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The Polyphonic Spree
The Beginning Stages Of...
Good Records

Although many bands conceive of their music in spiritual terms, few of them expand these thoughts to the level of religious movements.  They have little reason to; music in general has become detached and ironic enough that few listeners would trust musicians to inform their spiritual beliefs.  With their efforts over the last two years, The Polyphonic Spree have attempted to reverse this trend by spreading not only their music but a gospel of sorts.  Their songs serve as an outline of sorts for developing a personal ethic manifest in the act of making and witnessing music.  In their studio work and live performances, the twenty-something musicians of the Spree create an atmosphere of optimism and inspiration that encourages spiritual participation. Critics have often described their experience as one bordering on religious devotion if not ecstasy. The success of this Dallas band in delivering a spiritual dimension to an irreligious musical culture can be attributed to their unique ethic, one that places an emphasis on participation above observance, presence over distance.

Religious devotion inherently poses a problem of presence versus detachment.  The act of worship in most religious structures requires a special attention to a spiritual world that lies in some way outside of the material world that makes up our “regular” lives. In striving to be present to this spiritual realm, we cannot help but become detached from the material world.  This exchange between the two spheres gives rise to questions of responsibility:  does attentiveness to one realm forgive negligence of the other?  at what point does the worshipper become irresponsible to the material world rather than merely unaware?  The events of September 11, 2001 provide the most striking and palpable answer to these questions. Those acts of religious devotion clearly represent a mentality so clouded in bad faith and irresponsibility as to make the questions redundant.  Drawing an acceptable line, however, proves much more difficult.

Perhaps inadvertently, The Polyphonic Spree seem to be searching their way through this problem on The Beginning Stages Of... , their 2001 debut release. This album was conceived and recorded in 2000 yet seems highly appropriate in terms of the events of 2001.  Critics have been wont to decry the Spree’s album and live performances as the answer to a music industry trapped in its own cynicism and uninspired products. Although it would be hard to argue that this choral symphonic pop ensemble is not thoroughly moving, any claim of religious fanaticism as the answer to anything seems shaky in this world climate. This is not to equate rock music with terrorism, but rather to ask in what ways might giving oneself completely to music as spiritual act lead to irresponsibility.  The Spree answer this question by utilizing the ethic described above.  The Beginning Stages Of... incorporates ideas of participation and presence as a means to avoid spiritual irresponsibility.  The album’s strongest claim becomes one of complete responsibility as sanctioned by an unusual but deep spiritual foundation. The beauty of The Polyphonic Spree comes not just in its role as a bright light in the music industry (these bright spots exist all over the place in nooks and crannies that the industry will never discover) but as a phenomenon that deconstructs religious fanaticism and recreates it as an endeavor fit for a free and just society.

If this seems too grand a project to attribute to a rock album, welcome to the world of The Polyphonic Spree and frontman Tim DeLaughter, former member of the Tripping Daisy. Inspired by the sound of his voice reverberating from a fan, DeLaughter formed the Spree after the death of Tripping Daisy guitarist Wes Berggren.  Although DeLaughter has claimed this project as a longtime interest, the particular energy of the music seems heavily informed by a sense of tragedy, a metaphysical weight that adds to the intensity and necessity of the spiritual message. A sunny psychedelia certainly dominates the music, earning several comparisons to acts such as the Beach Boys and The Flaming Lips, but this optimism comes off as a positive choice in the face of hardship rather than a naïve belief in the unquestioned goodness of the world.  It would not be fair to downplay the extreme inspiration and joy exhibited by the twenty-nine (as credited in the liner notes; this number seems to fluctuate) musicians – The Polyphonic Spree is nothing if not an intense event to be witnessed.  To take them as simple, however, would not do them justice either. 

Based on their live performances, it would be easy to overlook the dark side of The Polyphonic Spree. Especially after their run at last year's South By Southwest, the Spree have based their reputation on the power and spectacle of putting twenty-something musicians on stage in white robes, all dancing and swaying in musical ecstasy.  The effect of the musicians combined with the climax that each song achieves makes for a hypnotic show that encourages a spirited response. On disk, however, lacking the visual feast and a congregation of listeners, the music seems to be searching for something deeper and more studied.  The fact that the orchestration was mostly improvised and that the entire recording session lasted only three days does not detract from the deliberate approach to the songwriting.  In fact, the loose method of recording allows for an organic sound that fits directly with DeLaughter’s artistic goals.  Speaking with i-D, DeLaughter explained that “I find religion in completing a human vision and being able to obtain the most out of a human mind.”  In this sense, The Beginning Stages Of... offers a complex spiritual vision while utilizing the most of twenty-nine minds.

One of the most amazing aspects of this album comes in its ability to showcase several voices while maintaining at all times a strong group dynamic.  The music relies on nothing that could be described as soloing, yet each member seems to be contributing something unique at all times.  On the opening track (no track names are given), voices are introduced one at a time, each carrying a different melody.  The use of polyphony, as the moniker suggests, pervades every song, and this serves as the first piece in the Spree’s spiritual puzzle.  Rather than leading the listener into a wall of noise where no instruments stand out and listeners are expected to become one with a higher spiritual body, the music provides a balance between this group body and the individual bodies of listeners and performers.  By highlighting many instruments through the course of a song, literally from moment to moment (a trumpet line might be followed by a percussion flourish that gives way to a choral crescendo), the music encourages the listener to add his mind to the mix. The various noises serve as handles for the ear to grab on to just when the heart wants to be absorbed.  This creates an effect that allows the listener to simultaneously feel himself pulled into the whole and yet distantly observing each individual piece. In the act of hearing and judging parts, the audience helps complete the human vision that DeLaughter puts into play.

