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Phantom Tollbooth - Beard of Lightning

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Artist: Phantom Tollbooth

Album: Beard of Lightning

Label: Off

Review date: Jun. 4, 2003

Phantom Heroics

Phantom Tollbooth, for those of you who may have forgotten or were too young to remember, were one of the 80's more interesting bands, combining a Minutemen-tinged, jazzed-fueled punk with an aggressive, classic rock sound. Power Toy was regarded as one of their best works (among 3 finely performed lp's.) After their final lp, Daylight In the Quiet Zone, the band members went onto pursue other musical avenues in such bands as Jad Fair, Bongwater and King Missile.

Now they are back through means of recreating history. The music is the same, literally, but the vocals have changed. A self-proclaimed superfan, Robert Pollard was offered to provide hand in this process. All of Tollbooth's intrumental tracks from Power Toy were sent to Pollard, where he hunkered down to conjure vibes of a re-realized project. The results are a truly interesting mixed bag of melodic shapeshifting and vocal feats.

Claiming that while Power Toy is a favorite album, Pollard still felt that the voals sounded too "indie" for the more complex and dense song structures of the music. Pollard is notoriously pinned down for flooding the market with every harmonius whim he throws down in the studio. While this may be true, it is not necessarily a bad thing. For those who think it is a bad thing, Beard of Lightning does not prove a case for Pollard being a record hog who thinks he can do anything. He himself has admitted that this was a challenge. It reflects more of an interesting idea realized through a man, like him or not, who is the ideal candidate for such an experiment.

Upon repeated listenings of Pollard's Circus Devils, Lifeguards, Airport 5, Go Back Snowball, and solo albums, his idiosyncratic melodic layers are peeled back to reveal a constant output of endless possibilities. One may feel this style of songwriting has been done before, and it has, but not with a voice or imagination as commanding as Pollard's. Low and behold Beard of Lightning, a record combing music that stands well on its own, but is not perfect by any means, with Pollard's "what if" asthetic that saturates the abtract straightforwardness of the rhythms with acrobatic warble.

"Mascara Snakes" and "Atom Bomb Professor" kick things off in a fully representative-of-things-to-come manner. The Pollard poetry is here too, as in "Iceland Continuations," where he sings "This house was built on a lack of trust and its doors are hymen-thin." It has been said of great vocalists that they could sing the Declaration of Independence and it would be amazing. Well, for Robert Pollard, he would start out by changing the words and then create the perfect rock song. Which is maybe what he does with every song-to-be.

By Chris Horn

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