Since 2005, a new Robert Pollard record has meant you're either getting 20 scattershot songs or 12 solidly built, traditionally structured ones. His new album, though, Jack Sells the Cow, doesn't fit into either of these camps. Or it fits into both. It's only 12 songs long, but those songs clock in at just a half-hour, and the songs do jump around to a number of different pop stylings.
The brevity of the songs on Jack Sells the Cow doesn't make them terribly distinct in the Pollard catalog, but the mood he establishes in these short tunes does set them apart. Despite their short run time, most of these songs chug along at mid-tempo -- though the volatile one-two punch of "Big Groceries" and "Fighting the Smoke" rev up the middle of the record -- but the record never seems to sag because the songs themselves shift curiously and contain some killer choruses.
Opener "Heaven is A Gated Community" rings out on distorted chords at first, but it shifts curiously between straight-on power-pop chug and angular rundowns in the verse that throw the song smartly off kilter. "Who's Running My Ranch" cuts through muddled transmissions of sound to give us a psych-pop gem that then devolves back into messy fuzz. "Pontius Pilate Heart" is the brightest, best song here, with a sweet hook cutting through the verses that lead up to one of the more towering, arena-rock choruses in Pollard's recent history. Later in the album, we get the soft hush of Brit-pop inflected "Red Rubber Army" and the industrial rock of closer "Winter Comes to Those Who Pray" rounds out a brief but unpredictable set.
If Pollard's last album, Mouseman Cloud, succeeded on its fractured feel, then Jack Sells the Cow works because, in spite of all its exploration, it feels cohesive. Pollard never tosses a song off here for some half-joking tone experiment -- as he often does on other albums -- and instead delivers 12 solid, often great tunes. And, more importantly, he doesn't overbuild the 12 songs he has here. The songs are short but don't feel cut off, and though they dive into overcast moods, the hooks still come in droves and keep these songs moving forward. The album can press too much to experiment in places. The noise on "Who's Running My Ranch" is more distracting than effective, and "The March of Merrillville" seems to stick to its titular movement too closely and sounds a half-step slow as a result.
Mostly, though, this is another satisfying and remarkably fresh set of tunes from Robert Pollard. If nothing, it'll build anticipation for the third Guided By Voices record of 2012, due out in November, but that's not all it does. This album makes a strong case for being more than just a holdover record, or even more than just another in Pollard's ever-growing discography. This one might rise to the top of that impossibly big pile and make its own distinct mark.