The "college rock" era of the 1980s and early ‘90s produced some of mainstream rock's most beloved bands — R.E.M. being perhaps the most important — and countless indie rock groups that were forever influenced by the genre's guitar-based sound. That sound, frequently marked by melancholy vocals and politically or emotionally driven lyrics, was manipulated by bands like Pavement, Velocity Girl, and Guided by Voices, all of whom brought a new, almost adolescent sense of insouciance to the genre and subsequently developed their own respective and devoted fan bases.
Guided by Voices, originally led by a schoolteacher from Dayton, Ohio, Robert Pollard, and guitarist Tobin Sprout, was perhaps the most prolific of the first generation of real indie rock bands, and also one of the groups most committed to keeping true to the simple musical structure of the college rock sound. Mr. Pollard, who formed the group in 1986 as a hobby, was obsessed with what is known as the "lo-fi" sound. He made his recordings in garages or other empty spaces with very little high-tech production, often singing and playing a guitar into a microphone and releasing whatever came out.
The first GBV album to bask in any kind of critical spotlight, 1994's "Bee Thousand," features classic songs like "Tractor Rape Chain," which begins with Mr. Pollard calmly strumming an acoustic guitar and coughing audibly before taking a powerfully electric turn about 10 seconds into the tune. The aural inconsistency of juxtapositions like this was exactly what Mr. Pollard wanted to manufacture, and throughout the band's 18-year career, he released hundreds of his attempts to write the perfect lo-fi pop song.
Mr. Pollard's prolific nature, however, led him also to write many forgettable songs — 2002's "Universal Truths and Cycles," like many other GBV albums, features minute-long songs that sound like they were written as a mere afterthought, as if Mr. Pollard was trying to write a story with one incomprehensible paragraph-like song after another. Although fans loved the band's dirty, selfproduced sound, the band's later material was greatly improved by more sophisticated production. "Do the Collapse" and "Isolation Drills," released in 1999 and 2001 respectively, were both produced without Mr. Pollard at the helm, and both albums feature controlled, mature songwriting and clean instrumentals that don't distract from the excellent musicality of the songs.
Guided by Voices broke up in 2004, and almost immediately, Mr. Pollard began an earnest solo career. "Normal Happiness," released last month by Merge Records and supported in concert tonight at the Bowery Ballroom, harkens back to when he gave up the production controls and allowed outside influences to determine where his band's music would go. Mr. Pollard, now 52 and sporting a mop of silver hair, obviously sounds much older than in his days recording "Bee Thousand." His voice still carries the slightly snobby, English-inflected accent that he attains while singing his songs, a curious touch for a Midwestern schoolteacher. But his singing also bears the weight of his years, and "Normal Happiness," which was produced by former GBV collaborator Todd Tobais, benefits from Mr. Pollard's deeper, more soulful inflection.
Songs like "Whispering Whip" and "I Feel Gone Again" still clock in at only a minute-and-a-half, but they are much more traditionally structured, allowing Mr. Pollard's moody voice to break through. "Give Up the Grape" features Mr. Pollard at his lowest range, where he sounds remarkably like Peter Gabriel, another singer who has aged like a fine wine. The slow, trembling song almost feels like a marching band tune. It's a definitive symbol of this stage of Mr. Pollard's career: Now that the weight of being the lead singer of an influential indie rock band is off his shoulders, he has the freedom to experiment with structure and sound. He is still obviously devoted to guitar-heavy rock music, but his allegiance to lo-fi is no longer a priority. "Normal Happiness" strikes a remarkable balance between Mr. Pollard's untraditional songwriting and the virtues of high-tech production.
It's a welcome sign that the indie rock world has not lost one of its great lightning rods of musical experimentation.
Tonight, 7 p.m., Bowery Ballroom (6 Delancey St. at the Bowery, 866-468-7619, $25).