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Music Review: The Polyphonic Spree – The Fragile Army

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The Polyphonic Spree are arguably the best band in the world right now, creating music that’s so energetic and full of life, you can’t help but get caught up in their totally unironic enthusiasm. They are a 25 musician ensemble, with a variety of instrumentalists and a ten person chorus.

I first saw the band live in August 2004, when they were touring in support of their last album Together We’re Heavy. After a long wait for them to come on, they filed on stage , and a lone flute played the opening solo of “We Sound Amazed.” Then, the whole band came in, and it was like nothing I’d ever heard before, a rush of sound that you could literally feel. Hearing 25 musicians playing in such a small space was almost overwhelming, and the energy they put out was unparalleled, like everyone of them wanted to do nothing else but play for us that night.

It was an incredible show, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting their new album, The Fragile Army, which was originally supposed to be out on July 4… 2006. So, it’s been a long wait, and coming off one of my favorite albums of the decade to date, Together We’re Heavy, it had a lot to live up to. But, after getting to know this album, it’s clear that this is a wonderful addition to their catalogue, full of powerful, compact songs that burst with energy and power.

The major difference between this and Together We’re Heavy is the length of the songs. Heavy had three songs that topped eight minutes, and a lot of the shorter songs bled together, giving the illusion of one really long album. Army returns to the more compact pop songs of their debut album The Beginning Stages Of…, while simultaneously moving things in a more rock direction. These songs sound like rock songs, embellished with horns and choir, whereas a lot of their previous songs were uniquely dependent on their ample instrumentation. The other band members are less present than on previous albums, that’s the consequence of doing shorter songs. There’s still great moments from the choir and horn section, but I have to admit I’d like to hear a bit more of them.

“Running Away” is the album’s opening single, and it’s everything the Spree do right in one song. It’s brimming with energy and excitement, with an anthemic sing along chorus. The song’s opening is a particular highlight, as energy builds during the short instrumental opening track to an immediate climax on the first verse. Due to their vast instrumentation, the Spree can hit a huge point immediately, and still have enough to build more throughout the song.

“Get Up and Go” is exemplary of the more rock direction they’ve taken this album. It’s structured around a guitar and drum riff, creating a kind of pounding rock march. This song reminds me a bit of Electric Light Orchestra, a band the Spree owe a debt of inspiration to.

“The Fragile Army” is structured like a suite, and it’s the song that gives the best spotlight to the full breadth of the band’s instrumentation. The song’s generally great, I love the opening and finale, with lush choral and instrumental arrangements building to a cathartic finale. However, the b section, where Tim sings about black notes and keyboards, has the kind of weak theatricality that the Spree sometimes falls into. It doesn’t kill the song, but it’s a bit goofy and takes you out of the moment.

“Younger Yesterday” starts as a fairly standard Spree songs, but ascends near the end during a triumphant horn breakdown. I love when they put the spotlight on the unconventional instruments and take advantage of what only they can do. This song also spotlights the choir, who add wonderful color and shading to the song. There’s a lot of fantastic piano work throughout the album, with the ascending and descending lines during this song’s finale a particular highlight.

“We Crawl” is a more subdued song, but the Spree’s choir turns the chorus into a majestic plea for some kind of understanding. To be honest, I don’t pay much attention to their lyrics, they’re usually some vaguely positive platitudes, that’s not what their music is about for me. Who cares what they’re saying when you can listen to something as dynamic as the breakdown of this song, which overlays sawing cellos and horns before the choir erupts with “On our way today!” They transform the song from one man’s lonely plea to a collective expression of joy and dreams.

“Mental Cabaret” was featured on their 2006 EP, and it’s a great song, so I’m glad to see it get a more permanent place in their catalogue. It uses some interesting electronic textures and a driving, almost dance beat that distinguishes it from other songs in their catalogue. There’s still some explosive choral moments, but the tone on the whole is a bit lower, more street level than heavenly.

“Guaranteed Nightlife” is indicative of the more varied song structures the Spree adopted on this album. It opens with a choral proclamation, then moves into an electric guitar backed driving b section before slowing and returning to the original mode. It’s one of the weaker songs on the album, the chipper voices not exactly matching the talk about a guaranteed nightlife. But the dynamic shift between sections makes the song work, it’s one I’m looking forward to hearing live.

“Light to Follow” is the biggest departure from tradition for the band. It’s based on a looped electronic drum beat, and a more subdued feel. The choir whispers “Everyone needs their own light they can follow,” then we move into an almost eerie section with echoes of a woman’s opera style vocals moving through sonic space. It’s strange to hear the Spree do such a soft song, but it works. It’s haunting and powerful, which makes the string backed build near the end of the song all that more effective. The song eventually crescendos to a rock style, guitar soloing climax. I think part of the reason they don’t have any really long songs on this album is that they’ve figured out how to fit a lot more into a concise song.

Judging from the title alone, “Watch Us Explode” should be a perfect Spree song. What makes them unique is how powerful the explosion is, hearing 25 people playing and singing at the same time is an awe inspiring experience, you can hear it on songs like “We Sound Amazed” from Heavy and on their biggest hit “Light and Day.” Of all the songs on this album, this and “Running Away” are probably the most comprehensive in terms of demonstrating what the Spree can do. Countless instruments are buzzing in the background, and it’s fantastic when the choir comes in to back Tim on the chorus.

“Overblow Your Nest” hits the same mood as “One Man Show” and “Suitcase Calling” from Heavy, starting with just one vocalist and a sad mood, then gradually building to a powerful, mournful chorus. It’s not that groundbreaking, but that chorus is just emotionally overwhelming, a reaching, pleading feeling. This is another one I’m really eager to see live, that explosion at the end of the song is phenomenal.

“The Championship” is a suitably triumphant closer, with a lot of building rhythm and shifting emotion across the length of the song. The drums on this song are the highlight, bouncing back and forth, then going heavier on the “Raise our voice” part of the song. This is a great track, my only complaint is that it fades out too soon, the “Raise our voice” refrain is echoing, with instrumental embellishment on top. This could go on for a good minute or two, but the volume just goes down. I would have loved to hear more. But, that’s just as much a compliment about the song as it it’s a criticism.

Ultimately, what makes the band so powerful for me is the emotion of the music they create. It’s happy and joyous in a completely unironic way, and you just don’t hear that much today. People talk about how they’re a cult or a relic of sixties culture, but I just don’t see that. Listen to the album and get wrapped up in what they’re doing, creating energetic exciting music that has an infectious joy. I think this album stands with their best work, and will be high on my top ten list come year’s end.

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