Back in the mid-1990s, in what is widely considered his lo-fi golden years, Guided By Voices frontman Robert Pollard famously (and rather crudely) declared that he could “write five songs on the crapper, and three of them will be good.” By the time of his band’s dissolution at the end of 2004, Pollard had over 1,000 officially released songs to his name, under the guise of various side projects and monikers. Perhaps one of the most recorded and documented songwriter of all time, Pollard has remained surprisingly true to his word in the decade that followed. The only problem is, as good as those three songs may be, he’s still going to release the two stinkers.
Now on the brink of his fifties, Pollard hasn’t let up; he has already published over 100 songs in 2007 alone, with still more releases slated. Tuesday marked his most fruitful day of the year, with Merge Records simultaneously releasing competing full-lengths — “Coast to Coast Carpet of Love,” the alleged return to the creamy pop perfection that is Pollard’s trademark, and “Standard Gargoyle Decisions,” which finds him exploring the stranger, more obtuse facets of his muse.
“Carpet Of Love” begins with the rolling chords of “Our Gaze,” an aerodynamic guitar number that finds Pollard in his best form since the dissolution of his most beloved band. “Customer’s Throat” recalls the bouncy gait and light-hearted guitars of 1995’s lo-fi classic “Alien Lanes,” and the slow-burning ballad “Miles Under the Skin” feels like the mid-tempo cousin of that album’s “Motor Away.” While the record hits its mark more often than not, it does contain several glaring missteps: “Exactly What Words Mean” is most indicative, as Pollard grasps desperately for a hook, his voice sounding painfully strained and worn.
This is a trapping that appears throughout many of “Carpet of Love”’s weaker moments, even more pronouncedly so on “Standard Gargoyle Decisions,” its more ambitious and problematic companion. “Lay Me Down” suffers from the very same aimlessness, and tracks like “Motion Sickness Ghosts” and “Here Comes Garcia” find Pollard exploring horribly gruff, unpalatable new vocal territory. And yet, when “Gargoyle Decisions” is what it aims to be, it’s far more compelling than the straight-laced “Carpet Of Love”: “Shadow Port” and “I In the World” are fascinating, surging behemoths of rock’n’roll confidence, and on “Psycho-Intertia,” Pollard rocks a jagged riff straight out of the Queens of the Stone Age playbook. And while he quickly abandons it thirty seconds in, the electro-dance rhythm and fey vocal groove Pollard rides at the beginning of “Pill Gone Girl” is exhilarating; it’s refreshing to hear someone 1200-odd songs into his career continuing to challenge himself.
Still though, the boundaries of these two purportedly “entirely different albums” seem loosely defined at best: the lovely pop effervescence of “Folded Claws” off “Decisions” could just as easily fit on “Carpet of Love,” as could the tape-hissing boom-box throwback, “Come Here Beautiful.” Likewise, “Carpet of Love”’s “Penumbra” keenly marries a Middle Eastern milieu with surf-rock guitars and harmonies, a strangely appealing peanut-butter n’ chocolate mishmash that would feel more at home on “Decisions.” The fact that all 33 of these songs were birthed from the same sessions with Todd Tobias (who plays a key role as producer and multi-instrumentalist throughout) makes the distinction seem even more arbitrary.
Inevitably, the listener is left wishing Pollard could have trimmed the fat from these two releases and compiled a single record — the choicest cuts would comprise his best effort since Guided By Voices’ last masterpiece, 1996’s “Under the Bushes Under the Stars.” Once again, in the long tradition of rock’n’roll double-albums and dual releases, the allure of artistic excess hurts the end product.
But Pollard doesn’t seem to particularly care. The hipster dollar came and went with Guided By Voices’ lo-fi heyday, and now he is free to make the records he wants to make while receiving support from his stable fanbase of lifelong die-hards. Pollard goes so far as to mock his detractors at the beginning of “Gargoyle Decisions” with a voice recording of someone whining, “But Bob! We have to do it this way!” The salvo of cocksure guitars that reply make Pollard’s sentiments quite clear.
And while a little more restraint would have produced a far superior work, it’s hard to condemn the man for giving too much. For those who can keep up, Pollard continues to release far more quality pop rock than can be said for any other single songwriter in our time. After all these years, he’s still 3 for 5, and that ain’t half bad.