Rhythm & Views

Polyphonic Spree

Ponder for a minute what might motivate a rock critic to write about religion. It's an endeavor not undertaken lightly, you may be sure. Yet reviewers from Bang to Vanity Fair have repeatedly likened Polyphonic Spree performances to revivals for the lost generation--the very smirking, shoegazing indie drones, and their tattooed metal-punk counterparts, you'd think would be the first to scoff. Granted, it's religion lite. Although they perform in choir robes, with evangelistic fervor, The Spree make no mention of God, let alone scripture or any discernable ethical construct. But neither is there a shred of irony in their exhortations to celebrate life, seize the light and love everything in sight.

Just follow the seasons, and find the time/Reach for the bright side/. . . Follow the day and reach for the SUN!

Founder Tim DeLaughter says the idea for Polyphonic Spree began while his former band, Tripping Daisy, was still active in the wake of its 1993 hit single, "I Got a Girl." In fact, Tripping Daisy is a clear progenitor to the Spree's semi-psychedelic dimension. But this 24 (more or less)-piece choir/orchestra/performance art troupe got wings only after DeLaughter's friend, and Tripping Daisy bandmate, Wes Berggren, died of an overdose. DeLaughter says he is still sorting out the meaning of it, but that event lends considerable weight to lyrics like "Suicide is a shame/Soon you'll find your own way/Hope has come, you are saved."

What rocks about the Spree is it's sheer, jawdropping excess. The concept, not to mention the sound, is spectacularly over the top: as radical and emotional as punk rock, as bright and goofy as bubble-gum pop, as arena-expanding as fireworks and a thousand lifted lighters, as shocking in its way as Iggy Pop. The impression is virtually without reference. Not as heavy as Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar, not as witless Up With People, it is perhaps closest to the spirit of Power Puff Girls, but with the energy and showmanship of a '70s hair band and the orchestral beauty of '60s symphonic pop.

The group's first record, 2002's The Beginning Stages of . . . has just been re-released on Hollywood Records, pending an all-new Hollywood Release early next year. The label took an interest after the Talking Heads' David Byrne, smitten by a U.S. performance, lined up European dates for the troupe, and they took the continent by storm. While considerably flattening the live experience, the record gives a good overall impression of what the hubbub is about, and would make an essential contribution to whatever bag of tricks you use to keep yourself sane on life's more wretched days. In the dark, you'll find whistling a lame alternative to smiling and actually singing out loud.

Live, the Spree leap and bound around their harps and saxophones, their joy uncontainable. They improvise and play off each other with the skill of the most accomplished jazz musicians--no mean feat amongst more than a dozen harps, trumpets, electric guitars, banjo and theramin. The considerable diversity of their audience dissolves in a uniform expression of awestruck, open-mouth grins, laughter and sing-along choruses. The fact is, that the Spree has lightened unexpected corners and left them glowing in their wake, creating a curious, and remarkable, impression that music geeks the world over may actually have some sort of God-shaped holes in their hearts.

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