Graded on a Curve:
Robert Pollard, Mouseman Cloud

In a year that’s going to see (at least) two releases by the reformed “classic lineup” of Guided by Voices, it might seem feasible that Robert Pollard would relent just a little bit in his efforts to singlehandedly keep the nation’s record pressing plants in business. Nope. Mouseman Cloud is the latest entry in his solo discography, and with producer/multi-instrumentalist Todd Tobias in tow, it’s a strong if inessential effort.

Lots has been made of Robert Pollard’s gobsmacking level of prolificacy and his seeming disregard for what’s been called quality control, but in my view it all ultimately shapes up as the workaday method of a musician determined to avoid answering the question “when are you going to come up with another Bee Thousand?” The constant flow of Pollard-related discs essentially cuts off that line of inquiry before it’s even asked; he’s obviously disinterested in recapturing the specificity of past glories (which are very much caught up in the particulars of long gone times and places, natch), instead being single-mindedly devoted to documenting his uncanny ability to soak up song ideas like a sponge and then spit them back out as if he’s being squeezed by some invisible godlike pop-obsessed hand.

This is not to say that Pollard is opposed to looking back and reengaging with the energies of former cohorts. Far from it; the “classic lineup” of GBV has indeed reunited and knocked out the appealing if by now typically expectations-defying Let’s Go Eat the Factory. And defying anticipations seems to be the underlying raison d’être of Pollard’s work over the last few years, in some way informing every release that bears his name. It seems the only expectation he’ll indulge is the one that accepts his prodigious output on its own terms. And Guided by Voices have another record scheduled for May, just five months after the appearance of the last one, so it seems this attitude has extended to the reemergence of the most-lauded lineup of the band that for many will always constitute his/their legacy.

And good for them, for with a few exceptions (like Dinosaur Jr. and especially Mission of Burma) indie rock reunions (and the phenomenon of playing albums in sequence live) holds an aura that’s decidedly more Branson than badass. That Mouseman Cloud pops up on the release schedule between two of the reconstituted GBV’s studio efforts only emphasizes their interest in (along with drinking copious amounts of beer) making records that first and foremost please themselves. And this will only serve to exacerbate the complaints that Pollard is profoundly screwing his frustrated fans.

But this situation has been going on for a while, so maybe his base of support has largely accepted that the glory days of Scat and Matador are very likely never coming back. I don’t haunt the GBV-related message boards and fan sites, and haven’t been to a Pollard-related live show since the booze-soaked victory lap that that brought Guided by Voices to a temporary close back in ’04. But somebody’s still buying the albums, and as long as that’s the case it seems very clear they will keep on hitting the racks.

Among the stream of Pollard’s recent efforts, Mouseman Cloud is distinguished by its consistency, and in fact it’s more successful overall than the peaks and valleys of Let’s Go Eat the Factory. I’d rate Mouseman with Space City Kicks and the Boston Spaceships stuff as the guy’s strongest material to see release in the last four years or so. This doesn’t mean it’s perfect. But it shows enough inspiration and cohesion across its seventeen songs to be of possible interest to those listeners that have long given up on keeping track of every nook and cranny of Pollard’s output. And if not a must have (but there hasn’t really been one of those since ‘04’s Half Smiles of the Decomposed) it does make a good case for the general batting average of his “jewels amongst the pleasant ephemera” tactic.

Mouseman Cloud finds Pollard indulging the more rocking side of his personality and peppering the proceedings with some appealing psych-pop touches, though nothing here develops into the bold foofery of Let’s Go Eat the Factory’s “Doughnut for a Snowman.” Opener “Obvious #1” is a stripped down piece of classic guitar pop that establishes the tone of what’s to follow, not only from an instrumental standpoint but from a lyrical one as well; after forty odd seconds of his typically skewed wordplay, it finds him repeating variations on the phrase “it’s obvious” for the second half of the tune. This motif recurs occasionally throughout the album, most effectively on “Mother’s Milk and Magnets” where he repeats the song’s title with the dispassionate air of a vocalist under mild hypnosis, and on “Continue to Break” where the nifty bit of phraseology “grandfather blues continues to shoot up the six o’clock news” is chanted until it almost begs for an accompanying sing-along. On first listen, even.

This lyric strategy will surely be fodder for those that think Pollard’s output has far exceeded the proliferation of his ideas. And that would make sense if it didn’t feel so premeditated. For all of the truth in the assessment of the man as a highly-skilled if somewhat eccentric surgeon applying his scalpel to classic rock forms, the blade extracting the choice bits and then stitching them together into concise melodic nuggets that seem halfway between college radio and the long gone crackle of the AM dial, the oddness of Pollard’s stanzas have always been the thing that’s distinguished him from being simply another artist of savvy reassemblage. Sure, many of his words certainly derive from a Beatles-inspired pop-psyche precedent, but partly due to his proclivity for writing songs of such fleeting duration his lyrics lack the vivid descriptiveness and occasional grandiosity of those models. Instead, they often flow like stream-of-consciousness that’s been scribbled into and then torn out of a battered notebook, and Mouseman Cloud is a solid continuation of this method, repeated lyrics and all.

No, not every tune is up to the standard of his best stuff, but the record is also unsurprisingly rife with those brief songs, so the lesser ones don’t linger around for too long. In many ways (and like many of Pollard’s strongest efforts), Mouseman Cloud feels like one long tapestry, and this fact only helps in making the occasional dips in quality easier to swallow. When he chooses to stretch out it’s to fine effect; “Picnic Drums” and particularly closer “Chief Meteorologist” provide two of the record’s best moments. And please add to the album’s sum a few selections of truly tweaked disposition; “Smacks of Euphoria” finds Pollard barking out an acoustic number that’s halfway between addled folk-rock and regal, almost glam-like pomp. And the cheap keyboard wheezing of “Half-Strained” sets up an eerie psyche opening that gives way to a little bit of riffing and some very twisted lyricism. And then it’s over.

Mouseman Cloud is ultimately a flawed record, but its problems are relatively minor. It’s surely not the finest entry in Pollard’s vast discography, but it’s much farther away from the shoulder-shrugging aura of his least inspired material. While all of his records are to some extent indicative of their creator’s fallibility as an artist that abjures the typical standards of restraint and refinement, it’s also true that within this context certain Pollard releases do a better job than others in cluing in the listener to what the fuss is all about. It’s not earth-shattering, but Mouseman Cloud falls into that category quite nicely.

Graded on a Curve: B

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