Chronicling the creative process for Pop Zeus, the forthcoming Guided By Voices/Bob Pollard tribute comic- including sketches, concepts, finished art and whatever else is in my brain at the moment.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Robert Pollard - Normal Happiness Review


(images courtesy of gbvdb.com)

Normal Happiness, Robert Pollard's sixth solo LP and second with Merge Records, is a most worthy addition to Pollard's very impressive catalog. I count myself among those who enjoy Pollard's experimental solo and side-projects more than his widely available Guided By Voices releases. And now that GBV is only a memory, the situation has flip-flopped. Pollard's solo albums have become his big releases. Thankfully, the freedom, experimentation and boldness that earmarked his earlier side projects is in abundance here.

Normal Happiness is a further musical stepping out from under the shadow of Guided By Voices. Both Normal Happiness and From A Compound Eye, his previous Merge solo release, show Pollard branching out into surprising song styles and sounds. It is hard to imagine songs as light and airy as Tomorrow Will Not Be Another Day and Join The Eagles on a typical hard rock guitar-driven GBV album. Its as if Pollard has been set free to explore the most arcane and dusty (and sometimes poppy) corners of the rock genre, without the defined expectations of a group and fan base to answer to. So, for the long-time listener, an air of freshness and renewal permeates the recording.

This feeling can be primarily attributed to the light touch of producer and sole session musician Todd Tobias. Each big Bob album Tobias has been involved with has been more and more stripped of noise and artifice. And Normal Happiness is the most stripped down and spacious sounding Pollard solo album yet, matching well with the poppy and fun structure of the songs. With the majority of the 16 tracks clocking in at under two minutes, the production fits well with the rapid changing texture of the album. And Tobias' musical contribution on all instruments but guitar is typically energizing and enthusiastic. I particularly enjoy Todd's drumming- a welcome blast of energy and noise. One gets the sense that Tobias delights in playing Bob's music as much as the listeners love to hear it.

I don't know if fans still feel this way, but I recall a lot of criticism of Bob's vocals on Normal Happiness. At first I was thrown off too, but now I've come to love the openness and vulnerability of Bob's singing on this album. Seems more and more like a aesthetic choice than a casual toss-off. Particularly, Serious Birdwoman benefits greatly from the spontaneity and energy in that vocal take.

Album highlights include the lead off one-two punch of Accidental Texas Who and the brooding Whispering Whip. Boxing About is yet another effortlessly melodic instant classic, with a lovely piano line leading the way. I Feel Gone Again is better Who than anything on Endless Wire. The trifecta of Rhoda Rhoda, Give Up The Grape and Pegasus Glue Factory are skillfully blended together, taking the listener from straight up rock stomp to dark assaultive prog to obtuse gloom with ease. Serious Birdwoman (You Turn Me On) is possibly Bob Pollard's most heart-wrenching and true love song. And Full Sun (Dig The Slowness) wraps up the album in a troubling, not so normally happy but kick-ass bow.

Once again, Robert Pollard defies expectations but comes out on top with another brilliant album. On a scale of 5 possible everlasting big kicks, Normal Happiness garners 4 kicks from this boy- solid stuff. Available wherever fine records are sold including the home of the Fading Captain Series, Luna Music.

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