Like a long-lost artifact from some golden age of rock that never existed, ESP Ohio's debut album grabs you by the ear-holes and demands your immediate and undivided attention. Described by Robert Pollard as a band, rather than a collaboration -- a distinction which may seem like splitting hairs, but means in essence that rather than putting melodies and lyrics on top of other people's instrumentals, Pollard wrote these songs and sent them off to Brooklyn-based bandmates guitarist Doug Gillard (Nada Surf, Guided By Voices), bassist Mark Shue (Guided By Voices, Beech Creeps) and drummer Travis Harrison (Lifeguards Engineer ) to be fleshed out and then returned to him for vocal recording and mixing in the Buckeye State. In other words, rather than trying to fit the words/melodies around someone else's musical structure, he created the musical structure to fit his words/melodies. Also, there's a band photo.
It makes a difference. In some ways Starting Point harkens back to Isolation Drills-era Guided By Voices, perhaps inevitably with Doug Gillard playing guitar and contributing arrangements the way he did in that era of GBV, but has its own unique characteristics, too. These manifest in the form of horn, woodwind and keyboard flourishes, as well as the full range of Gillard's guitar hero palette. Shue and Harrison provide a workmanlike bedrock; Shue in particular exhibits a refined melodic sense that works in lockstep with Gillard's expansive arrangements (for example: "Miss Hospital '93," "Lithuanian Bombshells").
The result is some of the most joyful noise Pollard has made in recent memory: melodic, playful, upbeat, and … what's the word… sparkly? Sure. Call it sparkle rock, which should be a thing, but maybe doesn't adequately describe ESP Ohio's mix of bold-faced rock with weirdo proggy-psych elements and textures, but in the absence of adequate qualifiers, it'll have to do. Starting Point sparkles like the steel mill at the beginning of Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven. It's extravagantly lovely, but if you get too close, it will burn you. Moments of sheer beauty and/or weirdness adhere to your memory: Gillard's slide guitar from heaven on "You the Earthman," the brief chiming 12-string run on "This Violent Side," the shifty time signatures on "The Ticket Who Rallied," the wobbly background synth line(s) in "Sleeping Through the Noise." Etcetera.
The human being with a functioning brain will note from the title of the record that Pollard is indulging the extremes of his abstract sense of word play here. His refusal to keep his lyrics earthbound occasionally frustrates listeners who prefer their songs accompanied by dull fortune-cookie banalities, but those with more refined tastes will rejoice in the inspired poetics smothered, covered, and scattered over Starting Point of the Royal Cyclopean like so many semi-precious stones. Hold the cheese.
Pollard won't say whether this is a one-off or Volume One of a series, but he's keeping the door open. That's maybe a key to his "process": always keep the door open. After countless songs, records, bands, line-ups, accolades, bottles of tequila, after everything, the door to the porches of Pollard's ears (this is an awkward and inappropriate allusion to Hamlet) remain open to the far-out whispers of his muse. Get hip.