The Takeovers / Psycho and the Birds / Keene Brothers
Turn to Red / All That Is Holy / Blues and Boogie Shoes
used to be quite the Senator, Steve,” Robert Pollard numbly declares on the Takeovers’ “Mojo Police,” “now I’m no one.” Two albums later and under the guise of the Keene Brothers, Pollard picks up the story on “Where Others Fail,” describing a certain “Mr. Wild,” “dumb in public, wise in jail.” Or is it a different character? It’s hard to say; the fragmented shards of micro-narrative Pollard provides on his three new albums remain elusive (unlike, say, his clearly delineated characters on the Circus Devils’ Pinball Mars). But across the album trio’s variegated musical landscapes rests a surprising thematic unity centered on middle-aged ennui, as we meet everyone from a lonely chocolate-industry executive to a washed-up actress.
It could be the clipped modernism of T.S. Eliot; it could also be the incoherent gibberish of a drunken Fading Captain. Either way, Pollard delivers these three albums in a tense, terse voice, leaking information obtusely at times, making bold declarations at others. The trilogy begins with the narrator of the Takeovers’ “Do You Get Your Wish?” explaining, “Every picture tells a story, and it’s worth a thousand words. That’s a pretty short story. What’s yours?” Over the course of these three albums, Pollard offers an almost cinematic series of snapshots. That they often make for compelling music seems virtually incidental; that much chaff resides among the wheat is simply par for the course on the Fading Captain imprint. Seen as a concerted effort, these albums are Pollard’s version of “The Wasteland.”
The Takeovers, Psycho and the Birds, and the Keene Brothers all utilize tape-trading songcraft between Pollard and a partner, a format that hasn’t always served the Captain well in such lackluster earlier endeavors as Airport 5 (with former Guided by Voices compatriot Tobin Sprout) or Go Back Snowball (with Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan). To be sure, the distinct absence of songwriting dynamics often hampers the new trilogy, too. But Pollard seems to have learned not to let his own figure suffocate his collaborators, and as a result each album eases into its own personality, shaped equally by Pollard and his colleagues.
The Takeovers come first (Fading Captain #40), and if the three albums are of roughly the same value, Turn to Red’s songs bear the greatest standard deviation. Indie-rock journeyman Chris Slusarenko has made a career in the margins, from his band Sprinkler’s bland 1992 Sub Pop grunge album More Boy, Less Friend to a brief stint as GBV bassist on the band’s final LP. His music here sounds bored, frustrated, and half-assed; in another setting these qualities would be a liability, but on Turn to Red they perfectly fit Pollard’s bleakly cryptic lyrics. Slusarenko provides some acoustic strumming, some pro forma garage stomp, an inert piano line over static on the instrumental “The Public Dance,” and a plodding bassline for the six-minute “Bullfighter’s Cut,” which culminates in Pollard shouting for horns and receiving some cheap, canned-sounding trumpet. The bassline on “Mojo Police” resembles the bouncing hop of “Dancing Girls and Dancing Men” on Pollard’s latest solo album From a Compound Eye, until the song disintegrates into a noisy squall sounding like something off a demo rejected by Ipecac.
Song-by-song, the Takeovers album is wobbly and self-indulgent (a condition exacerbated by a few of those damn Bob-drunk-dialing-himself-and-spontaneously-composing-into-his-answering-machine moments), but consumed more properly as an album it reflects a certain impressive cohesion, in which the fractured and slapdash execution can be justified as form reflecting function. The inebriated valleys are offset by some intoxicating peaks, in the form of a few classic rockers like “Fairly Blacking Out” and “Be It Not for the Serpentine Rain Dodger,” on which Mudhoney drummer Dan Peters shows up to give Pollard his Who fix by rattling the kit like Keith Moon.
The Keene Brothers adopt the same compositional approach on Blues and Boogie Shoes, except this time it’s power-pop veteran Tommy Keene sending Pollard instrumental tracks as song-foundations. Keene’s got an impressive legacy and recently served as Pollard’s tour guitarist; out of respect to either the man or his material, Pollard keeps his experimental inclinations in check. On “Death of the Party,” Keene’s melancholy arpeggios gently persuade Pollard to revisit the soft hues of his own mid-1980s work, and the singer steps back to allow Keene the pleasantly rolling instrumental interlude “The Camouflaged Friend,” full of acoustic guitars practically dripping with early-morning dew.
Beneath the album’s warm veneer, however, lies a continuation of the Takeovers’ theme, with numerous glimpses of midlife despondency, from a “zombie in tuxedo” on “Evil vs. Evil” to the “filthy men / With their fameless faces / Playing suicide notes” on closing “A Blue Shadow.” The not-so-beautiful losers are not all Pollard’s inventions, either: Keene busts out a few guitar solos strangely reminiscent of 1980s hair-metal power ballads on “Beauty of the Draft” and “Where Others Fail,” perhaps adding to the character roster some clerk at Guitar Center wistfully recalling his brushes with stardom when opening for Enuff Z’Nuff at the Whiskey years ago.
There might be more such characters on Psycho and the Birds’ All That is Holy, but it’s hard to say; the tapes went the other direction on this one, with Pollard more or less puking 17 songs straight out of his head, augmented only by an acoustic guitar. Partner Todd Tobias, longtime producer and fellow Circus Devil, won the task of embellishing the resulting mess by grafting full arrangements over Pollard’s ramblings, and his response is often to submerge Pollard beneath his often inventive soundscapes. It might appear closer to a formal problem set than a band, but Tobias plays a smooth Jorgen Leth to Pollard’s von Trier-esque obstructions, wrapping several songs in a bristling synth sheen. He throws some playful skronk onto “Alibible,” some dry funk onto “Break Some Concentration,” and plenty of School of Rock drum fills across the boards. The vocals are often indecipherable (this is the rare Pollard album without a lyric sheet), but the sometimes nightmarish claustrophobia of Tobias’ arrangements complements the trilogy’s dissociative thematics.
Every so often Pollard dominates a song, but Tobias deserves much of the credit for his alchemical studio abilities. The band’s name may be amusing grandstanding (Marnie and the Torn Curtain would be more appropriate), but Psycho and the Birds deliver the most gripping, albeit insular and difficult, album of the Fading Captain trio, if only by a hair.
Altogether, the new albums offer more reminders than fresh insight into Pollard: yes, he still worships the Who; yes, he still enjoys extended flirtations with the avant-garde before going all the way with pure pop; and yes, he still writes entire albums in an hour’s time. No one expects perfection from the Fading Captain series, and it won’t be found here, but in their dark modernist hues the Takeovers, Psycho and the Birds, and the Keene Brothers all show Pollard continuing to challenge himself. Some of these fragments he shores against his ruins, others he snores across his room; sometimes the snoring can be pretty fascinating stuff.
Reviewed by: Whitney Strub
Reviewed on: 2006-06-30