First impressions – ESP Ohio, ‘Starting Point of the Royal Cyclopean’
– by Shawn Conner
ESP Ohio is the latest in a long line of recording projects from Robert Pollard. This one finds the Guided by Voices frontman reunited with guitarist Doug Gillard – but not as “Lifeguards” (one of their former incarnations). Perhaps it’s under a new name because Pollard is describing it as a band effort: according to a press release, he wrote the lyrics and melodies and sent them off to Gillard, bassist Mark Shue (Guided By Voices, Beech Creeps) and drummer Travis Harrison (Lifeguards producer).
So how’s the record? GBV fans will be curious, especially those (like myself) who were disappointed with the “official” Guided by Voices release earlier this year, Please Be Honest, which featured Pollard playing everything. (A record which, it could be said, might be interpreted as a bit of a slap in the face of fans who’ve come to expect a certain amount of quality control, not to mention a band effort, from a released stamped by the Guided by Voices name.)
I should point out a few things – first, that I’ve followed GBV, Pollard and Pollard-related projects through thick and thin since the mid-nineties; and that this review is based on first and immediate track-by-track impressions. The only song I’d heard previously is the first single, “Lithuanian Bombshells”, which I’d listened to once. A minimal amount of editing has gone into the finished product, mostly to fix grammar and spelling, and to help the reviewer avoid too much potential embarrassment due to mixed metaphors etc.
It also behooves me to mention, for those who love seeing Guided by Voices live, that the band has a few more dates this year, mostly on or near the East Coast.
Starting Point of the Royal Cyclopean is out on Rockathon Records Nov. 18.
“A Much Needed Shot in the Arm” – Strumming. Nice chorus. Uplifting. Great opener with one of those majestic builds Pollard does so well. Why not just go back to the name Lifeguards or whatever he called the other Gillard project? Buzzsaw guitar sounds nice. Second time for the chorus, I’m expecting it – sounds glorious. Still working for me. Topflight Pollard, or quasi-topflight? Time will tell if it takes its place against the top-shelf GBV, but I will say it’s one of the great Pollard album-openers. And that’s saying a lot.
Uh-oh, here it comes – the inevitable letdown. But nope. This one has a nice bouncy feel, some weirdness that for some reason makes me think of the Talking Heads. Still hopping along. What’s it called? “This I’ve Found”? “I’ve Found the Tree”? Oooh, nice bridge! Sounds like the second big hook of the album, this is the part it’s been building up to, and now a great buzzing guitar riff. “Some Will Now Deny This?” Nope, it’s called “The Great One.”
Okay, now we’re on the third track. “Intrusions of the Eyes”? High weirdness. I like this. Dark. It’s not pulling me in like the first two but I can see it growing on me. There are definitely nice bits of melody jumping out. A nice grinding guitar rhythm. “Tired of Words Now”? It’s fun trying to pick out what the song title might be from the lyrics. It’s fun to be wrong, because it reminds me of how clever Pollard is. Oooh, nice ending. I have to say this is starting to sound like three for three. Something about “taking two.” Nope, song title is “Tom Tom Small and Wonderful” (no, I’m not making that up).
Song #4 immediately sounds familiar, reminding me of another Pollard song but impossible to say which one(s). But it’s almost immediately off in a less-familiar direction, with some unexpected harmonies in what might be the chorus. Definitely straight-up Pollard jangly pop. Oh, here’s the title (only ‘cause I caught a glimpse of it): “Miss Hospital ’93.” With horns now… I have tried to avoid using the word “Beatles” but that’s the truth. Another great song along the lines of “Girls of Wild Strawberries,” “She Lives in an Airport” etc.
“Bird Man of Cloth” – More weirdness, but soon hitting pop notes. It sounds like Pollard’s trying on this one – not the impression I got from his most recent full-length effort, the 2016 Guided by Voices album that I only listened to once (Please Be Honest, on which he played everything). Although, I think I enjoyed one or two of the songs when I saw GBV in Seattle at the end of August. This one also hits some prog notes midway through. It’s one of those multiple-part GBV songs, which is cool. Seems most tracks are around the three-minute mark, also unusual. (Actually, a later check reveals the shortest, “Flowers and Magazines”, is 1:27, and the longest, “Grand Beach Finale”, 4:52.)
