One possible explanation for these two records, in fairy-tale form, entirely fictional: Once upon a time, on a snowy Christmas morning in Dayton, Ohio, a large box sat beneath the Pollard family tree. Surrounded by fallen pine needles and reflecting colored lights off its gold metallic paper, the handsome package seemed just about bursting to be opened. Around 2 p.m., Robert Pollard awoke from a heavy, drunken slumber and managed his way into a pair of slippers. He shuffled downstairs, gripping the banister, and spied the box waiting for him. Attached to the ribbon was a small card that read, in flowery calligraphy, "Bob For when you're too plastered to pick up a guitar. Love, Your Old Lady." Robert, sitting Indian style, ripped the gold wrapping from the box. His face lit up. In his lap was a magic karaoke-like machine, and in his cloudy head a thousand new ideas for a thousand new records.
So far, he's got five under his belt. These albums find Pollard recording vocal tracks to music that other musicians composed, recorded and then sent to him ("postal rock," Pollard calls it). While Bob chills at the bar, making plans and coming up with track listings for Fading Captain numbers 75-80, his collaborators are in their studios across the country crafting the next musical springboards for Pollard's unique lyrical world view. These karaoke-style albums, in theory, allow the man to focus his considerable talents strictly on melody, lyrics, and vocal delivery. Whether or not he comes through seems to depend on the project: Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department, which he made with Guided by Voices axe-man Doug Gillard, finds Pollard at the top of his non-GBV game; Tower in the Fountain of Sparks, by Airport 5 (Pollard and Tobin Sprout, formerly of GBV) is a more eccentric, muddled bag of tricks. Circus Devils' Ringworm Interiors finds Pollard out on the fringe, working out over deeply strange psychedelic experiments.
These two recent albums fit the same bill. Calling Zero, recorded under the moniker Go Back Snowball, features 12 songs with music supplied by Superchunk's Mac MacCaughan. Pollard's lyrics here are as typically puzzling as the song titles ("Dumbluck Systems Stormfront," "Lifetime for the Mavericks"), and his delivery, for the most part, as good as his work on GBV's last full-length, Isolation Drills.
Life Starts Here, the new Airport 5 record, is less successful. There's an unmistakable sense of stagnation in the songs, a boredom brought on perhaps by too many records made with Sprout, or just not enough inspiration for new material. The fault lies equally with both collaborators. Sprout's songs are generally plodding and aimless, with a few high points; Pollard's vocals sound lax and unplanned, spontaneous but somehow lacking in spontaneity. It's as if they were hanging out, waiting for something to happen only it never did.
"Radical Girl," which opens the Go Back Snowball disc, has the particular distinction of being the first song in Pollard's recording career in which he's backed by horns. They add a nice, warm touch to his somewhat gruff delivery, but, more importantly, they mark a new movement in his oeuvre. Not that Go Back Snowball is vastly different from previous projects; rather, a lot of this material is cut from the GBV cloth. But the new backdrop and the new team inject a sense of vitality and excitement into the formula. It helps that Pollard seems genuinely interested here, slightly fascinated with the new material, impressed, and stimulated by a new partnership. It's like Bob wants to show off to his new friend.
This is especially prevalent in "Go Gold," a light acoustic number with a chorus reminiscent of the GBV classic "Don't Stop Now"; both songs revel in a strong melody of subtle triumph, one that could, for live purposes, be sung with a fist in the air. "Again the Waterloo" is a rocky, bumpy track that finds Pollard juxtaposing MacCaughan's electronic sounds with a little electronic tweaking of his voice. It's not beautiful, or even very effective, but there's a playfulness in the experimentation that's endearing. And, anyway, the album more than makes up for any less-inspired moments with songs like "Never Forget Where You Get Them," another fist-in-the-air raver, or "It Is Divine," which counters a sweet, high vocal with ABBA-esque '70s twin-guitar action. MacCaughan's music on the disc falls somewhere to the left of Superchunk's crunching rock and Portastatic's loose pop it's simple but planned out, executed professionally, and Pollard treats it with respect and caution.
He seems less respectful of the tapes sent to him by Sprout. Take "Life Starts Here," which supplies Pollard with a nice drum-and-drone backdrop for a rather beautiful repeating chant: "And life starts, and life starts, and life starts here." Beautiful, that is, until Pollard lays some mad-street-prophet ranting and deliriously off-key lines over it. Throw in what sounds like tortured echoes in the background and you've got something really obnoxious. Granted, tonality has never been a focus in Pollard's numerous side projects, but at least he usually sounds like he cares.
There are pockets of success here and there, including the heartfelt melody of "How Brown?" and the rousing return to form of "Yellow Wife No. 5." But still, this is one for the fading captains and few others, as Pollard just doesn't give enough of himself to merit anyone else really listening to it. Calling Zero is the far better choice of the two. You could, of course, hold out for the next karaoke album who knows how many legions of musicians are toiling around the world for their chance to collaborate with the GBV frontman? Or just wait for the next Guided by Voices album, Universal Truths and Cycles (due mid-June). Bob recently said he's spending more time on GBV material than on his side projects, and that may be just what the "King of Lo-Fi" needs to be doing.
[Note: The "7" rating applies to Calling Zero, while Life Starts Here gets a "4."]