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From a Compound Eye

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Album Review

Robert Pollard pulled the plug on Guided by Voices in 2004, but by that point many fans won over by the band ten years earlier had long stopped paying attention. And who could blame them? Sometime around 1999, just when GBV leapfrogged from Matador to TVT and made their second attempt at a big rock record, Pollard's solo albums started piling up at an alarmingly rapid rate, along with box sets of GBV outtakes presented under invented band names. Sure, the solo records, billed as part of the never-ending Fading Captain series, were intended to be a clearing-house for experimental material that couldn't quite fit on the increasingly streamlined GBV albums, but the sheer avalanche of material wound up seeming like little more than white noise to those unwilling to devote nearly all their free time to sorting out the minutia within Pollard's vast, cumbersome discography. It also didn't help that despite all this music, it didn't seem that Pollard was taking great leaps forward: instead, he was refining and sharpening the blueprint introduced to the world at large with 1994's Bee Thousand, the record that saw him catapult out of Dayton, OH, and into the realm of cult legend.

Legendary status suited Pollard well, but his ceaseless productivity diminished his status, pushing him to the fringes of the fringes of indie rock. He could have existed there forever, but he wanted to break out of the band — or at least, he wanted to jump-start his career, to bring disenchanted listeners back into the fold by breaking up the band and giving his career a fresh start. And so, From a Compound Eye, roughly his eighth solo album, but the first that was consciously intended for a wider audience. Although it was released in January 2006, the album had been completed for a long time, since the waning days of GBV, and saved until 2006, when an appropriate amount of breathing time had passed between the band's demise and the launch of a solo career — enough time to make those listeners who had long ago given up on the band interested again, with the solo album, band biography, and DVD of the final concert all hitting the stores within a month of each other. For the hardcore, the fact that this album was designed as Pollard's first ever, long-awaited genuine double album — constructed and sequenced as if its 26 songs were spread over four vinyl sides — was supposed to be the selling point, along with its heavily hyped pre-release buzz on the Internet (as well as Jim Greer's official biography).

So does From a Compound Eye live up to its multiple promises? Yes, to a degree. For those who abandoned GBV around Mag Earwhig! or Do the Collapse and thereby missed the band's latter-day renaissance upon their return to Matador, this is a good reintroduction to the world of Robert Pollard. It's comfortably familiar, equal parts affected British psychedelia and British Invasion hooks, with his prog rock heart pierced by his enduring affection for Wire-patterned weirdness and blasts of Who-styled rockers. Pollard's songwriting is more focused, and producer Todd Tobias — a former GBV keyboardist who also helmed Bob's 2004 Fiction Man the way he did this, by overdubbing all the instruments himself after Pollard laid down his guitar and vocals — fills out the sound, giving this a rich, fully realized sound, not only in comparison to GBV's lo-fi records, but also to their muscular latter-day affairs. That said, at its core From a Compound Eye ain't all that different than the seemingly thousands of other Pollard-related projects — it's still a rush of songs heavy on hooks but not coherence, interesting sounds that never quite seem to lead anywhere, enigmatic lyrics that never quite withstand scrutiny. On the surface it sounds great, yet it leaves little behind. And, once again, Pollard's dogged determination to push himself to the limits of self-indulgence means he winds up with too much of a not-bad thing. By the end of From a Compound Eye, his circular melodies and swirling songs are a bit exhausting, and the ballyhooed double-album sequencing doesn't have any discernible benefit to the album itself: in terms of time, it may run longer than any other Guided by Voices album, but Alien Lanes is two songs longer than this, and Pollard's fractured style and never-ending stream of songs always make his records feel like double albums, even when they clock in at 40 minutes.

All this means that From a Compound Eye winds up standing apart from the pack of Pollard projects even if it doesn't stand that far apart. It sprawls, but most individual tracks are full and focused, taking his art-pop to grand, cinematic scale, even if it plays more like a collection of short films than an epic picture. For those who have stuck with Bob through his ups and downs and piles of CDs, they'll be more inclined to find the connecting line between these tunes, particularly since it does serve up a fair amount of great Pollard songs (such as "Dancing Girls and Dancing Men," "Love Is Stronger Than Witchcraft," and "Lightshow") along with more sonic detail to get lost in than any of his previous albums. And those are all good reasons for those who have gotten off the train to use From a Compound Eye as a reintroduction to his work, but for as good as this is in long stretches and small doses, it ultimately suffers from the Pollard curse: too much pop in miniature winds up sounding like minutia.

Customer Reviews

I miss the melodies

If you are an avid Robert Pollard and Guided by Voices fan, then simply put, From a Compound Eye will strike you as a very mediocre RP album. It only takes one listen to notice that most of these songs sound alike. Of the 24 tracks, there are only 2 standouts: U.S. Mustard Company and Blessed In an Open Head. Robert Pollard is a master of the anthem and a master of melody. Both of these songs rise up through the muck to show us his true skin. Unfortunately the rest of this album does not. If you want to hear Pollard at his finest, I suggest: Not in My Airforce, Kid Marine or Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department.

nicely done

It kind of makes sense now. Bob Pollard's decision to let go of the glorious indie rock powerhouse that was Guided By Voices baffled most of his fans. Sure, it was time, but how could it possibly be a positive thing? Bob's previous solo work had been far too slapdash to make his broad fan base salivate at the possiblity of a full-blown solo career. And along comes From A Compound Eye. It is a sprawling, epic piece of work. Throughout Bob sings with conviction. There are moments of pop rock brialliance, as with "U.S. Mustard Company" and "Light Show." There are elements of prog rock as Pollard mines his art rock influcences. He does not shy away from experimentation. The result is an album that gives the listener the same warm feeling as early Guided By Voices albums, but it feels new and bold. Yes, this is Bob Pollard, solo artist...but this time he really means it.

Most solid solo work to date.

I've been a GbV and Pollard fan for years now, and not since the first time I heard Bee Thousand has one of his works blew me away like this has. From the brilliant lyrics to the masterful use of new (at least to him) sonic devices, this album seems to be the culmination of the ideas that Bob has been kicking around in his head for the past few years. I was crushed when I heard of the impending GbV breakup, and I never thought I'd say this, but perhaps it was for the best. Only time, and another few albums will tell.

Biography

Born: October 31, 1957 in Dayton, OH

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

One of the things that made Guided by Voices' rise from underground curios to indie superstars in the early '90s so noteworthy was that vocalist/guitarist Robert Pollard was also a teacher, an uncommon occupation for rock & roll idols. Pollard was born on October 31, 1957, in Dayton, Ohio. As a child, he was groomed by his father to become a professional athlete, and pitched a no-hitter for his high-school baseball team, but in college he realized that music meant more to him than sports. Pollard...
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