Following in the mighty footsteps of my fellow wizard, Chorizo Garbanzo, and his list of dreary Welsh pop songs, it was obvious to me that what the blogosphere really needs now, more than ever, is a guiding hand through the daunting back catalogue of prolificacy’s own Robert Ellsworth Pollard, Jr.
Consider this. Since 1999, Robert Pollard has released albums (don’t even get started on EPs or individual tracks on, for example, the three 100 track Suitcase collections) under the following alphabetically ordered guises:
Acid Ranch (3 LPs), Airport 5 (2 LPs), Boston Spaceships (5 LPs), Circus Devils (9 LPs – with 2 more on their way next month), Cosmos (1 LP), Go Back Snowball (1 LP), Hazzard Hotrods (2 LPs), Howling Wolf Orchestra (1 LP), Keene Brothers (1 LP), Lifeguards (2 LPs), Mars Classroom (1 LP), The Moping Swans (1 LP), Nightwalker (1 LP), Phantom Tollbooth (1 LP), Psycho & The Birds (2 LPs), Smegma & Antler (1 LP), Soft Rock Renegades (1 LP), The Takeovers (2 LPs) and Teenage Guitar (1 LP).
In addition, there has been a wonderful collaboration with Doug Gillard and 22 albums (including two official live releases) as Guided By Voices. However, this still leaves a massive body of work released under his own name.
According to the Guided By Voices Database there have been 23 LPs (including 1 Live LP and 2 sets of demos) plus 4 EPs plus 17 singles released as Robert Pollard, a total of 403 songs.
Now consider this. The Oxford Dictionary definition of the verb ‘to pollard’ is:- to cut off the branches of a tree to encourage the growth of new young branches. In other words, a form of pruning, of reducing mass. So much for nominative determinism, you might think, but in fact there is something interesting going on here. Could a working back through the songs of the past bring more understanding to those of the present? Not a cutting away per se, but a firing away (of crushed empties?) to give more room for the new songs.
Pollard’s latest collection under his own name, Honey Locust Honky Tonk, comes 17 years after his first, Not In My Airforce. I remember hearing a track from the latter on the late John Peel’s radio show played back to back with one from Tobin Sprout’s ‘Carnival Boy’ (released on the same day) and thinking this is a pretty neat temporary diversion from the real business of Guided By Voices (who were in the middle of a run of fantastic records: Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, Under The Bushes Under The Stars). Little did I know what my record collection (well, the GBV part of it, anyway) would come to look like.
Listening to the latest record over the last couple of months not only had me thinking that it would inevitably be in my top 5 records of the year, but also got me wondering how much of an impact the more recent Robert Pollard LPs would make on a list of my favourite songs released under his own name. All but 5 of the Robert Pollard LPs have been released since the original split of Guided By Voices in 2004 and now that the reformed band have seemingly stopped releasing records again, maybe we find ourselves in the third phase of Robert Pollard’s Robert Pollard songs. Not really a rebirth, but maybe a pollarding of creative output.
Anyway, whether or not any of that makes sense, here is a list of my favourite Robert Pollard songs released as Robert Pollard. Naturally, presented in reverse order, and with my favourite parts of each song highlighted. Of course, the list is subject to change, not only in terms of order, but I am also sure I have left out songs that should have been included (why not let me know in the comments section below). But, still, here goes…
50. Back To The Farm (from the album Superman Was A Rocker) – Pollard stars as country character Hiram Campbell in an opening skit offering to “beat your head in with both my banjos” before the song kicks into a sublime instrumental that is so good it appears twice in this list. Is it only me that was hoping this same character was going to front the rumoured Pollard country album set for release this year? Honey Locust Honky Tonk is many things, but it isn’t that.
49. No Island (The Crawling Distance) – The chord change as the song goes into the refrain gets me every time, along with the resigned acceptance of “well, at least an outpost” 3 minutes in.
48. Faster To Babylon (We All Got Out Of The Army) – “This will not be the title track..” and then the cello comes in and the song builds with glorious background guitar feedback.
47. I Have To Drink (Honey Locust Honky Tonk) – In under a minute, Bob sums up why any of us Have To Drink. “Alright!!!”
46. Fear Of Heat (B-side to Silk Rotor) – What a great guitar sound there is at the start of this throwaway B-side. The feel is maintained through menacing half-whispered vocals and a pounding rhythm “till the prurient love is gone”.
