Circus Devils’ Gringo proves that while a lot of Pollard’s ideas work, he is, after all, a mere mortal whose brain sometimes falters and spouts its share of chaff.
When it comes to his output, I personally love mid-period Guided by Voices the most. I’m partial to the band’s accidental, left field anthems on Alien Lanes and Propeller, so I’m glad to report that the songs on the mostly acoustic and vaguely conceptual Gringo do boast their share of scrappy charm and cryptic lyrics. On the whole, however, Circus Devils tracks are cleaner and more carefully considered than the best tossed-off GBV Pop abortions.
Gringo starts out weak, the first few songs sounding like hackneyed, Prog-inspired ’70s AOR tunes that at times reach plodding, Eagles-level tedium. Luckily, after too long we get dark, melancholic ditties like the excellent “Bad Baby Blue” (which somehow recalls The Frogs) and the drunken, broke-down “Ants.” There’s also the oddly irresistible, silly charmer like the skiffley “Easy Baby.” It’s refreshing when these songs pop up and inject some much-needed weirdness, personality and Pop glory into the proceedings — in short, Pollard and his collaborators doing what they do best. And these good songs are good enough that they don’t sound like GBV toss-offs (as many of Pollard’s solo tracks tend to sound).
Things get interesting again on the vaguely Bowie-esque tone poem “Arizona Black Company,” where some bizarre tape noise and shrill, distorted film-score strings add a moody sense of drama to a bleak, acoustic songscape. Unfortunately, that about does it for the highlights. Gringo presents a pleasant overall listening experience, but there aren’t enough exciting ideas here to sustain an interesting album. Grade: C