Pollard, Firesign Theatre and More

Now this is more like it. The CD release sheets are fattening up as we move farther into the new year, offering considerably more possibilities with each passing Tuesday. This week offers a trio of discs from a broad spectrum of musical veterans: Robert

Now this is more like it. The release sheets are fattening up as we move farther into the new year, offering considerably more possibilities with each passing Tuesday. This week offers a trio of discs from a broad spectrum of musical veterans.

The first is the latest and much (but not long) anticipated solo album from Robert Pollard, The Crawling Distance, released on his own GBV Inc. label. Our prolific Dayton neighbor has never been particularly shy about his love of The Who, and his last two solo works — released on the same day in 2007 — were further proof of that conviction, with Coast to Coast Carpet of Love being the more thought out and polished and Standard Gargoyle Decisions being the more visceral and elemental.

The Crawling Distance could be seen as Pollard’s Quadrophenia; an older musical chameleon looks back on his early days and writes in that style, but with the sophisticated and hard won perspective that informs his current mindset. The Crawling Distance ripples with intensity when he pumps up the volume (“Faking My Harlequin,” “By Silence Be Destroyed”), shimmers with contemplative power when he dials it back (“Red Cross Vegas Night,” “The Butler Stands for All of Us”) and crackles with Pop beauty when he splits the difference (“Imaginary Queen Anne”).

Like Pete Townshend, Pollard has a generational voice that transcends generations. Unlike Townshend, Pollard has the unique capacity for incredible clarity and universality when he is at his most cryptic and impenetrable. And also unlike Townshend, Pollard has yet to put out an album of relative mush that has to be atoned for on a subsequent release. The Crawling Distance shows Robert Pollard at the top of a game that he is a long way from finishing.

Next up is Cheerleader, the latest album from Canadian Alt.Rock quartet Odds, their first in a decade. The album came out north of the border last year but is just now seeing release here. The band did a lot of crap gigs in jerkwater locales across Canada in the late ’80s before they performed a series of guerrilla raid live shows in Los Angeles that resulted in a Zoo Records contract and their debut album, Neopolitan. With an edgy Pop rush at the crossroads of Matthew Sweet, Cracker and Elvis Costello, Odds made such an impression on Warren Zevon that he invited them to open his 1991 tour.

They hit the top of the Canadian charts and cracked the U.S. Top 40 in 1996 (with “Someone Who’s Cool” from their third album Nest), but dissolved three years later; frontman Craig Northey wrote for a variety of artists (including Rosanne Cash and The Who) and formed a duo with the Gin Blossoms’ Jesse Valenzuela. Two years ago, Northey reunited with Odds bassist Doug Elliott and reformed Odds with new members Pat Steward and Murray Atkinson to play on the Barenaked Ladies’ Ships & Dips Cruise and hit the studio shortly afterward.

With Cheerleader, Odds pick up where they left off a decade ago as if they were following up an album in a standard two-year gap, starting with the opener “Cloud Full of Rocks,” a song so infectious that the CDC should investigate it as an outbreak. Fans of smart Pop like that espoused by Toad the Wet Sprocket, Gin Blossoms and Tommy Keene should have jumped all over Odds 15 years ago. Cheerleader gives you the chance to make up for that gross oversight.

The last of the trio might well be the best, from my admittedly biased perspective. Get Guilty is the sophomore solo release from A.C. Newman, better known as frontman Carl Newman from Canada’s Pop juggernaut New Pornographers. Newman’s debut solo album, 2004’s The Slow Wonder, displayed a lot of his familiar musical reference points (Roy Wood, Ray Davies, The Beatles) in a purer context, with less polish and committee influence and more grit and homegrown determination.

Get Guilty has pretty much that same feel, and while a good many people may not hear a dime’s bit of difference between Newman’s solo Pop and his masterful New Pornography, there are definite points of departure. Newman’s solo sonic canvas may be thematically similar to his New Porns work, but Get Guilty benefits from an economy of style and execution with a demo-like flair that is just a half-step back from the New Porns’ fleshed out but equally immediate approach. The Slow Wonder grew out of a batch of songs that Newman had felt were wrong for the Porns, but Get Guilty seems more deliberate than its predecessor, and it’s a safe bet that he wrote these songs for this album rather than dipping into his band’s slush pile. An appreciation for the Porns’ brand of off-kilter Pop is probably a prerequisite for loving Get Guilty, but once you’ve joined that club, you’re a member for life. Sign up today.

There are still a few things leftover from what I perceived to have been a really good 2008 that deserve some coverage. One such release took me back almost 40 years, time machining me to my earliest critical appreciation of music and, in this case, comedy.

I was 15 and visiting my father and stepmother on a fall weekend. It was late Saturday night and my 12-year-old stepbrother Rick decided he wanted to rearrange his bedroom blueprint, so we got to work moving the beds and furniture. We turned on our favorite late night FM radio station, Lansing’s WVIC, for musical accompaniment.

