Somebody, and I wish could remember who, once described the Polyphonic Spree's entire oeuvre as sounding like the last four minutes of "Hey Jude". Which is an unfair oversimplification, but comes close to capturing the naively euphoric spirit of this oddest of oddball indie-pop creations.
Most everyone by now is familiar with the Spree basics: an impossibly large mass of singers and musicians decked out in flowing white robes, pouring forth Brian Wilson-style orchestral pop in some secular semblance of religious fervor, all led by loopy ex-Tripping Daisy frontman Tim DeLaughter. The Spree is so big that no one can even agree on exactly how many members it has -- 23? 24? 29? even the press kit hedges by describing the band as a "more than 22-person ensemble". And it's so irresistibly unlike anything else going right now that they've generated a ton of press, even as most American audiences still have no idea what they really sound like. (The English, however, always quicker on the uptake with these sorts of things, have embraced them -- they've had four hit singles and counting across the pond.)
Like most folks, I knew the Polyphonic Spree by reputation long before I ever had a chance to hear them. That finally happened this past spring at the Coachella Festival in southern California, where I unfortunately only caught about the last five minutes of their set -- but what a five minutes it was. It was as if the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar had shown up and taken a lesson in showmanship from Iggy Pop -- there they were, those 20-odd white-robed freaks, leaping about and waving their flutes and French horns and violas over their heads and practically levitating off the stage. In some ways, their sensory-overload performance encapsulated the whole Coachella experience for me, which crams more than 80 bands and DJs into a two-day orgy of music that leaves most attendees breathlessly scrambling from stage to stage trying to catch at least a song or two of Next Big Thing Number One before frantically rushing on to Next Big Things Numbers Two, Three and Four. The Polyphonic Spree's show has a similarly gluttonous feel to it. You could choke on a helping of aural euphoria this big, and served up with such unbridled enthusiasm. But you'd die happy if you did.
After seeing the Spree live, returning to their debut album, The Beginning Stages of... is something of a letdown. Recorded on the cheap over a three-day period way back in October of 2000, the record has a decidedly lo-fi sound that really fails to do that massive choral/orchestral sound justice. It's a little surprising that Hollywood Records didn't ask the band to rerecord the album -- or at least remaster it -- when they picked it up earlier this year, but leaving the original tracks intact has opened the door for a whole slew of new and improved versions, starting with the 4-song EP now included with every U.S. copy of Beginning Stages.
But listen to Beginning Stages long enough and something strange starts to happen -- instead of wishing they'd had as many tracks on the mixing board as musicians in the studio, you find yourself growing fond of the album's retro, flattened-out sound, which suits the band's overall vibe perfectly even if it doesn't always do justice to the individual instruments and voices. There's a simplicity and naiveté to the record that makes it sound like a lost '60s recording, back when 16-track stereophonic recording was the cutting edge and everything was pushed up in the mix like kids' faces pressed against a candy store window. But that squashed surface is deceptive, too -- there are choral harmonies and cacophonous tangles of trumpets and piccolos lurking around the edges of tracks like "It's the Sun" that the lo-fi mix almost seems to be shielding you from, like it would all be too much to take if it weren't engineered so simply.
Climactic pop moments like "It's the Sun" and the Spree's other signature song "Light & Day/Reach for the Sun" ("Sun" apparently being DeLaughter's indie-popster/secularist stand-in for "God") epitomize that "Hey Jude" fadeout vibe for which the Polyphonic Spree is best known, but the band actually has a variety of colors on its palette, although every one of them is Technicolor bright. "Hanging Around the Day" may be the album's most satisfying tune, a two-part chamber pop epic that starts with a pretty, wistful instrumental led by a solemn trumpet and warm Moog chords before a set of strings kicks in and lifts the song into a more quietly celebratory tone for DeLaughter's sunny drawl of a voice, which resembles the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne after a Prozac bender. "Hanging Around" works so well, I think, because it's one of the few times DeLaughter restrains his natural inclination to go for maximum giddiness right out of the gate; instead, the song just builds and builds, adding layer upon layer of sonic sunshine until the listener is getting slow-roasted in good vibrations.
Elsewhere, the Spree prove themselves equally adept at melancholy sweetness on "Days Like This Help Me Warm", spacey, Low-like slowcore on the eerie, delicate "Middle of the Day", and even something resembling good old fashioned rock 'n' roll on the stomping "La La", which really goes for the lo-fi jugular with drunken horns and a sludgy mass of thundering drums, bass and detuned guitar propelling things along. Every track is still catchy as hell, but that oft-referenced sun is hovering behind a haze of sadness the band's cacophonous sound proves equally adept at catching.
Two of the album's other tracks, "Have a Day" and "Soldier Girl", make return appearances on the bonus EP, the former in a live version recorded at Los Angeles' KCRW studios for the popular NPR program "Morning Becomes Eclectic", the latter edited and remixed for release as a single in Britain. Though the original album versions are every bit as bright and sunny as the rest of The Beginning Stages of�, the new versions show just how much more this band is capable of after two years of touring and access to better production facilities. "Have a Day" is especially revelatory, a brilliantly performed -- and brilliantly engineered (by a team of four, it's worth noting) -- improvement over the original that finds DeLaughter's plaintive voice in fine form, and his musicians blowing, strumming and thumping away with the well-rehearsed scrappiness of an orchestral garage band. "It's the Sun" gets a similarly spectacular "live-in-the-studio" makeover, completely with a long spacey intro and a chorus given a great extra kick by a chugging, Beatlesque backbeat.
The transformations of "Soldier Girl" and the EP's fourth track, an "orchestral version" of "Light & Day", aren't quite as dramatic, but they still go a long way toward making the tunes far richer and radio-friendly. "Soldier Girl" is shortened and punched up with additional percussion, more choral effects, and a theremin that was barely audible in the original version -- all of which somehow lifts it from pleasant neo-psychedelic ditty into full-blown bliss-pop rave-up. "Light & Day" starts off cleaner and simpler, with DeLaughter, a harp and a harmonizing lady Spreeling setting the table for a dazzling sunburst of full orchestral, wall-of-sound glory. All in all, this EP and a separately-issued, limited-edition disc featuring yet another version of "Light & Day", a new song called "The March", and a Stereolab remix of "Soldier Girl" should whet fans' appetite for a full-length followup that promises to take DeLaughter and company to even greater heights of Polyphonic excess.
One note of warning: Unless you're really, really stoned, don't bother listening to the album's endless closer, "A Long Day". It's just an atonal series of tones, hums, and whistles, repeated and looped ad nauseum. It might have been interesting for about two minutes, but at 36:30 it's either a spectacular exercise in self-indulgent experimentalism or the most extreme example of filler ever committed to CD. Then again, I suppose 36 minutes of ambient noise after 30 minutes of celebratory, blissed-out pop is no weirder than an army of singers and musicians from Texas running around the stage in white robes singing "Hey! It's the sun!"