Okay, this one doesn’t get off to a great start; “You ruin me/when you’re chewin’ me/Out.” Is he making this stuff up in the studio? Sounds like Gillard brought in a riff and Pollard started improvising (not the case, according to the press release; Pollard wrote the songs then sent them off to the band). Sometimes that works with him, though. Okay, this chorus is hitting my sweet spot: “Intercoast Fashion World”? Is that the title? It is! My first score, almost – it’s actually “Intercourse Fashion”. Which sounds like it could be a Jonathan Lethem book title or something.
“Hello B-Side” – That should be the title of this one. But okay, they can’t all be pop hits, and I don’t want them to be; I like that songs just are weird for weird’s sake. This has “earthman” in the lyrics and I immediately think maybe it’s a Bowie tribute (I think GBV has covered “Five Years”), but maybe that’s only because the Flight of the Conchords’ “Bowie’s in Space” came up on a Sub Pop compilation I was playing in the car the other day. Okay, this must be “Do the Earthman”… nope, it’s “You the Earthman.” Actually, sounds like another grower, with a hook or two lurking underneath.
All right, more prog-rock, great guitar textures (hard-rock chords, acoustic filigree). And short! “Flowers and Magazines” it’s called.
The next one starts with… horns? Wow. And it’s got already a great line about the “royal cyclopean.” Has to be the song title… “Beautiful cigarette/Throw down in anger/And run to the hills”. Loving this horn riff. This is terrific. I think fans are going to pleased with this record. This is the record Guided by Voices should have toured for. But in GBV-land, why not just tour for the solo Bob record (the previous GBV album, but same-same) that no one likes? Okay, that’s not fair – maybe I need to give Please Be Honest another shake. Or smoke a bowl first. This is the title track, “Starting Point of the Royal Cyclopean” (note: I listened to this record without being aware of the album title, hence my confusion on this score).
Next one is pretty immediate too. What is going on? This is the return to the Guided by Voices I know and love, or a return to Bob’s peak songwriting. The guitar anchors this one, Gillard too is in fine form. “Weakened By a Logical Mind.” Sort of reminds me of later Jam, but could be just because I’ve been listening to the Jam lately.
“Girls’ House” – Whereas this one makes me think of British pub-rock, though that can’t be right. A little acoustic guitar flourish is a nice addition. And now the track’s gone into a bridge that would be hooky if it wasn’t for Pollard deeply intoning, “In a girls’ house.” Deeply weird ending to boot. A real curiosity, the fact that he can surprise 1000+ songs (80% of which I’ve heard, I think) into his catalogue continues to awe me.
I’m almost exhausted keeping up with this record, the influences are myriad but unpinpointable (word?). I don’t know what to make of this one except it’s sounding like something off a GBV record two or three albums ago, with the reformed “classic” lineup. Title: “This Violent Side.”
A grinder, this next one. Weird hard-rock a la “Postal Blowfish” or something. Some good drumming towards the end… “The Ticket Who Rallied.” There’s a lot going on, just when I think I have a bead on it, the song goes off in a new, unexpected direction. Pollard is definitely playing three moves ahead on this one.
“Sleeping Through the Noise” – Gives its title up within the first few seconds. All mood – a bad trip. I like its darkness, it’s a good counterpoint to all the good-time hooks. It’s the downer at the party, the morning after, the Alfred Hitchcock track.
“Lithuanian Bombshells” – A winner right out of the gate, from the title on down. Pollard delivers the epic hook, the one that you want to hear from the opening notes – and it’s better than that, even. “Glad Girls” levels of greatness…? Nice fade-out, too. Very seventies.
Power-chord opening. Kind of a Foreigner hook! Or Queen. I like it… it would sound good driving around Winnipeg, on the FM rock station between Queen City Kids and Streetheart*. And it’s called “Grand Beach Finale”! (Grand Beach is a beach outside of Winnipeg.) “He’s like a saint I know/Speak in a complete sentence.” No reason for that, just time to quote a lyric. But this one’s pretty catchy too. I wonder if it’s the last track? I hope not. It’s great, but I want another. The sign of a great album! Alas, it is the last song (just looked). Well, a helluva way to go out. I’d have to say Starting Point of the Royal Cyclopean is a solid effort that I would rate as an 8 on the Pollard scale (where “10” is Bee Thousand/Isolation Drills/Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, and a “1” being “Pimple Zoo”).
*Author’s note: this review was written shortly after I returned from a trip back to my hometown. Due to the myopic effects of nostalgia, I actually now enjoy – to a point – hearing Prairie bands that, in my youth, I hated.