Hailing from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the Pollies don’t sound like you’d expect. That should really come as no surprise, though. If any region seems to be experiencing a musical renaissance these days, it’s the American South, with acts like the District Attorneys, Lauderdale, Glossary, Blue Mountain, Alabama Shakes, Lee Bains, Drive-by Truckers, Vulture Whale, 13 Ghosts and more showing what it sounds like when you grow up absorbing rock, soul, blues and country all of your life—and that’s just a quick, very incomplete list of the rock bands. The other genres seem just as healthy.
So when their debut record Where the Lies Begin opens up with gentle swells of feedback dissected by a clear guitar line, you can’t help thinking of Wilco or My Morning Jacket, and not finding it the least bit strange. The Pollies, though, seem to have a little bit more grit and daily grind than either of those bands. So if they sound like Wilco, it’s before Wilco got so artsy and angular, and if they sound like My Morning Jacket, it’s usually without that band’s trademark soaring.
A large part of that down-to-earth feels lies in vocalist and songwriter Jay Burgess’s lyrics. In interviews, he’s revealed that the album essentially tracks events in his life from his childhood to the present day, and that a substantial part of that journey rests in the realizations that things weren’t always as cut-and-dry as you thought they were at the time. So you can hear a little bit of childhood innocence dying in a song like “For Carter”, in which Carter’s father lets loose cringe-inducing revelations like, “She showed me things that I had never seen / She was always looking at the good looking boys / Standing in a corner / She would use them as toys.” At the same time, after the father moved out “at the age of eighteen with a pocket full of nothing”, “never did she lie nor did she steal” while she struggled to pay the bills and raise her son. In the acoustic, album-closing “Madgeline”, Burgess talks of injuries and death afflicting loved ones around him, noting that the paramedics have been called and “they’re using nice words so the children won’t hear.” As he laments all this pain, his mother counsels, “Son, I know death has taken loved ones / But if it wasn’t for death / You would never have love.”
To center around such weighty themes, the songs on Where the Lies Begin (the title’s a nod to the idea that the act of creating stories contains some element of lies) don’t belabor the point. All told, the album clocks in at just under 38 minutes, and over seven minutes of that is taken by the record’s centerpiece, the sprawling “Ashes of Burned Out Stars”. In it, Burgess confronts some unnamed person (maybe all of humanity) for being cold and uncaring about their fellow man and makes the case for our shared experience because we’re all essentially stardust. It’s a real showcase for the band, which includes bassist Chris James, steel guitarist Daniel Stoddard (Dylan LeBlanc), guitarist Matt Green (Belle Adair), drummer Reed Watson, and pianist Ben Tanner (Alabama Shakes, Lauderdale). It might not have the hooks and the clarion bells of single “Something New”, but it’s the album’s heart.
The Pollies could be called an Americana band, for what that label’s worth these days. Listen to the album and you’ll hear mandolin, banjo, harmonica, and plenty of southern-fried guitar. What you’ll hear more of, though, is a band using everything it knows to pursue a vision. Where the Lies Begin holds murderous intent, weariness at death, eulogies for friends, and matter-of-fact assessments of the ways that life often compromises us, but it’s by no means a downer record. It’s the story of lives, in all their messy, hard to pin down glory.
// Notes from the Road
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