Straight Outta New Hampshire’s Hanging Gardens
Many years ago, in a Victorian mansion deep in the forest of New Hampshire, a young Kelley Polar constructed the Lego space stations of his dreams with his sister while spinning some dope space disco-themed records on his red and white plastic Fisher Price turntable. Receiving instructions on space and time travel from such professors as Kraftwerk and Thomas Dolby, Polar recalls “sitting on the steps, the humid afternoon swirling with golden insects and dandelion fluff, I went into a kind of trance, imagining robots running across a landscape of glowing grid-lines, like in Tron.”
Flash forward a few years and he’s still the same kid and still looking for viable ways to transcend the constraints of interstellar travel, only this time he has added a more lethal weapon to his arsenal: in late 2005, Mr. Polar released Love Songs of the Hanging Garden, a dark, sexy disco pop record that explores “love lost, never to return; dreams of still more exotic places; the melancholy of being trapped on one planet—a situation which I am trying to rectify. The album was basically a big shout-out to my space brothers and sisters to please reconnect so that I can get out of here. I am happy to say that, at this point, it has been somewhat successful, and discussions are underway.”
Hanging Garden is a curious, epic confection. The album’s sound palette is anchored by a smattering of gorgeous string sections, something Polar’s alter ego, Mike Kelley, knows a thing or two about. He is a key member of New Hampshire’s Apple Hill Players, a non-profit group of musicians who “go to many conflict areas, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, the Caucuses, to play concerts and give scholarships so that young musicians from warring countries can play music together and create a continuum by which they might learn more about each other and become friends. Not necessarily trying to solve conflicts, but [to] create a situation whereby people might be able to talk about things and actually listen empathetically.” (Polar actually checked in with PopMatters while on tour with the Players in spots all over the east: Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, and Tokyo.) The strong string work somehow manages to invoke not only the classical, but also disco at the flashpoint of its explosion.
Don’t be fooled by the throwback to these ancient times, though, for Polar is a futurist at heart. Love Songs features some of the most slick, thumping electronic production you are likely to have heard in the last few years. “I did do most of the music, synth playing, singing, strings, etc. We wanted to have a bigger dynamic range than most pop albums—wanted it to be more like an old jazz album, in length, too. So compared to most contemporary albums, its soft and short, but I think it’s exactly what we wanted to do. I have an excellent squadron of old instruments, and I have a giant wall filled with strange acoustic instruments that I’ve collected from my travels to strange places. So, usually it’s just a matter of firing them up and taking shit down off the wall.” It is slick without being obnoxious and minimalist without being too austere. Stylistically, it is a record that will please many crowds of music aficionados, working triple duty as avant garde pop, ass-shaking club jams, and high-brow electronica.
This is where co-producer (and head of Polar’s label, Environ) Morgan Geist steps in to strut his stuff. In 2004, Geist released Unclassics, a compilation of electronic disco singles that showcased his affinity for fusing the contemporary with the nostalgic. On Love Songs, Geist manages to achieve a gorgeous synergy between his two loves. “I basically did about 90% of the music, and Morgan did 10% and mixed the whole thing. The 10% that Morgan added was really important. I still maintain the reason the album sounds good is thanks to him. I am still learning a lot about production, I know more than some and less than others. Morgan knows a ton and his ears are fantastic and his quality control is infuriatingly high, which is GREAT to learn from.
“I was at Morgan’s house in Brooklyn a couple of weeks ago, and he had finally obtained an old record he had been obsessed with. I was sitting on his couch, playing with his pet cat. ‘Listen to this,’ he said. ‘I love this song, but the record is kind of falling apart, so I can only play it once a month, because I don’t want to wreck it. So you can hear it during my monthly listen.’ So he puts it on and I have the experience I have at his house a lot—hearing a song or a sound that I never thought existed, tracks like Sylvester’s “I Need Somebody to Love Tonight”, or Black Devil, or the even stranger stuff that he won’t reveal. It feels like discovering the Titanic, or King Tut’s tomb. I love the fact that I’m hearing it this once and probably won’t hear it ever again. It’s all warm and crackly and has this insane, warped bass line. Then, two days later, someone gives it to me on a CD bootleg. Just like the graduate student who goes to the jungle and records the Ba-Benzele Molimo Ceremony that they’ve kept secret for 5,000 years. So he puts it out on World Beat Records or something, and it gets filed next to Yanni.”
