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"I had their records and I'd been a fan for a long time," he says from Los Angeles, where he's currently working on the new Saves the Day album. "But then I got to see them for the first time on the Alien Lanes tour, and that sort of changed my view of them. I mean, I always liked the records, but when I saw them live it was like, 'Oh man, they're a rock band.' It's not like this indie, lo-fi, shoe-gazing thing. They're a rock band, like old Kinks or old Who. After that, I always thought it would be great to make like a 'loud rock record' with them. That's what I always envisioned and what I was hoping to use as the launching point for the album."
During preproduction, Pollard and Schnapf huddled to discuss the direction the record should take.
"I'd told him what I've been trying to strive for the last few years is to get us to sound on record like we do live," says Pollard, an approach that Schnapf agreed with wholeheartedly.
"I think that's the best of both worlds -- going for a raw, live sound in the studio. It seemed natural," adds Schnapf. "It's weird, for some reason people don't realize how good of a band they are. 'Cause basically what you hear on [Isolation Drills] is them playing live, that is the take. And then we sprinkled a few things here and there and put on vocals. But the core of all those songs is three guitars, bass and drums live." (The looser, more confident playing found on Isolation might've also had something to do with the fact that, unlike Ocasek, Schnapf had no qualms about the band drinking during the sessions.)
More important, both men agreed that the main thrust of the album should be to return the focus back to the songs. To that end, Schnapf insisted that that the album's arrangements be honed as much as possible before recording began. Gone are the odd snippets of noise and weird sonic sketches that frequently popped up on GBV records, and except for the dissonant intro of "The Enemy" -- a brief but obvious nod to the band's experimental side -- the album is filled with nothing but fully formed and fleshed-out pop songs; even the 90-second dirge "Sister I Need Wine" -- an aching, ambient bit of acoustica -- plays like a shorthand classic.
Of the 25 cuts that Pollard had originally penned for the sessions -- the idea of a double album was briefly discussed, then abandoned -- the final number was eventually pared down to a more streamlined 13 (a trio of newer Pollard compositions -- which Schnapf describes as "too good not to include" -- were later added to bring the final track total to 16). And while Isolation Drills is about the same length as the band's past few long players, it feels like the leanest and most judiciously edited GBV album in memory.
An equally crucial element in making the record was reining in the sonic excesses of Do the Collapse. Nowhere was that decision more apparent than in the work of lead guitarist Doug Gillard. Gillard, whose tenure with the band -- since 1997's Mag Earwhig -- is the longest of any current member, took an entirely different approach to his parts than he had on the last album.
"See, the thing that always impressed me about Doug is how tasteful his riffs and leads are," enthuses Pollard. "He never does anything out of place. On Do the Collapse, we kind of let him go a little bit, kind of let him smoke -- and it was great. But for this one we sat down and talked and decided that the things he'd do should be atmospheric. So he laid back a little bit, but he did some really cool stuff; he always does."
A similar ethic guides the buzz-saw attack of Nate Farley's rhythm guitar, the lubricious rumble of Tim Tobias' bass and the feral crash of Jim MacPherson's drums (finally given their justice in Schnapf's mix).
True to Pollard's word, Gillard's nuanced playing -- from the jangly fills of "Fair Touching," the angular lead lines of "Skills Like This" to the meaty power chording of "Pivotal Film" -- is deftly woven into the fabric of the record, providing a texture that owes much to the precise playing of Wire's Bruce Gilbert.
Adding further depth is a holdover element from the Collapse sessions -- the Soldier String Quartet. "I really like the strings on that record. Without overdoing it, I wanted to include more strings on this record, too," says Pollard, who lists the orchestral pop of Scott Walker and Jimmy Webb among his current listening favorites. The work of the classical combo colors a handful of Isolation cuts, including the thunderous, squalling coda of "The Enemy" and the rollicking album closer "Privately."
Other guests include a pair of high-profile collaborators. Former GBV mate Tobin Sprout plays piano on "How's My Drinking" -- a defiant yet weary-sounding rebuttal to critics who've derided Pollard for his onstage imbibing. Elsewhere, singer-songwriter Elliott Smith adds a few gentle touches of organ and piano.