Boston Spaceships – Let It Beard (2011)

“You have no right to be real!”

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The last in the glorious run of Boston Spaceships albums, which are as consistent as anything in the Guided By Voices universe. Robert Pollard gets knocked for his prolificacy and quality control, but he managed to gather up enough solid songs for this one—from its winking title intended as the band’s grand final statement. The real miracle is that it’s a double album, and I’m hard pressed to think of even a classic one that doesn’t sag somewhere. While each side may have a track or two that doesn’t hold their own (at least I wouldn’t cue ‘em up to enjoy on their own merits) they transcend filler status by working as palette cleansers or other transitional purposes. Pitchfork deemed the whole thing an overreach in their original review, and knocked it again in a feature earlier this year on J. Mascis guest guitar solos. I love the thing from top to bottom, and every listen feels like an event, but it took a couple years to entirely arrive there, which I guess is a luxury music critics on deadline don’t have. And it’s got a song called “Christmas Girl” so ’tis season is as good as any to revisit.

For those who doesn’t know the the BS working method, with more than two thousand miles between them, Pollard would provide acoustic demos to instrumentalists Chris Slusarenko and John Moen, and later add his finished vocals to the tracks they generated. The band contributions cannot be overstated, as it’s their rolling feedback and tumbling drums that explode into the powerful ba-da-da-dum riff of “Blind 20-20.” It’s a mini rock opera that sets the scene, if not entirely preparing the listener, for the stylistic schizophrenia to come—from raging start, to quiet piano interlude, some lovely strings, and mention of a “chevy marigold” a full side before a song with that title. By “Juggernaut vs. Monolith,” a wall-rattling rocker with overloaded vocal, it feels like we’ve traveled a lot further than just track two. “Tourist U.F.O.” is a swaying pop anthem with the aforementioned J. Mascis contribution, which is perhaps a bit too signature of him (other guest guitarists to come integrate their sound more seamlessly). An acoustic guitar drives “Minefield Searcher” where the album really takes off for me. Given Pollard’s known love for The Who, it may be a nod to “The Seeker,” and while the title implies more treacherous work, he sounds benevolent when he asks “Is it alright if I look around?” (and he may have found what he’s looking for, as the end is a total scream). Less memorable is “Make a Record for Lo-Life” which somehow made it onto the BS best-of album, though it does have one of my favorite unshowy but still soaring Slusarenko solos. Side closer “Let More Light Into The House” casts a lulling spell, with its effortless strum, talk of buttercups, a lilting drum part, and even a banjo pulled from an ever-unpredictable bag of tricks. It grows more haunting, and if Pollard isn’t to be taken literally, he’s one of the most evocative lyricists, here with “I saw the dreams of sober monsters, fall behind the door without a knob.” I see no reason to scrutinize perfection.

As for guitar cameos, one from Wire’s Colin Newman is more welcome and “You Just Can’t Tell” is the first of three single-chord rockers on side two, with Newman and Slusarenko swarming each other by mid-song. “Chevy Marigold” may push the bounds of acceptable idiosyncrasy, with it’s soul vibe and Pollard crooning “that’s the woman.” Gospel acappella trailing off, percussive clicking and an incessant guitar begin the careening beauty “Earmarked for Collision.” The drum fills coil up the tension while Pollard asks “What stunts your life, weighs you down?” before the final release. I’d like to see Moen and Slusarenko’s new band Eyelids reclaim this one live (they’ve certainly got enough guitars for it). “Toppings Take the Cake” is a one-minute punk throwaway most notable for the hilarious query “Do you want me to show you the splits?” It feels a bit out place just prior to the radio friendly “Tabby and Lucy.” I like it just fine, but it wouldn’t be my pick as the one holdover from this album to the current GBV setlist. A song entitled “A Hair in Every Square Inch of the House” is every bit as strange as it sounds, with Pollard shouting “Hey look at that!” while Moen and Slusarenko fuck their way around anything but a solid beat. In the middle of this racket is a groovy organ-fueled section that’s almost toe-tapping, with Pollard convincingly seductive when offering “Why won’t you taste my lemon wafer?” The whole thing is compellingly nuts, and after softly pleading “if you hold me I will survive the poundings” it seems there’s still hope—until Pollard hollers the OCD nightmare of the title.

I suppose “The Ballad of Bad Whiskey” could be more of a grabber, but anyone settling into the second half of the record is already committed. It’s fleeting and vaguely melancholic, and if striking contrasts is the formula by now, the upbeat espionage confessional “I Took on the London Guys” does the job. At first, “Red Bodies” plays as one of those just-good-enough Pollard deep cuts, elevated by an excellent bridge about “a pearl for a drowned man” and a heavy guitar and stabbing-cello coda. In true rock opera fashion, one can imagine a lonely spotlight deployed for “A Dozen Blue Overcoats” while the stage sets are quietly shifted. “Christmas Girl” is the sort of pop gem Pollard can write in his sleep, and its peppy horns make it positively irresistible. If you thought the title “Let It Beard” was a joke, there’s a song to go with it, and by the end it earns its status as a Who’s Next-ish anthem, and the reflex is to duck clear of swinging windmills and microphone cords.

Though not a concept album, all sorts of sinister figures seem to be lurking about, from the London guys to “The Vicelords.” And I don’t know to what degree Pollard might be a war buff but the previous BS record had “Dunkirk is Frozen” and here we get the epic “German Field of Shadows.” Driven by bleating martial horns, it’s one of Pollard’s most haunted creations (though due credit too to the other BS boys). Starkly, it’s followed by one of his goofiest songs, with the old man endearingly ranting about bad drivers, cell phones and “Speed Bumps.” The lovely gentle folk of “No Steamboats” perfectly sets up the homestretch, and “You in My Prayer” is the ultimate penultimate track, ascending from a lo-fi humble hymn into a booming paean in no time at all. “Inspiration Points” begins as a direct rock song, and one wonders if it’s going to do the job of wrapping this thing up. But soon we’re back in Who-ville (and I’m not talking xmas) with a multi-part suite teeming with huge hooks. At the precise midpoint I’m unfailingly slayed by a riff that sounds like its played on a rusted out metal body guitar (I don’t know if it’s Dave Rick from Phantom Tollbooth but he’s credited as being all over this thing). Towards the finish Pollard sings “I just can’t wait until I rest my case ‘cuz I wanna.” He has, and it’s well-earned.

It’s the kind of barn-burner made for the stage, but the Spaceships toured just once early on, and have since been grounded. In the five years since, there’s been 7 Guided by Voices LPs, and the next threatens to be a double too, and Pollard’s 100th album. I hope he’s got two or three dozen songs as good—and collaborators as hungry —as these.

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