July 06, 2004

The Polyphonic Spree "Together We're Heavy"

It took them three years, but the Polyphonic Spree have finally released their first "proper" album, and once again I find myself at a weird crossroads in terms of writing a review to describe their record. If I don't restrain myself, I could easily go into a two-thousand word rant, and that just wouldn't be interesting to anybody but me. I've been tempted to make my review the one line summation of "this album will blow your mind; words fail, you simply must hear it to appreciate it," but that would be lazy, and I'm working hard to not be so lazy these days. I could get lost in describing the technical aspects of the recording, but I'll admit I hate technical reviews, unless they're in a technical-minded magazine like Tape Op. There's so many obvious things going on here, too, that any in-depth analysis makes me feel like I'm preaching to the choir.

Believe me, this hasn't been an easy review for me to write. I received Together We're Heavy over a month ago, and I blame it for my website's on-again/off-again publishing schedule. I had no inkling that I'd get the record so soon, and when I opened up the nondescript envelope it came in, I felt like I'd just been given manna from heaven. I wanted to tell the world about this record immediately, but I knew I could not, because it wouldn't be right to talk about something they couldn't hear. On the ride home that morning, I found myself driving slower to get home, because I didn't want to miss out on anything. Do you know how difficult it is to drive a car when you're fighting the overwhelming desire to throw your hands up in the air and wave 'em all about in joyous tribute to the music you're listening to? You'll never fully understand how hard it was for me to fight the urge to listen to it all of the time. For the first week, I think I listend to Together We're Heavy at least two times a day. I eventually imposed a Together We're Heavy moratorium, simply because I had other records I had to listen to and review.

On many levels, before I even heard it, I knew what I was going to get. The beauty and majesty of Together We're Heavy is exactly as you'd expect. Is it loud? You bet. Is it joyous? Of course. Is it over the top? Totally. It's all too much, really, but all of the excess and the pomp and circumstance is part of the Polyphonic Spree package, so there's nothing surprising there. Together We're Heavy is so overblown and overcooked that it actually works. What could easily be the record's downfall--and at various points I did think that it was all too much, actually--turns out to be their saving grace. This is prog-pop, plain and simple. If DeLaughter's previous band Tripping Daisy was an alt-rock version of Buggles, then Polyphonic Spree is clearly this generation's Yes. He's got a sweet tooth for all things grand and beautiful and majestic, and I can't fault him for that.

For all of the beauty, Together We're Heavy is not a particularly easy listen. Though it clocks in at just under an hour, it's an album that you cannot fully appreciate piecemeal--you've gotta take it all in at once a few times before you can really enjoy its individual aspects. I've opted not to discuss individual songs, because I want you to listen to the whole album from start to finish, because if you don't, it's quite possible that you won't get it. This is a journey through life, and if you start your life journey in the middle, you won't appreciate the lesson. If you consider the songs as individual entities, the songs lose their power. Together, the album is extremely heavy; individually, the album loses its strength, and you'll soon discover that this record's actually quite brief. Throw in the fact that several of these songs are of epic length--song lengths of five to nearly ten minutes is the rule for most of the album--and you soon discover that this is not a record that gives itself to easy listening. You've gotta invest your mind and your attention--nothing new, as such was true of Tripping Daisy's Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb--and when you do, it will plant sweet prickly pears of pop pleasure in your little mind.

But let's put this quibble aside, shall we? Such things make it sound as if the band's a one-trick pony, and that there's not much that can be done outside of the basic idea of "choir--orchestra--pop song mentality" that constitutes the Polyphonic Spree. There are plenty of treats to be found here, and while I won't give them away (why deny you the pleasure of finding them?) I will say this: I'm a big fan of the harp and an even bigger fan of the pedal steel guitar, both of which are quite prevalent throughout the record. If you heard their cover of "Wig in A Box" from last year's benefit record Wig In A Box, then you'll have a deep appreciation of what Together We're Heavy sounds like.

To be honest, Together We're Heavy is the most unsurprising album of the year. It sounds exactly like you'd expect.If you've seen them live at any point in the last year and a half, most likely you'll have heard most of the record. Even if they didn't play half of these songs, you'd still already appreciate and know what they're doing, especially as the overwhelming themes of positivity and life-affirmation carry over from their debut and their live show, and songs like "Suitcase Calling" and "2000 Places" and "When The Fool Becomes a King" since before their first album had real artwork or any distribution outside of their little record store. You can't really fault the band for that; the logistics and business end tied them up, and that an album with these songs are finally seeing the light of day after so many years was probably much more frustrating for them as it was for us. Here's hoping that they won't take their time in giving the world a new record. (And, as the album's so utterly unsurprising, it's no surprise that it's easily one of the best albums of the year.)

This album will blow your mind. Words fail; you simply must hear it.

(Gee, maybe I shoulda said that all along.)

--Joseph Kyle

Artist Website: http://www.thepolyphonicspree.com
Label Website: http://www.goodrecordsrecordings.com

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