45. Each Is Good In His Own House (Moses On A Snail) – I love the vocal phrasing that starts with “God drives a cadillac” and the “… in his own house.. and garden” twist.
44. On Top Of The Vertigo (We All Got Out Of The Army) – More crunchy guitar at the start of this one. I don’t remember the ‘Zoom Zoom Room’, but I wish I had been there. Exciting stuff.
43. Science Magazine (Mouseman Cloud) – Pollard’s vocals here have an unusual tremor that suggests something major is being divulged… “I chair the regrettable-act sub-committee”. Top play on words with ‘piece/peace’ too.
42. Conspiracy Of Owls (Fiction Man) – Some great Chris Sheehan piano throughout this one and a rhythm that forces the tune into your head and has it remain there for days.
41. Her Eyes Play Tricks On The Camera (Honey Locust Honky Tonk) – Sounds like a real classic with fantastic vocals right from the off, but especially on the chorus. Got to be from the album of the year, right?
40. Gratification To Concrete (Robert Pollard Is Off To Business) – Oh that wah wah sound and some really powerful drumming. No wonder “she said wow a hundred times”.
39. Penumbra (Coast To Coast Carpet Of Love) – Spooky riff? Check. Silly voice in the middle of the song? Check. Yet another earworm? You bet.
38. Red Rubber Army (Jack Sells The Cow) – Another immediate melody, but it’s the little guitar sounds we first hear 25 seconds in that gets me.
37. Rumbling Joker (Waved Out) – The first song on this list that has Bob on all instruments. At 1’48” the vocals get doubled-up and there is a fantastic crashing guitar (?) sound.
36. Accident Hero (Elephant Jokes) – Some fairly unhinged vocals feature in this track, which combined with a neat little keyboard riff and whistling (?) makes for a fine minute and a half.
35. Who Buries The Undertaker? (Honey Locust Honky Tonk) – Another stand out track from the latest record. It’s the refrain that makes it for me, especially the way Bob sings “And who marries the cakemaker?”.
34. On Shortwave (The Crawling Distance) – Again a cello sets the tone and Bob’s slowed down phrasing throughout draws you in to a melancholy treat “on short… wave.”
33. Pegasus Glue Factory (Normal Happiness) – Do I hear castanets? Probably not, but there are some interesting background noises here. The solo at 1’55” is particularly neat and takes us to a tremendous coda. Oh, and here we also have the best song title on the list to date I would suggest.
32. In A Circle (Lord Of The Birdcage) – Chorizo Garbanzo reckons this is the best Robert Pollard track. Clearly, he’s not right about that. In fact it’s not even the best song on this album, but it is definitely a great song. The circular guitar riff suits the subject matter and I really like the line “in inconstant reverie/ in make shift comfort suites/ in 9 o’clock meetings…”
31. Weatherman And Skin Goddess (Robert Pollard Is Off To Business) – “Yes, no, baby..” What a great start to a song that is. More great vocals on the repeated lines “keep me crying/trying”. The slowed down section that ends with “answer me now” is also great. I have no idea what the song is about.
30. Miles Under The Skin (Coast To Coast Carpet Of Love) – Another killer riff kicks this song off, but it’s the launch into “baby, it’s a free way/ where nothing can destroy you” at 1’03” that gets the hairs on my neck upright.
29. Feel Not Crushed (Standard Gargoyle Decisions) – A great guitar sound on this track and Bob’s vocals are suitably slightly distorted to particularly great effect when again they double up at 1’33” on the line “… by fathers and mothers or those who hand it down…”
28. Dunce Codex (Lord Of The Birdcage) – Note to Garbanzo – this is the best song from this album. A weird guitar riff under some top notch lead work from Mr Tobias and vocals from Bob that are seemingly constantly on the edge of falling apart. “Please excuse me, I lost my girl and I need to go find her”. Heartbreaking stuff.
27. A Boy In Motion (From A Compound Eye) – Recently included on our monthly playlist, I had previously tended to overlook this song when thinking about the FACE masterpiece. But, it is another fine example of a Pollard earworm with its military beat and the great delivery of the line “it’s been removed”.
