The Strokes’ career-making, scene-defining debut, Is This It?, turns 10 this year. The album has aged respectably, despite (maybe because of) the Strokes’ inability to replicate its success, but in many ways, the indie scene has outgrown it. Electronic music of various kinds, hip-hop, and now R&B are all watched more carefully by scenesters than guitar-driven rock, which now constantly defends itself against the scandalous charge that our dads might like it. Boston Spaceships’ Robert Pollard is either unaware of this ground change or uninterested in it.
Boston Spaceships are as prolific a rock group as Pollard has ever played in, the 26-song Let It Beard being their fifth LP in three years, and they would appear to harbor no anxiety about rocking in the shadow of Pollard’s other big project, Guided by Voices, the definitive influence on all lo-fi rock. Boston Spaceships sound a lot like that band sans tape noise, and that’s because the two groups work from the same staple ingredients: Pollard’s understated guitar heroics and ear-grabbing vocal hooks.
I shouldn’t make it sound like Let It Beard is totally devoid of surprises. “Christmas Girl” is punctuated by mariachi horns and a spoken-word coda, and “Tourist UFO” goes out with a guitar solo courtesy of J. Mascis. One of the weirdest songs is “A Hair in Every Square Inch of the House,” a lurching noise-rock number with vocals so muffled they sound like they were shouted in from another room. Most of Let It Beard is far more accessible, but Pollard and his collaborators consistently toss in a surprise whenever the hazy, halcyon rock teeters toward sameiness. Many of the songs run three or four minutes, which nearly qualifies them as epics considering that the average Guided by Voices/Boston Spaceship song cuts out after a mere minute and a half, and most of those longer songs are composed dynamically, with shifts in mood or tempo occurring somewhere near the middle. Still, Pollard is willing as ever to bash out a verse and a terrific chorus and then end the song at that. Some may call that slacking off, but I call it good editing: There’s hardly a track on the sprawling album that begs to be skipped, and that’s largely because Pollard knows that a song should end when its cool ideas have played out, not three minutes later.
Well-crafted as the material is, one could be forgiven for thinking that Let It Beard simply adds another 26 tunes to Pollard’s already teeming catalogue. There are only a handful of fans who could credibly claim to have exhausted his discography, and neither diehards nor casual listeners will be surprised by anything here. At the same time, the supply of solid albums for young guitar-slingers has run oddly dry of late. This year we’ve got Yuck’s excellent self-titled release, but what else? Solo for solo, Gaga’s Born This Way rocks harder than many recent rock releases, while radio-rock is accelerating toward obsolescence with each passing year. Amid such slim pickings, trusting one’s ears to a master who aspires to nothing more than to write the same simple songs he’s been writing all his life seems like an eminently good decision. What Let It Beard lacks in blockbuster hooks it makes up for in its rambling excess of melody, giving the appearance of effortlessness to what, evidenced by Pollard’s lack of competition, is obviously anything but.