The Polyphonic Spree got off to a roaring start in the early 2000s when Tim DeLaughter put together an ensemble of a couple of dozen musicians. The group essentially featured a choir and a small orchestra, and they carved out a niche in the growing indie-rock genre almost from their size alone. They also stood out with their stage outfits, choir robes, and sunny, hippie-like positivity. The Spree went strong through their 2007 album The Fragile Army but faded from visibility after the tour for that album wrapped up.
The band returned in late 2012 with a holiday album, followed by a full-length cover of the Rocky Horror soundtrack, a crowdfunded new studio record, and a remix LP. Having ticked off all of the boxes on the “21st Century Band Trying to Sustain Flagging Audience Interest” checklist in a little under two years, they once again mostly disappeared after a final run of tour dates in 2015.
After that, DeLaughter kept the Polyphonic Spree on life support, playing a handful of shows in their Dallas hometown each year. They resurfaced with a covers album in 2021, and now Salvage Enterprise arrives as their first record of original material in a decade.
It’s not a kinder Polyphonic Spree because it’s likely impossible to get any kinder than DeLaughter’s smiling lead vocals and perpetually sunny outlook. It’s at least a gentler version of the band, though. Salvage Enterprise takes a more delicate approach to its arrangements, mainly eschewing the big, fully orchestrated songs of the past. Instead, the strings, harp, horns, and choir appear in targeted sections, primarily as accents and emphasis.
As several Polyphonic Spree records have, this one begins with a long tone that gradually resolves into a song. For “Galloping Seas”, this tone gives way to a quietly strummed acoustic guitar. DeLaughter comes in singing softly and is joined by a simple harmony. It’s an uncharacteristically dark-sounding track, at least at first, muted and slightly unsettling. However, hints of light are sneaking in, even before the one-minute mark. After the second verse, an orchestral swell reminiscent of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” ushers in the big, bright chorus, and the band is back on familiar ground. DeLaughter declares, “Hold on / Through the galloping seas / Hold your head high in the storm,” and yeah, those are the positive affirmations of the Polyphonic Spree.
“Galloping Seas” is Salvage Enterprise‘s longest song at over six minutes. It goes through at least four distinct sections, including a twinkly middle bit and a triumphant finale that goes on for a while before eventually fading out with a simple acoustic guitar again. It’s the most ambitious track, but it’s also a leading indicator of how the rest of the record will work, at least arrangement-wise. DeLaughter is primarily front and center; the choir shows up for the final push, and the rest of the ensemble pops in and out. There’s a French horn here for a chunk, a violin, and some timpani rolls, but nothing that feels like the full force of 20-plus people.
“Wishful, Brave, and True” is anchored by a basic acoustic guitar and DeLaughter’s vocals. Strings, including the harp, add to the atmosphere, as does a flute. The choir shows up at the end for musical swells, buttressed by the French horn. “Got Down to the Soul” changes it up a bit by putting a piano front and center while DeLaughter belts it out like the Polyphonic Spree of the early 2000s. It includes an electric guitar solo as well as string arpeggios and full drums.
“Hop Off the Fence” shimmers with flute, high piano chords, and harpsichord-like cascades of notes. “Shadows on the Hillside” begins with acoustic guitar and flute but adds electric guitar, drums, piano, and the full choir as it goes. It also includes a tempo change, a rarity this time around for the Polyphonic Spree.
I’m discussing arrangements and sonics a lot because the songs of Salvage Enterprise are maybe a little too similar otherwise. They’re almost universally on the slow side of mid-tempo, while DeLaughter’s lyrics are pleasantly encouraging, and his vocal melodies are entirely engaging. It’s an accessible record to listen to and enjoy, but it is more challenging, as a listener, to focus on the details.
Fortunately, there are a couple of exceptions. “Open the Shores” is a true ballad, with just DeLaughter on his guitar, but it’s a lovely song. The choir, strings, and harp peek in to remind listeners that the rest of the Polyphonic Spree is still around. “Winds of Summer” opens with a full ensemble introduction, keeping most of the instruments and voices around for much of the song. It’s the closest the record comes to a full band track, but it also slides along at the same mid-tempo pace as the rest of the record.
“Give Me Everything” might be the best Salvage Enterprise offers. The chorus, with DeLaughter pleading, “Give me everything I need / To survive,” concluding, “‘Cause it’s painful / And it’s dangerous / For me,” is the stickiest refrain on the record. Yet, the track is also the sparsest on the LP. DeLaughter harmonizes with himself, and only the acoustic guitar, flute, and barely audible bass are on hand to accompany him.
Salvage Enterprise concludes with “Morning Sun, I Built the Stairs”, bookending the album with another six-minute song. It has three distinct movements and manages to bring the full group in for the final section for a triumphant ending. It also inadvertently demonstrates a problem with DeLaughter’s positive hippie vibe: That vibe occasionally results in cringe-worthy lines like, “Smiling at the Goddess of Evil / I learned to fly.” Worse, this line is repeated several times to ensure listeners know DeLaughter really meant what he said.
Salvage Enterprise is a frustrating record. It’s a solid, listenable set of songs, and the large group is as strong as ever musically. The choir and instruments all sound excellent. DeLaughter’s melodies are great, but it feels like he’s no longer taking advantage of his musicians. Delicate arrangements are one thing, and at times, it’s very successful here. Nearly every song, though, begins with just DeLaughter singing and playing a simple acoustic guitar riff, and it’s like the rest of the group is an afterthought. As a Tim DeLaughter solo album featuring guest musicians from the Polyphonic Spree, this would be an easier sell. As a full-band LP, it feels undercooked.