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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

There are two songs on Guided by Voices'1995 release Alien Lanes that clock in each at less than two minutes and are, to my taste, perfect pop songs. "A Good Flying Bird" is wonderful; "As We Go Up, We Go Down" is better. There are two songs on the same album, "Ugly Vision" and "Pimple Zoo," each clocking in at less than two minutes, which, to my taste, sound like toss-offs in all connotations of that phrase. There are 24 other songs on the album, the majority of them almost excellent, a few almost awful. And there are a lot of GbV albums, all with a lot of songs.

Robert Pollard, the engine of GbV, yesterday released his first solo album since GbV called it quits following 2004's "Half-Smile of the Decomposed," and like GbV albums it contains a lot of songs. "From a Compound Eye" rings in with 26 songs, and feels and sounds like a GbV album. GbV, always with Pollard as polestar, evolved ever more into a Pollard project since Tobin Sprout left the band after Alien Lanes - and for me, Alien Lanes and Bee Thousand are the band's best - so it is neither fair to have expected something revolutionary or fair to be disappointed that it's not revolutionary. Some of the songs are wonderful, especially "Love is Stronger than Witchcraft," most are blessed by at least one good hook, a few seem filler at a generous best.

But I've heard this album. At a certain point the issue of prolificness needs addressing. Besides GbV albums there are boatloads of other solo and side projects. If everything that Pollard composes is committed to recording, how is the casual listener to value any of it as more than generalized noodling? If Pollard believes that his devoted followers want to hear everything he conceives, and those conceptions inevitably lead to constant reiterations and reworkings of favorite themes and sounds, the distinctions ultimately become fascinating only to devout Pollardologists who delight in and take pride in their universal knowledge of a microcosm. Whether intentionally or not, Pollard's amazing production has created a cult - and anyone who has been to a GbV concert can't help but notice the cultish rites of the true followers - and one of the defining characteristics of a cult is the insider/outsider division. Pollard's music is the language the cult uses to define who belongs, who doesn't. The more of it there is to know the fewer people there will be able to speak the language, reifying those members' credibility in the cult.

I'm not trying to impute sinister motives to Pollard, suggesting he sits in his basement studio comtemplating how best to manipulate his brainwashed followers. I've seen enough shows to believe that he's having fun and that he's sensibly determined it's a lot more fun to make money making music than slicing meat at Safeway. I can easily imagine that he is the type of artist who has to completely abandon a project in order to cleanly start another and that for him that abandonment is signified by a song's commitment to recording. He may be unable, as are many artists, to judge the merits of his own songs. He may be simply generous.

But ten years ago GbV was considered an important, major band, Pollard a major figure, "Alien Lanes" and "Bee Thousand" landmark indie albums. GbV could never have been U2 famous, Pollard could never have been on the cover of Tiger Beat, but they should have been more famous than they ended up, selling a determined number of albums to a determined set of fans and to small critical applause. On each year's GbV album, from 1995 through 2004, on each of the solo and side project albums, buried in the 25 songs on each album, are gems. Each year fewer people feel the desire to search for them.

Here are some GbV mp3s.

Everywhere with Helicopter

Father Sgt Xmas Card

My Kind of Soldier

Best of Jill Hives

Gonna Never Have to Die

Teenage FBI (produced by Ric Ocasek, and you can hear it.)

Lots more here.

OH!, just found Love is Stronger than Witchcraft

Friday morning update: a spotlight article in Friday's Washington Post Weekend Section about Pollard. He's playing 930Club in DC tomorrow night - I've an offer of a ticket, but cannot make it.

Monday morning update: the Pitchfork review