“A change is not going to hurt you Not this time”
I’m seeing GBV this week, and with Doug Gillard suddenly back in the band, it’s particularly appropriate to revisit the first record of theirs I bought when it came out. I’ve since circled back, and filled in some gaps but I’m hardly a superfan—I’ve got maybe half the albums proper, various Robert Pollard solo and side projects, but am really only a completist on Boston Spaceships. Since I wasn’t a devotee to the mid-90s lo-fi aesthetic, it wasn’t heretical to me when they hired Ric Ocasek to produce a slick sounding album (is the cover itself a funny nod to The Cars?). I can’t say I’ve ever loved it—on some listens nothing particularly resonates, and with others I’m pleasantly surprised by it all. But I don’t know the songs inside-and-out, so anything could happen…
“Teenage FBI” starts with the mechanical pulse of a factory floor—an assembly line perhaps—another Cars reference or a tribute to their auto-producing native Ohio? Like the latest model, it’s all impeccably crafted to please, with only the Greg Hawkes-ish keyboard approaching parody (unlike Jeff Lynne where everything he produces sounds like him, I don’t think Ocasek’s presence is so specifically felt throughout, and I’ll stop imagining in-jokes and car metaphors from now on). “Zoo Pie” begins with an almost heavy metal attack, and there’s some crunchy riffage before the tempo is quickly downshifted. It’s overly busy, with processed lead vocal and some double-tracked harmonies singing the nonsense title phrase (one of many on here) and I sort of wish they’d ran with the less fussy promise of the song’s start. “Things I Will Keep” is as hooky and accessible as anything, and I’m sure some fans called it a sellout. I don’t know the last time Pollard held a day job, but you can’t blame a guy more than a decade into his music career for aiming at a hit. “Hold On Hope” panders a bit more, and wouldn’t trouble anyone who happened upon it on the radio, but the string arrangement fails to gussy it up much—Glen Campbell sings it better with a pedal steel, and I’m gonna choose to believe it was written for him. I prefer my GBV on the noisier side, and “In Stitches” is a bit more chaotic, including some unhinged Gillard guitar. “Dragons Awake” is a little more than a sketch of a song, and I guess if you’ve already hired a string quartet for the day you ought to give them more to do, even if the track isn’t quite worthy of it. If memory serves “Surgical Focus” was the hit that landed, and deservedly so. Easily the most arresting thing here, and for 4 transcendent minutes you will be convinced that love is real.
“Wormhole” plays like a self-conscious attempt to pick up the Tobin Sprout slack (the other, more melodic GBV writer/singer dismissed a few years prior) but Pollard can really only be himself. This second half gets a bit samey—the notoriously prolific Pollard doesn’t record when he’s got 12-20 stellar songs, he goes with the ones he has when it’s time to make an album, which works out to be every 4 months or so. “Optical Hopscotch” and “Liquid Indian” indulge his more offbeat inclinations, with soaring choruses that feel curiously grafted from other tunes. Similarly when he shouts “I will deliver to you” on “Picture Me Big Time” we think we’re getting a song of deeper pathos than we really are. This record is Pollard at his most calculated, he would later go with truer instincts, and better pop songs would be a pleasing byproduct. An example here is the more organic, fully realized “Much Better Mr. Buckles”—but what kind of name for a pop smash is that?
No idea if they’ll dust off any of these for the show, though I’ll take “Surgical Focus” any night. But even with Gillard back I don’t expect a 90s nostalgia act—if anything I’m more interested to hear what he brings to the current material—GBV’s Please Be Honest (all weird and wonderful) and the half-great Pollard album Of Course You Are (ironically Pollard sings and plays everything on the GBV and the abruptly-fired/Gillard-replaced Nick Mitchell was the lone instrumentalist on the “solo” album). I kinda like my non-fanatical fan status—I’m interested in all of it, and have more to discover, but don’t know enough to have made up my mind on what constitutes ‘classic’ GBV. But I’m pretty sure this record isn’t it.