For all his success with Guided by Voices, and his recent solo resurgence, for the hundreds (thousands?) of songs Pollard has recorded and released, there’s one thing he’s never quite nailed. The booming, huge, cohesive prog-rock record. He’s tried his prog leanings with side projects like Lifeguards and the Takeovers and Circus Devils, but the results were always mixed. What he needed was another great rock band, one that wasn’t GBV, to help him reach his most ambitious goal to date.
Boston Spaceships, with Chris Slusarenko and John Moen, is that band, and Let it Beard is the great, ambitious rock record Pollard’s been working towards for years and years. It’s amazing to note that it’s his first true double-album (unless you count this, which we won’t, let’s call that “archival” and move on). He’s released two albums on the same day, but never a whole statement as massive as the 26-song, 75-minute Let it Beard.
The album is also further concrete evidence that Boston Spaceships is Pollard’s main band. This is no side project, and he works with Slusarenko and Moen like they are an inventive and collaborative unit. Pollard supplied Slusarenko with 40 or so demos he whittled down to 26 and fleshed out with thick rocking layers and flourishes. Moen’s drumming was figured out basically on the spot in the recording studio. He didn’t rehearse the songs ahead of time, at all. Slusarenko’s wide swath of sounds, and Moen’s on-the-fly drumming, injects the whole album with an infectious vitality. Unsurprisingly, they churn through buzzing rockers like “Toppings Take the Cake” and “You Just Can’t Tell,” but they also bring the same energy to the sweeter melodies of “Minefield Searcher” or “Make a Record for Lo-life.”
If the sheer power of their sound wasn’t enough to draw you into Let it Beard — Moen kills here, showing a harder side than we usually see from him in the Decemberists — the variety of sounds we get from them is just as impressive. There are some experimental near-throw-aways, like the wandering “A Hair in Every Square Inch of the House,” but for the most part they deliver catchy tunes of all shapes and sizes. There’s power-pop (“Tabby and Lucy”), space-pop (the slow, stunning “Let More Light Into Your House”), and shape-shifting arena-rock (closer “Inspiration Points”). Through it all, Slusarenko and Moen prove the Who acolytes Pollard always wanted, a far more dramatic rock band than the pop-leaning GBV, and Pollard does his part as the full-throated, charismatic Daltrey up front. His singing, as always, is brilliant, but here you can feel him pushing himself with the high-register punches in “You Just Can’t Tell” or the slightly raspy sweetness of “Chevy Marigold.”
Adding to the size of the sound is a slew of guests, from J. Mascis to Steve Wynn from the Dream Syndicate to “classic” GBV guitarist (and Acid Ranch member) Mitch Mitchell. What’s more impressive than the glut of songs here, though, is how cohesive Let it Beard is all the way through. Pollard has piled the songs on us before, but those albums always felt scattershot and patchwork. But here, with Slusarenko’s help sequencing, he has created an album that moves as a whole, with cinematic peaks and valleys, dramatic mood swings, and the most surprises from song to song we’ve gotten from a Pollard release in a long time. Forget GBV-era or post-GBV-era or “Classic”-GBV-era or whatever era you want to think of for Robert Pollard. Boston Spaceships is his most accomplished musical vehicle working right now, and Let it Beard is one of the finest releases in his endless discography. Period.