Normally by this time of night, we would have settled down by the radio and set up our primitive recording rig (mono tape recorder, wand microphone in front of radio speaker) to capture and document the evening’s sounds. But given our redecorating distraction, we decided to become passive music listeners rather than aggressive music harvesters. By 3 a.m., we were just about ready to call it a night when the jock announced a half hour break and invited listeners to enjoy something from the Firesign Theatre, apparently entitled “Nick Danger, Third Eye.” Rick and I looked at each other, intrigued, and sat down on our beds.

An announcer’s voice: “(Foghorn) Los Angeles. He walks again by night. (whistling) Out of the fog, into the smog. Relentlessly, ruthlessly (“I wonder where Ruth is?”), doggedly (a dog barks), toward his weekly meeting with The Unknown. At 4th and Drucker, he turns left. At Drucker and 4th, he turns right. He crosses MacArthur Park and walks into a great sandstone building (“Oh, my nose!”). Groping for the door, he steps inside, climbs the thirteen steps to his office (phone rings). He walks in! He’s ready for mystery, he’s ready for excitement, he’s ready for anything...he’s...”

(Answering phone) “Nick Danger, Third Eye!”

“Uh, I wanna order a pizza to go, and no anchovies.”

“No anchovies? You’ve got the wrong man. I spell my name Danger!”

We were hooked. What followed was a 27-minute counterculture take on detective noir and radio mysteries, packed with ludicrous plot twists and mesmerizing wordplay, all of it heart-stoppingly funny. When it was over, we were drained and delirious, realizing we had just experienced a defining moment in our young lives. We had just been baptized in the Firesign River.

In the intervening years, I have collected every legitimate and illegitimate scrap of Firesign material I could lay my hands on. For the uninitiated, Firesign Theatre began in L.A. in the mid-’60s as four writing performers — Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, Phil Procter and David Ossman — who were offered weekly airtime on KMET radio, which they dubbed Radio Free Oz. The foursome’s acid-tinged theater of the mind gained a sizable following and earned them a contract for Columbia Records. Although there have been gaps in their timeline, solo projects and periods when they have worked as both duo and trio, Firesign Theatre remains active to this day; they have performed new work on Sirius satellite radio and put out new material as recently as 2003’s All Things Firesign, a collection of their sketches for NPR from the previous year.

It’s rumored that Firesign is holed up somewhere working on new material, but their most recent collection is a blast from the whole of their past that relates to the anecdote above. The Firesign Theatre’s Box of Danger (on the Shout Factory label), released last fall, is a four disc set that assembles most of the appearances of detective Nick Danger across the group’s history, beginning with “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger” from side two of their 1969 sophomore album, How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All?

The rest of the box contains the limited-release EP, The Case of the Missing Shoe, their full-length adventure The Three Faces of Al, and a few unreleased nuggets like 1979’s “Frame Me Pretty,” a Sirius Danger episode entitled “Shack Out on the Alien Highway,” and “Scaled Down Danger,” a newly recorded version of a piece originally conceived for Austin’s 1989 Daily Feed syndicated radio series. It’s a great thematic collection of Firesign’s most enduring character in a well-conceived and designed package, which includes an essay from each member (in character, naturally) and annotation of the pieces and their origins.

As a longtime Firesign collector, a good deal of Box of Danger is already sitting on my shelves, but to have the collection in this well-designed and constructed form is a treat. “The Case of the Missing Shoe” is particularly welcomed, as my vinyl is worn and the chances that I would either find one in better shape or that anyone would release it as a stand alone CD are equally remote. In fact, one of my recent vinyl burn projects was a similarly limited release by Firesign from 1977 entitled Just Folks: A Firesign Chat, an album that was intended to be a primer for incoming president Jimmy Carter. I realized that my vinyl of Just Folks was seriously compromised — it clearly dated to that time in my life when I utilized a nickel taped to my tonearm as an anti-skating weight — and I further realized that the odds of finding a new one were slim. Thankfully, a little webvestigation turned up the discovery that the title has been released on CD by Laugh.com. I will be upgrading soon.

If you have little or no exposure to Firesign Theatre, do the comedy spot in your brain an enormous favor and track down whatever you can. You may not get all the ’60s/’70s political/cultural/dope references, but listening to Firesign is like taking the funniest contemporary history class of all time.

No shows to report on, again, so let me just throw my elated congratulations onto the massive pile of well wishes being deservedly heaped on our newly sworn in 44th president. The neocon haters are already sharpening their skewers (Rush Limbaugh reputedly announced his desire on a recent show for Obama’s failure), and the new president clearly has a Herculean task ahead of him to fix all that is creaky in the country right now. At the very least, the outgoing administration should forfeit their security deposit for the shithouse mess they’ve left behind.

But for today, it should be enough to be proud that we as an electorate pulled our collective heads out of our collective asses long enough to make the right decision for America going forward in 2009.