Thursday, March 23, 2006

Robert Pollard And Doug Gillard: Speak Kindly Of Your Volunteer Fire Department (1999)

When I was first getting into GBV, and researching what order to buy their related albums, Speak Kindly Of Your Volunteer Fire Department was often mentioned as one of the best non-GBV releases, if not the best. In particular, the song Pop Zeus kept showing up on various best-of lists by GBV fans. It turned out to be one of my later purchases simply due to the fact that I tried finding it in Canada first (and not for some ridiculous price), and then ended up picking it up from Luna. Is it all its cracked up to be? Did it live up to the hype? The short answer is yes. Is Pop Zeus an awesome track? Once again, the answer is yes. Is it Pollard's best non-GBV album? Well, no. I do not believe it reaches the greatness of either Not In My Airforce or Waved Out (not to mention that Lexo and the Leapers album which is climbing my personal charts after every listen), though it still rocks hard and deserves respect in the GBV world, as it is full of songs begging to be played for a stadium crowd...

At first I though Fly Into Ashes was coming on when I first listened to this disc, but no, the first track is called Frequent Weaver Who Burns, and it is a fairly decent start to things. Just check out the opening lyrics, "Pagan shutters described at shrine/Dark stems large elephantine/Serpent seasnake zebra/Up love and deliver your good speech", and you can see that this is going to be an interesting album lyrically. The track is extremely catchy.

Soul Train College Policemen is a slightly odd track, meshing brooding verses and flashes of stadium rock. The highlight on this album is easily Pop Zeus. With what may be one of the greatest little guitar riffs of all time playing throughout (I'm guessing Gillard's work), and some great lyrics (my personal favorite "Call him Max/Send him a fax"), Pop Zeus is two and a half minutes of pure pop rock genius.

Slick As Snails is my personal favorite on the disc, as something about it is just beautiful. It is another example of how a simple song can be turned into something far greater by Pollard's knack for lyrical melody. It gets the solo guitar treatment near the end which is a nice additional touch for the track. Do Something Real rounds up what I like to consider the brilliant first third of Speak Kindly. Its a grungy tune with some great guitar near the end.

Port Authority slows things down and is a pointed transition in the album. At the half way point of the song, a buildup starts which sounds promising for a great finish, but decides to end in a low key fashion. I am not quite sure where I sit with this song, as it a nice relaxing tune. However, for now I'm putting it on the playlist since it is a fairly original track within the GBV catalog.

Soft Smoke is the only song on Speak Kindly which does not make the minute long mark, though it can be seen as an intro to Same Things since it blends perfectly. Same Things has a ghostly quality to it, mainly due to the haunting echo which follows Pollard's vocals around, and since I love the part where Pollard sings "dadadada", it is on the playlist. And I Don't (So Now I Do) is a little shot of pop bliss, and takes me back to the lighter side of the 90's alternative scene.

Tight Globes must be the next most popular (behind Pop Zeus) track on Speak Kindly. It is another of those tracks screaming to be played loud for those people just out to have a good time. It follows the apparent goal of the album: the perfect fusion of pop and rock (it even has some of that alien guitar sounding soloing going on), and Speak Kindly may succeed on that account greater than, say, Do The Collapse.

I find that generally, the bottom third of Speak Kindly does not live up to the spectacular opening, and decent middle. Though the prog rock feel of I Get Rid Of You is growing on me every time I listen to it. Life Is Beautiful is a low-fi acoustic track which I'll have to revisit again later on, since it isn't grabbing my attention right now.
[EDIT - Apr.19 2006 - Changed my mind on Life Is Beautiful. That guitar riff is just beautiful.]I am also not a big fan of Messiahs, as the constant guitar riff gets annoying after repeated listens.

Larger Massachusetts has a fairly pretty chorus, though I have trouble getting into the rest of the song. I'll put it on the revisit list for now. The final track, And My Unit Moves sounds like something that would have fit nicely on Not In My Airforce. It is a decent keyboard-based track, though I see it mostly as the end of a string of the least interesting songs from the album.

The biggest problem with picking songs for the playlist from an album like Speak Kindly Of Your Volunteer Fire Department, is that there are no bad songs, but quite a few which do not stand out in any way. These same tracks would stand out on a lesser album, and therefore I likely included worse songs in my playlist from albums not as good as Speak Kindly. I had a similar problem with Kid Marine, where there was not any bad songs, but a lot of okay ones. At least with this album, there are some outstanding tracks like Pop Zeus and Slick As Snails, which was not really the case with Kid Marine.

Tracklisting (songs in bold make my ultimate Pollard/GBV playlist/box set):
01 Frequent Weaver Who Burns
02 Soul Train College Policemen
03 Pop Zeus
04 Slick As Snails
05 Do Something Real
06 Port Authority
07 Soft Smoke
08 Same Things
09 And I Don't (So Now I Do)
10 Tight Globes
11 I Get Rid Of You
12 Life Is Beautiful
13 Messiahs
14 Larger Massachusetts
15 And My Unit Moves

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think your assessment of the album is right on.

For what it's worth, over time "Life is Beautiful" has become one of my favorite songs from the album; in particular, the background harmony gives the song a haunting quality.

As always, I thank you for your thoughtful posts.

The Rock Robot said...

Thanks for the comment. I'm still waiting for the comment stating this is Pollard's best album ever...I know they're out there...

Joe said...

i'll bite (long time reader, first time commenter)...i think it is (one of) his best ever. nothing else in the catalog sounds quite like it, but it's still an essential part of the GBV canon at large. the little flourishes that Doug Gillard puts on every song (the siren following "number one is on the run" for instance), and Pollard's lyrics on this one make it stand out from everything else in its own way.

i did want to give a little push for "Larger Massachusetts." one of Pollard's prettiest melodies, the recording is the definition of "homespun" and (gearhead talk here) Doug Gillard's guitar tone is absolutely perfect. or at least as perfect as you'll get playing a quiet song on a 4-track.

as i said, love this blog. you offer great critiques and i dig that you're open to suggestion. at the risk of sounding like an elitist/righteous bastard, i've found that GBV fans are some of the most insightful and engaged music listeners i've come across. i'm really glad to have gotten into them (like you, after they broke up), but we have a wonderful catalog of music to embrace, with a cold beer in hand.

corny, but had to say that. happy new year!

The Rock Robot said...

Thanks for the comment Joe! Though you didn't say it was the definitive best album, being one of the best is close enough. I'm listening to Larger Massachusets as I write this. It is a fairly pretty song (as I said), and I will actually re-visit it. I hope to do a post after I'm done (whenever that is) where I go through all those tracks I said I had trouble deciding and would re-visit later, and make a final decision.

Anonymous said...

I agree, Larger Massachusetts is a great song. Haunting chorus...

More Hot Dogs Please! said...

I love "Slick as Snails" too. Some great lyrics there: "Life is quick and very slick/Slick as snails." My favorite song would have to be "I Get Rid of You." Such a bleak, amazing song, with more awesome lyrics: "And you are ill prepared to fight/Living in a world of soft and white/In air conditioned battle zones/I pity you." Overall, I'd put this one well behind FACE for solo albums (not that there's any shame in that), but it's very solid.