From a Compound Eye
he official party line on From a Compound Eye seems to be that this is an “important” Robert Pollard album; now that Guided by Voices has broken up, his solo work is no longer a side project but the main attraction, so he’s actually putting effort into it (never mind that the album was recorded in 2004, before GbV’s “electrifying conclusion”—would Pollard bother to sit on an Airport 5 album like this? Clearly not). As evidence, it’s on indie giant Merge Records, not some personal vanity label. Legend has it the man won’t even play gigs sloshed anymore—or at least not as many. There should be no surer sign of dedication, right?
Of course, FaCE isn’t without warning signs. The cover photo may be the least flattering artist shot to grace an album since Ken Stringfellow’s Soft Commands, and it makes the bleary-eyed half-Bob of Fiction Man look like a dashing matinee idol in comparison. Opening track “Gold” even begins with the classic half-assed Pollard sound of a song co-written by Bob and brother Jim en route from a pick-up basketball game to the liquor store, without discernable melody or meaning.
Initial doubts are misplaced, though: this is the strongest Pollard album since Earthquake Glue. In reference to a normal musician, such a compliment would be fairly backhanded; that album came out in 2003, hardly an eon ago. But considering that Pollard’s output since then has been upward of a dozen releases, it signifies at least something of note. To put it more bluntly: From a Compound Eye is a nearly-great album. At 26 tracks it could use a little trimming, but it nonetheless stands as a towering monument to a Captain whose protracted Fade (at least, in the eyes of those who don’t devour each scattered vinyl-only album of drunken rants or early-1980s jam sessions) may be at an end, and whose rejuvenation is underway.
Framed more or less consciously as a sort of audio museum, walking us through Pollard’s many phases, FaCE takes us all the way to Forever Since Breakfast with “U.S. Mustard Company,” where the arpeggiated Peter Buckisms and soft, warm, Stipelike vocals (particularly near the end) sound more like early R.E.M. than anything that band has done in the past 15 years. From there, the tour jumps ahead to the chamber-pop of Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, represented by the appropriately-brief “Fresh Threats, Salad Shooters, and Zip Guns.” From the Mag Earwhig! era comes the taut paranoia of “The Numbered Head,” whose dire crunch sounds like a guitar being inducted into the Portable Men’s Society. Anyone upset at the absence of Bee Thousandry will appreciate “Blessed in an Open Head,” whose climbing melody comes straight out of Earthquake Glue, which will someday be recognized as the fleshed-out successor to that 1994 landmark.
Pollard’s 50,000 side projects don’t go unreferenced. “Conqueror of the Moon” displays the proggy expansiveness of the Lifeguards, while “Kensington Cradle” hisses with the harsh barbed-Wire sound of the first Circus Devils record (no surprise, given that CD co-conspirator and FaCE producer-cum-handyman Todd Tobias helped write it). “I’m a Widow” takes a cue from the Moping Swans with a garage-rock riff so delectable that Pollard can’t resist recycling it two songs later on “Kick Me and Cancel.” Somehow, the ploy works, and both songs stand out as distinct, sort of like the way “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox” and “Kisses to the Crying Cooks” are basically the same song but still individually worthy of placing on a GbV mix tape. “I’m a Widow” also boasts the unforgettable chorus of Pollard shouting, “I’m a widow and I’m hot to do you!” Indeed, Uncle Bob thinks randy thoughts throughout FaCE; “I Surround You Naked” refuses to hide his “smoking gun,” and it’s no coincidence that the next track is “Cock of the Rainbow.” Pollard’s penchant for puerile sex references has resulted in some cringe-inducing moments before (cf. “Snatch Candy” on Kid Marine or “Soggy Beavers” on Suitcase 2), but here it all sounds like life-affirming exuberance from a self-declared “50 Year Old Baby.” He’s even able to pull off a New Wave beat on “Dancing Girls and Dancing Men,” which has the pop rush and stoned bliss of “Glad Girls” and seems designed to remind us that Pollard could supplant Franz Ferdinand in the stadiums if he were so inclined, or more photogenic.
Naturally, FaCE isn’t without its flaws, though only “Other Dogs Remain” stands out as blatant filler; “Denied” would join it, were it not for the thrill of hearing Gangsta Bob declare, “I capped his ass.” Otherwise, “Love is Stronger than Witchcraft” runs a solid song into the ground by repeating its chorus more times than the average Soundgarden epic, and “Boy in Motion” takes one of those begging-for-a-windmill Pete Townshend chord changes and basically keeps doing it for a minute before stopping, though neither song is without its charms.
Pollard seems at home on Merge, and his new boss Mac McCaughan has presumably forgiven him for botching a good set of instrumentals with lackluster vocals on their disappointing Go Back Snowball collaboration in 2002. FaCE even throws in what sounds like a tribute to new labelmates the Magnetic Fields on the keyboard-based “A Flowering Orphan” (on top of that, Pollard also plays a little dobro, which sounds less like a mountain range in love than, say, a horny strip mall, something Stephin Merritt could probably appreciate). Whether it’s the end of an era, the beginning of a new one, or just a lucky break in what looks to be a still-incessant deluge of output, From a Compound Eye bypasses the earlier seven LPs-plus released in his name to mark the emergence of Robert Pollard as a solo artist proper.
Reviewed by: Whitney Strub
Reviewed on: 2006-02-02