Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Polyphonic Spree, The Fragile Army (Warner Bros.)

Texas big love cult is still guided by voices
Up to 27 members strong, the sprawling collective known as the Polyphonic Spree has blazed a singular path through the recent musical landscape. Emerging from the ashes of Tripping Daisy in Dallas, Texas, the band was formed by singer/conceptualist Tim DeLaughter and his wife, Julie Doyle. Outfitted in matching robes, the large symphonic sound produced by so many people on stage (including a 10-person choir) turned them into concert favorites, attracting hordes of fans to their "Up With People" perspective. But the band's unorthodoxy has also been a hindrance, from the impracticality of touring to accusations of contrivance.

For their third full-length release, DeLaughter and company face the reality of the modern world with their brightly-colored robes replaced by matching black uniforms emblazoned with hearts and crosses. The Fragile Army finds the Polyphonic Spree still preaching the power of the positive ("Running Away"), set to grand, orchestral productions that recall the Fifth Dimension if they'd been produced by Electric Light Orchestra's Jeff Lynne. They pull out a few new tricks, like the clunky disco of "Mental Cabaret," which plays like the Go! Team covering the Brady Bunch's "Sunshine Day."

At times reminiscent of an even more zealous Flaming Lips (thanks to DeLaughter's yelping voice and vocal inflections similar to the Lips' Wayne Coyne), grandiose productions like "Guaranteed Nitelite" bring the album to an emotional peak before down-shifting into the minimal electro swing of "Light To Follow." It gets even more interesting with the urgent piano crescendos of "Watch Us Explode (Justify)," and the Bowie-esque emoting of "Overblow Your Nest."

Ending the album on the galloping exuberance of "The Championship" keeps the Polyphonic Spree's M.O. intact: Big productions, big ideas, big sounds, and big big love.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Subject: Georgia, First Day of Summer, 2007, Los Angeles, CA

"This is the most fun I've ever had in a museum. It's even better than the time I fell asleep in the Louvre."

Subject: Jack White, The Last Day of Spring, 2007, Los Angeles, CA

"Let's hear it for non-disposable music."

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

White Stripes, Icky Thump (Warner Bros.)

5-star effort reinvents classic rock with an eye on the masses
Over five albums, Detroit duo the White Stripes have maintained a doggedly traditional stance, mining dusty Americana influences to inspire their cathartic garage-rock blues. With each successive release both more experimental and popular than the one previous, Jack and Meg White have been able to explore a myriad of styles while building an enviable position in the rapidly imploding music industry. By staying true to their original minimalist model, the Stripes have not-so-quietly become one of the (if not the) biggest bands in the world.

With their sixth full-length album, the White Stripes are going for the gold, crafting an explosive collection of classic rock that plays like it's still 1975 and they're in heavy rotation between Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers. The title cut opens the show like AC/DC reimagining Led Zeppelin II as done by Iron Butterfly, with Jack spitting some of his most caustic and socially conscious lyrics yet.

"Conquest" retools the Patti Page standard into a horn-blasted mariachi jam that recalls the energy of "Fell in Love with a Girl" and results in one of the album's giddiest moments. "Little Cream Soda" rocks with a similar proto-metal crunch as "Thump," with Jack's stream of consciousness ranting battling his massive distortion-saturated guitar riffs for space in the maelstrom. Meg's fans are acknowledged with her vocalizing on the spoken-word free-for-all "St. Andrew (This Battle Is in the Air)" and some campy call-and-response bantering with Jack on the raucous "Rag & Bone."

Jack's time in the more straightforward Raconteurs shows up on "You Don't Know What Love Is (You Just Do As You're Told)," which is among the most pedestrian tracks he's ever penned for the Stripes. But there seems to be a method to his madness, with songs like these feeling ready-made for more mainstream outlets than the Stripes have yet to tread, like modern country radio.

With the White Stripes' career still on a stratospheric trajectory, the cleaner production and potentially more wide-reaching songwriting of Icky Thump could be a watershed moment for the band, taking them from critical and hipster darlings to the latest addition to the rock icon canon—if it hasn't already happened.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Long Blondes, Someone to Drive You Home (Rough Trade)

Stylish U.K. post-punks revive Brit-pop with girl-powered cautionary tales

Many of rock's finest moments result from a perfect balance of style and substance. Acts like David Bowie, the Clash and the Pretenders all made classic music that looked as influential as it sounded. U.K. upstarts the Long Blondes aim to carry that torch, coupling muscular but melodic post-punk guitar tunes recalling the best of ’90s Brit-pop with an impeccable sense of style.

Much of the band's stylistic leanings come courtesy of singer Kate Jackson (pictured), who's become a major British fashion icon over the past couple of years. She also happens to write girl-powered wordplays that sound like Pulp if Jarvis Cocker was a beret-wearing babe preaching cautionary tales to those barreling towards the pain and frustrations of womanhood.

While the band—Dorian Cox (guitars), Emma Chaplin (keyboards), Reenie Hollis (bass) and Screech (drums)—bashes out hard-charging pop that sounds like a toughed-up take on The Smiths' six-string majesty, Jackson warns her constituency about unrequited love ("Lust in the Movies"), objects of affection trapped in boring relationships ("Giddy Stratospheres") and being the reluctant but willing other woman for double-timing lotharios ("You Could Have Both"), all in a world-weary, husky croon akin to Chrissie Hynde's wounded tough chick stance.

In Jackson's worldview (via lyrics mostly written by Cox), it's a hard road for twentysomething females in the modern world. Times are so tough that even other ladies are cause for concern, as she bemoans during "In the Company of Women": "In the company of women, that's when I start to worry/What has she got, that I might not?"

The Long Blondes may not arrive with the same hype-heavy buzz of many of their contemporaries, but with an album as strong and effective as Someone to Drive You Home, it's only a matter of time before they leave a lot of the competition in the dust. And look fabulous doing it.

Subject #6: Elise

"Why, do I look young?"

Subject #4: Laura

"I bought my mom jeans in Lawrence, Kansas."

Subject #3: Ellei

"I'm originally from Boston."

Subject #2: Hip-Hop Mo$$

"I was bright as fuck."

Subject #1: Hilary

"I hope to own my own showroom someday."