I was too late in tracking this down to include it in my 2008 review, but it definitely would have merited a mention as it’s Robert Pollard’s first album in years that I’ve actually enjoyed, as opposed to “struggled to find something of merit in” as his typically been the case. While there were a couple of decent moments on last year’s Robert Pollard Is Off To Business, Brown Submarine makes it obvious how disappointing his post-Guided By Voices solo albums have been. It was as if he made a point of discarding everything that made GBV great in favor of exploring a singer-songwriter aesthetic that never really fit him: laborious song structures, fewer hooks, less energy, and an ill-advised focus on lyrical content, resulting in whole albums of undifferentiated midtempo slog.
Thankfully, Brown Submarine is neither a solo Pollard album in name nor in spirit. Boston Spaceships is a real band, not just a recording alias, and they recapture the rock ‘n’ roll spirit and concise, relentless hook delivery of GBV without merely coming across like the latest incarnation of same. It might still be a reactionary move on Pollard’s part, but it’s a welcome one; he jumps right back into his rock-band-frontman persona with both feet, and I can’t remember the last time he sounded this excited or was having this much fun. During the breakdown of “Zero Fix” he lets loose with a single sixteen-second-long punk rock sneer of a scream; he introduces the Judas Priest-ly “Rat Trap” with a mock-horror exclamation of “Oh no! Not ‘Rat Trap’!“, delivered with such audacity I can’t help but grin when I hear it.
One of the best things about those early-90s GBV albums wasn’t individual songs, but rather sequences of songs where each one had its own distinct personality but seemed to build on the momentum of the previous one. I actually have to go all the way back to Bee Thousand to find an opening five-track run as solid and varied as that of Brown Submarine: fist-pumping rave-up (“Winston’s Atomic Bird”) into foreboding acoustic dirge (“Brown Submarine”) into classic Pollard drone-riff power-pop (“You Satisfy Me”) into scrubby, jittery rocker (“Ate It Twice”) into jangly anthemic ballad (“Two Girl Area”). The obtuse, meandering “North 11 AM” sadly breaks the streak, but the album’s second half has just as many high points as the first, such as the glorious stadium-sized Who ripoff “Psych Threat” and “Soggy Beavers”, whose sad-sack R.E.M. jangle almost— almost— redeems its title.
Of course as I’m writing this I noticed that Boston Spaceships’ next album is coming out later this month. Sigh. Well, if it’s as half as good as Brown Submarine, it’ll still be worth it.