“Our cubehouse still rocks as earwitness to the thunder of his arafatas …” (Finnegans Wake by James Joyce (1939))
After recent splutters, something of a return to “the thunder of his arafatas” for Robert Pollard’s current project Boston Spaceships on Our Cubehouse Still Rocks. Actually the band’s 4th album in two years, Pollard’s extraordinary musical eclecticism shows no sign of running out of steam.
The range of music here suggests Pollard may be turning into an American-styled Andy Partridge (rather than Joyce) figure, with dizzying musical references: his “collage” approach to recording is a lot of fun and the band’s debut Brown Submarine in 2008 demonstrated a fresh new direction for the former Guided By Voices singer-songwriter – a lo-fi garage sound and songs rarely clocking in at much more than 2 minutes. Ironic, given the studio excesses of 80s AOR bands like Boston, Jefferson Airplane and REO Speedwagon, where the band takes it name.
Momentum was maintained with 2009′s The Planets Are Blasted and a string of eps, but by Zero To 99 in the same year reviews were less enthusiastic, as Pollard experimented with a wider musical palette and managed the band’s overall sound more; perhaps distancing himself from a fixation with heroes like The Who and Cheap Trick. The lukewarm reception was a bit unfair, there were certainly moments when that album really shone, with the infusive and inventive ‘Pluto the Skate’ and ‘Found Obstruction Rock’n’rolls’, and a song like ‘How Wrong You Are’ is so full of familiar 70s stirrings you could almost reach out and touch it. But fans restless for Pollard to return to the lo-fi garage sound needn’t have worried, on Our Cubehouse Still Rocks Pollard and his bandmates (multi-instrumentalist and also former GBV member Chris Slusarenko and The Decemberists drummer John Moen) give back the fans what they want … but is it the right thing to do?
Well, maybe. The overall coherence of the recordings here is a mark of the relationship between the 3 musicians and underlines the Fading Captain’s need for a sympathetic band to distill the undoubted quality of his work from a sprawl of songs just “posted” in at the behest of the record company. Applying the brakes may be the reason classic GBV albums like Alien Lanes and Bee Thousand stand the test of time better than his solo material. The jury’s still out on recently-released Moses On A Snail, although Pollard is rumoured to have written 10 out of the 12 songs in a day. Under those conditions, something has to give!
The man himself is pretty much in his element on Cubehouse, the songs sounding very retro- and spanning many eras of pop-rock. ‘Track Star’ is a familiar Who-style opener, possibly the reminiscences of the young college athlete who once considered becoming a professional sportsman. References to movement and being propelled forward are often a feature of Pollard’s work:
“He runs with flies that bite the eyes of other guys // he runs he runs the state golden gear every year he runs // lays it down before it’s cold before he’s too old he runs.”
The accompanying guitar reaches crescendo, not unlike a certain Pete Townsend, but it somehow stops short of all-out Quadrophenia. No mistaking the Daltrey-esque swagger either on ‘In The Bathroom (Up Half The Night)’ at the other end of the album. The songs which bookend Cubehouse are full of energy and purpose, by and large sustained throughout its 16 tracks, and no doubt keeping the faithful happy. Pollard as usual indulges us with a few odd but entertaining titles: ‘John The Dwarf Wants To Become An Angel’ is anthemic and poppy, shades of the pop-psychedelia of Andy Partridge and XTC, a wonderful album highlight. ‘Trick Of The Telekinetic Newlyweds’ is garagy and REM-like, plucked from the ‘Green’ period before Peter Buck got sick of the guitar, although the wordplay is quirky and Devo-esque with references to malfunctioning circuitry and mind control. Actually, it’s very hard not to hear some sort of connection with Michael Stipe and REM on any Pollard recording, and Cubehouse is no exception, with songs like ‘Stunted’, ‘Dunkirk’ and ‘Stamp Green’ somehow diminishing the album.
‘Come on baby Grace’ takes us on another stroll down memory lane, a catchy chorus hinting at the work of Paul Westerberg and The Replacements, and some of the darker elements on Cubehouse have the air of 80s Wire about them, notably ‘Fly Away (Terry Sez)’ and ‘Freedom Rings’. All-too-brief ‘Unshaven Bird’ changes the pace slightly, an unmistakable nod to Pollard’s heroes Cheap Trick and power-pop balladry, and another anthemic chorus:
“I am united with crow high brow wherever we go // and when you break it down // doesn’t really matter what you do // double time and double dare // A breath of poison air and we are through.”
The guitar firepower on Our Cubehouse Still Rocks is augmented with guest slots by fomer GBV guitarist Doug Gillard and Sam Coomes of Quasi, giving the album a real garage-band snarl to bolster the melody of Pollard’s compositions. And that’s where many of Pollard’s fans would like him to leave it, focusing on what he arguably does best. The willful experimentation is a two-edged sword: power pop ballads and psychedelia can breathe life into his work, but some of the album’s quirkier moments, ‘The British And The French’ (yes, that was a squeezebox!) and ‘Dunkirk’ (accordion!) are needless filler.
Pollard seems undecided whether to experiment or just rock out in the complete no frills garage package. Early reports suggest a double album next stop for the Boston Spaceships, so the Pollard bandwagon relentlessly marches on, but whatever shape it takes this house is sure to rock!