For a guy who spent so much time around Robert Pollard, Tobin Sprout sure has progressed and managed to find his own voice as a songwriter and performer. Sure, there are bits on his new album, the magisterial The Universe and Me, out tomorrow on Burger Records, that sound like the earlier material he offered up as part of the classic Guided By Voices line-up but there are so many pieces here that sound utterly unique and affecting and utterly unlike any of the college rock power-pop that GBV became famous for.
The Universe and Me is, if the truth were told, something closer to a Neil Young or Grandaddy album than it is to a GBV-affiliated lo-fi product. Admittedly, something like "Just One Kid (Takes on the World)" has a suitably GBV-level of fuzzy pop about it, but "Heart of Wax" sounds more like a suitably languid Velvet Crush or Teenage Fanclub track than it does anything in Sprout's distant past. It is clear, as one listens to this fine record, that Tobin Sprout has bloomed and settled into his own comfortable style, a style that relies more on craft than quick composition. If the downright beautiful "When I Was a Boy" does indeed echo that Jason Lytle-fronted act I mentioned earlier, the title cut of this album nods more in the direction of early, solo Lennon with a touch of T.Rex about it. Elsewhere, the insanely-catchy "A Walk Across the Human Bridge" rides a bright, big hook into your eardrums, while the more mellow "Manifest Street" reveals a hint of old Chris Bell and Big Star sides.
If The Universe and Me illustrates anything it's that a lo-fi artist can certainly expand his sonic palette, a fact that shouldn't be such a surprise. Perhaps not quite as immediately infectious as certain songs on those old GBV long-players, the numbers on this new Tobin Sprout release are every bit as melodic and clever, and certainly more ambitious and thought-out, for lack of a better term. Tobin Sprout has, on The Universe and Me, successfully re-invented himself a tiny bit and the results of his work here are some of the most beautiful material this guy has so far produced in any outfit.
[Photo: Uncredited Facebook picture]