Back in '93 or '94, at the height of his legend, Guided By Voices' Robert Pollard was like the proverbial dancing bear. The audience applauds the performance not because the dance itself is good but because a bear is doing it.
Similarly, Pollard became an indie superhero not because the songs he wrote were all that great (along with some truly remarkable tunes, he had a lot that were underdeveloped, abrupt, or just plain bad) but because the songs were penned by a proudly alcoholic former fourth-grade teacher from Dayton, Ohio, who was famously prolific and an obsessive archivist.
As it would for anyone, it proved difficult for Pollard to keep dancing for very long. Although GBV released one of the all-time classic lo-fi albums, 1994's Bee Thousand, the band's subsequent material proved too self-indulgent and choppy, too sloppy and slapdash to maintain the myth, and they veered dangerously close to self-parody and irrelevance. Pollard's own prolific nature didn't help much, and the seemingly unending parade of overlong albums and twice-a-year EPs -- as well as the two immense and aptly titled box sets Box and Suitcase -- were overwhelming in their density and too often underwhelming in their quality. The overall impression was that despite the quantity of material, Pollard simply didn't have a lot to say.
In 1999, GBV tried sincerely to sell out with Do the Collapse, which showed they were willing to put on a straight face and be serious, but the album's pristine production, courtesy of ex-Car Ric Ocasek, turned off many long-time fans and failed to catch the attention of many new listeners.
Isolation Drills, their second album for the TVT label and their 12th overall, finds them still trying to claw their way out of lo-fi and into a little bit of commercial/critical respectability. This time around, they've enlisted the help of alt-producer Rob Schnapf (Beck and Mary Lou Lord). Schnapf proves a wise choice, as he injects a little nuance and a lot of life into the band's sound. The guitars especially benefit from his knob twiddling: "Skills Like This" gallops along on a major rock-and-roll riff, while all six strings shimmer distinctively on the sublime "Chasing Heather Crazy." Isolation Drills is GBV's guitar album, if you can believe that.
Pollard himself also rises to the occasion with 16 well-crafted songs, all of which -- from the short but bittersweet "Sister I Need Wine" to the anthemic "The Enemy" -- are absolutely crucial. In fact, while most rock albums feel too long at 12 or 13 songs, there is not an ounce of filler on Isolation Drills, each of its songs contributing to a very cohesive whole.
As a vocalist, Pollard has developed a surprisingly wide if still somewhat limited emotional range. He recalls a young Michael Stipe on "Fair Touching," all dry mumbles buried beneath the dense guitars, while on "Want One?" he fronts like the glam-rock god he posed as on "The Weed King" from 1993's Vampire on Titus. And on the just-over-a-minute "Frostman," his voice aches with age and sobriety as he surveys his life's winter. It's a supremely jarring moment on an album with so many high points.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Pollard seems to finally have something to say. "How's My Drinking?" is a gentle assessment of his famed you-know-what, on which he exclaims, "I don't care about being sober/but I sure get around." "Run Wild" plays like an anthem to his past: "Leave your things in the streets/and run wild," he sings, but he knows he can't heed that advice. The song is at once a bittersweet ode to the past's many indiscretions and a monument to his own individualist ideals. Regrets but no regrets.
On "Fair Touching," he delivers a line that is painfully direct: "Currently fabulous/perhaps at last/the song you sing will have meaning. " Isolation Drills is shot through with a deep sense of remorse over missed opportunities and a lurking fear of loneliness. Pollard's not speaking romantically but publicly -- he seems aware that this is probably GBV's last shot at greatness and he sounds desperate to live up to it. "There's a better road ahead," he sings on "The Brides Have Hit Glass," adding that "I just don't know how to make it there/so I'll just hang around and take my chance."
Ultimately, Isolation Drills is GBV's All That You Can't Leave Behind, their triumphant return to form -- even though they've never sounded this good before. And early sales point to impending commercial success as well. During the week following its release in early April, Isolation Drills sold more copies than any of the band's previous albums, debuting on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart at number 168. It's the first time any of the band's albums have appeared on the list.
This time, the applause is for both the bear and the dance: the grumbling, never-say-die Pollard and his spirited, poignant career album.
You can e-mail Stephen Deusner at email@example.com.
by CHRIS HERRINGTON
After breaking into the Top 10 of our local music poll last week, Greg Oblivian's new band The Reigning Sound has a big week ahead of them with a 7" single and debut album, Break-up Breakdown, due out on the Sympathy for the Record Industry label. The Reigning Sound will be performing on the porch at Shangri-La Records Friday, May 11th, at 5 p.m. and will be signing copies of the new records. Shangri-La has another front-porch, record-release performance slated for Sunday, May 20th, at 4 p.m. when singer-songwriter Cory Branan will be playing and signing copies of his MADJACK debut The Hell You Say.
Also at Shangri-La this week, author Richard Younger will sign copies of his new book, Get a Shot of Rhythm and Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story (University of Alabama Press). The late Alexander was one of the soul stars of the Muscle Shoals sound in the '60s and produced such classics as "Anna," "You Better Move On," and "Rainbow Road." Younger will be at Shangri-La on Wednesday, May 16th, at 5 p.m. and will also be giving a reading and signing at The Deliberate Literate at noon on Thursday, May 17th.
On the strength of the breakout hit "Chickenhead," Project Pat's Mista Don't Play has been certified gold. The video for the album's second single, the ubiquitous-on-local-radio "Don't Save Her," was recently shot in Miami with what the band's label characterizes as a Baywatch theme. It was directed by the same team who helmed Three 6 Mafia's upcoming straight-to-video feature Choices.
After two shows from the man himself a couple of weeks ago, B.B. King's Blues Club turned 10 on May 3rd. The club plans an official anniversary celebration for this August.
Plan ahead: There are plenty of notable concerts on tap in the coming weeks, with a special reunion by D.C. hardcore legends Bad Brains leading the way. Re-dubbed "Soul Brains" for legal reasons, H.R., Dr. Know, and company will be at Last Place on Earth on Friday, June 15th. Tickets went on sale last Friday for a big hip-hop and R&B show slated for the Mid-South Coliseum on Thursday, June 14th. The Seagram's Gin Live tour will feature Mystikal, Ludacris, Jagged Edge, Jaheim, and Lil' Jon and the East Side Boyz. Bluegrass elder statesman Del McCourey will grace the stage at the Hi-Tone Café on Thursday, May 17th, and will be followed at the club on Sunday, May 20th, by the official release party for Cory Branan's debut album. -- Chris Herrington