If the opulent string work is what anchors Love Songs, than Polar’s foppish whispery/creepy delivery is the fuel that sends this rocket into a vivid orbit. “I went to an exclusive private school for art and music, outside Boston, for a while, a fabulous place mostly populated by hot dancers and gay male teenagers (it gave the heterosexual ones a rather inflated sense of his own attractiveness, from which many failed to recover in college), and all music students were required to sing in the chorus, and all boys in the all-male a capella group, called the Bandeleros (theme song: “Brave and mighty Bandeleros., we’ll conquer… [goes into falsetto]... or diiiiiie”.) I was not the greatest singer, but usually each one of us had to sing a solo, and so to get some help with mine (I think it was “Workin on the Chain Gang”), I had a few voice lessons with a fabulous teacher who, at 14, also turned me on to yoga. That’s all the vocal training I ever had. I sang in a ska band in New Jersey while on parole in the early ‘90s called the Cherry Clan. I played saxophone too, but I was horrible at it.”
“Basically, [on] one track on the second EP, I sang a scratch vocal part and brought it to Morgan, intending to replace it, and he said it sounded pretty good and released it as is, much to my horror and humiliation. Then, when it came time to do the album and I just decided to write pop songs, I just figured out how to sing as much as I could, kind of contorting my body to hit the high notes. I left my woodland shack to go re-record vocals at Morgan’s new studio in New York, but I couldn’t sing in front of anyone, and had to buy a decent mic, come home and do it by myself. Many of the vocal parts originate as string lines, so they have a big range and go very high. I should probably get some singing lessons, but I can’t be bothered, there’s too much to do. But I’d like to.”
“Please don’t infer from the above that I endorse all-male a capella groups in any way,” Polar adds.
“My Beauty in the Moon” is the track on the record where all of Polar and Geist’s grandiose visions merge, managing to reference not only the The NeverEnding Story and French surrealist poetry, but also insanity and Amii Stewart’s disco gem, “Knock on Wood”. “I wanted it to sound demented, but I think it’s mostly just confusing to people. There is one text about a man who is in love with a woman on the moon, and he’s going crazy because he can’t get to her there. So it made me think of the The Never Ending Story—in the book, the little lame-o kid (who has to name the empress to save her) ends up calling her Moon Child, which is also weirdly hot and kind of disturbing at the same time, at least to me. From about the age of 10-12, I was really kind of hoping/expecting my personal hot child-empress to arrive and become my attentive God. You might tell that living alone in the woods is not always healthy for me.”
The parallels to Polar’s own story of first teenage love are evident in the text of the song as well: “Two years later, I fall in love for real with a girl my age…. She played first violin in my string quartet, she was from a foreign country, and our vocal communication was poor, but our understanding great, for a while. Then, bored and thoughtless, I treated her badly, especially that summer when we were on tour with an orchestra in Spain. Finally, she left me, and the school, and the violin, and the U.S, never to return…. Of course, when she departed, I realized that she was some strange unearthly creature of indescribable beauty that the universe had allowed me to commune with, for a brief time, and then never again. Nostalgia is the first kind of death that most of us privileged white boys experience, as powerful as it is meaningless.”
How Love Songs of the Hanging Gardens didn’t make a major splash when released is mystifying. The quality of the production is light years beyond what most established artists are churning out in the twilights of their careers. Kelley Polar’s dapper little record showcases the man as an auteur: he does everything there is to do on this album and does it well. What more does a guy have to do to please audiences and sell records these days? There are far less accomplished players gaining far more notoriety, for work that is, well, tremendously less pleasurable than the stellar effort Polar brings to the table. He has mastered the tools at his disposal to please just about any group of music lovers out there: from lovers of classical sounds to disco freaks, and back to the high brow electronic music crowd, Polar’s Love Songs has a little something for everyone if they are serious about the quality of their music. For someone in the early stages of a popular music career, Polar’s virtuosity is as rare as it is alluring. If you believe what Polar tells you with the images on the cover of his album, then what we have on our hands is the true birth of a star. Go ahead and trust him. How can someone so honestly into space and time travel steer you in the wrong direction?