The Polyphonic Spree, as we all know by now, was created by ex-Tripping Daisies frontman Tim DeLaughter. There’s also a whole bunch of guys and girls (twenty-seven in the photo on the inside cover) in white robes playing really, really happy “choral symphonic pop” (their own description, and an accurate one at that). Folks rock out with everything from the flugelhorn to the farfisa on The Beginning Of . . ., the Spree’s debut album (which was originally released on Good Records in June of 2002, but the buzz was big enough that Hollywood Records signed the band and re-released the disc with a four-track bonus CD a year later).
Here’s the deal with this record: It’s happy. Really, really, drug and/or God-induced happy. Dallas’s Polyphonic Spree plays a brand of soaring, swooning pop not heard in such unadulterated, unapologetic form since the heyday of Brian Wilson. The ten sections (not songs) on The Beginning Of . . . are overflowing with layers upon layers of strings, pianos, brass and choral lines, with soaring crescendos and even anthemic revivalist choruses. “Sections” like No. 1 (Have a Day/Celebratory), No. 3 (Days Like This Help Me Warm), and No. 9 (Light & Day/Reach for the Sun) are examples of what works for the band: a cornucopia of instrumentation and solid pop sensibilities ushering in bright orchestral melodies. Underneath its cult-imagery and overwhelming size, it seems the Spree actually has a pretty simple formula and, even more so, appears to have the makings of a solid pop group.
The problem with the record is there’s nothing to hold on to, nothing that makes me care about it. As a disclaimer, I’ve never seen the infamous live show, which, by all accounts, would doubtless convert me to some robe-wearing neo-symphonic hippie too . . . or something. That said, this album never really transcends novelty status. It’s nice to have around; every once in a blue moon I might throw it on if I’m feeling like I want to eat drugs and hug people, but I can’t really foresee myself reaching for this regularly.
I can deal with the four-song bonus CD (simply alternate versions of album tracks) just fine, which speaks to one of the problems with the full-length: It’s too damn much. The Beginning Of . . . is a bit rich for my tastes; both the tone and musical elements of the album begin to wear away over time, and the whole production is a little too sweet. Lyrics like “Follow the day and reach for the sun” and “Holiday/Celebrate/Soon you’ll find the answer” can start to sound like auditory razor blades after a few consecutive listens.
But even more so, something about this record just rubs me the wrong way. If this is a joke, touche. They really pull it off, even going as far as to thank Sandy “Seamstress of Life” Repka for the robe design. Correspondingly, I have no problem treating it as such and listening to it about as much as I do Atom and his Package or Wesley Willis. But if these dudes are taking enough drugs and/or God to think they made a serious “uplifting” record, it makes me want to listen to nothing but Cannibal Corpse for the rest of my life.
This, kiddies, is “happy music” for people who forgot how to be happy. That’s what nags me about this album: It feels like it’s for older cynical types, people who have lost sight of why they loved music and why it made them so excited to start with. Now they have to be beaten over the head with the happy stick by some novelty band so they can pretend to remember why they cared in the first place. It’s kind of sad in a way. It’s the Brady Bunch translated onto compact disc and draped in robes, but critics and other assorted jaded folks hang from their nuts like they invented smiling.
There are plenty of bands that don’t play over-saturated gimmick pop with meaningless lyrics that make me all kinds of happy. Honestly, I take Man-O-War more seriously than I take this shit. I’m going to listen to “Brothers of Metal.”