ESP Ohio – Starting Point of the Royal Cyclopean
By Graham Isaac
To keep complete and utter track of Robert Pollard’s rock and roll output (without the help of a spreadsheet or multiple open windows) is a bit of a Quixotic task; the man has remained prolific for over twenty years under multiple headings. The most famous, of course, being indie-come-classic rock project Guided By Voices who’s string of near-flawless records in the ’90s tends to be revered by fans of that era’s indie rock with equal amounts awe and argument – which era really is the best of Pollard?
Like Dinosaur Jr. and a host of other 80s/90s stalwarts, Pollard has resurged in recent years with vital GBV material. So when I was jamming the new ESP Ohio record, I was buoyed to learn the project is Pollard re-united with Doug Gillard, who played in Pollard’s previous/current band from 1997-2004, meaning he was on one of my dark-horse contenders for best GBV record: 2002’s Half Smiles of the Decomposed.
With ESP Ohio, the two of them don’t reinvent their respective wheels, but they step back from GBV’s more recent four-on-the-floor hi-fidelity jams for stately ballads, horn inflected marches (the title track), jangling, poignant pop anthems that end too soon, (album opener “Much Needed Shot in the Arm,” “Lithuanian Bombshells”) and songs that exist more for Pollard’s absurdist narration (“Birdman of Cloth”) than their musical merits. Royal Cyclopean’s opening and closing tracks serve as bookends, with “Much Needed Shot” showcasing Pollard at his most plaintive, while “Grand Beach Finale” starts with one of the records more distorted grooves and stretches into the albums most expansive, multi-tiered melody, a strong note to go out on.
At this point it’s redundant to recount the flaws of a solid, but not great outing by Pollard; though this is a new project and Gillard’s guitar shimmers keep things from getting too monochromatic, the usual complaints apply. At sixteen tracks, three to five could have been cut without hurting the record one bit, the lyrics don’t always land their abstractions, and while many of these songs are very good, they don’t feel *essential.*
On the flipside, though, nothing here is cringe-worthy, embarrassing, or indicative of draining inspiration. Gillard and Pollard work together well, with Gillard teasing out the melodic edges in the songwriting, and a handful of these cuts could go up against any of either of their previous output. ESP Ohio looks to be a solid project to showcase the songwriting of an individual who’s quite good at it, and a guitarist who time and again proves an excellent counterpart. – (7/10)