If anti-spam rules extended from ISPs to recording artists, Robert Pollard would be the first to lose his account. The last few years' worth of official releases by his band Guided By Voices have been relatively consistent, but a lot of his side projects have seemed like confirmation of the joke that he can't turn on a tape recorder without putting the results out on an album: half-formed, badly sung, badly played first-take messes, with the occasional swell melody poking out. It's as if he's been daring himself to see how little of his undeniable pop gifts he can get away with using (do yourself a favor and avoid his Lexo & the Leapers album). Rockathon's "Fading Captain Series" was started as a way of mopping up Pollard's songwriting overspill, so it's a pleasant surprise that Speak Kindly of Your Volunteer Fire Department is his best album in ages, even better than GBV's Do The Collapse.
The secret ingredient is Doug Gillard, guitarist from '80s indie wonders Death of Samantha and the last couple of GBV albums. He's an excellent songwriter in his own right, and he plays all the instruments here, as well as co-writing a few tracks. Even though Gillard's mostly working within the grimy basement tradition of GBV's older material (all of his tracks were recorded on a 4-track machine), he actually tunes, and thinks about where his arrangements start and where they're going. He makes Pollard's riffs and rhythms sit up straight and pay attention, even throwing in the occasional guitar solo (the one at the end of "Tight Globes" is worthy of the classic-rock albums that inspired the band in the first place). Most importantly, Gillard makes Pollard finish his songs, or polishes them until they sound finished. "Pop Zeus" (RealAudio excerpt) might have been a promising doodle on a Pollard solo record: here, it's a full-hearted two-and-a-half-minute rocker with a bold lead guitar line.
Pollard responds by actually paying attention to his melodies and lyrics, and it's a wonderful thing to hear him firing on all cylinders again. For every automatic-writing non-sequitur like "Dreams like strings in cold trees/ Iceberg heads and alien flavors/ This being a giftshop," there's a freaky, wonderful bit of construction like the chorus of "And I Don't (So Now I Do)" (RealAudio
excerpt). "Frequent Weaver Who Burns" (RealAudio excerpt) is especially thrilling, with the vibe of a lost early Dylan song via the Byrds. Casual as the album is, it sounds like a master rousing himself and getting back to business.