26. Conqueror Of The Moon (From A Compound Eye) – Also from FACE, this is Bob at his prog-rock influenced best. In a song with distinct sections – movements (?) – it is the searing guitar that starts at 2’05” that goes into the Hawkwind-esque middle section that I really love.
Well, congratulations if you have read this far. We are now half way in our countdown and time, perhaps, to pause and consider how far we have come etc. and so on. Or maybe just treat yourself to a viewing of this (thanks to Jonathan Casey for filming):
25. Girl Named Captain (Not In My Airforce) – Great drums from Kevin Fennell to start this one and outstanding vocals from Bob throughout with my favourite line closing things off: “I’m not in your dreams / Get out of mine.”
24. Snatch Candy (Kid Marine) – A little gem, this one – great bass sound from Demos and Bob sings fantastically, especially on the line “a carefree world / sugarless”, but the highlight for me is the keyboard that comes in at 1’05” and takes us to the close. Beautiful.
23. The Weekly Crow (Moses On A Snail) – Guitar + cello is a combination that, for me, rarely can be beaten. The dual vocal call-and-response with low Bob and regular Bob also works a treat.
22. Sea Of Dead (Fiction Man) – I love the extended intro on this with its strings and things, but it is Bob’s reverb treated vocal that kicks in with “You think you can run / You think you can hide” that really kills.
21. I Can See (We All Got Out Of The Army) – I love the line “look but don’t think” especially as it leads to the section of the song where Bob unleashes his inner Roger Daltrey from 2’30” on. Some great bizarre lyrics here too: “baptized removed all the dross round my brain / a ticket so thick it was flies on meringue”, anyone?
20. Pontius Pilate Heart (Jack Sells The Cow) – Another contender for song title of the blog, this song is all about chiming arpeggiated guitar. However, it is the brief solo at 1’12” that sticks out for me. That, and the brief burst of guitar a minute later and then again when the keyboards come in for the last 30 seconds or so. A really uplifting song.
19. Love Your Spaceman (Superman Was A Rocker) – And here we have a reprise of the instrumental part of Back To The Farm. This time with lyrics like “She said the distance between/ Is quite a distance” that lend themselves to a myriad of meanings. My favourite bit though is when Bob gives it loads on the “love your spaceman” bit 1’30” in.
18. Trial Of Affliction And Light Sleeping (Fiction Man) – The hesitant guitar at the start soon makes way for a great sound that runs at pace throughout this little nugget. I love the vocals that start at 0’44” “burn it in theatre / burn it on cable TV” as the guitar goes fucking mental. Makes me want to jump around and shout, which has got to be a good thing, right?
17. Release The Sunbird (Not In My Airforce) – Another masterclass in how to write a melancholic song. The droning keyboard (or is it a guitar?) in the background is the bit that really does it for me – brings tears to my eyes every time I listen. “… time can only free you when she’s gone…”
16. Harrison Adams (Motel Of Fools) – “Go ‘ding!’ and fall over..” A really beautiful song this – I really like the line “give into the umpire / feel his air”, but, of course, it is the killer chorus that really makes it. I also really like the nice bit of feedback that pops in at 3’13”. This song would be higher if the drunken chat at the end weren’t there.
15. Make Use (Waved Out) – This song is mostly about a great guitar riff courtesy of Bob himself, but Jimmy Mac’s drumming is also superb and the two mesh together perfectly at around 1’30”. Then there is the fabulous distorted synth that is ‘made use’ of only once at 2’13”. Wow.
14. Circle Saw Boys Club (Silverfish Trivia) – Another beautiful song with killer lines like “where x-men saw no heroes / only firemen crossing swords”. Some fantastically emotional singing from Bob – notably at 1 minute in “god almighty / we saw it coming” and on the final lines “in the circle saw boys club / it is vacant / it is.” It melts me every time.
13. Shadow Port (Standard Gargoyle Decisions) – A great ominously building guitar takes us from “it’s gone to hell / you know that it has” to “see – I remember me / love – I remember her” in a, frankly, creepy way before Bob’s evil alter-ego comes to the fore to deliver the line “slashing like razor / design us like you / chosen escaping of the night / out all over”. This is then upped by the closing repeated line “she has wings / are you watching her?”. A complete horror movie in under 3 minutes.
