The trouble with Robert Pollard is not that he needs an editor. It’s that there need to be more hours in a day in which his fans can digest his output. Since 2006, Pollard has been releasing two albums a year under his own name; one tends to be a twenty-odd track sprawl, while the other is a more condensed series of songs with a somewhat darker mood to them. Look at his solo work in, say, 2009 and you find the gloriously disjointed Elephant Jokes, and the compact thrills of The Crawling Distance, which boasted ‘The Butler Stands for All of Us‘ – one of Pollard’s very finest compositions. Yet, you couldn’t trade tracks from either to make a better whole – you’d only end up with one illogical album, rather than two very definite pieces. And that’s not to mention two Boston Spaceships albums, a collaborative LP released as Cosmos, and the seventh Circus Devils record. Bob Pollard has been doing this long enough. He can compartmentalise. The man knows what he’s doing.
Obviously, this year has seen the return to recording of Guided By Voices’ classic-era line-up; as if making up for lost time, their third LP of the year (The Bears for Lunch) is out in November, with another (English Little League) due next spring. As such, March’s solo effort Mouseman Cloud has been somewhat overlooked; made up of seventeen clattering songs which approached their arrangements with the same playful dexterity as Pollard’s wordplay, it speaks to the more esoteric side of his catalogue with one-minute pop gems rubbing shoulders with dark percussive interludes. It seems like Jack Sells the Cow, his second solo album of the year, may suffer the same sorry fate. The thing is, though, that the songs on those records – or any of Bob’s recent output away from home – don’t sound like Guided By Voices songs. GBV is a band built on the drunken camaraderie of long-time friends, and the “back to the basement” feel of those two so-called comeback albums isn’t something Pollard has any intention of emulating here. Along with long-time producer and fellow Circus Devil Todd Tobias, Jack continues the vein of crisp, muscular power-pop once perpetuated by his Boston Spaceships project (whose best-of collection Out of the Universe by Sundown will arrive only a fortnight after Jack). The weirdness of Mouseman is nowhere to be found – these twelve songs are as lean and mean as Robert Pollard comes.
Jack may be a surprisingly mid-tempo affair, but the hooks come thick and fast. ‘Take In’ marries a spindly guitar line to a breezy vocal melody, while ‘Fighting the Smoke’ is a dirty-ass riff-rocker, boasting some of the meatiest distortion ever captured on a Pollard album. Meanwhile, lead single ‘Who’s Running My Ranch?’ hinges on a nagging bass riff, riding the same wave as earlier kraut-style jams like ‘Faking My Harlequin’, before diving headlong into a killer chorus worthy of your favourite sixties beat combo. It’s these kind of unholy unions of style – firmly rooted in Bob’s beloved four P’s of punk, prog, pop and psych – that make it yet another wonderful and (importantly) substantial Pollard album, albeit one which only clocks in a shade over half an hour. But this ain’t no throwaway, folks.
The jangling ‘Pontius Pilate Heart’ harkens back to Isolation Drills-style arena-sized introspection (“You know I don’t make the rules, I know how you suffer fools”), and you can all but hear Bob holding back high-kicks during the chorus – though its soaring solos are desperately crying out for a little more attention than the mix grants it. In fact, Tobias’s rough and ready production – which has graced Pollard’s releases with increasing importance for over a decade – may be the only thing that holds Jack back. Even though it’s been a while since Bob’s been properly hi-fi, these songs almost need a little more spit and polish to fully shine. Fortunately, the songwriting more than holds its own, especially on the album’s slow-burners: ‘Up for All That’ and ‘Red Rubber Army’ are all stately strum, and the stunning ‘Rank of a Nurse’, a slow-burning almost-power ballad, harks back to the deft seventies anthemics of his 2006 collaboration with Tommy Keene, Blues and Boogie Shoes.
So, Jack Sells the Cow is another more-than-worthy addition to a pulsating, ever-expanding catalogue. It may not scale the relentless pop highs of Robert Pollard Is Off to Business or the emotional lows of Moses on a Snail, but once again, Robert Pollard’s bottomless mine of songs has yielded a whole bunch more nuggets. And if you’re not convinced, but you care enough (as well you should), there’s not long to wait for your next fill of the Fading Captain. Can’t wait to meet those bears for some lunch.