Polyphonic Spree: The Fragile Army
My first experience with The Polyphonic Spree was on the hospital sitcom Scrubs. The orchestra-sized band appeared on the show, complete with flowing white robes. About a week later, I saw them again on TV, this time on Austin City Limits. Both times, I was on the edge of my seat, like some kind of television-addicted zombie maybe because, at the time, I was in the midst of a Flaming Lips phase. I was, and still am, enamored with the big sound the Lips make juxtaposed against the innocent and unpretentious sound of Wayne Coyne's voice, and the Spree's lead vocalist, Tim DeLaughter, sounds eerily like Coyne. Naturally, I was excited to learn the Spree was scheduled to perform at the Big Easy a couple of months later. It seemed that destiny was determined to make me a fan of the Polyphonic Spree, but not without making the journey to fandom a bit tumultuous.
Upon hearing the Spree's latest release, Fragile Army, my first feeling was disappointment. There are some great moments. My favorite track, "Light to Follow," is dark, intricately arranged and evokes a trippy, spacey feeling. It's the kind of music I was hoping to hear from The Polyphonic Spree. With a band that size and with the wide scope of instrumentation they possess, the musical possibilities are almost limitless. It's just a shame that with all those options at their fingertips, they chose to primarily focus on the "big sound" side of things. For 90 percent of the record, everyone is playing at once. French horns and trombones are blaring, eight singers are belting it out, two drummers compete for beats and a harp player plucks away alongside two guitar players, a violinist, a cellist and two pianists. After a while, it just gets ridiculous. Also, the lyrics are, for the most part, overly optimistic. Lines like "Someday the world will be one" and "Now we know we're beautiful/now we know we'll be all right" coupled with the dramatic music made me laugh. If you like show tunes, musicals and cheesy lyrics, you'll love it.
As disappointed as I was, I almost didn't go see them when they came to Boise in October. But I got a call from a friend inviting me to the show, so I went. All of the things that I didn't like about Fragile Army translate beautifully to a live setting. It's hard not to stand in awe as 29 captivating, talented and charismatic musicians perform, filling a venue with sound. And surprisingly, they managed to be subtle and deliberate as well. There were moments of quiet to contrast and validate the "big sound" moments. At one point, a solo pianist rocked like Beethoven for two or three minutes before the entire band exploded into song behind him. It was amazing and it brought me back around to The Polyphonic Spree, who I realized, is much better heard live. Perhaps they would do well to work with a classical producer on their next album, which thanks to their live show, I will definitely be more inclined to give a chance.