the polyphonic spree…it’s alternative to alternative

Soundtrack in my head: The Polyphonic Spree, “It’s the Sun”

Polyphonic Spree.jpg
By Mike Mantin from Bristol, UK – The Polyphonic Spree, CC BY 2.0, Link

I think that the marketing term “alternative” as a reference to modern rock and pop music has been a misnomer for about fifteen years. Marketers realized in the late 80’s that a lot of people my age were listening to a wide range of music that generally could not be found on the radio (except college stations) so “alternative rock” radio stations came into being as a result.

However, shortly after they named the genre, they killed it. The need for record companies to produce music that had reasonable guarantees of success caused them to put more and more boundaries on what “alternative music” by definition, meant. When Nirvana’s album “Nevermind” reached the top of the charts in the early 90’s, it seems that record companies felt they had a winning formula, and other types of creative “alternative” music fell by the wayside. “Alternative” came to mean edgy, angst-ridden, and often loud, and I began to tune myself out from this music. I had liked a lot of the alternative music of the early 80’s because much of it was quite creative without assaulting the senses. (Think the Cure, and various ska and synth pop bands. And the Cocteau Twins remain my all-time favorite band.)

The irony and cynicism common in alternative rock is often an attempt to respond to and make sense of some very troubling times. So to some extent I can identify with it, which is why I still listen to some of it. But irony and cynicism, while sometimes willing to look honestly at oneself and the world, also can leave one feeling disempowered and pessimistic.

Since the early 90’s, it has still been possible to find creative music that doesn’t assault the senses, but it’s harder to find and requires more looking. There’s a lot of dance music out there, but few things that break enough rules to sound…beautiful.

The Polyphonic Spree is one such band. I discovered them through their video on the “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” DVD. The video featured scenes from the movie, but when I heard a clip from another song, “It’s the Sun,” played on another part of the DVD, my curiosity was piqued.

I searched for information about them online and what I found about them intrigued me even more. Tim DeLaughter, the former lead singer of the 90’s alternative band Tripping Daisy had this vision for creating a choral symphonic band influenced somewhat by the positive uplifting pop music he grew up with in the early 70’s. So, starting with a couple of his former bandmates from Tripping Daisy, he built a band that included horn players, flute players, a harp, a viola, a theremin, choir singers, and other musicians until it reached a peak of twenty-four people.

And then, in an effort to cultivate the image they were looking for even further, the band member donned white choir robes onstage (later replaced by bright colorful ones.) This was a far cry from the de rigueur uniform of ripped jeans and flannel shirts common to many alternative bands. My reaction to this was, “Wow, these people seem to be really out there—but in a good way.”

So, after reading about this, I had to hear this group for myself. I made it known to friends and family that their two CD’s were on my birthday wish list, and I got both of them last month.

After listening to the CD’s “The Beginning Stages Of…” and “Together We’re Heavy,” I fell in love. It is such a refreshing departure from most other music that I hear today that I can’t help but go nuts about this group. The exuberant positive energy on these CDs is contagious. Examples of lyrics include “Have a day, celebrate, soon you’ll find the answer,” “Hey, it’s the sun, and it makes me shine,” “The trees want to grow. Grow, grow, grow,” and a couple of songs where “Love, love, love, love” is chanted in the background. And no irony to be found anywhere on these CDs.

The unusually positive lyrics and the choir robes have creeped out a few people who have wondered if they might be a cult. I think, however that it is a measure of our times that something so positive immediately provokes suspicion. I understand what influenced DeLaughter—he and I are pretty close in age and I remember the same early 70’s pop music that influenced him. Some years ago, when my parents were in the midst of getting rid of their LP’s, I cherry-picked a few from their collection, and one was The 5th Dimension’s “Love’s Lines Angles & Rhymes,” which has a few surprising gems on it.

I think the Polyphonic Spree take it a step further. They minimize the idea that they are anything beyond a choral symphonic pop band. But to me it feels they are making a deliberate, revolutionary, and downright subversive act by flooding the room with positive words and positive energy, without irony and without apology.

As for the band’s sound, imagine the Beatles meeting “Jesus Christ Superstar,” with a hint of the 5th Dimension, and the Electric Light Orchestra (the latter of which happened to be my favorite band when I was in junior high). The albums are arranged a little bit more like a musical, like (again) Jesus Christ Superstar or Brian Wilson’s “Smile.” The music, while not uniformly great, includes some excellent and very catchy pop songs

Of the two full-length CD’s of original material that the Polyphonic Spree have put out, I like “The Beginning Stages Of…” a little more. I think the songs “Have A Day,” “It’s The Sun,” and “Light and Day” on that album are classics. There is also more of an improvised feel to it—I get the feeling that the band members with the classical music instruments had more freedom to improvise, and one can hear some of the individual instruments more. The way that a flute slips in here, a whistle there, a chime elsewhere, one can get a sense of the playful quality that makes the album so blissful—it sounds like, well, a polyphonic spree. Some people like “Together We’re Heavy” a little more—it’s more polished and tight, and there are some good songs there as well, such as “We Sound Amazed,” and the epic “When The Fool Becomes a King.”

My copy of “Together We’re Heavy” came with a bonus DVD which shows videos and live footage. The live shows look incredible. Twenty-four people on stage with their choir robes and bright smiles, singing, playing their instruments and jumping up and down energetically. Some of the footage is from Chicago’s Cabaret Metro, where I attended many alt-rock shows during the 90’s. Blissful smiles were not a common site at these shows, even when the Cocteau Twins played there, but the video footage of the Spree playing there showed plenty of blissful expressions to be found there. At one point, a ceiling full of white balloons pours onto the audience below, with hundreds of them bouncing above the audience and among the band members.

It’s a good exercise to try to surround oneself with positive influences, and I try to do that with spiritual readings and positive music and other entertainment. Nowadays, I also find myself occasionally indulging myself in a little bit of “Polyphonic Spree therapy,” by watching some of their videos or live footage. It always leaves me in a good mood. “And it makes me smile…”

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