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Before you listen to The Polyphonic Spree, all the signs have been universally bad. They call themselves a "choral symphonic rock" band who are run by a "musical director" called Tim, and they wear bright robes of different colours as they travel round the World - presumably in a series of VW Beetles painted all the colours of the rainbow - spreading their good word about how nice the sun is. Looking at the tracklisting for their debut album "The Beginning Stages Of The Polyphonic Spree" (a name which is of course another pre-emptive strike against them, the word 'day' appears seven times out of ten, and 'sun' appears on two. The only songs to avoid either word are "Soldier Girl", which could be promising, and "Lala", which... is not such a promising title. So before you listen to the album, there are already several ominous overtones.
Which just goes to show that sometimes you should listen to yourself. Granted, on a personal level I tend to gravitate towards music which is not incredibly infuriatingly annoying, but you shouldn't let my unusual tastes lessen the message I wish to pass on to you: this is mainly an overproduced, overwrought piece of pap. The album roughly seems to have the concept of relating a day's worth of music into one record, which explains why it starts with "Have A Day/Celebratory" and "It's The Sun" (the lyrics of which include the sparkling line "suicide is such a shame", which... it is, isn't it? Lyrical precision there, for you). The band genuinely do seem to want to entertain over the course of this 'day', and to give you - the listener - a sense of time passing and the gravity of everything that could entail (hippies!), but their style and formation is impossible to get past. They are, to all extents, a sort of poppy gospel choir who sing overly simplistic lyrics which generally then end up in a repetitive chorus which is sung as an anthem whilst the music goes wherever it wants.
All very well and good, and on occasion who doesn't want to hear an uplifting song with a barrage of music behind it? It works for Sufjan Stevens, after all, but every single song on this album is set out in exactly the same manner. There's the slow build-up into a chorus which is flanked by an army of piccolos (and truth be told, there is only so much piccolo that the human body can withstand during any one sitting) accompanied by some knowing chants. The most famous song by the band is the one that plays during the Sainsbury's adverts, called "Light And Day/Reach For The Sun", which builds up dreamily over a swathe of slowly descending keyboard parts as "musical director" Tim DeLaughter sings lyrics such as "light and day/is more than you'll say". The song then descends into what the liner notes call 'orchestral pandemonium', which means that a swarm of high-pitched flutes, piccolos and other forms of irritating wind instruments start playing whatever they want over the top of the keyboards, overtaking everything and forcing the song into an unwieldy anthem which is admittedly fun at first, but which does not bear any repeat listens.
That's entirely the problem with the entire album: you won't want to hear it more than a few times. Part of this is due to the lack of restraint shown to the music, which does not allow a song to rest on it's own merit when there could be a musical breakdown going on, but also partly because of Tim DeLaughter himself. His voice is not the strongest, and the only thing he has to offer is a complete conviction in what he is singing, which he admittedly has. However, when you are singing, as he does on "Lala" (which, yes, features a 'lalalala' chorus and sounds like an early Arcade Fire B-side) "if you walk out and face a good day/somehow the look seems to fall off your face", over a frenzied drum rhythm, this conviction seems less like musical belief and more like the rantings of a weird Charlie Manson groupie. Actually that's exactly what the record sounds like - someone trying to recreate the positive sounds of the Beatles and the Beach Boys despite being insane and musically untalented. Take the middle section of the album, which features "Hanging Around The Day Part 1" and "Hanging Around The Day Part 2", the first of which is a dull instrumental in the vein of those dull instrumentals which the Flaming Lips put on their albums, and the latter of which features a flustered choir singing the chorus in a dull, tired voice. You can almost sense the feeling of frustration at the lack of direction the music has, as the choir sadly realise they should have tried to join Spiritualized instead. And speaking of that particular fantastic band, the final track on this album, the abnormally long "A Long Day", seems to be referencing them specifically. It's half an hour long, and slowly builds up to nothing very interesting, in much the way that Spiritualized's "Cop Shoot Cop" slowly builds up into something fascinating. "A Long Day" features lots of weird murmur and bits and pieces of sound which fit together into a distinctly unappealing tapestry, which ends the album on an incredibly boring low.
"Soldier Girl" was released as a single, and is an oddball mixture of restoration fiddling and a drum section mixed together with DeLaughter's monotone chant "I've found my soldier girl". It's again a very annoying piece of music packaged as something which is somehow meant to be uplifting and appealing. Further annoyances spring eternal on the album, introducing the dreary "Middle Of The Day" on a raft of bored instruments and pulling in some sub-Grandaddy synths over "Days Like This Keep Me Warm". There's so little to recommend about this album, which makes it all the more surprising to find that every critic I can find seems to like the album. You could say this is just me, but something very interesting happens when you look at more recent reviews of the band - everyone says that they've hated them from the start. It's like a collective amnesia has fallen upon all the critics, and they've forgotten their misguided admiration for an album which is, honestly, dirge. Q even went so far as to give them a slot in their "worst bands in the world" rundown a while ago, despite giving them four stars for this album out of five.
Just goes to show that I'm the only critic you can ever trust. And I hope you do, because buying this album will be a severe waste of money that will leave you with a migraine and the urge to start breaking things. The songs are so similar, mining a well which was actually empty already, and the forced happiness that parades itself constantly is just the most frustrating thing to have to listen to. Then again, perhaps I'm just being a dark and grumpy sod, who can't tolerate joy. But there's no need to find out for yourself, trust me.