12. Get Under It (Not In My Airforce) – I really like the vocal sound here with its slight distortion and the fact that Bob delivers some of his more direct lyrics that rank up there with Morrissey for social realism “The dress isn’t flattering you / When you don it like you do / You expect me to approve / but I just won’t.”
11. U.S. Mustard Company (From A Compound Eye) – The arpeggio at the start is great, but it is outdone by the fantastic chorus “contain yourself” with its little piano fills. I also love the line “make yourself feel like it used to be / throw away your charts of progress”, which really appeals to my inner nerd.
So here we are then, about to enter the top ten. But before we do, have a listen to this to see what I mean by ‘little piano fills’.
OK, so now it’s time for the top ten. Hold on to your hats!
10. People Are Leaving (Waved Out) – A song unlike any other in the Pollard canon. A haunting piano leads us into dual vocal lines that, like ‘The Murder Mystery’ by The Velvet Underground, gives the listener a choice of which lyrics to follow. At times these come together in glorious harmony, at others snippets of the lyrics fall out in moments of clarity like “The angels are making circles/ A gift to every naked fat baby” if clarity is the right word. The result is a moving masterpiece that a number of GBV nuts on the Strong Lions mailing list have nominated as a song to leave this world to (see our funeral podcast for more on this). Mention should also go to co-writer and multi-instrumentalist, Stephanie Sayers, who appears on just this one Robert Pollard track, but what a track.
9. Love Is Stronger Than Witchcraft (From A Compound Eye) – Again we have a great arpeggiated guitar to start, but it is Bob’s singing that makes this song so great. His delivery is fantastic throughout notably the call-to-arms “damn!” at 1’57” that takes the song into its proggy middle-eight and the partly inaudible exhortations therein. Oh, and the lyrics are fantastic too, not only the positivity of the title itself, but also the opening verse of “What you call this Jesus mind / I can’t focus on it anymore / But I’m doing all the good things you said I should do / To be a damn good model” that speaks to all us fathers out here. Well, this one anyway.
8. I Killed A Man Who Looks Like You (Honey Locust Honky Tonk) – The best song from the best album released this year. I have already talked about this at length on our podcast 13, but let me reiterate. I love the guitars that, with their open chords, seem to fly into the ether. The melody still hasn’t left me since I first heard the song and the lyrics, well, lines like “Sacrificed prodigious son / I innocently drew the gun / To orchestrate no go away / To come too late some other day / And I killed a man who looks like you / I don’t understand the things a man won’t do…” get my imagination racing. Is this, perhaps, the country song that Bob has been rumoured to be making? Well, it sounds like a country fable to me (if not fabled country) and it sure fits a lot into under 2 minutes. I also bet REM are pretty pleased they’ve retired.
7. Their Biggest Win (Fiction Man) – From Bob’s last solo album before the closing of the initial Guided By Voices chapter, and still one of my favourites. This is, in fact, the closing song and yes, it has a great Todd Tobias guitar sound and yes, it has a fantastic racing rhythm, but really it’s all about the chorus “And we say nothing but when we want some / And we do nothing but when we get some” that makes it so good. Then at 2’28” the instrumentation falls back temporarily for that line to really hit home before the psychedelic tour-de-force of a guitar line that blows everything else away for the rest of the song. What a closer! Much like an Aroldis Chapman fastball.
6. The Butler Stands For All Of Us (The Crawling Distance) – A great guitar riff in this one too, but it is the overall feel, a mixture of both sadness and optimism that only Pollard seems to get right, that marks this song out as a classic. I really love the refrain “Arounder and longer and safer and stronger / It pays to know who you are / That’s who you are” without really knowing what it means. The whole song is sung beautifully and also contains the line “Ease off on your querulous sidekicks”, which is sensible advice for anyone, let alone one of three wizards.
5. The Ash Gray Proclamation (Not In My Airforce) – A great loose guitar sound from Bob himself on this classic from his first solo album. It is the way the guitar rhythm and lead meld together in the second, instrumental, half of the song that really makes it for me. Absolutely mesmeric.I also love the opening line: “… the shuttle bus is leaving us / It has collected 50 souls / Who have redefined our roles…” despite, or perhaps because of, again not really knowing what it means or who it refers to.
