Even in the eclectic world of pop and rock music, thereís a hegemony of form. Thatís why any group that deviates from the norm ó whether itís by using atypical instrumentation, striking colorful poses, or using, say, two lead singers instead of one ó often strikes a chord with critics. One of the reasons the White Stripes, for example, hopscotched from obscurity to rock-magazine cover fodder is because their peppermint red-and-white look and their two-person, bass-less rock made them stand out.
Tim DeLaughter, onetime frontman of the alt-pop group Tripping Daisy, ordained the Polyphonic Spree in July 2000 in the spirit of musical piousness and artistic liberation. The Polyphonic Spree, who headline the Paradise this Saturday, June 7, are less a pop group and more of a spiritual congregation, performing pop songs, but doing so as a 23-piece symphonic choir. There are actually around 14 musicians who also play on the groupís debut album, The Beginning Stages Of ... (Good Records) ó but the rest is all voices.
The bandís press-release biography reads almost like a doctrine of faith. " There comes a time in the life of most artists when what they want to do is much more than what they are allowed to do.... When the artist no longer feels satisfied with the traditional instruments of design.... When the paint starts spilling over the edges and newfound objects replace the tried and tired equipment. "
Itís earnest and heavy-handed, but the songs on Beginning have the beating pulse of release. The opening " Session 01 " (a/k/a " Have a Day " ) begins with the slow, sauntered walk of one voice, steadily building into many voices as the song goes along. (The US version of the album lists its 10 songs as Sessions 1-10, but the UK version gives away each trackís title.) Accompanied by rising strings and robust horns, the sweeping force of the song recalls the compositions of í70s jazz and rock producer (and transparent DJ Shadow influence) David Axelrod.
In terms of other bands, Polyphonic Spree are most often compared to the í70s soul choir Up with People, whose group harmonies projected a sense of liberated, funk-generation joy that the Polyphonic Spree often evoke. But they remind people of other groups too. " Soldier Girl " is a psychedelic-pop number with bold religious overtones, and liberal hints of Pink Floyd in its rock operatics. On " Light and Day, " the instrumentation bubbles with quirky string plucks and colorful guitar shades, bringing to mind the neo-psychedelia of the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev.
On stage, the Polyphonic Spree also deviate from the norm, often by virtue of their sheer number, but more because they stand in flowing white robes (more religious invocations). Indeed, collectively, they look like a cult organization of some sort, reaching for transcendence through pop bliss.
The prism of the Polyphonic Spreeís sound is more evident in a handful of remixes released as two promo 12-inch singles. The remixes are by the electronic group Death in Vegas; the progressive French band Stereolab; the English dub-pop group the Bees; and hip-hop DJ impresario RJD2. (While these remixes arenít widely available to the general public yet, theyíll be part of a forthcoming collection of the groupís unreleased tracks.)
Often remixes are either ambulatory aid to songs in desperate need of structure, or an opportunity for a remixer to hijack a song and turn it into something totally new. In the Polyphonic Spreeís case, the varied remixed interpretations highlight different aspects of the groupís sound. For example, the Beesí version of " Light and Day " turns the glittering, spiritual joy of the original into a heavy, dark reggae-dub instrumental that underscores the Polyphonic Spreeís musical depth.
The rest of the remix artists tackle the track " Soldier Girl. " RJD2 picks up on the rhythm of the song, chopping up its parts and turning them into a nonstop beat-parade. Death in Vegas dress the pop structure of the song in a clangy wall of guitars, forcing the tune to acknowledge its alt-pop genesis. In this context, DeLaughter gives off vague echoes of a young Black Francis, turning whispers into screams. Finally, Stereolab play with different tempos within the same song, starting things off as a French waltz before speeding up to a new-wave romp and finally locking into a disco-like strut.
These remixes only emphasize what is already abundantly clear from the original disc ó that the Polyphonic Spree are an ambitious pop project that remain hard to pin down. There may be elements of The Beginning Stages Of ... that come across as novelties. But thatís a risk all artists take when they opt to deviate from the norm to a degree as extreme as the Polyphonic Spree do.
The Polyphonic Spree headline the Paradise this Saturday, June 7. Call (617) 562-8800.