Album Review: Robert Pollard’s ‘Honey Locust Honky Tonk’
Robert Pollard is a busy man. Two solo albums a year from 2006 to 2012. Three post-reunion Guided by Voices‘ albums in 2012. A fourth, possibly the band’s last, earlier this year. And now another solo record, Honey Locust Honky Tonk. I’m not sure anyone holds a candle to Pollard in terms of sheer productivity. Regardless of what you think of his music, you have the respect the fact that he is not resting on his laurels. It helps that the music is good and at times fantastic, though.
Honey Locust Honky Tonk gets off to a bit of a slow start, though the opener, “He Requested Things,” is a pretty good song. It is slightly more indulgent than we’ve come to expect from Pollard, and is one of the longer tracks on the album at 2:38, but that length helps to establish the mood before we’re thrown into the chaotic tiltawhirl of bite-sized pop perfection that is a Pollard-penned record. The production of “He Requested Things” is of a higher fidelity than the classic Guided By Voices’ albums, but in terms of songwriting, we’re dealing with essentially the same approach: songs that are capsules – not fully developed, but full of potential. Ideally, the songs are buried deep in the listener’s brain where they slowly grow, while still remaining provocative and elusive because that which is suggested is never realized in the physical world.
“Circus Green Machine,” includes lines of acoustic guitar that emerge from nowhere in the midst of a fuzzy rock song, reminiscent of the techniques you’ll hear on Bee Thousand. Pollard understands that the acoustic guitar (or any other instrument) can pop in and out of a song at will, a concept lost on a lot of rock records (especially those being produced within the band concept) that operate under the logic that the second guitar has to have something to do the whole time. It doesn’t. Pollard might be making simple, short indie rock pieces, but he does it on a craft level. He’s less a songwriter, to me, and more a composer.
“Circus Green Machine” – Robert Pollard from Honey Locust Honky Tonk
Thus, he employs precisely varied instrumentation, with an incredible care over the tones of each instrument (including his voice, which is processed differently throughout the album). He has a great ear for tone and, while he rarely engages in lush arrangements (choosing instead to imply), his arrangements are deceptively complex due to the exactness of each part and how it is played and sounds. “Strange and Pretty Day” is a very simple song, but the distinct keyboard sound Pollard has chosen to pair with his voice shows his extreme attention to how these songs are constructed. A “fast and easy” musician would have just played the song on whatever guitar was lying around, but while Pollard is fast, he’s not easy. He clearly searches for specific timbres for each song that realizes the sounds in his head. It’s a reminder that music can be meticulously constructed without being ostentatious and stripped-down without being lazy.
Of course, with 17 songs (some as short as 43 seconds) there’s some forgettable material. I’m not sure if the album really gets going until eight tracks in. It seems absurd to call a good album’s first seven tracks a slow start, but this is Robert Pollard we’re talking about, so that’s really only 13 minutes. And while the album meanders a bit during those 13 minutes, there’s plenty of good material and nothing I’d call bad. A song like “Who Buries the Undertaker” is very listenable but a little stale, which is how I feel about several of the songs in this first section of the album. A certain sameness in feel is forgivable for such an established figure, but sometimes it’s simply that the melodies aren’t that good. Pollard can clearly churn out an insane amount of songs per year, but should he? Perhaps less than two-plus releases per year would be okay if he condensed the best songs onto one release.
However, almost everything from “She Hides in Black” to the end of the record is very good. “Her Eyes Play Tricks on the Camera” is one of the most developed songs on the album, and possibly its best. It doesn’t feel overwrought at all, in spite of going beyond Pollard’s normal structure, even including an awesome and intense organ intro. “Real Fun Is No One’s Monopoly” sounds downright epic, which seems weird to say about a two and a half minute number. The riff and hook are anthemic, the arrangement is chaotic, and with Pollard’s disinterest in turning his ideas into six-minute packages, there’s never a disappointing breakdown or verse – the build just keeps going until it stops. We’re left wanting more.
In spite of a somewhat weak start, this superior middle and end remind us that part of the enjoyment and the shtick of Pollard/GBV records is the almost hilarious amount of songs, the absurdity that a single mind could be pumping out this many tracks, all of which are listenable at worst and brilliant at best. Whereas the fourth track, the 50-second “Suit Minus the Middle” doesn’t really capture the wonder and allure of other supershort Pollard songs (“Pimple Zoo” was always my personal favorite), the 43-second “I Have to Drink” is a pretty great blast of rock music, which is ultimately what makes this album (and Pollard in general) a great listen. It’s an unrelenting rush of ideas. There’s no dwelling or brooding. It’s hit after hit, and even if one of the punches is weak you don’t have much time to think about it before four-more have clocked you – and Robert Pollard very rarely goes that long without nailing you right between the eyes.
Devin William Daniels is a writer and musician from Allentown, Pennsylvania. He lives and teaches in Seoul, South Korea. See his other work via his Negative Sound Tumblr blog.