We live in a time when music is a product — even the “alternative” types sound suspiciously McMusical. Most bands are still hammering away on some derivation of a marketing strategy that will rake them in enough money to buy solid-gold cars, huge collections of Faberge eggs, and many fabulous animals. So there’s a need for some brave souls to keep things weird. Thank God, then, for the Polyphonic Spree and the spacey symphonic sound of The Fragile Army.
The band’s debut, 2002’s The Beginning Stages of the Polyphonic Spree, was a revelation in many ways. The expansive lineup (two dozen member playing, among other things, a harp, a flute, and a trombone) was in direct opposition to both the overly produced pop of the Dave Matthews Band and the post-grunge minimalism of the White Stripes. The Spree’s music was unpretentious, loud and authentically ragged. Some of its best moments were the ones where the menagerie seemed one step from falling apart. The Spree snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Its upbeat anthems and baptismal robes caught the right eyes, and the band was suddenly everywhere, including being featured prominently in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The Spree seemed ready to kick-start a weird return to the sunny symphonic rock of the seventies.
Then the wheels came off the twenty-four-wheeled jam bus. The band’s second album, Together We’re Heavy (2004), basically rehashed its first album. The mistakes and solos that were novel on The Beginning Stages now sounded rehearsed and saccharine. The members also went from working with Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry to making questionable guest spots on Vegas and Scrubs. The Spree was on its way to becoming just another product to be sold for a cheap laugh. The only question left for bandleader Tim Delaughter seemed to be how many bandmates he could fit in one of the Hollywood Squares with him.
The question, therefore, is whether the weirdness evolves on The Fragile Army or the Polyphonic Spree is a one-note show. The answer falls in the definitely-maybe category. The most obvious change from the first two albums is the loss of the robes in favor of black Vietcong pajamas. It might seem to be a cosmetic occurrence, but The Fragile Army is a very different Spree than the one from The Beginning Stages. This album is more insistent and precise than its predecessors: There are fewer off-notes and noodling solos, the unit is much tighter as musicians, and the bombast seems less a spontaneous occurrence than a carefully choreographed production. The Polyphonic Spree has evolved musically to match the new look. Where the members were once content to make a lot of noise, they now want to knock over audiences with perfectly arranged bursts of synchronized power pop.
And this is, without a doubt, awesome. The Fragile Army is the Polyphonic Spree’s most consistent album, and it thunders with an assurance that was missing from Together We’re Heavy. The album lacks an identifiable single, but “Get Up and Go” and “Running Away” are straightforward rockers that resemble the best tracks on The Beginning Stages. Even more encouraging are tracks like “The Fragile Army,” “We Crawl,” and “Watch Us Explode,” which fully exploit both the symphonic aspects and many singing voices in the band.
Delaughter summarizes his position on the album’s final song, “The Championship,” over a buoyant backing of guitars, pianos, harps, brass, and a full complement of voices. The track starts from nothing and builds to a crescendo where Delaughter cuts through the bombast to observe that “if we try, we’ll keep it alive.” On The Fragile Army, the members of the Polyphonic Spree not only keep it alive, but also pull their music from the brink of extinction and drive it into brilliant new areas.