Talkhouse Contributing Writer Kathy Valentine has toured everywhere several times over, recorded major label and indie albums, done countless TV performances, and written or co-written hundreds of songs, including hits by the Go-Go’s — the band she joined at age 22 and made music history with. Kathy lives in Austin, Texas, plays guitar in “garage glam” blues band the BlueBonnets, and produces aspiring female artists. She is writing a book and screenplay while working on a degree in Fine Arts/English. She’s on Twitter and Facebook.
Taking into account the nearly 30 Guided by Voices records and his equally extensive solo work, one can safely assume that Robert Pollard has written and recorded somewhere in the ballpark of, I don’t know, maybe a billion songs. Let’s just say that he may be the most prolific writer and recorder of music ever, in the history of anything.
That fact alone earns my respect. I can take months to finish a song, and often give up if I can’t iron out every imperfection, which leaves much of my output unheard. And then I get down on myself for not being prolific enough. So I am reminded, listening to the latest GbV release Motivational Jumpsuit, that sometimes it’s perfection enough just to finish. To take that breath of creative inspiration that the Muse has blown your way, maybe say something like “thanks Muse,” and give it what it asks, what it deserves to get: your talent for making something out of nothing. To succeed at that, repeatedly, over a very long period of time, is to have top-notch artistic credentials — which may not pay the bills, but the dividends of knowing your own creative legitimacy are still a great payoff.
If your checklist for likeable music includes post-punk pop and rock & roll that does not take itself seriously, distorted guitars paired with catchy melodies, quirkiness without cuteness — you might already be a GbV fan. You also won’t be surprised to find Motivational Jumpsuit is comprised of 20 songs, nearly half of which are under 90 seconds long.
Exercises in the “no rules” school of songwriting abound here: many songs are unstructured crafts that stand alone, of their own accord. No payoffs, or even hooks, necessary — they don’t ask you to remember, to keep humming refrains — who’s got time for that, here’s another! But then there are the tunes you can hang out with and sing along with right away. The opening track, “Littlest League Possible,” “Save the Company,” and “I Am Columbus” are instantly familiar, like meeting a fun cousin from your Big Star or Replacements family.
“Until Next Time,” “Evangeline Dandelion” and “A Bird with No Name” sucked me in with the first line and then kept me following along. These songs are musical poems and stories are being told — like graffiti vignettes, sprayed on the wall in record time, bold enough to catch your eye before whizzing by.
But your attention may wander — mine did. No one, I think to myself, can have this much to say. Either the lo-fi production GbV favors, or maybe a lack of wow and grab-factor in an intro, and the record sometimes lost me. But the thing is, there’s always this promise of something great, and you never know when it’s going to appear. I hear “Record Level Love,” by singer-guitarist and second songwriter Tobin Sprout, resplendent in its Byrdsy jangle, and I’m forced to backtrack, listening again to see if any gems might have slipped through the cracks.
Other standouts: “Difficult Outburst and Breakthrough,” which features some great bass guitar from Greg Demos, and sounds like something Pete Townshend would write for R.E.M.; and “Writer’s Bloc (Psycho All the Time)” (oh, the irony of that title), which goes to show Pollard can pretty much write a song aboutanything. Both of those, along with the trashy but tight “Alex and the Omegas” and “Bulletin Borders” have the best production value — the drums sound leagues better on these tracks, as do the vocals. There’s also the mini-epic “Planet Score” and “Shine,” another contribution by Tobin Sprout that reaches out and resonates just the way a ballad is supposed to. The lyrics to all the songs, included with the CD, didn’t let me down, even though I’m a real lyric stickler and I get the feeling that these are not words that were difficult to come by. There’s a fractured stream of consciousness vibe that would be dull as hell if it came from a lesser imagination.
Motivational Jumpsuit has some misses for sure, but with this many songs there’s bound to be. I can’t help but wonder if anything is left out when so much is left in. It brings to mind the time a friend of mine asked me to listen to some of her songs — there were a couple dozen and I asked her to start with playing me her favorite three. She told me they were all her favorites. I remember being incredulous that she was unable to objectively select a few that she might consider even the tiniest bit more exceptional than some of the others. Maybe this is the case with Mr. Pollard — every single tune is a child, and they all belong in the gifted and talented program. Or at least each is as loved and cherished as the last was and the next will be.
Anyway, such nitpicking aside, I maintain that someone who has written and recorded so extensively, for so long, about so many things, from so many different angles, likely will, and should, keep on doing it. I think, to paraphrase the poet Rilke, if you are an artist, you make art. That’s how you know you are one — because you have to do it. Painters paint. Writers write. Actors act. And Guided by Voices make records — records that overflow with creative impulses in every form, from barely-there fragments to full-on anthems of — dare I say it — perfect pop. And really, there’s always room for more of that — so what the hell, bring on the next billion songs and leave the editing to us and our playlists.