In spiritual terms, this method of listening might be described as devotion with presence, an attempt to reach a spiritual plane with a conscious dedication to the individual possibilities manifested in the real world.  This act involves no separation between participant and the material world because the spirituality predicates itself on this very material world – the unique instances of noise expressed by horns, strings, and voices. The music celebrates itself, the act of making noise, adding new voices to a whole that is always the sum of its parts. To appreciate each individual contribution, the listener must in some sense stay grounded in a material world where ears focus on noises.  The variety of instruments and melodies offers a sort of choose-your-own-adventure; you decide which voice to follow, each yielding a unique listening experience. Again, this allows DeLaughter and company to create a spiritual experience that leads the listener back to himself and his own participation. The music creates a spiritual forum that encourages self-discovery rather than blind following.

The Spree creates this effect in multiple ways. The pacing on the album serves a similar function to the contrapuntal instrumentation in that they both serve to develop a central theme (conceptually and musically) but stand out in various ways to catch the listener’s attention. The first three tracks create an upbeat groove with strong choruses. By the third song, the words have become so simple as to lull the listener into a peaceful shell. The fourth track breaks up this straightforward progression with harsh backing vocals and more pronounced horns. Instruments that were steady and weaving on the first three songs become brash and choppy. The optimism remains on the fourth and fifth tracks but becomes distorted as through a carnival mirror.  The fifth track slows the pace and allows the melodies to be stretched and somewhat muted. The horns become pensive and the backing vocals floaty and dreamlike. This short interlude soon subsides, and the album turns back to a mood of excitement and adventure. By mixing periods of introspection with unselfconscious joy, the Spree creates another level of spiritual possibility by mixing notions of participatory presence and reflective distance. Both of these are necessary for a religious movement that stresses the importance of individual creativity within a group dynamic.

Compared to a musical orchestration overflowing with voices, the lyrics add a simplicity and minimalism that highlight the eloquence of DeLaughter’s artistic vision. The songs are composed mostly of short lines repeated as mantras for the length of the song. The lyrics particularly emphasize nature and the sun as sources of inspiration and joy, and the ultimate peacefulness seems to come from having experienced a day.  The mantra of the first song offers pure optimism and joy for the moment:  "Had a day / Celebrate / Soon you’ll find the answer / Holiday / Hide away / Soon you’ll find the wonder." Two songs later, DeLaughter finds that "Days like this keep me warm, keep me warm, keep us warm."  Although these lines focus on the simple experience of a day, the lyrics also examine notions of distance and becoming.  The second song encourages the listener to "Take some time, get away / Suicide is a shame / Soon you’ll find your own way / Hope has come, you are safe / And it makes me cry, because I’m on my way."  Although the lyrics are ultimately positive, they acknowledge the musical experience as a procedure for navigating a road from despair to hope. These words mix ideas of presence and detachment:  in order to avoid suicide, the ultimate detachment from life, one must “get away.”  By leaving one path, we can become present to our “own way.”  By juxtaposing presence and detachment, the Spree point to the fact that involvement in their movement requires an adaptability to different modes and planes of spiritual existence.  Each mode leads to an optimistic and joyful embrace of the world, but the path might require rapture one moment and reflection the next. In their simplicity, the lyrics showcase a subtle swaying that never reaches equilibrium but instead constantly involves itself in the world.

The greatest challenge to this spiritual movement comes in the last track on The Beginning Stages Of... After just over a half-hour of energized music and koan-like lyrics, The Polyphonic Spree end their album with a thirty-five minute sampling of synthesized voices that one critic described as a message to a mothership. Although meant in jest, the idea that the Spree serves as some kind of alien cult poses a serious threat to their humanistic and organic beliefs. To end such a strong and moving album with a track that seems to laugh at the idea of unique and inspired human voices suggests an ironic detachment that just does not fit with the previous atmosphere. This track cannot be put aside; it lasts longer than the other nine tracks all together.  In a sense, this final track offers us a choice. Although peaceful and hypnotic, this extended glance at choral minimalism ultimately serves as the counterpoint to the Spree’s main spiritual project. The choice involves your personal commitment as listener, the choice between empowered involvement in and continuous dedication to the possibilities contained in the music and in your own mind and faceless observance of spiritually numb noise. This is not a choice between one song or another or even between The Polyphonic Spree and another band; it is the decision that you as listener make as to what you will bring to the music.

In the end, The Polyphonic Spree might not seem like a religious movement at all.  The involvement that The Beginning Stages Of... encourages works on such a personal level as to almost render the notion of community void.  Although not going quite this far, The Polyphonic Spree seem to accept community only on the foundation of strong individual guidance and participation. Although the musicians might not have intended it this way, their music lays a blueprint for the healthiest combination of secular responsibility and spiritual freedom. This goes much farther than inspiring industry cynics; The Polyphonic Spree are creating a joyous and moving forum that encapsulates the deepest possibilities of music to demand from us a spiritual commitment equal to the greatest of human hopes.  That makes for quite a listening experience.

Matt King

Track List:

01. Section 1
02. Section 2
03. Section 3
04. Section 4
05. Section 5
06. Section 6
07. Section 7
08. Section 8
09. Section 9
10. Section 10

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