Friday, April 13, 2012

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 4/13/12 - Robert Pollard and Screaming Females

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.

Through the course of four albums, New Brunswick NJ’s Screaming Females has grown into one of the most interesting and promising young rock bands on the scene. Heavy, distinctive and featuring a legitimate guitar-hero in Marissa Paternoster, their latest record is called Ugly. Not only does it lack any signs of creative fatigue, it’s easily their best one yet.
The profile of Screaming Females has increased significantly in the last few years, and that’s almost completely down to the band’s hard work; they’ve played hundreds of shows since 2005, the majority naturally taking place in the expected locales of clubs, halls and music spaces. But quite a few of these gigs have also occurred in the basements of houses, their hometown lacking in the required amount of venues conducive to the Females’ ground-level punk-inspired sensibility. If your town doesn’t have enough stages to hold the presentation and growth of your thing, taking it to the basement is just what you do. And with the release of Ugly the group now has five full-lengths under their collective belt in just a smidge over six years, a circumstance that pretty much paints them as shameless busybodies, at least in contemporary rock terms. For some icing on the cake, Screaming Females are a trio, a power trio in fact; they excel in an environment where hard work is very much a given.
But from within the confines of their sound, it’s the galvanizing combo of Marissa Paternoster’s vocals and guitar that is clearly responsible for the band’s increased following. Once heard, she’s not likely to be soon forgotten. This is not a knock on bassist King Mike or drummer Jarrett Dougherty (there’s only one actual female in Screaming Females); both are a far sight more than just capable on their instruments, the pair quite adept at transcending the standards of a mere rhythm section, which is another element of the power trio that’s an absolute necessity. But with this said Paternoster is essentially the focal point of the band’s attack; her vocal delivery has been likened to that of Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker and her guitar playing has drawn comparisons to J Mascis. To put it mildly these are big shoes to fill, and Paternoster does so not through calculated imitation but by forging ahead with nerve and impressive dedication to her craft.
Screaming Females have been called a punk band, and while that’s not a terribly inapt description, I do think they’re most appropriately described by the above nomenclature of punk-inspired. To put it another way, the band is definitely descended from the aggressive template of punk rock. What’s more their dedication to those basement gigs and allegiance to their local “scene” in lieu of moving to a more rock-centric city (New York is just a hop, skip and train ride away), when coupled with a tireless if appealingly offhand work ethic is easily identifiable as punk in attitude. But to simply call Screaming Females a punk band might erroneously suggest a focus on the rudimentary, and while not a overly complex unit inclined toward flash for flash’s sake, they are frankly too accomplished as a group to be comfortably labeled with the potentially misleading descriptor of unhyphenated punk.
Instead, Screaming Females are in league with the distinctive (and yes quite punk-informed) underground rock of the 1980s, a place where power trios flourished; think Minutemen, Hüsker Dü and indeed Dinosaur Jr. The Females don’t sound like the ‘men or Dü, but they share with those bands an anti-generic non-simplicity that was a step beyond the “anybody can do it” back-to-square-one ethos of punk rock. And if Paternoster’s guitar brings Mascis to mind (and it does, though she’s just as remindful of Eddie Van Halen), the music as a whole isn’t very suggestive of ol’ Dino. It’s really in the comparison to Corin Tucker that we cozy up to a direct point of reference for Screaming Females, specifically a heavy, liberating post-Riot Grrl vibe. It’s not a bit of a stretch to say the band’s entire discography could’ve easily fit into the release schedule of the fledgling Kill Rock Stars label.
Ugly was recorded with Steve Albini, a connection that’s almost become a rite of passage for bands specializing in this type of unabashed rock action. And since Ugly shapes up as Screaming Females best platter, it’s tempting to credit Albini as a large factor in the album’s success. That is, if the previous four discs hadn’t already established an uncommonly astute hand at record making. For many bands (particularly of this heavy inclination), a succession of releases can risk becoming something of an indistinguishable or interchangeable blur, which might be okey-dokey for fans satisfied with hearing one thing done extremely well, but it’s also undeniable that more casual listeners will be far less inclined to go back for a double dip. But in the case of the Females, each record holds traits that clearly define their stylistic progression; Baby Teeth is their strong if modest debut, What if Someone is Watching Their TV? finds them at their angriest and most shredding, Power Move displays real songwriting growth, and Castle Talk finds them nodding at times toward pop-punk.   
Ugly continues this practice of stylistic development, not only flaunting their boldest production sound but also finding them branching out in both song-length (“Doom 84” clocks in at 7:38) and album running time. These admirable aspects aside, Ugly’s success can almost entirely be credited to the uniformly high level of songwriting and the seamless rapport between the players. Paternoster is indeed the focal point, but her talents are surely greatly enhanced by the fluid familiarity that’s bloomed between all three principals.
The one aspect of Screaming Females’ sound that is undeniably punk in both intent and execution is the sheer hugeness of Paternoster’s vocals. Punk in intent because she possesses a tough take-it-or-leave-it quality, and punk in execution due to the sheer lack of prettification in her delivery; she’s not trying to sooth or tempt. Instead, she’s interested in shaking and stirring things up. As Ugly plays for the umpteenth time, I can’t help but think of her as a modern disciple of Patti Smith, and that’s because she’s so thoroughly invested in doing her own thing.
If there’s anything troubling in Ugly, it’s in the likelihood that it’s going to be a hard act to follow. However, closing track “It’s Nice” features Paternoster’s vocals and acoustic guitar accompanied by a string section that alternates between sinewy and lush. The sheer unexpectedness of this finale is quite welcome, and it’s a possible harbinger of rewarding developments in the band’s future. Here’s hoping.
With Ugly, Screaming Females have not only set themselves a lofty standard, but they’ve also placed the bar quite high for contemporary-minded power trio rock in general. Anybody curious over the current rock scene’s state of health should lend them an ear.