"The Beginning Stages Of.." is (not altogether surprisingly) the first album by acclaimed indie-pop outfit The Polyphonic Spree, a ten-track ode to life, the sun and the daytime. In earlier reviews I've waxed lyrical about later efforts "The Fragile Army" and "Wait" - but is this, their debut, one any good?
First, a quick background on the Polyphonic Spree for the uninitiated, quoted from my earlier review of their "Wait" EP: "Ranging from 24 to 29 members strong, and led by Flaming Lips frontman Tom DeLaughter, they combine sunny choral pop in the vein of the Beach Boys with a dense, symphonic Wall-of-Sound type backing, gospel-like chants and singing, and the occasional bit of psychedelia. They have to be heard to be believed (it's probably worth checking out a sample or two at Amazon.com or on iTunes to completely understand the style we're dealing with here)."
The album, which appears to see the Spree attempt to make their album a metaphorical, musical representation of the day, kicks off with "Section 1 (Have A Day/Celebratory)". It's a good indication of what's to come - life-worshipping, lyically-simplistic but musically-complex orchestral music - and it falls somewhere inbetween the album's two primary styles: calm ballad and brass-driven, upbeat, catchy pop. It's no standout but it's a serviceable introduction, and the repeated line "have a day / celebrate / soon you'll find the answer" will be indelibly marked on your brain by the end.
The second track, "Section 2 (It's The Sun)" is an improvement. Switching between dense and sparse backing throughout, it's home to the archetypal Spree lyric "hey now, it's the sun / and it makes me shine all around". The decidedly more downbeat Section 3, "Days Like This Keep Me Warm", is the album's only truly successful slower piece. Relaxing but never boring, it's more than a little melancholy - something that's rather missing on their later work - and DeLaughter manages to make the line "days like this keep me warm" sound devastatingly poignant. A wonderfully realised song.
"Section 4 (La La)" is, thankfully, not an ode to the Teletubby Laa Laa, though indeed the lyrics make little more sense than what come out of Laa Laa's mouth - they're largely comprised of "la la la la!" Pleasingly, the music is far more enjoyable: upbeat, funky and brass-driven. It's followed by "Section 5 (Middle of the Day)", presumably lunchtime in the Spree's metaphorical day, though it sounds more like naptime. Calm and peaceful with not much going on at all, it's rather mind-numbing in its repetitiveness though DeLaughter's vocals - "in the middle of the day.." - and the occasional horn add some variation.
"Section 6 (Hanging Around the Day Part 1)" and "Section 7 (Hanging Around the Day Part 2)" are pretty much two sides of the same coin - the main difference being the former is an instrumental, the latter features vocals (though the instrumental version also takes time to warm up while the version with vocals seamlessly follows on from the already built-up backing of the instrumental version). It's a warm, memorable piece of music with a nice, dense backing; but it's the version with vocals that shines, the irresistible chant of "you're hanging around the day" proving almost impossible not to sing along to.
"Section 8 (Soldier Girl)" is the catchiest tune on the album yet. The hooky refrain "I've found my soldier girl / she's so far away / she makes my head spin around" is repeated throughout the song over a nice, textured backing that builds up and fades out wonderfully. But it's "Section 9 (Light & Day)" that's undoubtedly the album's standout track. A minor hit single, versions of it have been featured in productions as diverse as the US sitcom "Scrubs", quirky Jim Carrey flick "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and the Jamie Oliver-starring "Sainsburys" ads in the UK. It's a bouncing, summery, orchestral song that continues the album's trend of unabashed optimism but ups the catchiness to 11. It's a successful pop song in every sense - from the swooning background music to DeLaughter's vocals; he sings "follow the day and reach for the sun!" with unbridled enthusiasm. It rates among my favourites of all-time.
The same cannot be said of "Section 10 (A Long Day)", however. At 36 minutes long it more than doubles the length of the album, yet it serves no purpose and will only make your "long day" feel even longer. Even if you take it as the album's metaphor for sleep in the context of the album's day-focused theme, it's a waste of time: half an hour of long, boring, mumbling tones, never punctuated by vocals or any other instrument. You spend the first few minutes expecting things will liven up, but after five or ten minutes, all hope is lost. It was a gross misjudgment to include this failed experiment here.
The album is ten tracks (or "Sections" one to ten in the band's numerically-ordered catalogue) and 68 minutes long, but as I previously pointed out, you're really only getting 32 minutes of song here once "Section 10" is deducted from the total. There are several different covers for the CD version (they vary depending on pressing and country), all presented in a jewel case and all featuring the same inserts, so there's no real reason to choose one over another version unless you particularly like one of the covers. Go with what's cheapest (currently the UK standard edition, the cover with the band standing on a rock all wearing white, is cheapest at Amazon UK - it's available from £3.00 on marketplace).
"The Beginning Stages Of..." is a solid album, but nothing more - aside from a couple of the singles, this isn't outstanding material: the melodies and lyrics are a bit too repetitive, their endearing optimism occasionally misses the mark. If you're interested in the band this is certainly worth picking up but newcomers would probably do better to pick up follow-up LPs "Together We're Heavy" or "The Fragile Army" instead - perhaps downloading "Section 9 (Light & Day)" along the way.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Have a Day/Celebratory
2 It's the Sun
3 Days Like This Keep Me Warm
5 Middle of the Day
6 Hanging Around the Day, Pt. 1
7 Hanging Around the Day, Pt. 2
8 Soldier Girl
9 Light & Day/Reach for the Sun
10 Long Day
Disc #2 Tracklisting
1 Have a Day [KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic Version]
2 It's the Sun [KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic Version]
3 Soldier Girl [UK Single Version]
4 Light & Day [Orchestral Version]