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Voices Carry

Rock 'n' roll has given Bob Pollard a lot -- certainly more than any fourth-grade teacher who decides to become a full-time musician at the age of 37 can expect. As leader of cult combo Guided By Voices, Pollard has earned a modicum of financial security, loads of critical praise and the slavish dedication of an ever-growing legion of fans. But such an unlikely success doesn't come -- as Pollard has found out -- without a price.

He speaks of these things -- both of what he's gained and lost -- with a doleful sincerity. There is an undeniable earnestness in Pollard's rapid-fire Midwestern drawl, a voice growing hoarse at the end of a long day -- a long week, in fact -- of interviews. Phoning from the New York City headquarters of his record label, Pollard is promoting the release of GBV's latest album, Isolation Drills.

If there is one marked contrast between this and previous GBV efforts, it is a palpable shift in the songwriting. For a man who once wrote abstract tales of "robots, elves and lizards," Pollard admits the new record is his most personal endeavor, filled with stories about "grown-ups with grown-up problems." It is -- to use a hoary cliché -- a coming-of-age story, but one with a twist. The one coming of age here happens to be a middle-aged man with a catalogue containing the most compelling pop songs this side of the Beatles.

If it's taken Pollard a longer time than most to reach this point, he can be forgiven, as he's led several distinct lives: a star athlete in high school and college, a schoolteacher for 14 years, a husband and father of two, and, for the last decade or so, the most compelling phenomenon to emerge from the American musical underground.

Over the course of two decades and several dozen lineups -- with Pollard the common thread and creative force -- GBV took refuge in the basements of Dayton, Ohio, writing and recording one lo-fi masterpiece after the other. Combining taut British Invasion blasts with prog-rock experimentalism, the group labored in obscurity for years before the public spotlight finally found it with 1992's Propeller and '94's breakthrough, Bee Thousand -- a success that allowed Pollard to quit his day job.

Those records were meant as exuberant rejoinders to a generation mired in a morass of flanneled, grungy fatalism. The band's efforts kick-started a mini-revolution toward home recording and reignited a D.I.Y., indie spirit that had been flagging ever since the underground rode Nirvana's early '90s coattails into the mainstream.

With the forthcoming Isolation Drills, GBV has finally painted a fully realized portrait of its lo-fi sketches and found its way back after the artistic detour of 1999's Do the Collapse -- a highly professional yet uncharacteristic-sounding affair.

Documenting the most turbulent period in Pollard's personal life, Isolation Drills is marked by moments of painful, almost soul-baring intensity. Yet Pollard's steadfast adherence to "the power of rock" -- something he deems a panacea for an ailing spirit -- comes crashing through with every molten guitar line and heart-wrenching harmony.

Taken as a whole, the album is a deft synthesis, an inspired merger of dark and light; the brooding emotional catharsis of Imperial Bedroom shot through with the hopeful anthemism of Who's Next. The band's single-digit tracking technique -- which was often as frustrating as it was interesting -- has been chucked in favor of a large-scale production ethic that never sours the flavor of Pollard's perfect pop confections.

In all, it is a decisive climax to an intriguing and important career, but one -- notes Pollard, ominously -- that was not arrived at so easily.

It's impossible to get to the heart of Guided By Voices' new album without discussing its last one. For you see, the tone and tenor of Isolation Drills is a direct result of the band's experience recording and touring behind Do the Collapse -- and the fallout from both.

Do the Collapse was to have been GBV's breakthrough, the group's first album bankrolled by a major label, TVT, after a dozen years and as many independently released efforts, and its first recorded entirely in a large studio with a "name" producer.

The name in question was that of former Cars leader Ric Ocasek. Pollard admits he was attracted as much by Ocasek's reputation as a "big rock icon" as his work with acts like Jonathan Richman, Bad Brains and Weezer.

The resulting product -- though critically hailed and the group's best-selling disc to date -- proved something of a disappointment to the band's rabid contingent. For many GBV diehards, their complaint was less about the commercial trappings -- few would begrudge the band success; Pollard's songs literally cry out to be heard in arenas and on the radio -- than the overall sound of the album. Collapse was an overly polished, keyboard-heavy affair that left some feeling the record was more the work of the man responsible for Shake It Up than the one who made Alien Lanes.