You will notice in my reviews for From a Compound Eye (FACE) and Normal Happiness that I mention that they are among my favorite Robert Pollard releases. Those albums perfected the method of Todd Tobias recording full band versions of Robert Pollard's demos, and Pollard recording the vocals afterword. Though this method was somewhat used with the Tobias brothers (Tim and Todd) and Pollard for the Circus Devils albums, the method truly got its start when Todd Tobias recorded the instrumentation for Fiction Man, based on the unused demos from Guided By Voices' album Earthquake Glue. I think I will just get it out of the way now that this album is not among my favorites, and that some of the issues I had with Earthquake Glue filter down to this album as well...
One thing I notice different between this album and FACE is that where FACE sounds like a full band recording all at once, Fiction Man sometimes has moments where the vocals and instrumentation seem slightly misaligned. The opening (and best) track Run Son Run highlights this the most at the beginning of the second verse ("Freeze me up from going down the stomach pump"); during this moment, the vocals and music seem to be running at different speeds. That being said, Run Son Run is a pop gem, and a killer opening.
I Expect a Kill would feel at home on a Circus Devils release, and is a track that has grown on me after repeated listenings. It has a good mix of distorted guitar and factory ambiance, and yet still sounds strangely melodic and epic. Sea of Dead is a dark acoustic track and a preview of the softer songs on FACE, and it is followed by the more upbeat ditty Children Come On, and the similarly upbeat and distortion filled The Louis Armstrong of Rock and Roll.
I give Paradise Style the number two spot on Fiction Man's best songs. I love songs that motor into the chorus in a way that the listener has to take a moment to register that the chorus has actually started. Pollard is great at this, and one of my favorite examples is Little Lines from Mag Earwhig. Keeping up with the pop-driven sound of Paradise Style are Conspiracy of Owls and It's Only Natural. Both are decent tracks, but the chorus of It's Only Natural really stands out.
Let's face it, many Pollard-related releases have toss-offs and throwaways, and I am putting Losing Usage in that category. I also wanted to note that along with Children Come On, Built to Improve and Trial of Affliction and Light Sleeping made the Crickets: Best of the Fading Captain Series album. I think this serves as some proof that Crickets is more of a sample or general representative album, and less of a "best of" offering. While Children Come On can be identified as a pretty decent song with its general pleasingness, Built to Improve is the type of epic Pollard has done better many times elsewhere, and Trial is a heavy Circus Devils-ish tune which probably would not have made my Circus Devils "Best of" if it actually were one.
The final three tracks of Fiction Man are all good songs, and all on the border of making the playlist. I'm taking Every Word in the World for having Pollard's best vocals on the album. The stadium-rocker Their Biggest Win is also getting on the list because the chorus is just too fun to leave it off.
I noted that Earthquake Glue was the later GBV album that I listened to the least, and that it "has a slightly more pop-mellow vibe, and reminds me of Kid Marine in its okay-ness. That is, there is not a bad track on the album, nor does it really ever shine through as spectacular". I think the same can be said about Fiction Man, in fact the opening and last paragraphs from my Earthquake Glue posting can almost entirely represent Fiction Man. Like Earthquake Glue, Fiction Man is the Robert Pollard "solo" album that I listen to the least during this era. I guess this makes perfect sense since it is comprised of the tracks that did not make Earthquake Glue in the first place.
Tracklisting (songs in bold make the playlist):
01 Run Son Run
02 I Expect a Kill
03 Sea of Dead
04 Children Come On
05 The Louis Armstrong of Rock and Roll
06 Losing Usage
07 Built to Improve
08 Paradise Style
09 Conspiracy of Owls
10 It's Only Natural
11 Trial of Affliction and Light Sleeping
12 Every Word in the World
13 Night of the Golden Underground
14 Their Biggest Win