The critical community seems to lock in on specific characteristics of some artists with a high degree of uniformity. For some musicians, there’s a certain level of consistency across reviews of their work; people seem unable to write about them without mentioning the trait that seems to define the work. Nobody writes about Pete Doherty without mentioning that he’s a bit of a fuck-up. Nobody writes about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs without mentioning their incendiary live act. Nobody writes about TV on the Radio without insinuating that they’re significantly smarter than the rest of us. For Robert Pollard, the easy descriptor that everybody resorts to is that he’s uber-prolific. (I’m as guilty of that as anybody; when I reviewed the last Boston Spaceships album, I threw a paragraph at the number of records Pollard’s released in the last twelve months.) Maybe this analytical laziness has a legitimate base; maybe Pete Doherty’s records aren’t compelling without his battles with drugs and Yeah Yeah Yeah’s wouldn’t be worth writing about if she didn’t choke on a microphone now and again and TVOTR would suck if they didn’t read books or whatever. For Pollard, however, I’d argue that the prolific tag is, perhaps, misguided and reductive. If, say, 311 put out five albums a year, their output would be the only issue worth noting, as they’d probably just make the same record five times. For Pollard, however, the massive amount of material he pumps out is wildly diverse and consistently interesting. Barring his distinct voice, the new Circus Devils record sounds very little like the most recent Boston Spaceships record. Pollard has things to say and music to make. As listeners, we’re lucky that he makes as much of it as he does.
Circus Devils is the longest running Pollard project since the demise of Guided By Voices. Composed of Pollard and the multi-instrumental Tobias brothers, Todd and Tim, the Circus Devils’ previous six records have often been a repository for some of the farther-out, more experimental pieces in the Pollard catalog. (Check out “The Girls Will Make it Happen” from 2008′s Ataxia, via the Circus Devils website for a ten minutes of some lovely, spaced-out weirdness.) When Todd Tobias passed along a digital copy of Gringo to Citizen Dick world headquarters, he wrote that it was accessible and acoustic, “a first on both counts for Circus Devils.” Dude was right. There are a slew of tracks on Gringo that are insanely catchy. There’s still a dark undercurrent and the more straightforward rock edge of Boston Spaceships isn’t present, but songs like “Hot Water Wine” and “In Your Hour of Rescue” are “accesible” to the point of being damn near sing-a-longs. While listener-friendly, both still have an edge of the subversive to them, in the mid-song breakdown that leads into the dirge-like conclusion of the first and in the off-kilter multi-tracking of Pollard’s voice in the second. While those songs and others point to a more mainstream ethos, tracks like “Monky Head” and, to a lesser degree, “Ants” keep the weirdness intact. You’re not going to see Circus Devils on an NBC sitcom soon, but you could probably play a few of these at your company’s Christmas party without getting sideways looks.
Circus Devils’ website refers to Gringo as a song-cycle, detailing the life and times of the Gringo. This, to me, implies a narrative arc across the record, but it’s loosely defined. Many of the songs are sung in the first-person, so one could assume that most are from the point-of-view of the Gringo, but, as a listener, individual songs and lyrics jumped out at me more than a more cohesive story. If the Gringo has a story, it’s one that emerges from the record in the form of briefly glimpsed fragments and evocative moods. The decidedly upbeat “Before it Walks” has the narrator saying “I didn’t see nobody, I couldn’t finger anyone.” The minor-key stomp “Arizona Blacktop Company” describes a man who “calls himself Tex, but can’t have a drink with his boys” and the narrator in “In Your Hour of Rescue” declares that “I’m sober now, in my head.” Lyrics like this sketch a picture of a character with a shady past and an uncertain future, but it’s not as prescriptive as, say, Tommy. This also might vary from listener to listener. Kevin, for instance, is more likely to pick up on broad themes than I am (see his review of Benjy Ferree), but it’s a testament to the quality of the record that the songs stand up without requiring any connection amongst them. As a listener, I feel like there’s some grander meaning lurking beneath the surface, which is a compelling reason to re-listen.
The two songs below are indicative of the album’s ability to shift moods radically while maintaining a recognizable and consistent underlying sound. “Ships From Prison to Prison” is a contemplative, quiet acoustic ballad, seeming to focus lyrically on the mutable nature of existence. “Every Moment Flame On” is more anthemic, with a shuffling drum beat behind a shimmering, soaring chorus. This tonal shifting is all over the record, from the angry intensity of “Bad Baby Blue” to the zoned-out, near drone of “Stars on All Night.” While the acoustic guitar, as promised by Tobias, is omnipresent on the record there’s no stagnation or complacency. There are also some electrified moments which keep things fresh, notably the dirty, half funk riff of “The Gasoline Drinkers.” There’s enough sonic diversity here to keep listeners engaged, while hewing to a certain consistency of vibe.
We’re sure that Robert Pollard is going to have another album coming out soon. As long as he continues to produce high quality records, like Gringo, we’ll comment on them. Next time, I promise, I won’t say how many records he’s released or songs he’s written; I’m turning over a new leaf. In the meantime, snag this newest effort from Circus Devils when it drops on April 14th and soak in the rock genius of one of our favorite fellow Ohioans.