any hastily-cobbled turd the man drops, and that I listen to (and appreciate) a ton of music that comes nowhere near resembling Pollard's output. For example, I can freely admit that his Motel of Fools record from a few years back is terrible, that the entire Circus Devils side project is the very definition of "inessential," and that the last five songs of 1996's Not in My Airforce are absolute fucking dogshit. I will say, however, that I find Bob to be the best performer alive today, and that the very idea of anyone matching the sheer quantity (and quality) of amazing songs he's written is laughable. Arguably the greatest moment in my life occurred at a Guided by Voices show on December 4th, 2004, when I was hoisted onstage against my will by a gaggle of rowdy showgoers during "Things I Will Keep," handed the microphone by Bob himself, and proceeded to completely botch the song's lyrics. Simply put, I feel that Robert Pollard is the greatest artist whose work I'll ever have the opportunity to appreciate. So there.
Now, much importance was placed on From a Compound Eye, a 26-song affair that was the first full album released under the "Robert Pollard" name since his disbanding of Guided by Voices at the close of 2004. Of course, to anyone that closely follows the man's career, the "break" between '04 and early '06 (when FaCE was officially released) was anything but an infertile period: although he didn't tour in that time, he managed to release a 4-CD box set of outtakes (Suitcase II), two EPs (Zoom and Bubble), three side projects (Moping Swans, Circus Devils and Acid Ranch), a literary magazine chock full of poetry and collages, three reissues (GbV's Propeller and Forever Since Breakfast as well as an expanded edition of the Hazzard Hotrods' Big Trouble), in addition to a comedy record (Relaxation of the Asshole). FaCE itself was anything but a highly-guarded secret, seeing as how plenty of in-the-know fans (myself included, cough cough) received CD-R copies up to a year and a half prior to its release thanks to the modern marvel of message boards and mailing lists.
FaCE itself is a bit of a "grower," much like some of Pollard's best work. At first, I was unsure what to make of it -- after all, at 70 minutes it's lengthier than any single volume in the GbV/Pollard/side project canon. Second, with the exception of a handful of standouts, it's not immediately accessible. Third, it's heavily steeped in the production of collaborator Todd Tobias, who provides much of the instrumentation and synthy atmospherics, much of which leaves the listener wondering if Bob himself even had any input into the recording of the instrumental tracks at all (see "The Flowering Orphan"). Fourth, any way you slice it, the album simply doesn't RAWK, and is a bit more "mature" than anything I usually enjoy. Truth be told, I really disliked this record the first several times I heard it, and it wasn't until I saw much of it performed live in DC in late January that I developed an appreciation for it.
During this concert (at the 9:30 Club), I was blown away by how the two-guitar attack totally changed the overall sound of many of the songs, which on the album to me had seemed limp-wristed and half-assed. Live, the keyboards accented the songs instead of carrying them, and songs like "Conqueror of the Moon" and "Recovering" turned out to be show-stopping masterpieces. And, as had been rumored, the evening was capped off by a 9-song all-GbV encore (one from each proper GbV album starting with Bee Thousand and ending with Half Smiles of the Decomposed, GbV's final studio release), which brought the house down. At this point, my only (minor) gripe was the rigidity of the setlist: whereas Bob chose GbV's setlists from a bank containing upwards of 100 rehearsed songs, by comparison it seemed as though the first several shows of the FaCE tour were comprised of similar -- and, at times, identical -- setlists. In all fairness, Bob and his backing band, a group of talented hired guns dubbed The Ascended Masters, were still pumping out 40-plus tunes a night despite being new to performing Pollard compositions. Expecting much more would have been unrealistic. Yes, all was well.
The next news on the Bob front came in the form of three more side projects, to be released simultaneously in mid-April. The most consistent of the three, a collaboration with power-popper Tommy Keene (dubbed Keene Brothers) paired Bob's melodies and inimitable lyrics with Keene's jangly riffage. The Takeovers, assembled with the help of a former GbV bassist (Chris Slusarenko), contained glorious peaks and unfortunate valleys. Songs like "Insane/Cool It" and "Be It Not for the Serpentine Rain Dodger" are as good as anything Bob has put out in the last decade-plus, but are accompanied by some truly joyless drudgery and tuneless throwaways. The project released under the name Psycho and the Birds was perhaps the most intriguing in its description of how it was assembled: supposedly recorded on a boombox by Bob in one sitting and sent off to Todd Tobias for embellishments. Without belaboring the specifics, let's just say that Psycho and the Birds' All That Is Holy is quite possibly the worst album Bob's ever released.
After a layoff of nearly three months, the FaCE tour continued, and I caught shows at NYC's Irving Plaza and The Paradise in Boston in mid-April. I managed to consume fourteen beers at the Boston show, and had a fucking blast. To date, that ranks at the top of my Favorite 2006 Concert rankings, perhaps a tick behind the Comets on Fire show I saw at Knitting Factory in October.
Over the next few months, Pollard fans were left to eagerly anticipate the release ofNormal Happiness, Bob's second release with Merge Records. Bob and The Ascended Masters had played a handful of tracks from Normal Happiness during the FaCE tour, and they each seemed to engender the poppy-yet-warped aesthetic I've come to expect. In the interim, we Pollard maniacs were afforded time to digest the three side projects, compile mix CDs, and bemoan the incarceration of Postal Blowfish (a Pollard-centric listserve) court jester Jonesy. Rumors also began to circulate regarding the release of a book written about Bee Thousand in the 33-1/3 series. (This would eventually be released around the time of Normal Happiness.)
Normal Happiness, as it turns out, is also largely a "grower," which came as a surprise to me since it had been described as "sixteen lean pop songs" in the months leading up to its release. This description had visions of sixteen new "Echos Myron"s dancing in my head, which is obviously a completely unrealistic expectation, so obviously I was disappointed when I finally heard the actual album. The only show I was able to catch on the Normal Happiness tour was at Bowery Ballroom in NYC, and the band put on a fantastic performance, digging out several songs from GbV's 1996 classic Under the Bushes Under the Stars during the regular set, throwing my all-time favorite Pollard composition, "Subspace Biographies," into the encore, and closing the show with an overzealous-fan-insisting-on-being-onstage-marred version of "The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory."
I was half-tempted to head up to Boston, where Bob and The Ascended Masters would be closing out their brief tour in support of Normal Happiness, but I decided not to in favor of catching up on sleep. Getting up before 6 AM every day is very tiring, especially when my regular workday, including commute, regularly eclipses the 12 hour mark. However, a couple of days after the Bowery show, I heard that Bob had cancelled the remainder of the tour, announcing during the Philadelphia show that he had hurt his calf. Speculation began running rampant as to whether or not the injury was legitimate or if Bob was simply sick and tired of being sick and tired (or some such variation), as he had intimated onstage at the Philadelphia show. Reports ranged from Pitchfork's cursory "tour's cancelled" announcement to accounts of what sounded like a full-scale breakdown on the Pollard internet boards.
Obviously, I hope that Bob continues to tour. By most accounts, attendance at the Midwestern shows was flagging, and oddly enough, even the Bowery show wasn't sold out. For the first time probably since 1992, people have begun to wonder if Robert Pollard has once and for all hung up his microphone and called it a day. Please, Bob, say it ain't so -- I'll have to find a new hero. *sniffle*