4. Powerblessings (Kid Marine) – Of course the great thing about Guided By Voices reforming recently was the fact that we got to hear Robert Pollard and Tobin Sprout play and sing together. A magical mix. And here, Tobin brings about 13 seconds of piano to this song at 1’20” that is just right. I really love the keyboard sound that Bob plays on this too and the way it merges with the acoustic guitar at 20 seconds in is just sublime. The lyrics sound like an incantation to me and when I was a primary school teacher, I always thought it was something that should be read at morning assembly. “Powerblessings to you and all of you.”
3. Piss Along You Bird (B-side to Rud Fins) – This is another song that has previously been discussed on this blog – as part of my nominating Bob as the best swearer in rock. However, it is more than just the curious title of the song that sees it at number 3 in my list. I first heard the song as the B-side to the first single released in the one-a-month series of 12 singles in 2007 on the newly established Happy Jack Rock Records label. The A-side was pretty good, but the B-side was fantastic and it took me back to the days when music was much less accessible and when you bought a 7″ single and played it over and over again. This record was on my turntable for weeks, with the flip uppermost. It hooked me from the opening ‘Alright, alright, alright…” and I love the speeding up and slowing down of the song as it builds to reveal the “message to your sender” that arrives at 1’38” “No means no and maybe means no and yes means no”. Damn right. Oh, and “Piss along you bird” is also a fantastic phrase that I spend every working day trying to engineer into conversation, but that might just be me.
2. Psychic Pilot Clocks Out (Not In My Airforce) – 4 minutes of genius. From the opening guitar squalls to the coolest of cool guitar riffs and we’re still less than a minute in. At 1’11” the drums kick in and we’re off with “The sign sheds light on who is lonely / Run and hide / I’m alright”. The guitar comes to the fore again in the instrumental section at 2’03” before more great lyrics “Don’t be defensive / Not with me”. Yet all this is just setting us up for the big pay off at 3’15” when Bob goes into overdrive with, in my opinion, his best phlegm-speckled vocals ever and the clarion call of “I feel life passing on by us, passing on by us, passing on by us”. Life-affirming stuff.
1. Subspace Biographies (Waved Out) – The best Robert Pollard Robert Pollard song and it’s appropriate that the bulk of the instrumentation is from Bob himself. But first, let’s give credit to the drumming of Jimmy Mac, which gets stronger and stronger as the song reaches its climax, and perhaps more so to the bass lines of John Shough that propel the song along at its irresistable rate. After the delicious intertwinning of bass with Bob’s beautifully picked guitar at the start, it is 25 seconds in when the great keyboard sound that dominates this song is heard ‘bup- bup – bup/ bup- bup- bup/ bup – bup – bup- baa- baa’. A sound that now dominates my dreams. Then the lyrics start with as good an opening line as any Bob has come up with (the start to Pop Zeus being my all time favourite) “Has there been a break today / Stoned comedian Ringo?” At the end of the first verse we hear another brilliant guitar line before that keyboard refrain returns and then the pace quickens and we get the mega chorus “I am quail and quasar / I picked you up on radar / I do my job each day / Empties crushed and fired away”. Phenomenal stuff – quail AND quasar? One would have been enough. And then at 1’38” there is the none more profound line “There is nothing worse than / An undetermined person”. All of which is worth repeating before unbelievably the pace is ratcheted up even further at 2’14” with an additional feedbacking guitar in the background. And guess what? What? It’s even better live.
So there we have it, These 50 Robert Pollard songs taken from a tiny portion of his back catalogue over the period 1996 – 2013 and as it turns out pretty evenly spread out over the 20 studio albums. These are the number of tracks taken from each:
5: Not In My Airforce
4: Fiction Man, From A Compound Eye, Honey Locust Honky Tonk, Waved Out
3: The Crawling Distance, We All Got Out Of The Army
2: Coast To Coast Carpet Of Love, Jack Sells The Cow, Kid Marine, Lord Of The Birdcage, Moses On A Snail, Robert Pollard Is Off To Business, Standard Gargoyle Decisions, Superman Was A Rocker
1: Elephant Jokes, Motel Of Fools, Mouseman Cloud, Normal Happiness, Silverfish Trivia EP
plus 2 B-sides
Unfortunately, not all these wonderful tracks are available on Spotify (so go out and buy the albums from long, live Rockathon or elsewhere), but here is a taster:
Also, let us know what you think about the list in the comments section below.
If 50 songs aren’t enough for you, here are 50 more.