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Waving at the Astronauts
Serious Business / Ernest Jenning
Format: CD / LP / MP3
Release Date: February 15, 2011
By Michael Grigelevich June 6, 2011

I’ll admit it, I don’t worship Robert Pollard or Guided By Voices. Yes, GBV made some of my favorite records, and Pollard’s songwriting often borders on infallible. However, these facts do not corrupt my critical ears or keep me from making sound assessments of the man’s work. For example, Pollard simply makes too many records. Sure, not one of his countless albums is what might be called an embarrassment, but how much is too much? How often have I listened to a post-GBV Pollard album and been bored by its sameness? Yes, I understand most of Pollard’s appeal rests on his ridiculously prolific output, and many of us love the idea of an aging indie genius releasing one off-the-cuff basement masterpiece after another. But, you know what? The clichéd quantity versus quality debate certainly applies here, and, for the record, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

All personal hang-ups aside, I always listen to a new Pollard-related project with an open mind; I wait for its merits to distinguish it from the glut of the rest. Now, what to make of Waving At the Astronauts, his second outing with former GBV bandmate Doug Gillard as Lifeguards? Well, while not essential, it certainly stands as one of the more solid post-GBV releases. Pollard and Gillard couldn’t have picked a better opener than “Paradise Is Not So Bad.” On this summery anthem, big, distorted riffs slice jangly acoustic lines in half as Pollard lets some of his most playful lyrics loose: “Stuck in the middle of the guest list free-for-all debutante ball.” Read that line out loud, and you’ll hear the rolling poeticism that defines most of this song. It’s great fun from start to finish, and Pollard, of course, remains keenly aware of what he and Gillard have created, mumbling “here comes the hit” before the chorus. Unfortunately, “Nobody’s Milk,” the album’s second track, erases some of the breezy, bouncy energy built by the opener. A bit too Joe Walsh for my liking, the song sounds like something you’d hear snippets of in between the table saw squeals coming from your uncle’s garage. You know what I mean: standard classic rock fare for middle-aged white guys on the weekends.

“(Doing The) Math” comes next and adroitly corrects the missteps of “Nobody’s Milk.” With its dark, moody overtones and start/stop dynamics, it moves the listener through a tight, claustrophobic experience to an expansive payoff: a noisy, minute-and-a-half long guitar stagger. This kind of opening up serves the song and album well, as it keeps things away from the Pollard/GBV fallback formula: predictable, revved-up little pop songs. Sure, there are a few more bad decisions here – “Trip the Web” mines similar territory as “Nobody’s Milk” – but Waving At the Astronauts ultimately wins thanks to the bottom of its order: the controlled train wreck of “Keep It In Orbit” and the semi-ridiculous psychedelia of “What Am I?” Long time fans will have nothing to complain about and will probably herald it as a “return to form” (yuck). Pollard/GBV neophytes stand to gain a better understanding of why the Ohioan and his associates sit perched on indie rock’s altar: at their best, these guys can write songs.

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