CD Review of Normal Happiness by Robert Pollard, Be Still Please by Portastatic

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Buy your copy from Robert Pollard:
Normal Happiness
starstarhalf starno starno star Label: Merge
Released: 2006
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Buy your copy from Portastatic:
Be Still Please
starstarstarhalf starno star Label: Merge
Released: 2006
Buy from

Two records, two singer-songwriters in the alterna-pop space, verging on middle age (some would say they've been there a while). Same label, same release day.

The problem with Robert Pollard's new solo record is that Guided by Voices' low-fi production back in the group's salad days masked the fact that his voice is nasal and thin, sometimes annoyingly so. Put a serious production sheen on the music, and well, the garage-band cachet is gone.

Still, GbV-heads will find this new CD an adequate fix of Pollard's genius, especially on the upbeat rockers like "The Accidental Texas Who," "Supernatural Car Lover," and "Rhoda, Rhoda," which have the familiar hooks and melodic curlicues that makes vintage GbV such a delightful listen. There's no question that the song "Tomorrow Will Not Be Another Day" is a stunner, made of the pop stuff for which Pollard's legendary.

But there are moments here where one wishes for the good old days, too. Pollard sounds a little uncomfortable and off-kilter in slower cuts like the dissonant "Gasoline Rag," "Join the Eagles," and the folky ballad "Top of My Game." Yeah, they're nice little songs, but if they were recorded with a bunch of static-y filters through mixing boards with suspect wiring, maybe you'd have something. Unfortunately, GbV broke up a couple years ago, and that part of Pollard's history is in the rearview – and perhaps, he left a piece of his mystique behind as well.

His labelmate, Superchunk member, and Merge Records co-founder Mac McCaughan's solo band Portastatic explores somewhat similar pop ground, albeit with a bit less power (read: hard electric guitars) behind it. Lush, full, and completely addictive, the polished acousto-electric tunes show the experience of thirteen years together and nine albums for the ensemble. The tunes speak of life's bittersweet ironies, stuff like sitting down and writing an angry letter – fully intending to tell a person off in the moment – and later thinking the better of sending it.

Unlike Pollard's record, it's in the lighter, slower, nuanced cuts such as "Black Buttons" where Portastatic shines. Mac makes the most of his tunes by arranging them with instruments like violins and flute that would make lesser talents in the alternative rock space downright scary sounding. Yet for him, it works brilliantly. But he doesn't need that kind of icing on every cut, however: On "Like a Pearl," for instance, Portastatic out-Pollards Pollard with a driving acoustic-guitar rhythm line a la GbV – the violins are still there, but dialed back for the most part, contributing a droning sonic texture instead of cute countermelodies like they do elsewhere on the recording.

Some of the more upbeat tunes sound pretty cool, too, such as "I'm in Love (with Arthur Dove)," with its ear-candy chorus and delicious harmonies. The album's closer, "Song for a Clock," tells the tale of a long night out that ends well; its ethereal, noisy percussion punctuates the album with a droll little exclamation point. Definitely worth picking up if you're tired of pop radio and want to hear something good from the underground.

~Mojo Flucke, PhD