Robert Pollard Normal Happiness

[Merge; 2006]

Styles: hard-drinking rock ‘n’ roll, mate
Others: Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout, lots of boring indie imitators

Perhaps it's fitting that Bob Pollard couldn't hear us yelling his name from across the street. He'd just played a marathon set with more jump-kicks than Double Dragon II — no cyclones though, damn — with his long-time band Guided By Voices, and he was drunker than Boris Yeltsin. We continued yelling as he and a small party approached his tour van, to no avail.

Then the biggest GBV diehard of our group figured it out. He yelled, "Uncle Bob!" Sure enough, Mr. Pollard turned around hazily and walked back, signing our Farewell Tour posters and mugging with us a bit. His quick response to the more personal, familial version of his name was no mistake; for Pollard, his most obsessive fans — a flock Gumshoe does not run with, mind ye — are family. He sends them a postcard every few months in the form of a limited-edition EP, a Fading Captain series addition, a by-mail collaboration, and/or, until fairly recently, a Guided By Voices album. The fans ricochet the love right back to Uncie Boberino by scooping up everything he's ever recorded, often unconcerned with whether the quality of each individual release matches up with past output.

With such a rabid following swallowing his every spunk, you can't really fault the guy for making as much music as he can to satiate them. Can you? After all, the guy can write five songs on the toilet ("and three of 'em will be good" he says famously). Well, as a casual fan, it's difficult to give every half-baked — not fried! — idea of his a proper taste-test. Guided By Voices were so good for so long; not because they were better musicians than Pollard's solo outfit necessarily, but because you got the feeling Pollard's bandmates (particularly Tobin Sprout, which may or may not have contributed to his exit from GBV) kept him in check somewhat. They weren't holding him over the coals — he was always the alpha-Voice — but the very fact that he had other musicians to deal with probably kept him at least a TAD honest, if not fearful of reproach, as he was known for breaking up the band only to resurface with new musicians.

Now that he's tucked the GBV legacy into bed like a passed-out lush, Pollard is completely, indubitably in charge, his only steady collaborator on Normal Happiness being Todd Tobias and keyboardist Chris Sheehan (for a track or two). The guitars are ringing, Bob's trademark faux-Brit lung-lunges sound as good as ever, the drums are Keep It Simple Stupid to-the-max... all seems to be in order. Listen to Normal Happiness multiple times, however, and problems arise. For one, as in so many recordings these days, the bass guitar is simply pitiful-sounding, haphazardly thrown into the mix out of obligation and tamped down so far it's criminal, not to mention that a hollow, tinny tone renders the bass an element worth burying in the first place.

As per usual, a lack of quality control blights Normal Happiness' pop-rock bliss, as lovely numbers such as the GBV-ish "Give Up the Grape," the aptly titled "Top of My Game," "Rhoda Rhoda," and squirrely, one-minute-plus synth-stomper "Whispering Whip" are besmirched thoroughly by empty dung-humpers like "Gasoline Ragtime," "Boxing About" and "Towers and Landslides," all of which are boring enough to elicit narcoleptic tendencies you didn't know existed.

With these inadequacies in mind, it's literally impossible — the tractor-beam-wielding overlords of TMT won't allow me to rest on Uncle Bob's laurels — to recommend Normal Happiness to anyone not already lovingly nestled within Pollard's fold of fans. If you don't like a song, it'll be over within two minutes, but if it's replaced by another ineffectual cut, what's the difference? NH is hampered by the same Kool-Aid stains that clouded at least half of Guided By Voices' catalog in purple goo. Either too sugary or too bitter and complacent, Normal Happiness is a strictly a family affair.

1. Accidental Texas Who
2. Whispering Whip
3. Supernatural Car Lover
4. Boxing About
5. Serious Bird Woman (You Turn Me On)
6. Get a Faceful
7. Towers and Landslides
8. I Feel Gone Again
9. Gasoline Ragtime
10. Rhoda Rhoda
11. Give Up the Grape
12. Pegasus Glue Factory
13. Top of My Game
14. Tomorrow Will Not Be Another Day
15. Join the Eagles
16. Full Sun (Dig the Slowness)

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