Polecat offers up some delicious musical gumbo with their third album Into the Wind
Numerous great bands have come together in the most casual of circumstances. The Beatles met at local blues and rock clubs in Liverpool, Iron Maiden put advertisements for a guitarist in the local newspaper, and the Rolling Stones began as a blues-rock cover band comprised of two unassuming English kids. Just like these groups, Polecat had its start in the local music scene, as bandleader Aaron Guest recruited some of the best Bellingham, Washington musicians in 2010, including guitarist Jeremy Elliot, drummer Karl Olsen, bassist Richard Reeves, and fiddle player Cayley Schmid. However, unlike many other bands, each band member has deep roots in a different musical style, and they all blossom on the group’s third album Into the Wind.
It’s hard to imagine a funk-Celtic or a reggae-country song sounding appealing, but Polecat is not one to let imagination halt their creativity. However, the group also recognizes that, no matter how innovative something is, it needs to sound good in order to truly be a good song. “In the Cold” is a great example of Polecat’s balance between originality and accessibility. Elliot starts out with a catchy guitar melody that’s soon filled out with heavy drums, winding violin, and pounding acoustic guitar. Things relax for the verse, but soon swell into a triumphant, memorable chorus. Even though “In the Cold” has a heavy country, rock, and pop fusion, Polecat brings out the best of each genre and delicately layers those bits on top of one another, creating a complex and gorgeous arrangement in the process.
However, the band can also create simpler, harmonious tracks as well. “Back to You”, unlike many other songs on the album, sticks to its country roots, with quick fiddle runs, Olsen’s steady drums, Reeves’ throbbing bass and Elliot’s punchy acoustic guitar strums. No polyrhythmic flares or funky riffs on here, but Polecat makes this track work by steadily increasing the tempo until the mainly acoustic instrumentation gives way to a captivating electric guitar solo. Songs like “Back to You” showcase the Washington band not just as genre-blending fusion musicians, but as detailed composers and masters of song structure as well.
Although the band pushes ahead in terms of creativity, they do falter on occasion. In contrast to many of the other songs on the album, “After the Night Falls” feels more formulaic than original. A reggae-country fusion, the track features a chorus whose melody is a carbon copy of Jimmy Cliff’s “I Can See Clearly Now” as well as exaggerated melancholic verses. It’s one of the few moments on Into the Wind that focuses more on the band’s musical influences than the group’s inventiveness, and the result is cringe-worthy musical Frankenstein of a song. Another example of Polecat’s infrequent copy-paste musical thumbprint is on “Fly on the Wall”, where the reggae guitar riff is a clone of Vampire Weekend’s “Cape Kwassa Kwassa”.
Alhough Schmid proves herself to be an excellent versatile and attention-grabbing fiddler, she does occasionally overstay her welcome. This is evident on “Marmot”, where the wild, writhing violin is the only thing separating this song from being an otherwise generic bluegrass jam session. Schmid’s fiddle playing doesn’t detract from “Marmot”, but it is evident that some of these tracks on this album are interesting-not because of the musical gumbo that Polecat’s capable of-but because of Schmid’s fiery fiddle work.
Still, even though there are relatively shallow slumps within the track listing, Into the Wind reaches much more soaring highs than lows. The main reason for this is that Polecat is comprised of five mad scientists who aren’t afraid of rejecting predictability and conformism. Next to a gorgeously layered Latin-sounding folk instrumental (“Icarus”) is a chugging country-blues song with tight guitar riffs and flashy licks (“Christine”). They don’t mind splicing some country DNA into a reggae track like “Lochs of Dread”, or simply reinventing an Eat a Peach-inspired blues-rock medley for “You’re the One”. One of the hardest things to do for a band is find their own sound and style; Polecat’s managed to do that from their inception, and Into the Wind is proof of that.